The whole is exactly the sum of its parts

Previously on: post 1 / post 2 

We’ve continued our Worlds Without Number game, sometimes with 3 players (including me, the GM), most of the time with 2. The characters are now level 5, which is halfway up the  ladder.

Since the last post, they have traveled around local and semi-local areas a bit and become, through following up on rumors regarding a lost pistol, and delving into a dungeon to find it, henchmen of Uth, the strongman/king of their area. This comes with some quite severe magical drawbacks for not following orders, which has been hinted at in the fiction, but so far the players are happy to follow orders and haven’t tested it.

I’m finding, as we continue, that I have all this inspired material for the world and the factions that I came up with prior to the start of the campaign, but play mostly ends up being slotting in dungeons and the like from my shelf — which we’ve been enjoying — but it really feels like we could be playing almost any game derived from holmes/moldvay/mentzer. Perhaps I should be prepping more, or diving into some of the optional systems in the book, like the Faction Turn system, where, as far as I understand, the GM takes the input of what the PCs have done lately and goes through a process to generate change in the circumstances and motives of the local factions (I’ve only skimmed it). But I don’t really feel like doing that. I am happy to present the latest dungeon or situation cribbed from some adventure book and throw the players into it and see how they respond, then move onto the next thing. I am trying to make each situation affect the larger picture and thus start to affect other situations, but there hasn’t been much call for that yet with the players mostly moving from one place to another. When they leave the current megadungeon for a breath of fresh air, I may be able to do that.

As I detailed in a previous post, part of the typical XP earned in a session (about 1/3 of it) is tied to player-defined character ambitions; but in reality this hasn’t seemed to impact the direction of play much, nor has XP for specific goals as opposed to XP for “just showing up”. Let me clarify that last clause:

Verbatim from the book, regarding how and at what rate to “reward” XP:

In general, you can assume that one “successful” gaming session should usually earn you about 3 XP.

So the default is that a PC earns 3XP regardless of what they do, pursue, or what happens in a session. The book mentions offhand that you could also do gold-for-xp, or xp for personal goals, etc. I really hated the idea, and still do, that those 3XP just flow to the characters no matter what. Shouldn’t a game’s reward system have something to say regarding what it’s about? So we play where any given goal the group creates or direction they decide to go in gets assigned an XP value (usually 1-3, or more if it will take multiple sessions), and then each PC can get 1XP every session for pursuing their personal ambition.

But for all practical purposes, I have to conclude that doing this hasn’t meant much; the players are going to go after what they want to go after regardless of XP (let me be clear: I am not lamenting some lack of control I was hoping the XP system to give me). Tying goals and ambitions to XP doesn’t seem to be a significant incentive. Especially when any reasonably challenging goal has roughly the same amount of XP attached. One lesson to learn from this is probably that whatever carrots are offered in terms of XP means a lot less to play than what options actually seem feasible, i.e., what I’ve prepped. I was hoping by doing some gentle massaging of the design here that I would create space for the game to be very open and for the players to feel empowered to choose the direction of the game. I think they mostly have felt this, based on observing play, and I don’t think XP has a whit to do with it.

I have had times at the table where I wish there was more engagement when it comes to color + setting (they got sent to a city in a distant part of the world that is built around a kind of anomaly where spaceships blip in and out of existence, and the locals detain the confused aliens that come out and make all manner of unguents and delicacies out of them, and I of course thought that my idea was really cool and wanted to see it more in play), but I am not really providing opportunities for that sort of stuff to take center stage. It’s more like I say “here’s this cool thing on the way to your mission”. No surprise that when it is framed like that, that they are focusing on the mission.

17 responses to “The whole is exactly the sum of its parts”

  1. Delicate Balance

    I can appreciate the struggle with XP and with color and setting. I know there is some debate or divergence in OS/R design, with some sticking to that gold/glory design idea and others moving to the you showed up to game, here are some free tickets model. I'll be honest, when playing the H/M/M versions, I embrace the gold for xp model, but outside of that I tend to be drawn towards active reward systems not based on the money. I like Forbidden Lands, as you run down a list of accomplishments and dangers, though they do give out 1 XP for showing up to play as well. The rest of the list does ask about aspects of the character that can be engaged with. In theory it motivates characters to be active.

    I love the city you describe and am sure I as a player would be making a bee line for it. I think it may be relevant for a larger discussion, but players are often reluctant to go after the content that is right there for them to grab hold of. Trust issues perhaps? Regardless, my suggestion is just to link some of their personal goals to that city and set play there. It will solve the dungeons issues, at least to some extent. 

    How is the system holding up after five levels?


    • Yeah, linking their goals to

      Yeah, linking their goals to places I am interested in seein them explore is certainly a workable idea.

      Regarding the levels, well, it seems to be fine? It's been either 3 or 4 sessions since there was last a fight, and the Mage/Expert character cast his first spell the session before last, which was 5/6 months into regular mostly-twice-monthly play. So for purposes of levels and their impact on the game, it has mostly been in the form of skill increases and Focuses (think Feats). The skill increases matter, but aren't dramatic, so haven't had a dramatic impact on play. The Mage/Expert has a lot of social Focuses, and recently took one where he is able to establish essentially a base of operations and informants wherever he goes, but we haven't been back to town since he leveled. The other character, a Warrior, has almost entirely combat Focuses, so since we haven't had a fight in a while, I'm not sure how that'll affect things. 

      They just walked into a fight at the end of last session, though (unbeknownst to them), so we'll see how that goes this week.

  2. Goals, Adventures, & Sessions

    I played Stars Without Number 1e and the XP system was more in line with older D&D.  In particular, the game assumed that you would need Credits to keep your ship flying and therefore Credits also translated into XP. However, Stars Without Number 2e changed it to the same system you now see in Worlds Without Number.

    There is a trend I've observed in some OSR-adjancent games that key into the idea that old D&D adventures are just TOO DAMN LONG. 50-100 room dungeons are a big ask in terms of prep work. Even modern editions of D&D (3e+) assume somewhere between 10-15 monster encounters per level and that's BEFORE you add in traps and anything else.

    Worlds Without Number (and a few others like Low Fantasy Gaming) kind of switch the attitude to one session = one adventure and one adventure = one concrete goal the players have.  If you have shorter sessions then maybe two or three sessions tops.  Worlds Without Number also provieds TONS of random tables to make prep easier. Are they going after that missing girl?  Roll, Roll, Roll, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, and here's an evenings worth of stuff about finding a lost girl.

    I don't know which modules you're pulling for use but if they're part of that older model of being very large/long adventures, I'm not surprised you're feeling a disconnect between the pace of XP and the length of the adventure. It's something to consider.

    • That is something to consider

      That is something to consider. I've mostly been using stuff from the last 5-7 years, so "OSR" designs. You make a good point about using the WWN tables for prep. I've used that to some extent to make towns, but I haven't really for any sort of dungeon prep or social prep, since I've been using pre-made dungeons, with some things changed to fit the context of the setting & situation. I should try to explore the tools in the book more, though, and face my fears: part of me is just anxious about prep, so when they get to a dungeon door and I have a book in front of me I feel like it's all going to be okay, at least for this session. 

  3. Are you happy?

    I wasn't sure from your post if you're happy, overall, with the way the game is going. It sounds like you came up with some inspired material, but wound up using some other stuff instead, is that correct? If so, why? Would you like the game better if you used more of your own creative material? 

    • The inspired material is

      The inspired material is mostly situational background and setting, which has colored what is going on in the world and what the PCs do, but doesn't have a huge impact on moment-to-moment play due to the heavy use of published dungeons/cities/modules, which I do try to change and modify where appropriate. Funny thing is, I find the game most enjoyable exactly when we are diving into that material; when I've tried to present my own stuff it has fallen a bit flat, I think, and I've struggled in that typical GM way of "what to say next," unsure if what I've come up with is of any interest. I know it's all GM-as-performer bullshit, but it's difficult to shake.

  4. XP Rewards

    The whole XP rewards issue is interesting to me. In every game and campaign I've ran or played in, no XP reward system has ever made the slightest difference in how players acted, with the sole exception of gold as XP. It's very striking. I don't know why this is the case. My only guess is it provides a tangible, in-fiction resource that's directly tied to improved character effectiveness – it helps you level up, but also get better weapons, armor, magic items, etc. 

    • Your comment strikes me as

      Your comment strikes me as spot-on. I know from experience that gold-as-xp works so well; I figured if I just replaced "gold" with "player priorities", that, wham-bam, we'd have a thriving player-driven experience. I think there is something to what you say about it being a tangible, in-fiction resource, but I think there is also something about it being, in some sense, an optimal (if not optimally efficient and safe) in-fiction activity. What is the best thing for our poor, ground-down adventurers to get? Money. Even if their goal is to rescue the Prince and kiss him on the third day of Christmas under a full moon, they're still going to want money so they can become more powerful both physically and socially. So let the clear reward be the reward, and the rest of character play is an emergent property. I dunno.

    • There are at least two major

      There are at least two major benefits of a well-designed experience points for treasure procedure (as in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, where it isn’t just about getting money but rather recovering treasure from the mythic underworld and bringing it back to civilization):

      One, though it provides an incentive for engaging in a bounded sphere of activity it isn’t at all prescriptive about the specifics of how players should proceed. Through treachery, brute force, stealth? Carefully or boldly? Cooperating or at each others’ throats?

      Two, there is no guarantee that you will get it. There is the possibility of failure to find treasure due to sub-optimal play (a genuine failure state necessary for meaningful challenge-based play) but there is also the possibility of failing to find (all of the) treasure due to sheer bad luck. This risk/reward set up taps into the same part of our brain that makes some people develop a life-debilitating slot machine habit: for our purposes the push-your-luck aspect is hopefully merely compelling and supportive of wanting to play more, and is not life-destroying.

      (Note that for this to work the dungeon has to be designed with an appropriate balance of treasure for risk: dungeon design for these kinds of games is as integral to the system as the combat mechanics. Many of the people who designed early treasure tables for D&D and related games seemed to grasp the necessity of the treasure balance issue, even if they didn’t necessarily articulate their reasoning in the same terms I am using here).

      There are of course good alternatives to treasure for experience points.

      Ken St. Andre’s early objection — that getting experience points for treasure and also getting to spend the treasure for upgrading your characters’ effectiveness is double dipping — is completely reasonable. Tunnels & Trolls deals with this in two ways: one, Adventure Points (experience points) still are given in a way that incentivizes engaging in a bounded sphere of activity (you get them for exploring deeper into a dungeon and for overcoming dangerous foes). Two, you can only access magic spells higher than level one by spending gold and the prices for spells get very expensive, very quickly. In a sense, treasure  in Tunnels & Trolls acts as a stealth experience points system for Wizards.

      And so in Tunnels & Trolls you still get the two benefits I outlined above but note that without the “gold for magic spells” piece, you wouldn’t (or at least you’d be getting it only in a weak, attenuated form).

      And in Dungeons & Dragons 4E advancement comes through overcoming adversity: this only has teeth if the possibility of failure is always there. (I don’t have actual experience with 5E, so I am perhaps going out on a limb here, but my understanding of the culture of play is that there is an expectation that all encounters will be beaten, though there will be uncertainty regarding how many of their resources players needed to burn. This strikes me as being kind of flat, unless the resource management game at the higher level provides genuine pressure.)

      I’ve found alternative systems — experience points for participation or experience points for exploration (without the possibility of a fail state) — to be flat in play. The players are left without much guidance or constraints with regard to their actions: the central question of the crawl — do we keep going and press our luck or retreat? — is less compelling if there’s not a strong risk/reward system in place. The game becomes simply about character survival, but if these characters just wanted to survive, they wouldn’t be delving in dungeons, and so players have to fall back on making up motivations for their characters to engage in the arena of play at all. It is exhausting and, in my experience, not fun.

      There are other ways to go, of course, and all of what I have said here assumes our purpose is challenge-based play.

    • I don’t have actual

      I don’t have actual experience with 5E, so I am perhaps going out on a limb here, but my understanding of the culture of play is that there is an expectation that all encounters will be beaten, though there will be uncertainty regarding how many of their resources players needed to burn. This strikes me as being kind of flat, unless the resource management game at the higher level provides genuine pressure

      I would say that this is accurate. There is no 'juice' of 5E, unless you add it. By 'juice' I mean, there is no prevailing reason to risk your character in situations Yes, in 5E you do gain experience for defdeating monsters, but is the only real explicit method. Milestone experience is also an option, which is not quite XP for showing up. It is XP for accomplishing a set of goals. Those goals are often set by the scenario or by the DM/GM player. 

      The culture of play encourages improvisational skills to keep the game interesting and moving forward or in asymmetrical directions away from its core conceit: monster killing. It is not a dungeon crawl system, though it can be if you tweek it or turn the right dials. 

    • Jon, what you say about there

      Jon, what you say about there needing to be a fail state tracks with me–though not without how I designed XP in this game, so no wonder the motivating piece of it is falling flat. Perhaps there's a confusion of what we're doing here, a stream-crossing between challenge-based play on the one hand and a hope for emergent character drama on the other. Hmm.

  5. Parallels my experience…

    A lot of what you write here matches my experience GMing a current game of Tunnels & Trolls, which started out as a Tunnel Goons game.

    The players have mostly avoided engaging with any of the factions or world building pieces that I scattered around the map, and instead were just going dungeon-to-dungeon with little interest in the connective material. On top of that, the group had responded to there being a number of different delving options available by “sampling” dungeons rather than playing them: a couple sessions in a row involved then running away at the first sign of adversity, with no real plan about how to come back to take on the challenge later.

    I’ve been disappointed that they haven’t picked up some of the material I was looking forward to seeing in play, and my overall satisfaction with the game isn’t at the level of any of the other games I’m participating in now.

    We keep going back, and I’m continuing to tweak things: now I’m moving away from the hex crawl/lots of little situations/making strategic choices about what to tackle next and towards a simpler “let’s just focus on this one dungeon for a while”-approach. I’m hoping that will focus the primary question – to advance or retreat? – and will avoid confusing things by having all these half-formed situations only partly in play.

    I think back to when I played in a successful/enjoyable version of this kind of set-up, and I don't think I'm doing anything much differently from what the GM did there, but in that case me and the other players were much more committed to wanting to "beat" the challenges presented to us than the people in my current game are.

  6. I hope this is a quickie

    I'm trying to figure out the post title's meaning and not getting far. What does it mean regarding the play-experience?

    The post and comments are super and I really considered not saying anything so I wouldn't cause distractions, but, time went by and I stayed interested in this detail.

    • For me the title combined

      For me the title combined with the image i sjust to say that the game is a pastiche: a big world with some nascent goings-on created by me, a local situation, and "dungeon of the week" modules slotted in when the characters go into a dangerous hole. This has not knitted itself into some grand unity, but rather seems to be exactly what it is.

    • Got it! I like the point, too

      Got it! I like the point, too: that "what it is" is, actually, nothing to sneeze at or try to make into something else/more.

  7. That Map

    I remember being taken with the map when you posted about this game the first time. It sounds like your dungeon crawling game has found its groove as "exactly the sum of its parts", but I nevertheless advocate for the map to take its rightful place as the center-stage fantastical inspiration for . . . something! Like, how about a Pool game? I picture a player finding a spot on the map that intrigues them, and daydreaming up "someone . . . who comes from THERE!"

    • Thanks, I really appreciate

      Thanks, I really appreciate that. I have certainly thought about this map/setting being used for inspirational material in other games, and The Pool is an apt choice (though it is starting to feel like an apt choice for 50% of my setting/situation noodlings these days!).

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