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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

FreeTheSlaves

Adventurer
I award 'adventuring day xp' to every character who completes the quest of that level. I pro-rata it for partial completion.

I find a way to communicate the level of the quest, so that characters can choose their risk/reward.

It's a decent drop of xp, rewards cooperative play, allows multiple approaches, and isn't too hard for bookkeeping.
 

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R_Chance

Adventurer
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.
The "spend the money bit for XP" although attractive is not one I've used because of the bookkeeping aspect you mentioned. It's easier to just total it up front. It eventually gets spent :)

The "accounting" problem is there in a lot of areas in the game (experience points, encumbrance, expendables etc.). Finding that balance between playability and verisimilitude / realism is the problem. How much "crunch" is enough? :D I use a simplified encumbrance system for example (measured in "things" which combine bulk and weight) because I value the impact of it on game play but wanted to reduce the book keeping for both my players and myself. I track expendables / consumables (if your game has extensive exploration it's important) and experience points more carefully. Running out of food, water, or light (torches / oil) is annoying, magic can sub for it of course but that is costly in other ways. I run a sandbox game, so tracking XP is important; there are no "milestones" etc. to level up by. Experience in a variety of ways (mentioned in my post above) builds up and "ding" you levelled up.

edit On encumbrance iirc I borrowed the term "things" from Runequest (although mine is different)... I just couldn't come up with a catchy term for it :D
 
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R_Chance

Adventurer
"Things" as a semi-stylization and simplification of encumbrance goes at least back to Sustare's Swordbearer RPG.
That's going back to the early 80s iirc. Does anyone still publish that one? Still Runequest was 1978, so "things" has been around for quite a while and the plural is easy to use. "Gear" and "kit" suffer from the association with equipment (not a specific load / weight) and are more descriptive of a variable range of equipment. Stuff sounds good, but doesn't have an easy plural. "Stuffs" just sounds... wrong :) "Bundle" and "bundles" is a possibility. Things, on the other hand has rpg history on its side. And it's simpler than the weight system I developed for my campaign which has the complexity of English measures but not the familiarity. "Stone" would be a historical English term, and that varied quite a bit over time and for different things being measured. So is it a meta / game simplification or an in universe measure? Maybe "thing" or "stone" serves as both? This is what happens when I have some spare time to think about my game :D
 

That's going back to the early 80s iirc. Does anyone still publish that one?

You can still buy the PDF at least on DTRPG.

Still Runequest was 1978, so "things" has been around for quite a while and the plural is easy to use.

Admittedly, RQ "things" was less abstract than the ones in Swordbearer. In the latter it included a bunch of things other than weight, and weight wasn't even the biggest part of it.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
You can still buy the PDF at least on DTRPG.



Admittedly, RQ "things" was less abstract than the ones in Swordbearer. In the latter it included a bunch of things other than weight, and weight wasn't even the biggest part of it.
Thanks! I think my brother has our copy of Swordbearer. Nice to know I can pick up a PDF of it for reference / nostalgia. We collected pretty much every RPG that was published back in those days. Often ended up with multiple copies but we managed to grow up (mostly) and divided the pile up.

I think "thing" was fairly similar in both games, they both included factors beyond just weight... like how difficult was something to carry / how much space did it take up. "Stone" varied over time. Stone weight is standardized now (14 pounds), but it used to vary by what was being measured (from 4-32 pounds I think). I'm not sure (without looking it up) whether that involved volumes / weight or what.
 

Thanks! I think my brother has our copy of Swordbearer. Nice to know I can pick up a PDF of it for reference / nostalgia. We collected pretty much every RPG that was published back in those days. Often ended up with multiple copies but we managed to grow up (mostly) and divided the pile up.

It was a game that was interesting on a lot of levels. The two magic systems were very unusual for the time (though the more common one only sort of worked), the weapon skill/speed split was unusual, and it was very early to be supporting quite the range of nonhuman PCs it had. I sadly discovered that it was a little too constrained in some ways when I ran it, and the effect of random attribute rolls was overly strong.

I think "thing" was fairly similar in both games, they both included factors beyond just weight... like how difficult was something to carry / how much space did it take up. "Stone" varied over time. Stone weight is standardized now (14 pounds), but it used to vary by what was being measured (from 4-32 pounds I think). I'm not sure (without looking it up) whether that involved volumes / weight or what.

In RQ it was still largely dependent on your Strength however, where in SB it was an independent variable, and even included things you didn't actually wear or carry, like a horse. It was mostly just a "How many important things can you keep track of?" measurement.

Of course this was a game that also abstracted wealth pretty strongly (into social class).
 

Except in specific special cases, I ditched XP for GP acquired by adventure when running D&D...
... but started again to award it for GP earned at a non-adventuring job when 3.0 came out. Never for treasure, only for labor. Mostly for NPCs...

My favorite Level Based XP system is from Battle Born and Barony - the "Ignobles" mechanic.
It's a list of different activities the character must experience to level up. Only one per scene, and only if the ignoble marked is relevant, and the current experience is bigger/badder/more impessive than the prior ones. When you earn the ignoble, you have to write a sentence about it.
When you level up by filling them all, you improve in title, and get relevant skill bumps.

My second favorite Level Based XP system is that used in Palladium. (Yes, there is something Mr. Siembieda got right.) Good ideas, even if not attempted, are worth XP when proposed in character. Combat XP are relative to PCs.

For non-level-based, I'm fond of the Questions method in the various YZE games. Ask the questions, each yes is an XP.

But I really don't mind slow-improvement with regulargames, including STA. (My issues with it lie elsewhere.)

Also nifty is the "Collection" mechanic in Sentinel Comics. As your characters progresses through 6 issue stories, you accumulate a "collection" for each 6 issue set. Collections allow rerolls and/or avoiding consequences; each collection can be used once per Issue (Session, typically, sometimes 2). An you can call back to specific issues, too.

The One Ring's system is kinda slow, but steady, and has different XP pools - one for non-combat skills, and one for combat skills. AP for common skills are earned for use and exceptional results, can only be spent on skills. XP are for Valor, Wisdom, and Weapon skills. Certain cultures (Numenorian, Rivendell) have higher XP costs.

The thing is, XP as a reward cycle is pretty weak. It is, usually, too long from action to reward to really be the behavior mod tool.
Bennies in Savage Worlds, Plot Points in Cortex Classic/Plus/Prime, skill experience in The One Ring and in Burning Wheel also are immediate; best I've seen for shaping behavior was the immediacy of awards in Mouse Guard... Use it and succeed? Mark a success. Use it and Fail? Mark a fail. Nerf yourself, earn a check. Checks then allow you to narrate in the Player Phase.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
It was a game that was interesting on a lot of levels. The two magic systems were very unusual for the time (though the more common one only sort of worked), the weapon skill/speed split was unusual, and it was very early to be supporting quite the range of nonhuman PCs it had. I sadly discovered that it was a little too constrained in some ways when I ran it, and the effect of random attribute rolls was overly strong.



In RQ it was still largely dependent on your Strength however, where in SB it was an independent variable, and even included things you didn't actually wear or carry, like a horse. It was mostly just a "How many important things can you keep track of?" measurement.

Of course this was a game that also abstracted wealth pretty strongly (into social class).
I never ran it, just read it. We picked up so many RPGs that we didn't have time to run / try them all. I always found them worth a read though. You never know what idea might show up and be useful.

The maximum encumbrance in RQ was based on the average of Strength and Constitution iirc... maybe Size? And limited by the characters Strength or Size I believe. They gave fairly explicit weights for some items, but a "thing" was something that could be carried in one hand as I recall. If I recall they seemed reluctant to have an encumbrance system but decided to have one because not everyone would be reasonable. People are like that. I need to dig up RQ and look over it again. I even bought a hardcover reprint of it. Which is boxed with the stuff I don't have room for on my current RPG shelves... They did keep it fairly simple and I appreciate that. Compare it to my current version and maybe SB. Although I'm sure I've built a more complex system than theirs anyway :D
 

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