Last week, I gave my (potentially ill-informed) explanation of why the concept of experience points entered the hobby at its earliest moments. Exp was simply the best solution for the design goals at the time. But times quickly began to change…

The Rise of Story

Anecdotes tend to point to Dragonlance as one of the (if not the) first official module series that included a story. Players had likely begun playing that way long before, but modules had always been much more focused on simply providing a venue for play: here is a dungeon, here is how your players can get into it, here are things they will find when they explore it. It didn’t need much of a story to be useful, as it provided an interesting place to fight bad guys who had treasure.

Dragonlance was a departure. It wasn’t just a setting that had novel tie-ins featuring stories set in the world. It was a module series specifically intended to make playing through the novels possible. The Dragonlance novels are a well-regarded fantasy epic, and you could produce a reasonable approximation of the events within simply by playing through the modules. Within the modules there were villains, and countdown timers, and quests, and other techniques that were fairly uncommon at the time to mold the play experience into the feel of a fantasy epic.

The modules did very well and became the model for most subsequent printed adventures. Quickly, the official examples of what constituted an RPG session became less Howard and more Tolkien: treasure and glory more and more became side effects of the pursuit of much grander goals. The PCs weren’t just trying to get rich and level up, they were trying to save the world, or at least accomplish much more character-specific long term goals than wealth and power.

By the 1990s, this had become so much the default method of play that a series of games that flat out replaced the moniker of “dungeon master” with “storyteller” became the new hotness in RPG circles. Most games abandoned the concept of levels entirely, instead relying on more granular improvement that was easier to map to non-game experience: in fantasy stories, characters rarely improve all their skills at once (save perhaps between novels). In fact, the core assumptions of the hobby had changed pretty drastically:

  • Advancement was largely granular, increasing stats individually
  • There was a renewed effort to balance characters mechanically against one another (even, perhaps especially, in games that still retained levels)
  • PCs in-game tracked progress by their accomplishment of goals set before them, be they personal or for the good of civilization; characters might even come out of chargen with all the wealth and glory they’d ever want
  • Death became less and less common, as allowing a character to die unexpectedly would ruin all the plot threads the GM had invented to tie that character and his or her goals to the world and story

But, despite these shifted assumptions, almost everyone still used exp…

Part 3