Monday, November 1, 2010

Arneson on Experience Points for Special Interests

It's been often noted in the nooks and crannies of old school spaces on the Internet that D&D co-creator Dave Arneson used a heavily house ruled system in his Blackmoor campaign that eschewed a simple gold for experience formula. Experience points were instead given for loot spent on player-chosen special interests, a notion that intrigued me enough to adopt myself.

I had assumed, based on many second-hand accounts, that Arneson's system was either something a bit abstracted and arbitrary based on the stated goals of the players or very class specific. Something like “my character's special interests are in power, so I get an experience point for each gold piece spent on my stronghold, hiring mercenaries and the like; or I am a fighter so gold spent on swords, armor, and training gets me experience.”

A close reading of that wonderful and jumbled mess of campaign notes, the First Fantasy Campaign, reveals, however, an interesting sub-system with some serious rules-specific crunch. I have no idea to what degree these rules were used in actual play--for all I know they could have been closer to my former view in reality. At any rate, they point to ways a GM can inspire crazy fun by tweaking the exp. carrot and stick.

For starters, the FFC system didn't just limit a PC's choice to one area of interest, it gave them seven separate ranges of choices that had varying percentages for treasure spent in a primary area of interest. Gold spent on somewhat related pursuits give smaller percentages of return (80-90 percent) and less related ones smaller percentages or none at all.

A player who chose to have his character specialize in a love of wine, for instance, received 100 percent for all the hard-earned loot spent on booze, 80 percent on women (!), and a mere 10 percent spent on religion.

The specific areas of interest are where Arneson's quirky and fun genius as a GM are really on show--as is the sheer gonzo enjoyability and pulp fantasy sensibility of Blackmoor. Witness the following highly-amusing definitions:

“A. WINE: Spirits with a relatively High Alcoholic Content that is immediately consumed by the player to the limits of his capacity. This MUST be repeated after recovery, by the player until all the alcoholic beverages purchased have been consumed BY THE PLAYER [Arneson's emphasis] before he can proceed on another expedition. An exception to this is if he comes into conflict with other players and loses the purchased WINE, whereupon he can proceed on an expedition...Experience gained while drunk does not count but treasure does.”

Wow. I hope said character did not have to make a systemic shock roll for their liver between expeditions.

“B. WOMEN: The player will immediately-proceed to the local ESTABLISHMENT and expend all funds desired on ROOM plus EXTRAS at that place. Slaves of the appropriate type (left to player) may also be purchased with the funds and utilized to fulfill this classification. These slaves may then be sold at reduced value, the difference being credited to the players account. Money stolen does not count in this area.”

Ok this one is a little embarrassing. Could, ahem, stand for some post-millennial, post-feminist updating.

“C. SONG: The player proceeds to the local tavern and expends his wealth on other players present in either category A or B or C. Damages assessed by the tavern owner are counted towards the players expenditures in this area. Experience gained as a result of area C will count towards this area only if the player is not inebriated when this was done. Inability to pay all debts so incurred in this, or the above areas may result in imprisonment (if they can get you) or banishment (if you get away).”

Partying down to help out your buds. What's not to like with this one. But remember to stay sober to keep that exp award.

“D. WEALTH: Merely the stockpiling of Gold, Silver and similar items of value by the player, If these items are stolen, the player loses full value immediately upon discovery and may lose levels as a result.”

Maintaining said miserly hoard perhaps entailed the creation for strongholds—or dungeons—of your own. An interesting way to again get players busy in co-creation.

“E. FAME: This is gained by straight combat with creatures and players in the game. The qualifying factor is that there must be another player who attest to your prowess in public. Otherwise, no points are gained (referees may award partial point totals if bodies are discovered later by other players (who must also attest to your results up to 75% Normal value). Flunkies (non-Player Characters) can also attest to your success (you get half value then) but can also (depending on loyalty) attest to deeds that you did not do...”

So showing off finally has some in-game utility. Better make sure to hire up some retainers (and keep them alive) to spread word of your greatness.

“F. RELIGION or SPIRITUALISM: Awarded when the player gains experience points while engaged on a QUEST or otherwise co-operating with a Cleric (may be himself) on a task. Funds are given to the local Religious denomination (up to player) where upon he will gain the points. Real Player Clerics may refuse to accept the offering and the player will get no points. Refusal to accept may get the player in trouble, depending on what the CLERIC said. Money given to the denomination may be spent by the Clerical type once 40%-90% (roll six-sided die) is sent to H...See HOW TO BECOME A BAD GUY for other details.”

Leaving aside the puzzling, tantalizing incoherence (what or where the hell is the H that money is being sent to?) there are interesting implications. Clerics have clear obligations to religious institutions, but can also cash in on the piety of their PC brethren.

G. HOBBY: This is a catch all category left to the referee to award details on to the players. Examples of some of the more obvious pursuits would be SPELL research by Magic-Users specializing in say ANIMAL CONTROL or the raising and breeding of LYCANTHROPES. Even the taking of spare parts and building a new creature...One's hobby could even be the devising of better TORTURE machines, making GOLD, the building of flying machines, all up to the referee to outline and define within the limits of his campaign.”

Another simple wow. Who wouldn't want to be a player in this kind of campaign?


  1. Have you checked out Dragons at Dawn's take on Arneson's experience system?

    Here's a quick review. Seems somewhat like what you've quoted, but standardized for class.

  2. @Red
    I haven't seen it yet. I am awash in rule sets right now thanks to my two-month binge on Ebay.

    Any specifics on how the class-oriented system works in Dragons at Dawn?

  3. I find amusing that the text refers to 'players', not to 'player characters'. I imagine my friends in the bar (tavern) paying drinks to the other players in order to earn XP for their player characters. :P

    1. Not so terribly off from the actual experience of our play group.