The Old Grind

I was reading Paul’s “Quickly, Quietly, Carefully” blog recently where he was posting about treasure and XP.  Paul was looking at a published dungeon and pondering how much XP could be gathered from it in the form of XP for monsters, gold, etc., and whether or not that would be enough to raise the average party to the appropriate level for the next dungeon or adventure and it made me think a bit on of one of the staples of the old school games that seems to have fallen out of favor with many contemporary players… a little thing we call “The Grind.”

“The Grind” is where you have to earn x amount of experience points in order to advance in power so you can advance to greater challenges.  The adventurer’s desire for more power turns him/her/it into a little XP whore who may start killing everything and looting everything just to earn the needed XP for ‘one more level.’  This can seem dull and mechanical, hence the term, ‘the grind.’

And ‘grinds’ seem to have fallen out of favor, at least in gaming circles I am in touch with.  I used to count up every monster killed, treasure found, etc., after the session and calculate it all up, then divide it by the number of participants (with NPCs getting 1/2 share) and then letting everyone know how many XP they had at the start of the next session. I was never particularly good at (or fond of) math, but I remember enjoying this bit of book keeping, maybe because it made me feel like the rewards (XP) were not handed out by me via some system where the DM gives the players XP like some nobleman distributing favors to his courtiers. I liked to establish rules (you will get XP for X, Y and Z) and players knew the rules and would get whatever XP they earn. 

One of the arguments against the grind is that it can lead to ridiculous situations in which players will notice they are just a handful of XP away from gaining a level and will then wander around looking for some weak little monster to kill so they can earn the last few XP they need to level up. Many groups of players I am familiar with simplify or handwave the process — “everyone earns X number of XP per session” or “You level up every X number of sessions,” etc. I understand why people would want to do of this: less book keeping and the rules for XP seem somewhat arbitrary (i.e.: 1 xp per gold piece FREX).  I also remember the silly players in my teenage group (myself included) would do in order to earn the XP needed.  I seem to remember a debate as to whether or not fireballing a herd of sheep would earn the handful of XP needed to push a character over the threshold…

However, the ‘levelling up by DM decree’ or ‘everybody gets XP just for showing up’ can also feel like the race where everyone gets a trophy no matter when they finish.  One loses the feeling of accomplishment you get when your little hero earns just enough to hit the next level. When you have had to scrabble for every point, a ‘level up’ can feel like a real accomplishment.

2 Comments on “The Old Grind”

  1. XP (for treasure) is key component to certain styles of play, e.g. dungeon crawls, western marches. In that smart players will learn to cherry pick the high reward / low(er) risk areas. Rather than take all the time, resources, and deaths required to “clear” area.

    OTOH raising levels e.g. at end of each “chapter” regardless of treasure/killings is key for story based games.

  2. Limpey says:

    Putting 'dungeon crawls' on one end of a spectrum and “storytelling games” on the other allows for easy categorization, but doesn't really reflect my experience. Is naming a character 'Bobba Fett' and having him kill orcs for XP really that much less original than giving your PC some psuedo-medieval name and claiming that he kills orcs because orcs murdered his mother?
    Sometimes the players who just threw a character together with the flimsiest of backstories becomes the player who engages with the other players, tries to ask questions of the NPCs and figure out what is going on, developing strategies, etc., which feels more like 'roleplaying' to me than someone who engages in a lot of 'creative writing' before the session begins. If I had to pick one player or the other, I'd pick the former.

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