Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gold as XP, Boston, Munich

Hi there! Welcome back to my every-couple-three-week blog! I’m Rich Baker, author and game designer, and this is where I like to chew on topics that catch my interest. Usually it’s a mix of D&D-type gaming, wargaming, politics, culture, and some of the finer things in life.

If you’re a newcomer and you’re wondering who the heck I am, here’s a very brief bio. I’m a former US Navy officer (surface warfare specialist), which is where I get my interest in naval history and affairs. After my stint of active duty, I went to work as a game designer. I put in twenty years with TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast, during which time I worked on over a hundred game titles. (Some of my credits include the Birthright Campaign Setting, the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the Axis & Allies Miniatures games.) I’m also an author with fourteen novels and a handful of short stories under my belt; my novels include The Last Mythal trilogy and the best-seller Condemnation.
I’m now helping the folks at Goblinworks to build their Pathfinder Online game, and working on a variety of new projects! (Speaking of which, stay tuned: I have a Big Announcement coming in just a couple of weeks!)

OK, enough about me… this time around, it’s Gold as XP, Boston, and Munich on the Columbia.

Gaming: I miss gold as experience points in D&D. Back in 1st Edition, you used to earn XP for killing monsters, and then you also earned XP for finding treasure. In 2nd Edition, that shifted toward more class-specific experience bonuses, most of which weren’t ever computed or applied. During our design discussions for 3rd Edition, we dropped the idea altogether, since we had a very strong push from many of the D&D fans around WotC to finally toe the line on letting people buy and sell magic items. When 3rd Edition came out and said that was OK, then the treasure you found very quickly became your credit card to shop at the Magic Mart for the gear you’d carry.
Now, I don’t object to that—ever since magic items included a GP sale value, many DMs in the audience allowed players to do some amount of buying and selling of items. In the 3rd Edition and 4th Edition environments, it works well to convert treasure to gear. After all, we remember how silly it was back in 1st Edition when a high-level character might have wealth counted in the millions of GP, and absolutely nothing to spend it on. But I think it’s important to take a step back and think about what sort of play the 3e and 4e systems incentivized. I think the more recent approach to treasure, experience, and magic item purchase actually slices out a little piece of D&D’s roots and moves the game away from its sources of inspiration (rousing tales of fiction) toward a pragmatic, less evocative, gaming system.

In 3e and 4e, treasure *only* has value when converted into gear that makes your character better; it has no intrinsic worth. When the NPC merchant whispers of “a ruby as big as a man’s fist!” you couldn’t care less about an astonishing gemstone of unparalleled beauty; it’s just 5,000 gp toward making your sword +3 instead of +2. The unappreciated wisdom of the 1st Edition rules, in which you earned XP for treasure and couldn’t buy magic items, is that the ruby is its own reward: Finding epic treasures is the sort of things mighty heroes do, and the XP system reflected that.
I also feel that the 3e and 4e model of treasure > gear conversion makes treasure a necessary component of leveling. When you know that you need to have a certain quality level of gear to “live up to” your character level, then the treasure no longer is *why* you go on adventures, it’s *how* you go on adventures. DMs have to offer a social compact of sorts in which they implicitly promise to make sure you get the means to get your +3 sword “on schedule” and players are incentivized to treat magic item descriptions as shopping lists. I think the D&D game is more strongly “sandboxed” and self-directed when players learn of opportunities to find great treasures and then think of ways to go get them, instead of trusting the DM to provide appropriate treasure on schedule.

Anyway, the next time I run a D&D game, I’m going to reinstate the rule that you earn XP for finding treasure, and I’m going to pull the plug on the Magic Marts. I want to see how the game feels when a ruby the size of your fist—or a legendary magic sword—is often the *object* of your quest, not the *means* by which you do something else.

Politics/Current Affairs: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Boston Marathon bombing was actually the first successful bombing in the US since 9/11. While it’s terrible that it happened and it seems that our counterterror forces had plenty of warning flags about the Tsarnaev brothers, the really remarkable thing is that it’s been almost 12 years since a successful Islamic extremist attack on a civilian target in the US. Overall, Presidents Bush and Obama have done a pretty good job in keeping the homeland safe. However, I feel compelled to comment on two aspects of this attack.
First, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be treated as a criminal suspect, not an unlawful combatant. I am not at all opposed to treating people we capture overseas with our military as hostis humani generis: To my mind, terrorists who fight under no flag and should be treated as enemies to all humankind, like pirates or slavers or bandits in earlier centuries. However, if we’re talking about an act perpetrated on US soil by a US citizen, then full Constitutional protections have to be observed. That said, there’s no reason to allow the guy to clam up under Miranda rights—first of all, he may very well have information about pending attacks, which is a specific exception to Miranda protections, and second, no prosecutor is going to need his statements to convict the guy when there’s video of him setting down the backpack bomb and walking away. Interrogate him, allow his statements to be excluded, and then try him with everything else we’ve already got, but make it a trial, not a military commission.

Second, I find the “weapon of mass destruction” charge strange. Only a few years ago, WMD was understood to mean only three types of weapons: nuclear, biological, or chemical. The idea is that “mass destruction” is indiscriminate and does not distinguish between civilian and military targets. Most civilized nations understood that *none* of these forms of attack were acceptable without like provocation. A backpack bomb is not different in any significant way from, say, a Claymore mine or a Hellfire missile, so are those WMDs now too? I wonder whether the term “WMD” now stands for “anything we don’t like when someone does it to us,” which cheapens and confuses the purpose of the term.
In any event, I am grateful that the authorities found the guy and that justice will be done. The people hurt or killed in Boston deserve no less.

The Finer Things: On Wednesday the 24th I joined a whole posse of Boeing engineers for an excursion to Munich on the Columbia, better known as Portland, Oregon. My friend Chris Zabriskie puts this noble expedition together twice a year; we take the train from Seattle to Portland, buy a one-day transit pass in Oregon, and navigate our way to various brew pubs and microbreweries to sample their wares. This time around, our stops included Prost, the Amnesia Brewing Company, and the Lucky Labrador. Prost doesn’t brew their own, but they import dozens of excellent German beers: I greatly enjoyed the Bayreuther Landbier Dunkel Lager, an excellent dark lager, and a glass of the Paulaner Oktoberfest, an old friend I’ve missed from time to time. Amnesia does brew their own, and it’s really excellent: I sampled their Kolsch, and then had a pint of their “Alt”—a deep amber with just a hint of sweetness in the taste. We ended up at the Lucky Lab, where we had sandwiches and pizza. I tried their Wheat Stout, which was pretty good, but I’m not usually a big stout fan. Then I finished with the Widmer Dunkel Stark Lager, but at that point discretion got the better part of my valor, and I left most of that pint unfinished. Overall, a highly successful day!


  1. Hi, I've banged on about this elsewhere, but I'm afraid I'll do so again...

    On the aspects of D&D 'magic items' you mention, I think 4E did something brilliant that has been all but ignored: it split enchanted gear into two categories, "magic items" and "artifacts". Instead of artifacts being the magic item equivalent of "10th level spells", they became a distinct class: magic items you couldn't make.

    I know quite a few folks who enjoy the charop side of 3.x and 4E D&D, and the "magic items" in 4E add a nice aspect to that - they are a resource for character building that can be shared among the party, rather than an introspective "I'm designing me" element. But artifacts are the DM's toys; McGuffin, quest object, story element, inanimate NPC - you name it. If you want a pure "you can't buy magic items" - use artifacts only. If you want pure gamism - use magic items only. It's a functional divide that I thought didn't get anywhere near the attention and leverage it deserved. The only thing I would maybe do differently (and I intend to try this in my next campaign) is to split "residuum" from gold and make residuum the "magic item resource", letting "Disenchant" give you back 100% of the item value, but you must use the item value in residuum to make an item.

    In summary - I know what you mean about "special" magic items and XP for money (thus rewarding getting the loot through trickery as well as fighting), but I think 4E had some great tools for that which seemed to get ignored...

  2. I agree with treating him as a criminal suspect, not an unlawful combatant, for the reasons you cite. However, not giving him his Miranda rights is a dangerous precedent. You cannot have it both ways. Also, you are incorrect about the public safety exception. The exception is not to deny him his rights but that statements made before he is given his lawful rights can be admissible in court, if it meets the limited and specific criteria. Not to read him his rights risks statements he makes that DON'T meet the criteria to be inadmissible in court. That would be a VERY bad thing if it happens, and I suspect it will.

    Yeah, mob rule is a bitch. With backpack bombs now WMDs our government has opened a whole can of worms. Why don't they think prosecuting for murder is enough? Why do they think they have to pile on all of these labels? I realize that the sentencing gets stiffer, but do they really think that somehow these guys are going to get out of simple murder charges?

  3. When doing fantasy (I prefer sci fi, like Alternity, and Traveller) I'm a big fan of systems like Mongoose Conan, where your PC gets money, but relentlessly burns through it between sessions, acting as a gold sink. I was never a fan of the magic shoppe style of game, and thus prefer 2nd edition (run as low magic), and of course, Birthright. Every item is hand-written. The players decide who gets them in the party.