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What XP is Really For

Continuing to steal liberally from the excellent discussion in the comments on Never Penalize Players for Bringing in a New PC [1], this comment about XP [2] by TT reader Brian is the smartest thing I’ve ever heard on this topic:

“XP rewards the player, not the character[.]”

I’ve never thought about experience points and other PC-advancement rewards in that way before, and it’s absolutely correct. It’s so simple and so obvious, but I’ve been gaming for nearly 20 years and I’ve never come across this piece of advice.

You might have read Brian’s comment and thought, “Right, I know that.” If so, props to you for recognizing something that, the more I think about it, colors all sorts of aspects of gaming as a hobby. One GM’s obvious thing is another GM’s forehead-smacking bolt from the blue, though, so I wanted to bring this one to the foreground.

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#1 Comment By Walt C On June 21, 2007 @ 6:14 am

This strikes at the heart of why GMs assess penalties for switching characters; it’s based on the assumption that the player did something wrong.

I used to assess penalties all the time. Now, I usually let players generate new characters at the same power level, with one exception. If I think the player is playing poorly (usually by performing some type of “character suicide”), I’ll either call him out at the table or I’ll take him aside to discuss why he wants to switch characters.

Usually, this discussion gets better results than assessing a penalty, and, while it results in a new character 90% of the time, the problem resulting in the character suicide has been addressed.

#2 Comment By Reed On June 21, 2007 @ 6:58 am

Yeah, the dirty little secret of RPGs is that the characters don’t really exist. They’re all in our heads. Therefore, everything in the game is for the players.

#3 Comment By gospog On June 21, 2007 @ 7:16 am

This topic is something that hit me recently due to us using Savage Worlds for our D&D games.

My character now has a sidekick. The sidekick is not an NPC, I control him. He gains XP seperately from my “real” character.

I earned a bonus XP for drawing a sketch from last game. Which character do I award it to? (they are both in the picture)

The answer: whichever one I like!

Great topic, Martin!

#4 Comment By DNAphil On June 21, 2007 @ 8:10 am

I have to say that for the most part I hate XP systems, and avoid using them in most cases. In my current Iron Heroes campaign I dropped using XP, and level all the players at the same time, when it best fits the story (a combination of where we are in the story, and what challenges the players have faced, and how long it was since the last level). This way the leveling of the players is tied to the story, not to an abstract number system.

As for in-game rewards I use the Glory Points mechanic from the Mastering Iron Heroes books, which is like d20 Action Points. I give out the Glory Points at the beginning of the session, for the actions from the past session. I give a base amount out to the characters, for sucessfully completing the past session, and then reward characters with 1-2 points for exceptional play.

#5 Comment By Carolina aka Troy Taylor On June 21, 2007 @ 9:47 am

This jives with something that’s been a rule of thumb with the group I’ve been with for a while.

If you want to reward to the player, give ’em XP.
If you want to reward the character, give ’em a +4 sword.

#6 Comment By brcarl On June 21, 2007 @ 10:10 am

Carolina, I get what you’re saying, but I keep coming back to Reed’s statement: whether it’s a level ding or a chunk of swag, it’s all about the players in the end, right?

I keep coming back to the same point in my head when thinking about XP: reward behavior you want to see repeated.

So if a reward (D&D XP) bumps a players combat abilities, then that means that system likes to do combat. If a reward gives the player a nifty new ability (inherent or via an item), then that means the system wants the player to use that ability. If a reward gives the player a different perspective on how to role-play their character, then the system wants the player to stretch his/her gaming.

I realize I’m getting pretty metaphysical here, but at some core level it seems to me that you can’t escape the reward-result tie.

…or perhaps achieving goals are reward enough in and of themselves? So “leveling up” and “getting phat loot” aren’t required for players that just enjoy a good story collaboratively told?

So the system you use reflects the kinds of things you want to do. …and do over and over or more and more of?

#7 Comment By Jim On June 21, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

XP and its uses is really a meta-game topic. XP does not occur in real life, at least not in the way most RPG systems present it. The only way for us to learn a new ability, or improve an existing one, is to practice and/or use said ability. Even though many RPGs say that one must find a trainer (and spend time practicing) to level up, I have very seldom seen a GM enforce that consistently.

Brian’s comment is correct, in the short term, but a GM must be careful to realize that anything that rewards the player feeds back to the character as well, and thus affects the game. Any time a character becomes more capable, it changes the character’s relationship to the other characters and the world at large. It is a delicate balancing act to properly reward the players without overpowering the game.

One thing that annoyed me in a WW-based vampire LARP I played in, and later helped to run, was that the character backgrounds were sometimes quite long (some consisting of a hundred years or more of history) for a character that was essentially a starting character. Then, after a mere six months in our fair city, they were able to double or triple their capability. And this was not a game that over-awarded XP (in my opinion).

brcarl, I agree that XP can be used to train players to a higher standard of play, if you don’t mind playing Pavlov. If you are playing a class/level based game, like D&D or other d20 games, you have a little leeway in between levels to grant points. Not much changes until the XP crosses that threshold to the next level.

However, a points based game, like Champions or Vampire gives the player more granular ability improvement control, so a GM must be more careful how points are awarded, and the affect it might have on the group dynamic. You could impose campaign rules about how and when the players can spend their XP, but you are then acknowledging that XP is about more than just the players.

#8 Comment By VV_GM On June 21, 2007 @ 4:34 pm

I prefer games that award points for further character generation instead of experience points. I’d much rather control how my character improves than to just “move up” in abilities.

I like the concept of rewarding the player and the player’s character in different manners, but few games do a good job with the latter part. I try to give the characters access to more resources, better titles, more staff/followers, and perks. The problem though is that if the players see these rewards as “untouchable” then I get a lot of backlash if in the game I do soemthing like have a fire burn down their safe house. I will have a plan on the back burner to get those resources or something of equivalent value, back into the character’s hands. Yet some players don’t see it like that, and think that they are being punsihed or singled out. In a way they are, but I try to convince them to have faith in me to keep their characters moving forward. The PC may not have everything exactly the same as it was at the beginning of the adventure but the PC will come out ahead in the long run.

#9 Comment By Cedrictheblack On June 22, 2007 @ 6:43 am

I generally like to follow a guideline pretty close to what Phil was mentioning.

For D&D I loath really low level play, the characters are simply too limited and too squishy. SImilarly I don’t care to run much over 15th level (I will but don’t care for it much) simply because the power level scales so poorly.

On the other hand (Hey, where did all these hands come from?), I feel there’s real value in a player levelling up a character to understand the mechanics of that particular character from the ground up.

What do I do? Generally we’ll start at level 1 and the PCs get one level a game until we hit 5th level . .. that’s where things get interesting! Then I’ll stall things at that level until the plot calls for more advancement (or the players start to get itchy . . .) and move up as the campaign calls for it.

Now, my favorite game to GM is Amber. And that gives advancement points, which the players have to decide how to prioritize spending them . ..without knowing exactly how spending those points will change their stats or abilities OR how many points they have. Which makes character advancement into a kind of PvP game in itself.

#10 Comment By Martin On June 26, 2007 @ 9:49 am

(Reed) Yeah, the dirty little secret of RPGs is that the characters don’t really exist. They’re all in our heads. Therefore, everything in the game is for the players.

I know (think?) this is tongue-in-cheek, but I think it’s only true on the technical level. Obviously everything is imaginary, and yes technically it’s all aimed at your players, but I agree with Carolina:

If you want to reward to the player, give ‘em XP.
If you want to reward the character, give ‘em a +4 sword.

Those are different things, and I’d argue that the latter is more explicitly a player reward, while the former, although it still rewards the player, is more geared towards their PC.

#11 Comment By Harry On June 26, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

XP does in a way ‘reward’ the player’s time and effort.

But there is a lot of confusion on this. XP is NOT the actual ‘reward’ of playing the game.

XP is simply a measure of time spent playing that -indirectly- opens up more choices to be available to you as a player.

Deciding between those choices, and seeing how those choices play out, that’s the ‘reward’ of the game. As you play D&D, you get rewarded for the decisions and choices you made, both in the design of your character and in cooperating with everyone else on the design of the party.

As soon as you start thinking that XP is some kind of currency that can be given to reward or taken away to punish, you’re in trouble. Yes, you can give extra XP to stimulate a positive response in the player and get him to repeat his behavior. That does NOT mean that XP is the actual reward or the focus of the game.

I would propose the following:

If you want to advance the power level of the game to keep it from getting boring, give them either XP or a +4 sword. Doesn’t matter which.

If you want to reward the player, give the party an encounter/fight/sidequest that specifically makes his particular character design and concept come forward and shine like he meant it to when he made his character.