Avoiding Unintended Responses to Incentives
Over the last few months, I have been devoting a ridiculous amount of effort into determining how much treasure different kinds of monsters should have. ('Ridiculous' especially because my foibles mean so much of this effort involves going down dead ends, recalculating the same thing different ways, etc.) As Alex eloquently said in his blog post about behavioral rewards, this data is important to the Adventurer Conqueror King System's goal of being "among the best-designed fantasy RPGs from the point of view of connecting the rules of the game (its laws) with the incentives of its players (its economics) design." A monster's average yield of gold pieces is even more of a reward for the players to defeat it than its yield of experience points; specifically, the design goal is for it to be four times as much of a reward.
But, precisely because players respond to incentives, I am worrying about whether the information about the reward should it be made obvious to the reader, or intentionally kept somewhat obscure.
In 3E, what Justin Alexander has called the "fetishization of balance" arises when players expect that all monsters their characters encounter will always be a challenge appropriate to their level. As Justin has pointed out, 3E's DM-level instructions about the challenge rating system specifically say that's not how it's meant to be used; challenge rating is a guideline not a rule, and the mechanics of the guideline ought to procuce many encounters both above and below what is exactly level-appropriate for the PCs. Other challenge-scaling systems are as old as the old school; see the 1979 JG "Temple of Ra Accursed by Set," or the Monstermark articles in the earliest issues of White Dwarf. Why did 3E, but not these other attempts, result in the fetishization of balance despite the designers' stated intent?
There are many answers to that question, but I think an important one is that the CR rating appears in the monster entry. As you read through that, most of the numbers are invariants that you might feel you need to know to design an effective character. A player of a mathy turn of mind who is thinking about choosing the Power Attack feat will want to look at the AC and hit points of a likely range of monsters to decide whether the feat's to-hit/damage tradeoff is worth it. Even some things that are more clearly guidelines, like the environment in which a monster appears, can be relevant to player decisions like "which type of favored enemy should my arctic ranger choose?"
So when a player sees a challenge rating in the monster entry, the tendency will be to treat it like a monster's armor class or environmental range: a fact about the world which they can use to make choices.
In paying a lot of attention to the ratio of treasure to experience yielded by defeating a monster - as in many other examples of ACKS design - I am taking inspiration from the "Red Box" Basic D&D set which is our most essential inspiration. In a post over at Delta's D&D Hotspot which emerged from our email conversations about monsters and treasure, Delta notes that original Red Box designer Tom Moldvay
shows an exquisite awareness of the average results produced by the treasure table system (as evidenced by his correct 3/4 ratio statement; and listing the correct average values for each treasure type, unique to his rules).
It's worth noting, however, that the place in which Moldvay lists these average values is in the treasure section. What he lists in the individual monster entries is a letter code, which requires some page-flipping to turn into the average payout in gold pieces. The analogy isn't exact because B/X is in one book and 3E in three, but I wonder: would the fetishization of balance have happened if the monster entry said "Challenging" instead of "CR 8", and you had to go to a separate table to figure out that "Challenging" meant that half of the monsters an eighth-level party encountered should be this tough?
Moldvay's treasure table average values only tell part of the story - basically the part before I started devoting insane amounts of work to figuring out the rest. In order to calculate how many GP a monster is worth, you have to divide the number appearing in an average encounter into the number in its lair, which is where those listed values appear.
What he chose not to do, but I am contemplating, is listing that computed value directly in the monster entry: when you encounter an average group of goblins, they have 1d6 gp each, and 300 gp back in their lair. It's possible that he didn't do this because he lacked the "benefit of enormously powerful spreadsheets, computer modeling, and random generators at our desktop" which Alex mentioned in his last post. Certainly, those have been invaluable in helping me work out each monster's payoff - but I wonder if Moldvay didn't list this directly to avoid an unintended consequence.
Here, then, are the questions I'm going through:
- What would the consequence be? Players would be motivated to seek out the monsters that offer the richest reward for the least difficulty.
- Is it likely? Perhaps not. It takes a fair amount of geekiness to rank monsters on profit-to-threat ratio, but the folks I play with at New York Red Box are at least this geeky. Although they have done the math necessary for pillaging by the numbers, I don't know that it has affected our behavior in the game all that much. In my White Sandbox campaign, player freedom of action is as wide-open as I can make it, but so far no one has turned down any of my enticing adventure hooks to search out and grind leet monsters like trogdolytes or giant rats.
- Is it undesirable? It might have been for Moldvay, who was likely confined by the requirement to work with existing treasure types and their allocation to specific creatures. Arneson presumably gave merchants and nobles and dwarves hefty allocations of treasure because this was what made sense in the macro-economics of the Blackmoor. Sticking to these values meant Moldvay is in the curious position of having created both the world's best introduction to gaming for new players, and a powerful argument that the best way to advance in life is by murdering Lawful creatures for their stuff whenever they show up on the wandering monster table.
Adventurer Conqueror King values fidelity with previous editions of the world's most popular fantasy roleplaying game, both for the sake of backwards compatibility and because not fixing what ain't broke is a good way to avoid unintended consequences. However, we do have more freedom to change things as we see fit, and one of the changes I've made is to create a dungeon wandering monster table that only generates encounters that are enemies or rivals. And the treasure tables I'm creating awards treasure to monsters based as much on the player behavior we want to incentivize as on what makes sense for Gygaxian naturalism.
So I feel like it's OK to make it easy for players to see that the benefit/risk ratio of fighting a mummy is better than a hydra. In sandbox play, making these kind of important decisions is essential to the player's agency; and in a world where adventurers might retire to serve as advisors to up-and-coming barons, this is exactly the kind of knowledge that characters might seek out and codify.
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