XP. Uhn! What is it good for?

Ever since D&D, many RPGs have handed out experience points without a huge amount of thought as to why they’re doing it. The standard model of XP, which D&D pioneered, is achievement based. OD&D made it a mix of XP for killing monsters and XP for getting treasure. Many games mindlessly copied this approach, often ditching XP for treasure as unrealistic. But over the years many more methods have emerged.

XP for achievements: mechanistic version – the classic D&D formula, XP awarded in a pre-defined way based on the power of the foe slain or the value of treasure acquired. Often derided as unrealistic or creating perverse incentives, this approach actually gives a pretty strong incentive to keep doing exactly what the game is about, i.e. killing monsters and taking their stuff. It also has the distinct advantage that players get rewarded for acting effectively. If your plan enables you to somehow kill the monsters and get the treasure in a low-risk way, why shouldn’t you be rewarded for that? It’s a pretty strong system for an adversarial, GM vs players dungeon-crawling game.

XP for achievements: nuanced version – a less mechanistic approach. The GM awards points for clever plans, defeating baddies, achieving story goals, and so on. This has the advantage of enabling a broader spectrum of play – you can get XP for solving a puzzle, succeeding at a non-combat task, or even for personal goals like becoming head of the watch, or whatever. The downside is that the whole reward system is subject to the arbitrary judgement of the GM. Favouritism and bias can become a problem. The GM may reward what they see as a clever plan rather than one that actually is clever. Worse, it can be used to railroad the players towards the GM’s preferred outcomes.

XP for turning up – what it says on the tin. Here, XP is used primarily as a means to allow the character’s abilities to evolve and improve over time. There isn’t much of an incentive mechanism here, beyond the obvious one of actually coming to sessions, and many GMs even drop that requirement (everyone gets XP for a session even if they didn’t turn up), effectively removing any incentives.

XP for using abilities: simple version – Call of Cthulhu is the earliest example I’m aware of (but no doubt not the first) of a system that simply gives XP whenever an ability is used, that can be spent on improving that ability alone. (CoC actually went further and asked that you succeed in using the ability at the time, but then roll again and gain XP only if you fail.) This has the dubious advantage of realistic progression, as the more you use something the better it gets (and in the case of CoC creates a pleasing bell curve of progression). It also incentivises players to get stuck in and use their abilities as much as possible, which could be considered an advantage, though equally it encourages the use of abilities when they aren’t really needed or interesting. Other games have awarded XP for using stats without requiring it to be spent on the stat that was used, a more flexible approach with similar pros and cons.

XP for using abilities: advanced version – Apocalypse World is an example of a game that gives XP for using abilities but doesn’t require you to spend it on the ability that got you the XP. AW develops this method further by asking other players to “highlight” the stats they want to see you use, only rewarding the player for rolling highlighted stats. The result is a strong incentive for players to push themselves into specific situation types that other players have chosen (presumably because they think it will be interesting to watch). It also forces players to mix it up a bit rather than always sticking to the same old turf.

XP as fallout – Dogs in the Vineyard introduced (again, possibly not the first to do so) the interesting method of giving players stat improvements or even new stats as a “reward” for being beaten up in play. Each time you get verbally lashed, physically beaten or shot, you may gain a fallout stat like “a healthy respect for bullets” which can then be woven into future stories. What’s nice about this is that it makes the more painful and risky elements of roleplaying pay, and turns each new stat into a reminder of a previous encounter, so that the character sheet actually has character. It creates an slightly odd incentive to up the stakes in conflicts, which is well tailored to the genre of Dogs but perhaps not great for just any old game.

Surveying the above list (which is hardly exhaustive, but I suspect is a reasonably representative sample of common methods), what’s striking is how many of them vary the thing that gets you XP, but how few vary what the XP can be used for. They are virtually exclusively about stat improvement. The pace of improvement varies – D&D did levels, while most games now break upgrades down into individual stats and advantages – but it’s basically the same thing every time.

There must be a lot more that can be done in the space of Dogs, giving you character changes that are directly based on in-game events. Or maybe even advances that don’t change your abilities at all, but interact with some other aspect of your character, like beliefs or relationships.

If you know of any interesting XP systems out there, shout out – I’d love to know about them.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

8 thoughts to “XP. Uhn! What is it good for?”

  1. Bit late replying to this, sorry – but some thoughts…

    I think you’re actually including *all* forms of mechanical character development under the label of “XP” here, right? I mean, Dogs doesn’t actually use any explicit points mechanism.

    As a result of that broad definition, there probably aren’t *that* many systems that don’t use it to change your “abilities” – for example, Dogs lets you change relationships which you suggest as an alternative, but Relationships in Dogs *are* abilities, in that they give you dice to use on stuff. So.

    It would seem odd to me to create mechanics for “you can change some stuff now” but then have the things you can change be non-mechanical. If the change is non-mechanical, why not let the impetus also be purely fictional?

    There are games that don’t use mechanical character development at all, though – Everway is one such.

    Have you read Burning Wheel? I haven’t (yet) but I gather it has a very prominent Beliefs system – I’d be interested to see how the mechanical character development interacts with that.

  2. Oh! And I forgot Trollbabe’s “XP gain” mechanism, which is “whenever the players want to”.

    1: You can shift your number (the only stat you have) by 1 in either direction (both beneficial, in different ways) between each session.
    2: The Scale (a group stat, capping the level of effect of characters’ actions) increases once per session if any player wants it to.


    1. Yes, development system is probably a better term for what I meant.

      You can “just” do softer changes through the fiction (you can do the same with abilities, of course) but I’m more interested in attempts to systematise it. Like AW history, for example, which is a systematic way to develop relationships (though again, not separate from abilities, and not really that well implemented IMO).

      I guess it depends what you mean by mechanical. I think Burning Wheel (which I have heard of but not yet read) and Pendragon (similar, I think) both contain mechanics for driving character behaviour in directions that the player might not have gone down voluntarily; I’d say changing those would be a quite different thing to improving one’s stats. Relationships can be similar (not in Dogs, admittedly) in that they can be double edged. Trollbabe’s “scale” sounds like another non-ability-related development system.

  3. I’m still confused as to what you mean by “abilities”.

    You say that relationships in AW are not separate from abilities. Is this because they have a mechanical effect that allows you to do stuff? (Roll Hx to help or interfere.)

    If so, then I think when you say you’re interested in ways to systematise relationships separate from abilities, you must be saying you’re interested in systematising development of a purely fictional concept (i.e. one that has no mechanical effect). Because to my mind anything that mechanically defines what effects you can produce is an “ability”. Is that right, or am I still misunderstanding you?

    Trollbabe’s Scale is *totally* ability-related. The higher the Scale, the more effective your characters are – for example they can now affect an entire village rather than just one family.

    1. So, I think that “systematising a purely fictional concept” is certainly what I’m seeking to do, but I would say that all system of any kind whatsoever does exactly this. It’s just that conflict resolution mechanics are conventional whereas other kinds of system are somewhat less conventional (but by no means unheard of).

      With that point made, I’d say a conflict resolution mechanic consists of: identify point of conflict; determine possible outcomes; decide between outcomes; describe outcome (not necessarily in that order). What I mean by “ability” is a trait or mechanic whose main effect is to alter the third step above, usually in the favour of the person possessing the trait. So Hx in AW does this, so do Strings in Monsterhearts, and relationships in Dogs.

      Personality traits in Pendragon (and probably Burning Wheel, from what I know of it) do something quite different. They serve to open up new conflicts, intersecting with step 1, as well as to help make decisions that will obviate the need for formal conflict resolution, which again intersects with step 1 by removing a conflict. They also open up options that might not have existed previously. They *can* intersect with step 3, though that isn’t their primary effect. And they change how a character’s actions are described, which sits in step 4.

      So it isn’t that these mechanics are necessarily irrelevant to conflict resolution, and they can have an effect on conflicts including potentially giving someone an advantage in the decision-making step, but it seems to me that they are separable from conflict resolution. But equally, it seems to me, changes in personality traits of the Pendragon variety are valid targets for an XP system, or something very like it.

      It could be, of course, that there are things one could systematise that are literally entirely unrelated to conflict resolution. An example that springs to mind is the use of skills like “flower arranging”. Ironically these are occasionally proposed by traditional games as skills one could take to “round out one’s character”. They sit within the formal structure of those games’ task resolution systems, but are essentially irrelevant to almost any conceivable conflict within those games, which is why they are regarded as rounding out one’s character. The effect they do have, if they get used at all, is to direct the theatre of the story; perhaps another flower arranger turns up that our character has known, or maybe the GM sets a scene in a flower shop, or whatever. Again, these are valid targets for XP (I’m not saying this is a great example of something you’d want to use XP on, mind).

      I don’t know if this is helping you to see what I’m getting at? I think the Pendragon example is probably closest to what I have in mind.

    2. Oh, and re Scale: it’s important that this is not something that affects one character’s personal effectiveness. It affects step 2 of my conflict res chain above, but in a blanket way, and it presumably changes the kind of conflicts the group may be exposed to, too. It isn’t an “ability”, therefore.

  4. Yeah, that has clarified, I think, thanks. Not having read Burning Wheel or Pendragon, I still can’t be confident I’m seeing the distinction clearly, but I get where the distinction is.

    Given that, perhaps this next point is off the mark, but: I still think many “ability-based”, i.e. affecting-step-3, traits also end up intersecting with step 1 in the way you describe, no? Relationships in Dogs will *definitely* affect which conflicts players decide to pick, for example, as will Hx and Strings. Similarly, interestingly enough, with the “rounding-out” skills you talk about – simply having them on the sheet will tend to affect the sorts of conflicts that player seeks out.

    In other words, I’m not convinced that stuff-on-sheets can be so easily linked with just one of your steps independent of the others. But as I say, maybe I’m missing something here because I haven’t read the systems you’re comparing to; maybe they have a more direct and concrete link to step 1 that I’m not understanding?

    1. No, I think that’s fair. I’m just saying there’s a difference between traits that primarily enhances your ability to do stuff, and traits that aren’t primarily about that; that the latter are different in relation to conflict resolution (but not primarily targeted on that); and that development systems overwhelmingly focus on the former.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.