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D&D General An alternative to XP

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Well, the benefits of XP, which I would argue are not obvious (or, to be more precise, not apparent - they’re easy enough to understand theoretically, harder to directly observe their impact on the experience) are that it provides a highly effective incentive structure, and that it gives players a clear indicator of progress towards advancement, which is deeply viscerally satisfying. The former is I think more obvious but also more controversial - I’ve seen people say “I don’t want to incentivize the players towards or away from anything in particular,” and while I that viewpoint is very strange to me, it’s a perfectly legitimate preference to have. The latter benefit I think is far less apparent, but also far more impactful. You may not notice much direct benefit from the progress bar effect, but your brain will.

As for the drawbacks, they’re quite apparent. Math and bookkeeping, the DM has to do math to work out XP awards, and the players have to keep track of the numbers. Both things people don’t love doing. But, in my opinion, both are pretty minor inconveniences despite being very apparent, and well worth it for the benefits mentioned above.
Thank you for elaborating. I have not given much thought to using XP in D&D for years, so I wasn't sure what I was missing. And now, I have given it some thought.

While I agree it is a matter of legitimate personal preference, your language strongly suggests your own bias as factual without any evidence to support it. I don't think can categorically claim it to be "highly effective" in all cases, unless you assume that every player shares the same goal as everyone else. Likewise, a "deeply visceral satisfaction" assumes that all players of D&D focus on one thing. I am sure someone will take exception to that.

What I have found, in my personal experience, is quite the opposite. Some players would feel validated only when they were rewarded with XP. And if they didn't get it, they were slighted because they believed they were owed for something they did. And eventually, they expected XP for everything. It was part of the grind counting down to the next level, only to start working towards the next one.

Without XP, players focus more on what was going on and less about what they could get for it. And they care about what happens to other characters, knowing that individual successes contributed to the whole group more than just the individual. If they know their levels are coming when the time is right, there is no longer a rush to get to it. That's a burden off everybody's plate, especially for those who might enjoy the game for different reasons.

Point is different players play for different reasons. I have sat with players who wanted to force everyone into a fight or do something unnecessary because their only goal was XP. It's very annoying, very frustrating, and kinda rude.

If XP is why you play, however, that's fine. But don't expect everyone else to share your view, or like it. Because it is just one perspective. Taking XP off the table might allow some players to find more deeply substantial rewards for playing.
 

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Rabulias

the Incomparably Shrewd and Clever
That's... an odd way to claim that D&D levels are just like other games because levels increase things and you also increase things in other games. This feels a lot like telephones poles are tall, men are also tall, so men are telephone poles style logic.
Not at all what I am saying, though I will admit it is a narrow, technical nitpick about definition and categorization of terms.

Building on your analogy somewhat, some games measure a character's "height" (i.e., capabilities) in millimeters, some in inches, and some in feet. All RPGs are a simulation/abstraction in this respect -- generally people do not improve in discrete steps that change in the time it takes to update the character sheet.

Real life improvement is a curve, IMO, and games are using the rectangles approximating that area; close, but not exact. The more rectangles you use, the closer you get to the curve (and to calculus! ;) ). D&D uses big rectangles.

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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Sounds like you are describing milestone leveling, a common practice. I've been doing it for years.

Though it does bring to light games like 13th Age (a d20 that came out a bit before 5e). It did away with XP all together. But the did introduce Incremental Advances - so you would have something more granular than a whole level to gain, basically getting "advances" on your next level.

 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Not at all what I am saying, though I will admit it is a narrow, technical nitpick about definition and categorization of terms.

Building on your analogy somewhat, some games measure a character's "height" (i.e., capabilities) in millimeters, some in inches, and some in feet. All RPGs are a simulation/abstraction in this respect -- generally people do not improve in discrete steps that change in the time it takes to update the character sheet.

Real life improvement is a curve, IMO, and games are using the rectangles approximating that area; close, but not exact. The more rectangles you use, the closer you get to the curve (and to calculus! ;) ). D&D uses big rectangles.

View attachment 152469
Calculus still can't make telephone poles men, though. Your claim is saying that a big rectangle system is modelling the same thing as a small rectangle system just with less accuracy -- but that isn't borne out by actual play in these different systems -- you aren't replicating the big D&D level jumps with more numerous smaller ones. You get rather different things and different models of characters. Leveled systems are fixed -- you will go through this trajectory with these outcomes and with these jumps in power. Systems that do this with more resolution don't create the same effects at all. So, no, even with calculus men are not telephone poles or vice versa.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I do, I incentivize everything by removing XP entirely.
No, you incentivize whatever it is you hand out levels for. Just because you removed the progress bar doesn’t mean you removed the incentive it marked progress towards, which is character advancement. You might as well be using XP and just giving exactly enough to level up whenever you decide to.
It reduces the paths forward for the players. They focus on what gives XP and minimize what doesn't.
This doesn’t stop being the case just because the players don’t have a visible indicator of progress towards leveling up. If you give out levels, players will try to minimize whatever you don’t give levels for and maximize whatever you do give levels for. I don’t want to make assumptions about your game, but in my experience most DMs who use “milestone leveling” either give levels for story progress or number of sessions, which will incentivize following the plot or showing up for every session, respectively.
It just so happens that what doesn't can squeeze into the grand canyon in D&D XP through the editions.
The DM can give XP for whatever they want, and always has been able to do so.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Thank you for elaborating. I have not given much thought to using XP in D&D for years, so I wasn't sure what I was missing. And now, I have given it some thought.

While I agree it is a matter of legitimate personal preference, your language strongly suggests your own bias as factual without any evidence to support it.
I don’t mean to suggest that using XP is factually superior. It is, however, factually true that human brains absolutely love watching progress bars fill up.
I don't think can categorically claim it to be "highly effective" in all cases, unless you assume that every player shares the same goal as everyone else. Likewise, a "deeply visceral satisfaction" assumes that all players of D&D focus on one thing. I am sure someone will take exception to that.
I think you misunderstand. What I’m saying is deeply viscerally satisfying is seeing a visual indicator of progression advance as a result of your actions. That’s just a fact of human psychology and has nothing to do with what part of D&D anyone focuses on.
What I have found, in my personal experience, is quite the opposite. Some players would feel validated only when they were rewarded with XP. And if they didn't get it, they were slighted because they believed they were owed for something they did. And eventually, they expected XP for everything. It was part of the grind counting down to the next level, only to start working towards the next one.
What you’re describing actually supports my position. These players found the progress bar effect so deeply, viscerally satisfying that in comparison, nothing else about the game even mattered. They needed to make that bar fill up so badly, it became the soul focus of play for them. Now, that’s a perfectly legitimate reason not to want to use XP, but it’s not a counter-example of the satisfaction that XP delivers.
Without XP, players focus more on what was going on and less about what they could get for it. And they care about what happens to other characters, knowing that individual successes contributed to the whole group more than just the individual. If they know their levels are coming when the time is right, there is no longer a rush to get to it. That's a burden off everybody's plate, especially for those who might enjoy the game for different reasons.
Sure, and that’s a legitimate preference.
Point is different players play for different reasons. I have sat with players who wanted to force everyone into a fight or do something unnecessary because their only goal was XP. It's very annoying, very frustrating, and kinda rude.
Well, if a player is being rude to the other players, trying to force them into situations they don’t want to be in, that’s a player behavior problem, not a rules problem. It is, however, indicative of the potential power of XP as incentive. If you give XP for fights, then yes, players are likely to try and get into fights. For some campaigns, that may be a desirable thing. For others, there might be something better to give XP for. Gold acquired, quests completed, conflicts resolved peacefully, areas of the map explored, or any combination of those things. Or whatever else you want the players to pursue. Heck, you could give XP for reaching story milestones, which is just story-based advancement with more granularity and more visibility to the progress being made (and also the thing the DMG actually describes as “milestone XP”)
If XP is why you play, however, that's fine. But don't expect everyone else to share your view, or like it. Because it is just one perspective.
XP isn’t “why I play,” I just recognize it as a powerful game-design tool.
Taking XP off the table might allow some players to find more deeply substantial rewards for playing.
Sure, and if so, enjoy.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
To me the clearest and greatest benefit of (individual) xp is that the characters who do the most (and-or take the greatest risks) earn the most and thus advance a bit quicker than the characters who don't do as much and thus don't earn as much. This one thing alone is why I'll keep using xp as long as I'm DMing.
This is certainly a major benefit of XP within the context of an open-table game, or any other game where you don’t just follow the exploits of one consistent group of characters, but rather have characters pop in and out from session to session. It’s a very cool way of playing, but I think no longer the way the game is most typically played. In the typical modern style, it’s rare that members of the party would ever have different amounts of XP anyway, so this benefit isn’t really relevant in that context.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I find counting encounters more helpful for the tone of my campaign and its adaptability to players preferences. What counts as an encounter is normally obvious. And neutral, as it might be a noncombat encounter or a combat encounter. Whether the challenge turned out to be easy or hard is also fairly obvious. Indeed the players themselves know how difficult it was. Difficulty is a neutral metric, whether noncombat or combat.

Even for a combat encounter, counting encounters is more helpful than xp. For example, hostiles might flee, thus ending the encounter. The encounter evaluates according to how much effort it took to get them to run. Then a decision to chase after them counts as a separate encounter. Similarly, if the party captures the hostiles alive, there might be several encounters before handing the hostiles over to authorities.

Counting encounters is more open to diverse scenarios and players choices.
I don’t think any of the things you listed here as benefits of counting encounters can’t also be said of XP. Or, rather, I don’t think these are benefits of either reward system, they’re benefits of deciding what reward to give after the encounter is over instead of deciding in advance when designing it. There’s no reason you couldn’t do that with XP, and using XP only provides more granularity of how much to award after the fact.
My difficulty with xp is it incentivizes lethal combat.
Only if lethal combat is what you award XP for.
DMs can and do give xp for noncombat challenges. However the xp for combat is carefully micromanaged according to killing hostiles. In contrast, xp for noncombat feels more arbitrary and loosey-goosey to quantify. Combat is more reliable.
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CR is a notoriously loosey-goosey system. The dirty little secret is, combat XP is just as arbitrary as non-combat XP. Sure, there’s a bit of math that allows you to more reliably eyeball how likely a combat encounter is to kill the PCs, but eyeballing is really all it is. And most DMs I hear from ignore CR anyway. If you trust yourself as a DM to eyeball combat encounter difficulty, why not trust yourself enough to eyeball non-combat encounter difficulty?
Noncombat feels less "real" in relation to combat xp. All of this situation incentivizes combat, in the eyes of the players, and in the eyes of the DM. For example, I have never seen a DM award more xp for noncombat than for combat. Even if the noncombat challenge is far more difficult than the combat challenge, the DM routinely undervalues noncombat, because combat so tightly defines xp, and noncombat is so different.
That feeling of “realness” is purely illusory. You’re right that most DMs undervalue non-combat challenges, but I think trying not to do that is a much more direct solution to that issue than not using XP.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Except things never worked like that, at least not IME:

  • No one had a stable of PCs to choose from because of some strange training downtime issue. Yes, multiple PCs were common, but came and went due to story reasons and player interest.
Mid-adventure training has caused the generation of numerous replacement characters in my game.
Also, I don't know where some of the assumptions you have came from... "such as and since game weeks were expected to pass 1:1 with real weeks between sessions..."
That is straight out of the 1e DMG. Not its finest advice, but it is in there.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This is certainly a major benefit of XP within the context of an open-table game, or any other game where you don’t just follow the exploits of one consistent group of characters, but rather have characters pop in and out from session to session. It’s a very cool way of playing, but I think no longer the way the game is most typically played. In the typical modern style, it’s rare that members of the party would ever have different amounts of XP anyway, so this benefit isn’t really relevant in that context.
Even in tight-knit continuing parties or single-party games there'll frequently be times when one or more characters get xp while one or more others don't. A thief or ranger, for example, would get xp for taking the risks involved in scouting ahead alone but nobody else would as nobody else did the scouting. A PC who happens to sleep through a combat* wouldn't get any xp for it. And so on; boiling down to if you aren't involved in doing something you don't get xp for it.

* - yes, this happens more often than one might expect; particularly if the combat is short and-or can be easily dealt with just by those PCs on watch.
 

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