I’ve been struggling with the experience system in Gloomhaven. Character progression is obviously a big part of the game and the main way that happens in the vast majority of RPGs is through a system of experience gain and leveling up. You collect enough experience and you gain a level – making your character stronger in some ways.
The mechanics of leveling-up itself has always been pretty clear. When a character gains a level, they gain access to a new, powerful, class-specific ability card they can add to their deck. Since all their stats and powers are determined by that deck, it’s a pretty logical choice.
The problem comes in when I try to determine how a player actually earns experience. For a long time, I had a generous system in which, if the players did pretty much anything on their turn, they got an experience point. In addition, they got a bonus experience for landing a killing blow on a monster or healing a knocked out ally. Maybe also for disarming a trap. Or doing some other thing. It was pretty clunky, hard to keep track of and just didn’t feel very cool.
First of all, like I said, if you did pretty much anything on your turn, you got an experience. It was pretty lame and unnecessary. I wanted a baseline experience to reduce the variance of experience gain among players, but by far the easier way to do that was to just give that base amount of experience for completing an adventurer – not make the players keep track of that experience accumulation during the scenario. “Oh, gosh, did I get my free experience that turn or did I forget?” said no satisfied player ever.
Everything still just felt sort of samey with the bonus experience, though. Especially since getting bonus experience for killing stuff seemed to give a significant advantage to the Brute, who was very good at running around and murdering stuff. He’s a Brute. That’s what he does.
So I decided pretty quickly that what would be really cool would be that if every class in the game had a different method of gaining experience – a method that accentuated the way that character was supposed to be played. If murdering stuff is what the Brute is good at, give him bonus experience for it, but give other classes bonus experience for doing what they are good at. The Scoundrel is good at setting up big attacks for massive damage, so give her experience for doing lots of damage on her turn. The Spellweaver is good and blasting lots of monsters at once. The Tinkerer is good at healing.
And so it all came together.
I was severely limiting the versatility of the classes. Yeah, the Tinkerer could do things other than heal, but what was the point? He only got experience for healing. What was the point of the Brute tanking when he only got experience for murder?
I thought about adding multiple bonus experience cases for each class. Maybe the Brute gains experience for every enemy he kills and for every time he takes damage. And also maybe something else. The more I thought about it though, the more ridiculous it became. Was it going to be a whole paragraph of stuff on each of the character sheets? Wasn’t the whole point to take all the stats off of this sheet and put it into a much more manageable hand of cards?
This has become the mantra of the game: get as many mechanics off of the sheet and onto the cards as possible. So why not do it with experience? Have the skills themselves reward the experience, not some external, unnecessary system.
Let me tell you why this is cool.
First of all, it offers the play more interesting decisions. Maybe the player has a great set of abilities he can play on his turn to really tear up the battlefield, but the actions he’ll be using won’t give him any experience. He’s gotta decide how dire the situation is. Can he afford to do something else that will get more experience, or does he need to clear out the enemies before everyone ends up dead? You not only have to think about playing abilities that you could lose, but also about abilities that give experience and abilities that could lose you good sources of experience on the other half of the card. It’s just one more layer to think about in terms of optimization of strategy.
And that also ties into what I was talking about a couple weeks ago in terms of organic difficulty scaling based on how much stuff you walk away from the dungeon with. If you’re not playing very well, you may be forced into to situations where you’ve gotta do things that won’t get you much experience, but, on the other hand, if you’r handling the dungeon just fine, you may have more freedom to maximize your experience gain. Both ways you’ll finish the scenario and move on, but playing well will be a more rewarding experience.
I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but I’m very happy with where the system is now. More than that, I’m super-excited about the direction Gloomhaven is headed. I have a lot of really smart play testers, and they are really helping to shine a light on a lot of the cracks in the framework. It will take a long time to fix them all, but, in the end, I think Gloomhaven will end up being something pretty special.