When I’m trying to cut the fat from a creative project, I’ve found it helpful to examine its aspects by positing the question: What is my overall goal, and how does this support that goal? It’s a simple question, but you might be surprised how useful it can be. At least it’s useful to me; I make no claim to greatness in any form of creative endeavor. Perhaps I’ll outgrow this question as I improve my skills. For now though, when working on a website, or a narrative, or a game system, this question helps me in identifying artifacts which sneak their way into my work. These artifacts may have had a point once, and simply no longer do because of the ways the project has changed. More often, though, they originate from my own false assumptions, or just lazy thinking.
A good example of this is something I’ve struggled with in writing. There are a lot of phrases we’re all used to seeing. We’ve come to accept and even expect their presence. Phrases such as “like there’s no tomorrow,” “going over it with a fine toothed comb,” or “ran like the wind.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. We all know what they mean, and sometimes they can work for a writer. But just because we know the meaning of these cliches, doesn’t necessarily mean we understand them. If I were to write that a character “ate like there’s no tomorrow,” everyone would understand that I meant the character ate a great deal. They would understand it because they’ve heard that phrase all their life, and the meaning of it is etched into their minds. But when they hear it they don’t actually think about what it means. They don’t make the connection between the act of eating a great deal, and the existential panic that would fill a person who believed there was no future. The phrase has lost the depth of its meaning through overuse.
And again, that’s not always a bad thing. Everything has its place, whether it’s because the context of the piece makes the phrase more relevant, or because it works for the characters. But, as a rule, I prefer to avoid these cliches. I don’t always succeed, but it just seems like lazy technique to me.
The same thing can happen in role playing games. That’s why, when I set out to make the Legend of Zelda Adventure System, I set aside each of my basic assumptions about what a role playing game should include, and asked “what is my overall goal, and how does this support that goal?” about each one. Elements like ability scores, character classes, dice based combat, and experience points.
And, as it turns out, experience points didn’t make the cut.
Lets talk about the reason experience points work the way they do in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. When Gygax and Arneson where first constructing the D&D game, the primary goal of the game was to acquire as much treasure as possible. In pursuit of treasure, the players would go on grand adventures, improve their skills, and gain items to help them win treasure more efficiently. Even the things that players spent that treasure on were largely to make them more effective at acquiring treasure. To encourage players to keep their focus on treasure, it made sense to tie character progression to treasure acquisition. And so for each 1 gold piece worth of treasure recovered, a character would gain 1 experience point . It’s a genius bit of mechanic crafting on our forefather’s part, and many games (notably those in the OSR) still use it today.
Later in D&D’s development, the rules were changed so that experience points were gained from killing monsters rather than from recovering treasure. Around the same time (I’m not sure which came first, as I wasn’t playing back then) the focus of the game shifted from acquiring treasure, to killing monsters*. And while treasure remains an important part of the game, this shift in importance is evidenced by the greater focus the game’s combat system has been given as time goes on. A game which was, at one time, primarily about dungeon crawling, now includes variants where the game is reduced to nothing but combat. (Or at least, that’s how I assume 4th edition “Encounters” works. I don’t actually know much about it, but the point stands).
I think, for players, the goal of the game is defined by whatever helps their character become more powerful. If acquiring gold is what helps a player become more powerful, then they’ll do whatever they can to acquire that gold. Monsters are just an obstacle between them and more power for their character. And as an obstacle, the player is just as happy sneaking past them as they are killing them. But if the character gains their power from killing monsters, then the treasure is more of an afterthought.
So, if experience points helps to define what the players will focus on, the question becomes: what is the goal of the Legend of Zelda Adventure System, from a player’s perspective? And to answer that question, I need to ask “what is the goal of a Zelda game, from the player’s perspective.”
To save the kingdom is the obvious answer, but that’s a long term goal. One might also say that the goal of D&D is to found a kingdom, but there needs to be short term goals which can culminate in that larger goal. Something small which the player can accomplish on a somewhat regular basis in order to feel as though they are making progress.
In a Zelda game, completing dungeons is the short term goal. With only a few exceptions, any time spent outside of a dungeon in a Zelda game, is just time which is being used to prepa jre for the next dungeon. You can collect heart pieces, or do side quests, or what have you. But the main quest can only be progressed by finding the next dungeon, and completing it. And what defines a dungeon as complete? Defeating the boss monster. Or, in LOZAS terms, a Great Monster.
I don’t want to reward fighting every monster, because as I’ve mentioned before, Zelda monsters are more puzzles than they are opponents. I want players to view avoiding monsters as a good alternative. I only want to reward defeating Great Monsters–powerful beasts whose great evil corrupts the land. But defeating great monsters is something player will have to struggle for for a long time. It may take an entire session, or two, or three to finally find and defeat a great monster. So it doesn’t seem right that players should gain traditional ‘experience points’ which they can put towards an eventual level.
That’s why in the game’s current form, defeating a great monster automatically grants all players who were involved in the fight a level. That way, the game’s ‘goal’ is clearly established for all the players, and they’re given a strong enough incentive that they’ll pursue that goal vigorously.
*For the record, I think that if the D&D 3rd edition developers had taken the time to ask my question, they would have realized that the only reason to use large XP numbers is if XP is tied to GP. Recognizing that, they would probably have come up with something like the simple XP system I use. Unless they consciously chose to stick with large XP numbers purely for the nostalgia factor, which would be stupid.