The flowchart of the “murder hobo.”
Game systems, role-playing game systems, are a set of constraints on cooperative imaginative play that are designed to facilitate making up stories together. The constraints they impose create boundaries around the kinds of stories that you can tell within those game systems. This doesn’t make “resistant play” impossible (using resistant play as one might use the term resistant reading), but any system will tend to make a particular kind of play or story experience easier to support than others.
I’ve discussed related thoughts previously, in the context of “flavor.”
But what about experience points, or character advancement?
What about the game’s systems for rewarding players?
Courtney Campbell has excellent thoughts on the ramifications of rewarding players, couched in terms of distributing treasure.
Those observations are also useful in other reward contexts; specifically, by giving out rewards to players for activities, storytellers encourage more of that activity. As Campbell notes, this is especially true if the reward is variable or intermittent. And any sufficiently rewarded activity will be pursued, possibly to exhaustion.
In other words, a game’s reward system will train players to pursue the rewarded behavior. This means that examining where and how players are being rewarded by the game system is extremely worthwhile.
Some rewards are outside the system’s immediate control, or aren’t elements of the game system per se; if Player A loves solving combat puzzles, they will pursue combat puzzles and will want the storyteller to make those available to them. Same goes for Player B, who loves finding beautiful new places in the story world, and Player C, who loves having silly interactions with non-player characters. These desires are important to keep in mind when creating sessions for these players, but they aren’t game system rewards.
But character advancement (especially in D&D) is an explicit game system reward controlled directly by the storyteller.
In D&D 5e, this typically takes the form of telling players to level up their characters at specific points, or of tracking the experience points gained by player characters and awarding such points incrementally. The second option lends itself to training players to pursue specific behaviors. By rewarding some actions instead of others, the storyteller can encourage their players to consistently follow a path, or to engage with the game world in set ways.
D&D 5e is designed with the underlying assumption that players will be rewarded for encountering monsters (with much of the experience point system literally structured around encounters, see DMG 82-4). This is deeply embedded in the system: the XP value of a monster is an integral attribute recorded in each monster entry. There are other methods of awarding experience points covered in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the DMG mentions alternative structures for how player characters might advance (DMG 260-1)… but none of those have the same mechanical attention (or the same sheer quantity of words) given to them in the text.
I dislike the system of rewarding player characters most for dealing with monsters—at its most absurd, that leads to boiling anthills. I want players to feel excited about (and explicitly be rewarded by) exploration and creative problem solving. I also am lazy, and so would love to do less work.
There are other proposed reward systems for D&D 5e, including Three-Pillar XP (the original Unearthed Arcana post here in pdf form, and tinkered with here on reddit), but I want to explore a different option.
What if I want to train my players to make my game prep easier?
I want to try using D&D’s milestone system more extensively. Milestones are mentioned on DMG 261, and award experience points for making storyteller-defined incremental progress. The conceptual frame on that page puts all the work on the storyteller, but what if I assign my players the task of clearly stating their characters’ goals as a group (with my input and assistance)? I can then use those goals (or clear progress towards those goals) as the group’s milestones. This would help me track what the players planned to do next. And by rewarding the players for making progress towards the goals they chose, I’d encourage them to tell me where they planned to go and what they planned to do. This would make my prep work much easier.
Some of their choices I might guess in advance; as storyteller, I’d still weave in plot hooks and adventure seeds. And I’d want to find ways to reward them for discovering things or making progress in unanticipated directions, to encourage them to explore. I might even ask players to make private character goals and share them with me, to encourage more character-driven play. All of this would (help) avoid the murder-hobo problem caricatured in the flowchart above.
I strongly suspect that—without additional sources of experience or frequent milestones—this reward structure would result in slower character advancement than strict encounter bookkeeping would offer. I’m sure there are good ways to fix this, if it’s an issue. Including personal goals seems like it would help, as would keeping my own set of secret goals and milestones that were tied to things I wanted the player characters to uncover or achieve. I think in many ways this would be quite similar to Three Pillar XP with more player involvement.
I’ll let you know how my experiments go.