Zelda Adventure System: Rationale Behind the Game’s Experience Mechanic

Link Battles The Helmasaur King - First Boss in the Dark World, A Link to the Past
Link battling the Helmasaur king. Fan art by Neko, (I think)

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.

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14 thoughts on “Zelda Adventure System: Rationale Behind the Game’s Experience Mechanic”

  1. Sort of reminiscent of mythological quests like the labors of Hercules or the fight against Beowulf. Do you plan on setting up a structure of “great monsters” that the players can see beforehand, like here are the 12 dragons, each has a cave/dungeon, go to it? Or will it be more ad hoc? I guess this is maybe asking about the setting or adventure creation guidelines. Also, do you see the primary effort of the ref being put into creating the setting which the players can explore however (more of a sandbox method), or in crafting specific adventures? Also, what happens when all the great monsters are defeated? Do you win, or is it presumed, like some methods of D&D play, that the ref will continue to create dungeons and monsters as long as players are interested?

    1. I assume you mean the fight against Grendel, since Beowulf is the hero! =P

      I intend to leave a lot of this up to the GM. The game has a total of 10 levels at present, so something like 11-12 dungeons would allow characters to progress to the ‘end’ of the advancement, then play a few dungeons with all of their abilities. However, my intent is to create a world which has an essentially infinite amount of great monsters. Some of them might be related in some way (these 8 monsters are all helping to maintain a certain spell, or something like that) but play could continue forever.

  2. Incidentally, considering this has just led me to a variant D&D incentive idea that I think has a lot of merit: rather than track GP = XP, instead seek out great treasures (much like your big monsters = 1 level idea).

    In some ways, this is actually truer to the idea of treasure hunters actually, who don’t generally go around taking extra suits of chain armor back to sell at the consignment store. Instead, like Indiana Jones, they seek the great artifacts of the past, the demon idols and lost scriptures.

    Another thing I like about the big monster = 1 level idea is that the natural incentive is to go after the smallest big monster to begin with, so you have a natural sorting of difficulty levels much like the traditional idea of the “dungeon level” in D&D. And the same thing would work with “great treasures” with all the same incentives to avoid lesser combats by trickery and cleverness when possible.

    1. I like the idea of great treasure. Though I worry that if such a game progressed at the rate Pahvelorn has, then the players would start to despair of ever getting to level 2.

      We’ve played 7 sessions, and no one is level 2 yet. We’re cool with that because we can track our progress and see ourselves get closer. If 7 sessions had gone by and none of us felt any closer to level 2 than we did in the first session, then we might be starting to get frustrated with the game.

      1. I was thinking about this, and it seems like it might be a problem with big monsters, too, especially if the dungeons leading to them are rather complicated and interesting on their own (as many Zelda dungeons are).

          1. You could also find a happy medium. There is mundane treasure, which you find all the time. Great Treasure, which grants you a level, and Notable Treasure, which grants you 1/10th of a level.

            Still simple, while allowing for some progress between great treasures.

            I don’t think this will be a problem in LOZAS, though I have a few ideas for solutions if it becomes a problem. My thinking is that a given dungeon would take 2-4 sessions to complete. A megadungeon might exist, but it probably have more than one great monster in it.

            1. Did you notice the close relationship between getting a Heart Container (by defeating a Great Monster) and gaining a level (also by defeating a Great Monster)? In my own Zelda RPG musings I have dealt with this by conflating them directly: a Heart Container is basically a level-up. Your above comment about “partial level” goals is then trivial to implement: it’s a Heart Piece!

  3. Nice! I’ve got a similar Zelda project in the works for my kids to play, but I took things one step further. Not only are we not worried about XP, but we’ve done away with levels as well! The only way for them to improve their characters is through in-game items and training to boost their stats. I think it’s very much in keeping with the progression style of the video games.

    1. I like levels as a means to gradually introduce concepts to players over time, but the Zelda series does lend itself well to non-leveled progression. I’d be interested to know how your system turns out!

  4. I love the cleanliness of one boss and/or one Great Treasure (and/or one stated goal/quest) = one level. BUT I still like it that higher levels are harder to reach than lower ones (so the challenges have to scale up to keep advancement at the same pace and, most importantly, so replacements for dead characters can get back up to speed with the party faster than the party will level ahead of them).

    So I might reintroduce xp, but on this scheme: you need as many as the level you want to get to. So to go from 1st to 2nd you need 2, from 2nd to 3rd you need 3 etc. And then each great monster, treasure and goal is assigned an xp total (like 1-10). That _could_ actually work as a flailsnails standard (which is currently an undiscussed mess).

    1. It’s a good idea, and something similar to that might even end up in the final version of the game based on how playtesting goes.

      As it stands I’d like leveling to feel somewhat consistent throughout. A max level character in this system isn’t too different from a low level character, since items are where most of the game’s progression comes from.

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