Big Changes to the AL
With the Season 8 changes to the Adventurers League about a month away as of writing, the various Facebook groups, Google+ groups (still a thing apparently), and twitter folk have been abuzz, both positive and negative, with regards to the fairly large change in structure in the AL. Going from the traditional XP and gold system to the Checkpoint and Treasure Point method introduced in Xanathar's Guide to everything was, unsurprisingly, met with surprise, and strong emotions.
I think some of these changes are good, and others not so good, but before getting too far into that, I think it is useful to have as much information as possible, and with that in mind I dug through the surface layer of data available for the AL as it exists today, and compared it to the proposed system.
For some consistency, the data is based on a 5 player party (not inclusive of DM), playing at the target AL Average Party Level (APL) for mods in each tier, each mod being 4 hours in length. Although there are many 2, and some 8, hour mods (to say nothing of Epics, Hardcover play, and other special modules) there simply isn't good data on them to use. CCC's are similarly excluded from the data assumptions.
The results ares as follows:
Experience and Leveling
One big change is the removal of the Experience Points (XP) in favor of a playtime/objective based Checkpoint system. In this system, for each hour of progress (hardcovers) or towards objectives based on the module's intended time (modules), characters in Checkpoints that they can use to level up.
For Tier 1 play (Levels 1-4), each level requires 4 Checkpoints to advance. For Tiers 2 (5-10), 3 (11-16), and 4 (17-20), 8 Checkpoints are needed per level. An option was also given for 'slow progression' which just means it takes twice as long to earn Checkpoints, so the character levels up half as quickly. This is done to allow people to play more content at each tier without leveling out of it.
Under the current AL system, a character would need to play, on average, 35 mods to get from level 1-20, assuming they do not spend Downtime at any point to advance one level, as is presented under the optional 'Catch-up' rule. Specifically, a character would play six Tier 1 mods, thirteen Tier 2, eleven Tier 3, and five Tier 4 to reach level 20. This would vary based on the module, as not all are set to their tiers' respective target APL, but it's pretty close.
Similarly, there will apparently be ways to both earn more or fewer than the standard amount of Checkpoints in mods under the new system, but speaking again in generalities, the new AL rules would see a character play about 34 mods to get to level 20. Broken down by tier, the average character will play four Tier 1 mods, 12 Tier 2, 12 Tier 3, and six Tier 4.
The two methods are represented graphically below.
As one can see, they are nearly identical, and certainly well within any margin of error for data like this. All in all, although the method of tracking advancement may change, there is almost 0 mechanical impact on character advancement.
Gold and Treasure
Although these two items are closely linked, both obtained as spoils of successful adventuring, I am going to split them into two separate focus areas. This is because they are both distinct in function within the game rules, and because the rules changes proposed impact them in very different ways.
The way gold is obtained is changing as well. Whereas now, gold is found on enemies, in hidden areas, the hoards of Big Bad Evil Guys (BBEG), etc..., it will be restricted to an amount found at level up. This is a significant departure from any previous version of D&D, and has generated a lot of feedback. As seen below, the change is significant.
It is worth noting that it is possible to use Treasure Points, generally used to purchase mundane and magic items, to purchase and then sell back (at half value) mundane items. This serves as a small, but proportionally large to the new system, potential maximum of about 35000 gold (gp). That, however, also assumes all Treasure Points acquired are used for this buy/sell back method, which is extremely unlikely.
In either case, the gold disparity between the two systems is enormous, and will greatly affect play styles, from the purchase of expensive spell components, to the buying of armor, or even choosing whether more gold or a magic item are what a character really needs.
This is probably the most contentious of the rule changes to the AL. Like gold, magic items are now longer found, but are instead purchased using Treasure Points. There are a certain set of items available, some evergreen, some based on the AL season, and the rest unlocked by players. Where in the past at the end of a module, the player with the lowest magic item count would receive first crack at the module's item, now they instead receive what amounts to the 'blueprints' for that item, to be purchased with Treasure Points down the road.
Next, and most controversially, is the removal of certain magic items from the AL. While this is not unprecedented for the AL, this list is now larger, and likely to increase in size. Many DM's have been pleased to see items deemed problematic in power or exploitative in nature (usually due to item trading) being removed from the game, however, many players who have such items are incensed.
The merits of that item removal decision will be discussed further on, but in the interim the focus will be on the rate of acquisition of items, seen in the graph below.
As shown, the two systems are actually pretty close. While the new system actually looks to provide a slightly higher level of magic items to characters, it does not take into account items acquired using Treasure Points acquired in addition to the standard ones. Similarly, the original system of item acquisition was very inconsistent, and the total amounts seen can vary widely from player to player, based on luck, hardcover vs module play, DM rewards, and several other factors.
In either case, the two systems, given a generous margin of error, look to be pretty close.
Comparison to the Design Intent of 5e
When looking at these two systems, it is also useful to see how they compare to the design intent of fifth edition overall. Broadly, 5e (and its default Forgotten Realms setting) is a medium-magic setting, with the primary design of the game being to be played between levels 3 and 10. This has been mentioned by WotC staff on a few occasions, who have even gone so far as to say that the game is not really balanced for higher level play, as so few players get there, and the power levels of characters make it difficult to plan around with regularly playing with them.
This is reinforced by the the way levels are designed in the game, and from data given out in the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG), Players Handbook (PHB), and Monster Manual (MM). Take, for example, the following graph of the amount of encounters needed to advance at each level:
As one can see, level 1-3 go quite quickly, whereas 4-10 take a good deal more time. Once beyond this, this game goes back to leveling up fairly quickly, until level 20 is reached. From this, we can see where the bulk of the game is intended to be played.
When we look at the rate of advancement , comparing the old AL system, new AL system, and DMG calculated encounters per tier, they come out fairly closely. Although the Tier system is, in my opinion, less than ideal, it is still functional. Later seasons of AL have also reduced the number of combat encounters from what were quite high numbers early on, and those graphs (not pictured here due to similarity) match up even better with the design intent. If anything, the AL probably has too much time spent at Tier 3, but is a moderately small deviance.
Gold is the one area where there is a significant divergence between 5e baseline design and the AL, and this applies to both the old and the new system. While the new system awards about 40% of the gold of the current AL system, both systems are dwarfed by the amounts laid out in the DMG.
As shown, by the time a character hits maximum level, they can expect to have almost three quarters of a million GP. Though not shown, the disparity is present at all tiers except Tier 1. The primary reason for this disparity is due to the treasure type known as Treasure Hoards. These are large collections of gold, items, gems, and other mundane items intended to be converted into currency.
The DMG specifies that, over the course of a campaign, characters can expect to find (hoards broken into appropriate tiers for expediency) seven Tier 1 hoards, eighteen Tier 2 hoards, twelve Tier 3 hoards, and eight Tier 4 hoards. This represents a massive amount of wealth (and a good number magic items), whereas the AL modules do not nearly approach this level of wealth.
Magic Items, like Advancement, is also fairly in line with the DMG's levels of expected magic items. Spread out across the Tiers, and even with their inclusion in Treasure Hoards, the DMG proscribed amount of Magic Items fits with the medium-magic feel of the game, overall. When accounting for the inconsistent nature of the current Magic Item distribution system, all three methods generate very close results.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Although the proposed AL system goes about things in a different way, it is, mostly, comparable to both the current AL methods, and those laid out in 5e's source books, and will probably work well, though with some tweaking.
Advancement - Tweak Checkpoints per Level
While I prefer XP (and the DMG has an oft overlooked section on awarding XP for non-combat encounters), the change in the AL is reflective of the focus on all three pillars of D&D in 5e: Combat, Exploration, and Roleplaying. Whereas AL, in particularly the first 3 or 4 seasons in 5e, was imbalanced and focused nearly exclusively on combat, the overall D&D community is driven largely by the hardcovers, and particularly by well-known streamers, who's focus on narrative is shaping countless new players to the game.
The Checkpoint System is a way of rewarding all tiers of play in a simple manner, however, it would probably be beneficial to ensure an emphasis on Tier 2, which contains the bulk of the intended play range of the system. Instead of four Checkpoints per level at Tier 1, and eight thereafter, it would be worth exploring a system of four Checkpoints per level at Tier 1, eight or ten checkpoints per level at Tier 2, and four to six checkpoints per level at Tiers 3 and 4.
Gold - Reassess What is Driving the Change, Revise Upward
There have been rumors that opulent displays of wealth by higher tier characters (i.e. buying hundred of potions for lower tier tables during epics) have led to the desire to bring gold down in the AL. While this is an understandable reaction, the proposed changes feel too far, and while both current and proposed AL systems drift quite far from the 5e design baseline, is is important to remember that Tier 3 and 4 play is not balanced in the system, and that any large changes like this are going to require a decent amount of number crunching.
I feel that reducing the overall gold available in organized play is probably fine, a reduction of 10-15%, vice the proposed 60%, is a better goal.
Magic Items - Expand the Removed Items List, Evaluate How Prevalent The AL Wants Magic Items to Be
This was an interesting topic to research. As a DM, I have long felt the AL is overflowing with powerful magic items, and this can lead to a good deal of disrupting play. With regards to magic items removed from the AL, I would encourage even more items, such as Magic Beans, the Dark Gifts from Curse of Strahd, and the Iron Flask all be removed as well.
This is difficult, as one feels sympathy for characters who legitimately earned these items. The larger problem, in my estimation, is how many of them are not obtained legitimately. As many frequent convention DM's can tell you, the overpowered and/or disrupting-due-to-trade items show up with a frequency that is beyond any reasonable probability. Having run a table with three copies of an item with a 1% chance of getting it, when rolling on the applicable table, the issue has unfortunately gotten out of hand.
I generally abhor punishing the all for the behavior of bad actors, however, in this instance the bad actors appear to outnumber the good.
In addition, although the AL systems closely mirror the DMG, I would recommend raising the prices of most magic items via treasure points. This is mainly due to the fact that, while 5e is not balanced for Tier 3 or 4 play, it is nonetheless the reality of organized play, and something that needs to be addressed as best as possible.
Thanks to anyone who suffered through reading this. For any comments, questions, follow up, etc..., find me on twitter @Navy_DM, or in the comments.