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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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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?
Then tell me: how is it not counterintuitive that the character who actually achieves the most in the game gets the least xp reward, while the character who achieves the least in the game gets the most xp.

Put another way, how does - and how can - "I'm the [highest-level]* character because I failed the most" make any sense at all either in the fiction or at the table?

The xp-on-failure idea certainly incentivizes doing or trying something as opposed to doing or trying nothing, which really is excellent. The counterintuitive part is the lack of xp-on-success, even if it's the same amount as on fail.

* - replace with whatever in-fiction term you like that means 'most skilled' or 'best trained' or 'most able' or 'highest ranked' or etc. :)
 

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From an armchair perspective, I like experience systems where you start out as a competent character, and you frequently get to change details about your character to adjust to your experiences, but only rarely get to actually improve your character. Star Trek Adventures uses a system like this.

After almost every adventure, you get a "Normal Milestone". You can either bank it and later cash it in for a point of Determination (hero point of sorts) if you can point to how your experiences in this adventure would help you with something in that one, or you can use it to modify a Value into something related, move a point from one skill to another, or change a Focus (specialization). You can also use one of those changes on an NPC.

Every so often, the GM awards a "Spotlight Milestone" if a PC was particularly prominent during the adventure. This goes to a particular player, who gets the above benefits as well as being able to move a point from one Attribute to another, change a Talent (special ability) for another Talent, move a point from one of the ship's Systems or Departments to another one in the same category, or change one of the ship's Talents for another. The book suggests that you hand out one Spotlight Milestone per 2-3 adventures, so in a group of 5 players you'll be getting one of these every 10-15 adventures.

Once a PC has received two Spotlight Milestones, the next one they get will be an Arc milestone. These get you the benefits of a Spotlight milestone, which in turn include the benefits of a Normal milestone. In addition, you get to flat-out increase one of your Attributes or Skills, or add a Focus, Value, or Talent. You can also do one of those things to your ship or an NPC. After that, you need three Spotlights to get another Arc, then four, and so on.

The effect is that people advance really slowly, which matches the source material. The characters at the end of TNG are not necessarily more competent than at the start, but they are different.
 


pemerton

Legend
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.

<snip>

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.
This is how levels and XP work in 4e D&D. They are essentially a pacing device: engaging with encounters (combat or skill challenges), engaging in meaningful "roleplaying" (as per the DMG2) and achieving quests - all of which essentially amount to playing the game - accrue XP. The rate is roughly one level-appropriate creature's worth per 15 minutes of play.

4e takes it further by incorporating treasure into the same process - 10 treasure parcels per level equates to something like 1 parcel per 10 minutes of play. So treasure is not a "reward" in any real sense, but is also an aspect of PC growth.

The sense of growth is therefore the automatic outcome of play; the sense of accomplishment comes from actually achieving things in the fiction.

This is very, very different from classic D&D/AD&D - in which XP is a reward: there is no guarantee that XP will be accrued simply via play (it is possible, for poor or unlucky players, to play a whole session and recover almost no treasure!), and without that XP the character won't grow.

Personally I prefer the 4e approach. I also think it is good for a game to state clearly how its reward/PC improvement system is meant to work, so I know what I'm getting into when I play the game.
 

pemerton

Legend
Then tell me: how is it not counterintuitive that the character who actually achieves the most in the game gets the least xp reward, while the character who achieves the least in the game gets the most xp.

Put another way, how does - and how can - "I'm the [highest-level]* character because I failed the most" make any sense at all either in the fiction or at the table?

The xp-on-failure idea certainly incentivizes doing or trying something as opposed to doing or trying nothing, which really is excellent. The counterintuitive part is the lack of xp-on-success, even if it's the same amount as on fail.

* - replace with whatever in-fiction term you like that means 'most skilled' or 'best trained' or 'most able' or 'highest ranked' or etc. :)
What system are you discussing?

In Apocalypse World, here are the ways of earning experience (p 179):

A player marks experience when:​
• She rolls a highlighted stat.​
• Her Hx with someone resets from Hx+4 to Hx+1 or from Hx-4 to Hx-1.​
• A move tells her to. One of her own, someone else’s, or a custom move.​

"Hx" is the "relationship" stat between PCs - it can change at the end of each session.

Each PC has two "highlighted stats" (out of the five of Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp and Weird). These are determined initially as part of PC gen, and can change up to once per session.

The most common move that allows marking experience is seduce or manipulate:

When you try to seduce or manipulate someone, tell them what you want and roll+hot.​
For PCs: on a 10+, both. On a 7–9, choose 1:​
• if they do it, they mark experience​
• if they refuse, it’s acting under fire​
What they do then is up to them.​

"Acting under fire" is a mechanical state of affairs - it requires a check which, depending on the degree of success or failure, gives the GM licence to introduce additional adverse complications into the situation.

Here's Dungeon World on accruing XP (pp 30, 32, 78):

As you play Dungeon World, you’ll be doing three things most of all: exploring, fighting dangerous foes, and gathering treasure. For each of these things you’ll be rewarded XP at the end of the session. Acting according to your alignment and fulfilling the conditions of your alignment moves will grant you XP at the end of each session as well. If you resolve a bond and create a new one, you’ll gain XP, too. Any time you roll a 6- you get XP right away.​
Some moves may also tell you to “mark XP,” which means add one XP to your total. . . .​
Each bond is a simple statement that relates your character to another player character. . . . At the end of each session you may resolve one bond. . . . A bond is resolved when it no longer describes how you relate to that person.​
Resolution of a bond depends on both you and the player of the character you share the bond with: you suggest that the bond has been resolved and, if they agree, it is. When you resolve a bond, you get to mark XP. . . .​
Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment. If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP. Then answer these three questions as a group:​
• Did we learn something new and important about the world?​
• Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?​
• Did we loot a memorable treasure?​
For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP.​

In both Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, a result of 6- means that the player didn't get what s/he wanted for his her PC: the GM "get<s> to make a move . . . as hard and direct a move as you like" (AW p 190); "6 or lower is trouble . . . Most moves won’t say what happens on a 6-, that’s up to the GM" (DW p 19).

There's no particular correlation between rolling 6- and "achieving the least" or "I failed the most". These systems aren't variants on AD&D or RuneQuest.

But they're not variants on 4e either. Experience is a genuine reward in these games, and the promise of it serves as motivation - in particular to engage the action resolution framework, and to engage with relationships with other PCs. In DW it also motivates the more exploratory elements of play.

It's more than just a pacing mechanism.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
This is how levels and XP work in 4e D&D. They are essentially a pacing device: engaging with encounters (combat or skill challenges), engaging in meaningful "roleplaying" (as per the DMG2) and achieving quests - all of which essentially amount to playing the game - accrue XP. The rate is roughly one level-appropriate creature's worth per 15 minutes of play.

4e takes it further by incorporating treasure into the same process - 10 treasure parcels per level equates to something like 1 parcel per 10 minutes of play. So treasure is not a "reward" in any real sense, but is also an aspect of PC growth.

The sense of growth is therefore the automatic outcome of play; the sense of accomplishment comes from actually achieving things in the fiction.

This is very, very different from classic D&D/AD&D - in which XP is a reward: there is no guarantee that XP will be accrued simply via play (it is possible, for poor or unlucky players, to play a whole session and recover almost no treasure!), and without that XP the character won't grow.

Personally I prefer the 4e approach. I also think it is good for a game to state clearly how its reward/PC improvement system is meant to work, so I know what I'm getting into when I play the game.

Yeah, I've been doing it since 3E guess I was just ahead of the times. :)
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
As a DM, I take a different tact then any of these. They treat XP as a reward.

XP is a pacing mechanism.

It's a measure of both the level of threat they can face and overcome, and a proxy / second order effect for the scale of threat - how large is the theater of the threat. The Tier descriptions early in the PHB gives one breakdown of the scale of threats to overcome.

So as the pacing of the game (which is impacted by player actions) advances, and the scope of the threats they need to address (aslo by player actions) increases, level will advance.

Mind you, pacing is still there - just because the players choose to go against the Evil Empire(tm) at low level doesn't mean they will get warped ahead. As a pacing mechanism their early challenges will be more limited in scope, building.

Note though that players who just want to keep killing orcs and hobgoblins, never wanting to push scope, will level up slowly. All of that grinding isn't giving you XP to level up.

Last campaign I started, I told them that I planned to level up to 3rd quickly and 5th with some rapidity - and the campaign started with them all trusted agents of the empire working semi autonomously. Scale and scope were set to rush out of the "local threat" zone very quickly, and they needed to be prepared. Those needed to go hand-in-hand. This dovetailed well with the player interests in not playing low level characters for long. (But we have some players in that group who do better with their characters if they play them from 1st.)
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
What system are you discussing?
Dungeon World.
Here's Dungeon World on accruing XP (pp 30, 32, 78):

As you play Dungeon World, you’ll be doing three things most of all: exploring, fighting dangerous foes, and gathering treasure. For each of these things you’ll be rewarded XP at the end of the session. Acting according to your alignment and fulfilling the conditions of your alignment moves will grant you XP at the end of each session as well. If you resolve a bond and create a new one, you’ll gain XP, too. Any time you roll a 6- you get XP right away.​
Some moves may also tell you to “mark XP,” which means add one XP to your total. . . .​
Each bond is a simple statement that relates your character to another player character. . . . At the end of each session you may resolve one bond. . . . A bond is resolved when it no longer describes how you relate to that person.​
Resolution of a bond depends on both you and the player of the character you share the bond with: you suggest that the bond has been resolved and, if they agree, it is. When you resolve a bond, you get to mark XP. . . .​
Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment. If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP. Then answer these three questions as a group:​
• Did we learn something new and important about the world?​
• Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?​
• Did we loot a memorable treasure?​
For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP.​
OK, that all makes far more sense than the way it was written upthread, where it appeared the only way to earn xp was to roll a failure. Thanks!
In both Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, a result of 6- means that the player didn't get what s/he wanted for his her PC: the GM "get<s> to make a move . . . as hard and direct a move as you like" (AW p 190); "6 or lower is trouble . . . Most moves won’t say what happens on a 6-, that’s up to the GM" (DW p 19).

There's no particular correlation between rolling 6- and "achieving the least" or "I failed the most". These systems aren't variants on AD&D or RuneQuest.

But they're not variants on 4e either. Experience is a genuine reward in these games, and the promise of it serves as motivation - in particular to engage the action resolution framework, and to engage with relationships with other PCs. In DW it also motivates the more exploratory elements of play.

It's more than just a pacing mechanism.
The pacing part comes in if-when the GM decides via houserule to raise or lower the amount of xp required to bump or to gain new skills/abilities, I suppose.

I do like that this tends to promote player engagement and proactivity (and conversely, punishes inactive or 'passenger' players). The philosophy "It's better to try and fail than to not try at all" holds a lot of water here. I'm now sitting here wondering, in a high-level sort of way, how to incorporate something like this into a D&D-based framework without having to keep meticulous records as to who did what for every little thing, as I know for me that wouldn't last five minutes given my often woeful note-taking during play. :)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Personally I've reached the point where one degree of milestone based advancement seems more desirable than any particular advancement designed to produce a particular behavior.
The thing is, with some players any sort of milestone or group advancement model very much does promote/produce/reward a particular behaviour; that being to have one's PC hang back and take as little risk as possible while leaving it up to others to take such risks as need to be taken.

Put another way, it actively discourages engagement with the action resolution framework (to borrow @pemerton 's term); because engagement with that framework almost always implies some degree of risk to the PC (or its interests), and why take that risk if in the end you're going to get the same xp anyway?
 

Then tell me: how is it not counterintuitive that the character who actually achieves the most in the game gets the least xp reward, while the character who achieves the least in the game gets the most xp.

Put another way, how does - and how can - "I'm the [highest-level]* character because I failed the most" make any sense at all either in the fiction or at the table?

The xp-on-failure idea certainly incentivizes doing or trying something as opposed to doing or trying nothing, which really is excellent. The counterintuitive part is the lack of xp-on-success, even if it's the same amount as on fail.

* - replace with whatever in-fiction term you like that means 'most skilled' or 'best trained' or 'most able' or 'highest ranked' or etc. :)
Pemerton went over some Dungeon World-specific ways why it doesn't work quite like that, but I'd like to add a more meta perspective.

If you succeed at something, that means it was a thing you were able to do. If you fail, that means it was something you could not do. You don't learn as much from doing things you already know as you learn from trying and failing.

This is similar to the experience mechanic from various BRP-based games, where using a skill gets you an experience checkmark, and after the adventure/session you need to roll a failure on that skill in order to increase it. The difference is that the failure is front-loaded to the actual use of the skill.

I think Burning Wheel has a similar mechanic, except tied to difficulty in a way that essentially ensures failure unless you spend some flavor of hero points (e.g. if your skill is 5, you need to attempt something which requires you to roll 6 or more successes, each being 4+ on a number of d6:es equal to your skill - the exact numbers are probably wrong, but something like that)
 

The thing is, with some players any sort of milestone or group advancement model very much does promote/produce/reward a particular behaviour; that being to have one's PC hang back and take as little risk as possible while leaving it up to others to take such risks as need to be taken.

Put another way, it actively discourages engagement with the action resolution framework (to borrow @pemerton 's term); because engagement with that framework almost always implies some degree of risk to the PC (or its interests), and why take that risk if in the end you're going to get the same xp anyway?

That's only true in games where engaging with the action framework isn't a big part of the interest in the game in the first place. In other words, if you're not there to engage with the framework, why does the XP matter? All its going to mostly do is give you better abilities to engage with that.

(This can be not true in games that aren't combat focused, but then, in those games avoiding combat is a virtue for everyone).
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
No XPs since 3e. DMs use CR to gage difficulty. Since player don't spend XPs to raise their character's abilities and talents is it an obsolete rule. Awarding XPs for good role-play breeds competition for the spotlight and resentment. There is always someone who feels undervalued or cheated.

I tell the players beforehand how many sessions it will take to level up, for each level. Players just have to engage with each other, the npcs and the story. Since you learn as much (sometimes more) from failure than success it works just fine. No need to be granular by using XPs.
 
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MonkeyWrench

Explorer
I go with XP for treasure taken from the adventure location not just any money earned by a character. It encourages exploration and discourages pointless combat. The treasure can be anything that has some gp value - works of art, magic items, spellbooks, lost relics, sensitive information, etc - the caveat is that the party, who each receive a share of the xp, must find the treasure through adventuring and not financial investments or whatever.

I will also award ad-hoc XP for players accomplishing goals they set for themselves, but the main source is xp for gp.

I haven't had a problem with murder-hobos or mercenary attitudes because the players choose not to create mercenaries or murder-hobos unless that's what they want to play.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think Burning Wheel has a similar mechanic
There are some complexities I'll ignore, but the basic idea is that you have to attempt (not succeed at) tests against an ability at multiple levels of difficulty.

I think this is very clever design, because it means that players have an incentive not to always use their best numbers. Because they need high-difficult checks to help their PC advancement. This means that the game can be more relaxed about when bonuses are available, rather than having to police those very closely to avoid abuse.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
Talk to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Mercenary wretches and adventurers. One advantage of treasure as XP in original D&D and 1E, 2E is it's easily quantified. If deadlier monsters guard more treasure (generally true in D&D / AD&D) it's also a measure of the difficulty in overcoming your adversary. If you do away with it you have to adjust other avenues for gaining experience. 3E went for overcoming monsters, not just killing them. That works. Still, you needed GP to fill out the required "Christmas tree" of magical gear. PF exaggerated that need. So players needed to be "mercenary" to be well equipped whether it mattered for XP or not. 5E has continued the 3E arc, but cut down the Christmas tree :D

I think you can give XP for defeating enemies, treasure, completing missions, and other reasons. We gave experience for exploration for example. If you want to look closely at different methods of gaining XP you could vary it by class. For example, why wouldn't a Rogue / Thief gain XP for stealing valuable items? There is a black hole here for those who want to travel down it. :)

I favor XP for defeating (not just killing) adversaries, overcoming challenges (traps, puzzles, locked chests etc.), exploring unknown areas (new lands, ruins, even civilized places the player has never been), and "events" (fighting in a battle, getting married, completing a mission for the Duke, etc.). It should be about the characters experiencing the world and growing. A DM can do this without "hard rules", but they help. I have used different guidelines for my game over the years. It has varied a bit with the different cast of players.

edit One clever twist I remember was in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, he gave XP for spending the treasure you acquired, different classes spent the money in different ways, and different characters had "hobbies" that allowed them to spend money iirc. That's still a good one for GP = XP imo.
 
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GreyLord

Hero
One form of XP that we've used when playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 1e and 2e was the use of time.

By that it is dependant on how LONG someone plays, for example, a 4 hour session may net someone 100XP. It's based on playing time more than it is based on kills, quests, or anything else.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
edit One clever twist I remember was in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, he gave XP for spending the treasure you acquired, different classes spent the money in different ways, and different characters had "hobbies" that allowed them to spend money iirc. That's still a good one for GP = XP imo.
In my current campaign, which awards XP for treasure brought back to their stronghold, I originally required them to spend the GP to earn the XP, but the record-keeping quickly became not fun.

Now, I just create a lot of need and incentive to spend the XP. Most of their money goes toward stronghold improvements and upkeep and paying for all the followers, retainers, and troops needed to secure the areas they have cleared. As they level up and as they tackle stronger adversaries, the cost of keeping their gains likewise increased. More money, more problems.

Using Matt Coleville's Strongholds and Followers, hand-picking rules from the DMG and Xanathar's, and homebrew rules (including EN5iders organization dice rules), I've found a good balance between making treasure matter and avoiding playing Fantasy Accounting the RPG.
 

Quartz

Hero
System-wise, I don't think that there's one universal answer. For instance, in 3E a mage who crafted many items would be a level or two behind other PCs so careful calculation of XP was important. 1E and 2E didn't have that issue, but did have the issue of different classes having different XP scales. I remember using Lew's Monstermark back in the early days. And then in the Hero System XP were completely different...
 

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