GP-as-XP in Basic Fantasy
Basic Fantasy remains my favorite of the OSR games. For one thing, it hews to the Basic version of D&D, rather than OD&D or AD&D. As someone who came to the OSR without experience of any edition prior to 3e, I had no dog in the edition wars; but as a matter of style and game design, BD&D seems to strike the best balance.
But while Basic Fantasy looks to Moldvay et al. for inspiration, it is not as slavish as many other OSR games (they’re called retroclones for a reason). Armor Class ascends, as God intended. Race and class are largely divorced (to my players’ eternal relief) but not entirely.
This is mostly good, but occasionally Basic Fantasy pitches a feature from BD&D I liked. So it is with GP-as-XP.
A quick definitional aside: GP-as-XP is the rule, prevalent in early D&D and many retroclones, that players primarily earn experience points by finding loot. Generally, every gold piece returned to safety is another experience point in the bank.
Modern RPGs outside the retroclone movement take a number of approaches to experience: Points earned for using your skills (The Burning Wheel), XP for developing your character background (every GM desperate to see a little personality from their PCs), or for completing major story objectives (everything from GURPs to 3e to, yes, Basic Fantasy). I have no issue with these three, so far as they go.
There’s an elephant in the room, however: XP for killing dudes. This is, of course, the classic choice since (I think) AD&D.
I think it stinks. Mostly, it distorts a player’s view of the game. Players naturally crave advancement. But however much fun treasure is to earn and spend, that magical *ding* earned when leveling up is so much more fun. Everyone loves to level. It’s in our gaming genes.
Earning XP from killing monsters disincentivizes clever play. There’s little advantage in stealing a few sacks of treasure from Smaug’s lair, if it’ll just earn you a magic scroll or two. No matter how clever your scheme for depriving Smaug of his stuff, if you can’t off Smaug, or least a few of his minions1, you’ll never make it to the big leagues.
This discourages many of the things old-school roleplaying values, especially caution. It also encourages players to resent “unfair” challenges: If they need to kill those monsters to advance, it’s understandable that they’ll be irritated by facing too many foes they simply can’t hope to kill. Furthermore, it gives an advantage to combat-oriented characters at the expense of the stealthy or clever.
These problems are not even confined to pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Brogue, perhaps the greatest roguelike of the last few years, recently made a radical move away from experience earned by killing monsters. Instead, characters advance by finding magic potions: Killing monsters has little benefit except getting them out of your way.
When Brogue made this switch, I was astounded how much it changed my play. Cowardly characters really were suddenly viable; melée became a choice rather than a necessity. A whole new side of the game opened up, where existing mechanics took on sudden new life from one simple change.
So for me, Basic Fantasy needs GP-as-XP.
To that end, I’ve made a quick one-page GP-as-XP rules page. The page is numbered “42” so you can drop it in as a replacement in a printed copy of Basic Fantasy (no art, however, since this runs up against the terms of the Basic Fantasy license).
All files licensed under the Open Game License, for full terms see the file downloads.
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Brogue Image: Screenshot by Austin Schaefer; Brogue designed by Brian Walker
Tolkein purists, I know, Smaug didn’t have minions. Forgive me!↩