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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?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Laurefindel

Legend
I still have to find a XP system I really like.
TL;DR: I'm still looking for a system that is fair, rewarding, not too meta, and not blatant carrot-and-stick.

On one side, experience should be rewarding, something the players and their characters earn. Ideally more than by just showing-up for the game.

On the other hand, I don't like systems whereas some players gain more XP because they are more extroverted players, are "better" at gaming the system, take more spotlight space (even if it isn't intentional), or optimize their character to make sure they always succeed at whatever that grants XP.

XP based on personal goals have the same issue; some players invariable end-up with objectives that are easier than others, and therefore their character advances faster than other characters.

I believe the solution is XP as a collective reward rather than individual, but party-based objectives can sway the roleplay and actions of the players similarly to how gp-based and combat-based XP system tend to orient play in a certain direction.

The best system would reward the party according to the challenges they faced and how they reacted to it, weighing how success or failure would contribute more or less toward growth, and whether the challenge was a learning curve for this party. It is sometimes said that "success comes with experience, but experience comes with failure". Some systems like Invisible Sun require you to pair two different resources to gain XP, so I could consider a XP system where you need to combine "success tokens" with "failure tokens" to gain XP.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
There is significant overlap between "killing monsters" and "defeating evil"; to the point that distinguishing between the two is an exercise in pedantry.
That’s far from an uncontroversial opinion.
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.
That’s fine, it doesn’t have to make sense.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
First off, experience points are something earned by the character, not the player. No meta-level xp for bringing beer, or for writing up a ten-page backstory for your PC, or for being the funniest player.

Along with this: your character continues to do what it does - including gain xp if it earns any - even though you-as-player missed that session.

Second off, the character gets xp for what it does as an individual. If for whatever reason you're not involved in whatever earned the xp you don't get any of those xp. This is to discourage 'passenger' characters, which have sometimes been a problem in the past.

Third, in my games xp can be earned in several ways. Combat (or avoidance of same) is the most common. Overcoming other obstacles e.g. traps or sticky social situations. And at the end of each adventure I give out a 'dungeon bonus' which in part replaces the xp they'd have got for treasure (which I've never done) and in part covers off all the day-to-day little things that would otherwise earn 1 xp here and 2 xp there that I haven't the patience to track and record. Advancement is (by 3e-4e-5e standards) very slow: this is intentional both to extend the campaign length and to take focus away from levelling and put it on day-to-day adventuring instead.

Fourth, you have to train into a new level and you have to pay for it. The training forces parties to take some downtime now and then and also forces them to share out their treasury (which might otherwise never get done!); and the payments act as a wealth reducer (I could eliminate the payments and just give out less treasure, but where's the fun in that; and a character can always choose not to train at cost of advancing at half-rate).
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
I like XP systems that reward the PCs for the things they do.

Mythras uses a system where the skills a PC uses are checked, then between sessions there is a chance that those checked skills will increase. Also, the lower the skill level the greater the chance that said skill gains a large increase.

Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard use similar systems of checking skills that are actually used in play and then increasing said skills. With BW the checks earned get harder to gain as skill level increases. With MG the PC must both succeed at using the skill, and fail at using the skill, before it can be increased.

I also enjoy milestone XP systems where the player defines personal goals for the PC. Whenever the PC accomplishes their personal goal they receive XP. This method in particular is good because it drives the narrative in specific directions as the players are keen to have their PCs meet said milestones.
 

Minigiant

Legend
We sitting in here -- I'm supposed to be the hero of the realm, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a fight. Not a fight. Not a fight. We talking about practice. Not a fight. Not the fight that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last. Not the fight. We talking about practice, man.
 

MarkB

Legend
I kind-of like the XP system in Apocalypse World and the similar PBtA systems, where there are three potential outcomes to a check - full success, partial succes, and failure - and if you roll a failure, you earn an XP.

I like it partially because the concept of learning from your mistakes is pretty neat, and partially because it means you always get something out of taking an action, even if it's only XP.

Where it can break down is that I've seen some players basically just trying loads of actions in low-risk situations even if they're things their character is bad at, just for the chance to earn 'free' XP. This tends to take up a lot of time at the table for what amount more to wacky hi-jinks than actual role-play, and also tends to leave the less extroverted or proactive players lagging behind XP-wise.
 
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Laurefindel

Legend
I like XP systems that reward the PCs for the things they do.

(...)

I also enjoy milestone XP systems where the player defines personal goals for the PC. Whenever the PC accomplishes their personal goal they receive XP. This method in particular is good because it drives the narrative in specific directions as the players are keen to have their PCs meet said milestones.
My experience with XP for characters' personal goals is that it's very unequal. It works great in theory, but it hasn't work so well in practice for me.

Some players work really hard to accomplish their character's goal and get nothing until it finally gets resolved, while other players are scoring goal after goal because they have less lofty ambitions. Or else the adventure takes you in a direction that makes your goal extremely hard to complete, while making it very easy for another player.

Then there are players who, naturally, have a more charismatic or leading personality and steer the game in the direction of their own objective, or that of their close buddy's. That can be an issue around the table even when there are no XP involved, but it can be crippling for some players in games where these are the main source of XP.

In other words, character-driven objective rewards extrovert or strong player, leaving the shyer players in the back both in spotlight and abilities. Most of the time it's not even intentional; the shy player may even appreciate the extrovert player's roleplay. A good DM can correct the course as it goes, and "good" players will help each other out to keep thing relatively leveled, but not all groups have that level of experience and camaraderie.

Recently, I've been leaning on group XP for collective and personal goals (among other things), so that the quiet guy will benefit from the big-mouth guy who gets it all otherwise, and the big-mouth gal will benefit from helping the shy gal's character complete her story.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I kind-of like the XP system in Apocalypse World and the similar PBtA systems, where there are three potential outcomes to a check - full success, partial succes, and failure - and if you roll a failure, you earn an XP.

I like it partially because the concept of learning from your mistakes is pretty neat, and partially because it means you always get something out of taking an action, even if it's only XP.
It leads, however, to an utterly counterintuitive result: those characters in the fiction who are more successful ultimately end up with fewer skills and abilities in said fiction (due to being lower level) than do less-successful characters.
 

I like it partially because the concept of learning from your mistakes is pretty neat, and partially because it means you always get something out of taking an action, even if it's only XP.
Between success and XP, one of those things is a temporary in-the-moment benefit, while the other is an enduring part of the character. In almost every case, failure is the preferable outcome. Talk about a perverse incentive.
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
Recently, I've been leaning on group XP for collective and personal goals (among other things), so that the quiet guy will benefit from the big-mouth guy who gets it all otherwise, and the big-mouth gal will benefit from helping the shy gal's character complete her story.
I like this idea! The whole group gets XP whenever any PC completes a milestone. Like you said, this allows more active players to get XP for the whole group, and prevents the less active players from falling behind. Great idea, this random peep on the interwebz fully approves and endorses this! Also, consider it stolen!
 

pemerton

Legend
Different approaches to PC improvement and development can produce different play experiences.

A stark example: Classic Traveller has almost no improvement of PC stats or skills - "improvement" is primarily via the acquisition of equipment - and this is a pretty noticeable feature of the play experience.

A different example: in Marvel Heroic RP, and Cortex+ Heroic hacks derived from it, XP is earned by reaching character-specific milestones (eg for Captain America this might be forming or disbanding a team of heroes, and other actions connected to that like giving commands to felllow team-members). XP can be spent on mechanical improvement, but also on change: eg in our MHRP game Nightcrawler's player spent XP to change a character Distinction (a bit like an Aspect in Fate) to make Nightcrawler less nice, and also to "lock in" a new ability based on using an energy sword taken from a defeated NPC; in our fantasy games players have spent XP to change their Affiliations (eg becoming better at working with a group than working solo).

Both this way of earning XP, and these ways of spending it, sever the connection between XP as "victory points" and accruing XP as equating straightforwardly to mechanical improvement.

Even within a given improvement/reward system, the play experience can be different. When I GM Burning Wheel, one of the players is super-focused on making choices in action declaration that will generate the checks needed to improve stats or skills. When that same player GMs and I am playing, I am much less focused on this (and frankly also not as good at it). The result is that my PC has advanced less slowly than his, but given that the main focus of play is not PC improvement but what is happening to the PC in the fiction, that isn't a problem.
 

Richards

Legend
In my current 3.5 campaign (currently on COVID hold), I'm experimenting with not tracking XP at all. instead, I just decided I'll have the PCs remain at each level for 5 adventures, then level up. So there will 100 adventures in this campaign, five each for levels 1-20. So far, we only got to the third adventure before we went on hiatus.

Johnathan
 

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?
Hard disagree with most of this. For reasons better explained by some sixteen years of OSR theorizing than by me. Suffice it to say: you can't assume that all money is treasure, you can't assume that lofty goals are inherently good for tabletop fantasy campaigns (it's often the opposite in my experience), and you can't assume that the intended genre of early D&D is good-vs.-evil epic fantasy (when picaresque sword & sorcery functions so much better without fighting the system).

XP for treasure doesn't incentivize "money grubbing," it incentivizes exploration of the setting (searching for treasure) and avoidance of combat (the goal is gold, not blood). It has the unique advantage of being an associated mechanic tied concretely to the fiction (the number of XPs you earn equals the number of gold pieces you retrieve, a number that exists diegetically; the reward for successful play is objective and measurable, minimizing the need for the DM to make ad hoc rulings which can often be problematic or favor hammy role-players over shy participants). And the search for treasure is a lottery, because the underlying assumption of old D&D is a fantasy world with verisimilitude—the treasure is wherever the treasure is, and it's up to the PCs to find it, because nothing magically moves into the PCs' path for the sole reason that they're the PCs.
 
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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
My current D&D 5e game is XP for GP. I like how it allows for more varied approaches to problems, it easy to award and track, and you have to worry less about encounter balance, because combat is not a given.

When I ran Curse of Strahd, I used an alternate milestone approach from a PDF I bought on DTRPG. The party earned 1-3 points per milestone, depending on the difficulty. Milestones were awarded for three main categories: defeating important NPCs, exploring/discovering new areas, and acquiring important MacGuffings. The party leveled together and the number of points necessary to level the party depended on party size. It worked very well, but it more work for the GM if you were to develop a set of milestones like this from scratch.

I am REALLY liking the "scene" based character progression option in Cortex Prime. Every scene is logged on your character sheet. You can then used a callback to that scene to add to your dice pool where your prior experience may help your current test. Or you can exchange one or more scenes for permanent improvements to your character. When you do that, you can't use the scene for callbacks anymore, because that experience is now "baked into" your characters skills/abilities/traits. It is a very elegant system that is easy to manage and plan for as a GM. It don't think I would use it in a D&D game though, because character progression works very differently in D&D's class-based system.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Where it can break down is that I've seen some players basically just trying loads of actions in low-risk situations even if they're things their character is bad at, just for the chance to earn 'free' XP. This tends to take up a lot of time at the table for what amount more to wacky hi-jinks than actual role-play, and also tends to leave the less extroverted or proactive players lagging behind XP-wise.
The easy solution is that the GM calls for the check. If the PCs are trying low risk actions, then they don't roll.

It leads, however, to an utterly counterintuitive result: those characters in the fiction who are more successful ultimately end up with fewer skills and abilities in said fiction (due to being lower level) than do less-successful characters.
How about letting the people who have actually experience running, playing, or even reading Dungeon World speak about it before prattling what the inevitable results are?
 



Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Fundamentally this goes back to what do XP and leveling accomplish? What's the goal and what role do they play in the game.

For me, the reason to have levels is so that as a DM I can tell different aspects of the story. Low level they're fighting giant spiders and street thugs, high levels they're still fighting giant spiders (because who doesn't like spiders?) but they're demonic spiders the size of a house. Oh, and they may be fighting ancient dragons and the like. It also gives a lot of people a sense of accomplishment and growth. How awesome is it when you can finally cast fireball or blade barrier?

Granting XP? I guess you can use it to reward and encourage specific behavior. But for me? I don't want to do that - I want people to do what they think their PC would do. The options and the challenges I put out for them should be their own reward. I run a very sandbox-style game, I don't need nor do I want to have some meta-game influence to tell my players what they "should" do. If they storm the castle, it should be because storming the castle makes sense, not because the castle has a lot of bad guys to kill and loads loot.

Another thing I hear is a sense of accomplishment. But again, I want that sense of accomplishment to come from achieving goals in the game. Saving the hamlet from the invading horde should be it's own reward.

Of course, the beauty of D&D is that it can morph to fit many different styles of play, everything from heavy RP with combat as a last option to dungeon crawl murder hobos gaining XP from loot is all good.
 

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