log in or register to remove this ad

 

Worlds of Design: The Benefit of Experience

This is a discussion of how one decision in game design can make so much difference in how everything works. In this case we’re talking about RPGs, specifically how experience points (XP) are awarded. What are the consequences of using one method or another (or a combination)?

xp.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” ― Rita Mae Brown, Alma Mater
When it comes to XP, there are three obvious ways to reward it:
  • For treasure collected or perhaps more broadly for money collected
  • For “monsters” killed—the tougher the monster the more XP
  • For successfully completing missions, or just for generally playing well, not for specific XP events
Each of these types of rewards are associated with an edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but they are not limited to that game alone. XP is one of the most direct ways of incentivizing players to play a certain way.

XP for Treasure

What happens when you give XP only for treasure/money collected? In my opinion, this incentivizes the characters (and players) to be money grubbers, not adventurers. Adventure doesn't matter, all that matters is getting the loot. In the “money collected” mode, they may get XP for success in business as well. They don't worry about “more worthy” objectives such as defeating evil or winning the war or whatever more worthy might be. They become sheer mercenaries. They just want to make money.

XP for treasure can be especially bad in Advanced D&D. At low levels, AD&D can encourage this form of treasure hunting. When I’m a player, I usually want to strive for something more than being a mercenary. A game gives you a chance to be better than you expect to be, to strive for lofty goals. Treasure-hunting isn’t a lofty goal.

If you use the training rules, characters have to grub for even more money than would be sufficient to raise their level via XP; they need a lot more to pay for training. If you're only looking for loot you're only going to fight things that are likely to have loot, and you're unlikely to fight things that don't have loot. Why fight something when you don't get any experience points?

Ask yourself, how often do heroes in adventure novels and movies, do it for the money? Han Solo started out trying to do it that way, but changed his mind. In Glen Cook's The Black Company the characters are mercenaries, but in the end they do things for reasons other than money. The Mandalorian is a mercenary, but finds a different calling in Baby Yoda. And so on.

As an aside: why award XP for mere treasure? Given the chanciness of whether a monster or group will have treasure, doesn’t it become something of a lottery?

XP for Kills

What about XP for kills? Just like the XP for Treasure above, this motivates adventurers toward a different goal: fighting everything. Their goal is to kill things, not to defeat evil or any other lofty goal. So once again you’ve steered the players that in my opinion is a wrong direction (see "Chaotic Neutral is the Worst").

Video gamers are accustomed to fighting everything in most AAA list games. So this method may feel comfortable to them. If you don’t get XP for kills, then you can try for strategems and sneakiness that don’t necessarily kill the “enemy” but achieve your goals in other ways. That provides more variety.

A combination of these two methods steers players away from the worst excesses, but is still not particularly heroic.

XP for Missions

What about the third alternative, XP for completing missions, or perhaps for just playing well in general? This is the way I do it. I once wrote a computer program that considered the levels of the characters and how many points each needed to rise a level, and awarded XP accordingly. But you don't need to be that complicated; just give the characters each a particular amount of experience.

Clearly there are going to be people in any adventuring party who are much more important to the success of the party, either because of the character’s capabilities or because of the player’s capabilities, and you can differentiate that (giving each player/character a grade, in effect). Or you can simply give the same amount of experience to each character.

What does this do for the game? It means people play to be successful adventurers, not money grubbers, not killers, adventurers. Isn’t the game about adventure, not about treasure hunting or killing? If you have a campaign where there are clear ultimate goals—defeating evil is the obvious one—then that's what they'll try to do.

Which to Use?

A lot depends on how you decide to award experience, whether you’re the GM or you’re the game designer. It's important to realize the consequences of these incentives because when players end up playing greedy murder-hobos, it's often at least partially due to the way the game rewards play.

Does XP method affect willingness to cooperate? If each individual is singled out, if each one gets XP according to what treasure they lay hands on, or what creatures they kill, cooperation can suffer badly. Which, in my opinion, destroys the point of RPGs: cooperation.

Your Turn: How do you award experience to player characters?
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
XP is rewarded when you defeat a monster (make it flee, outsmart it, make it surrender, etc.) And when you overcome certain challenges in my games.

Routing a monster is usually more effective than just killing it, too. The less time the monster's on the field, the more resources the party preserves. Avoiding combat gives the same exp as winning it so generally my players will try a diplomatic approach first unless they're sure they can curbstomp the enemy.
 

embee

Explorer
I do give XP for kills, with more XP for clever, tactical, or cinematic kills.

But I give more XP for roleplaying solutions that don't involve killing. And I give XP bonuses for clever solutions and for efficient use of skills and abilities.
 

"XP" for missions, although for D&D it's more about giving levels for when enough missions have occurred. I used to use the old standby of "bypassing monsters is the same as defeating them". I started in 2e and never experienced gp = XP, and that's not something I ever want to play through (except maybe for Conan, where the point is to amass loot and then spend it).

I have never been a fan of "training costs". I don't think it makes sense that a warrior who has participated in numerous battles, social intrigues, duels (including losing duels where they learned something) and so forth still has to find a higher level warrior and pay them to school them. It's like all that adventuring taught them nothing, and once you've gained enough levels you can't be trained any more.
 

I do like taking the idea of XP for gold as a starting point for how you can use XP to influence the kind of play, and even the kind of genre, at the table. When I do my wuxia campaigns (and in my wuxia games) one thing I wanted to get from a lot of the movies and books, was the importance of manuals. So I allow for bonus XP to be gained if a player finds or steals a secret manual. I also give them XP for defeating a foe who is equal to their level (the idea being it encourages folks to seek out worthy opponents).
 

Arilyn

Hero
I hate worrying about actual points, both as a player and GM. At our table, the GM will tell players when they level up based on what feels right. We tend to level up slower than the pace in modern modules, but more quickly than back in 1e days.

I have found that if players are immersed in the story, XP gets forgotten, and you don't hear the, "how much XP did we get?" question at the end of sessions. And since it's kind of a pain to track, and no one really cares about collecting it, we dropped points altogether. Works for us, so that's what we've been doing.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
In the Storytelling system I have a different way of doing it. I give everyone a point for playing and then I go around the room asking individuals why they did to deserve more XP. What did they do that was important, how did they move the story forward, did they roleplay their concept, did their character develop in anyway?

This has had two benefits, the players are incentivized to take notes, which in a mostly story and interpersonal game, is very helpful and they are incentivized to really think in character in order to get XP. Also talking out the events of the session has an effect itself. The players will put together things that maybe they did not realize while it was happening. In games with mysteries often players have little time to reflect.
 

MarkB

Legend
In the Storytelling system I have a different way of doing it. I give everyone a point for playing and then I go around the room asking individuals why they did to deserve more XP. What did they do that was important, how did they move the story forward, did they roleplay their concept, did their character develop in anyway?

This has had two benefits, the players are incentivized to take notes, which in a mostly story and interpersonal game, is very helpful and they are incentivized to really think in character in order to get XP. Also talking out the events of the session has an effect itself. The players will put together things that maybe they did not realize while it was happening. In games with mysteries often players have little time to reflect.
Blades in the Dark, and its derivatives, use a similar system. At the end of a job, you gain XP for any time you overcame an obstacle using your class's core skillset (i.e. a Lurk would gain XP for overcoming an obstacle using stealth or evasion); for any time you expressed your character's beliefs and background; and for any time you struggle with issues due to your vice or traumas - with an upper limit of twice for each of these categories.

So it encourages acting in character, and playing to your character's strengths and weaknesses.

Plus you gain immediate XP any time you take an action for which your position is considered Desperate (i.e. the consequences for failure may be extreme), thus encouraging daring play.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
I use XP for kills (including cleverly bypassing or peacefully resolving conflicts) + roleplaying + achieving objectives. In the future I may add spending GP to get XP for training as a method as well. I like having multiple ways to earn XP, and not every character advancing at the same rate.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
It depends on the campaign. Maybe some times you really do want to run a game where the PCs are just mercenaries, in which case XP for treasure would be appropriate. Or maybe you want to encourage both acquiring treasure and doing good deeds, in which case a combination of XP for treasure and XP for accomplishing certain goals might be ideal. Maybe you’re running a purely exploration focused campaign, so you give XP for new locations and secrets uncovered. Basically, whatever behavior you want to encourage the players to engage in, give XP for it.

My default for most games is XP for overcoming encounters (be it by violence, stealth, negotiation, problem solving, or any other means they can come up with) and completing objectives, both plot-based and personal. But that isn’t the most appropriate method for every campaign. It’s just my go-to assumption if I don’t have a more specific idea of what I want to incentivize.
 



Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
I like the guidelines for Cypher System -
XP for completing a character story arc - not dependent on tactical performance but on character going through a small arc - but these also could be "missions".
XP for discovering something - unknown item, major clue in a mystery, finding an unknown area.

These both push player driven goals, and keeps the focus away from endless combat or combat driven missions.
 


Saelorn

Hero
There is significant overlap between "killing monsters" and "defeating evil"; to the point that distinguishing between the two is an exercise in pedantry.

Moreover, in a system where advancement primarily measures your ability to fight, it doesn't make a lot of sense that you would get better at fighting by doing anything else.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I just have people level up when it make sense and based on the preference of the group and have for a long time. I really dislike having to track every XP point and it always kind of felt distracting to focus so much on the meta game. I care more about the story and PCs getting better at their job is just part of the story arc.

In addition, I have a very RP heavy game at times where making alliances, solving mysteries and aspects of the game other than "kill/defeat the bad guys" takes up the majority of the game. At one point I would just give XP for those activities but then I'm just handing out XP at a rate that people will level by a certain point. Now I just cut out the middle man, much easier.

Last, but not least, I want my players to feel like their PCs are accomplishing something based on story progression and story accomplishments. not because they're murder hobos. There may be times when I would not want to grant XP for killing monsters - it avoids the whole "I'm 10 xp from leveling so I go out and hunt down an orc" problem.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
There is significant overlap between "killing monsters" and "defeating evil"; to the point that distinguishing between the two is an exercise in pedantry.

Moreover, in a system where advancement primarily measures your ability to fight, it doesn't make a lot of sense that you would get better at fighting by doing anything else.

People that play professional sports don't get better because of the game they play, they get better because they spend time in practice and training. Any particular sports game is just one tiny fraction of the time spent on improving skill.
 

Stormdale

Explorer
I always perferred the 1e method as it rewarded avoiding unnecessary fights. However, I use a bit of a mixed bag approach. I give a set amount of xp each week for turning up (yep, that is it, as long as you are at the table you get xp), sometimes I might give extra xp for an especially dificult fight (using the standard combat xp instead of my standard weekly xp), and also give xp rewards for completing adventures. A base xp per week works for me, some weeks we acomplish alot but most weeks we don't and so it keeps things ticking along. I have set my xp per week charts so it takes about 5-6 weeks per level from about level 5 onwards (our sessions are 3 hours long but typicially only half that time is engaged in the game).
 

DemoMonkey

Adventurer
"People that play professional sports don't get better because of the game they play, they get better because they spend time in practice and training."

That's why it's important to also murder shopkeepers, tavern patrons, town guards, the annoying prince you were supposed to rescue, and that one particularly persistent cabbage vendor.

Practice!
 

Advertisement1

Latest threads

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top