Alternate Methods for Handling Experience

Alternate Methods for Handling Experience

Experience points (henceforth XP) always present a problem for me in games, for several reasons. The problem of the abstractness of it all is certainly there, and the fact that I GM for friends and my girlfriend at the same time means that I feel at risk of being unfair with my XP handing out.

But there are heaps of problems with XP, in my opinion, and as such I've tried damn-near every system available... So what are the pros and cons of these systems? Perhaps if we look at them we can build a system with only the pros and none of the cons?

The Different Systems

There are a million and one systems for handling XP, but I am just going to outline the main ones that I've had the ability to tinker with, and the problems inherent to these.

Goal-Oriented XP

Goal-Oriented XP is that in which the GM outlines a set of goals and as the players complete these, they are awarded XP. This can be for completing a section of a quest, talking to a certain person, an entertaining stunt, or merely killing a monster with a certain level rating.

This style of XP is most common in games like Dungeons & Dragons where killing and short-term goals are more prominent than in more ponderous games like Vampire or Part-Time Gods. That being said, this system can easily lend itself to any RPG - it just requires some tweaking by the GM.

The major pros of this system are that it gives the players an instant gratification for a job well done, which in turn promotes good behaviour, or good game playing. It is also adaptable and flexible, allowing the GM to add new goals during the session to allow XP to be given for player defined goals.

The major cons, however, are that it can be difficult for new GMs to get a grasp on how much XP to give per goal, as well as if the players run off in a completely different direction to the story line, they could end up with no advancement. Further, if they spend the entire session grinding on monsters in the forest, they could be launched ahead considerably. These eventually mean that the GM has less control on the XP curve of his game, leading to problems down the line with balancing.

Flat-Rate XP

Flat-Rate XP is that in which the GM defines a set amount of XP that will be given per player at the end (or beginning) of each session. Everyone gets the same amount of XP, and that amount doesn't change unless the GM feels a need for it to.

This style of XP is most suited for games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Part-Time Gods - ones in which a disparity between XP levels can cause significant problems. However, even in these systems, problems do occur - and often.

The major pros of this system are that it allows the GM to control the flow of XP and plan accordingly. If he is building an adventure for the 3rd session, and he gives 100xp per session, then he knows that every player will be on 300xp. If a player joins the game during session 12, he can give that player 1200xp straight away without fear of unbalance.

The major cons, however, are that the players feel less free, and their actions seem somewhat meaningless. A player can get the same reward for doing nothing all session - playing with their phone - as they can for organising a great intrigue, or killing a major enemy. This can leave a player despondent and unwilling to go the extra mile.

Democratic XP

Democratic XP is that in which the players vote for their favourite player (or top three players) from each session - the votes are tallied, and XP is handed out in larger amounts to those voted more highly, and a flat rate is given to those not among the top three.

This style of XP is most suited to cinematic games like Vampire or Buffy - ones in which the players are encouraged to perform stunts and clearly spotlight moments.

The major pros of this system are that it allows the GM to wash his hands of responsibility. The players determine the winners, and are rewarded for their good actions. It also allows friendly competition to emerge, with players vying for the position of 1st place.

The major cons, however, are that if some players get voted higher than others, there can become a situation of jealousy and "popularity contests". Some players can feel left out if they continuously do not score on the leader board, and tensions and hurt feels can arise. Furthermore, this system requires all players to be invested enough to vote between sessions - and some players, for what ever reason, are always absolutely vehemently against "extra-curricular" RPG activities.

Extra-Curricular XP

Extra-Curricular XP is that in which the players are given tasks outside of the game that they can choose to do for XP. These tasks are rarely exclusive of another XP system, but the method is useful enough to warrant mention.

These tasks can be anything from drawing artwork of their characters and the game, to writing journal entries, to updating a wiki on the campaign world, to helping the GM plan by finding/buying maps or supplements, or really anything you could think of. As such, there are no campaigns where this sort of thing wouldn't work out well for.

The major pros of this system are that it allows the GM to free up some of the work, it keeps the players enthusiastic and involved with the campaign outside of game time, it produces some really awesome keepsakes for the campaign and boosts it during the sessions, and finally that it makes players feel that the campaign is theirs instead of their GM's.

The major cons, however, are that players with less free time on their hands can feel penalised for this, and that players who are more artistically inclined may have an advantage. However, if the GM outlines many different ways to go about this process, then this later point shouldn't be a problem at all.

Reward System XP

Reward System XP is that in which the GM or players are able to hand out tokens for good actions during play. These could be poker chips for a particularly funny happenstance, or they could be for a cool stunt, etc. The point is, though, that they are on the spur and instantaneous.

This system for XP is again suited to really any RPG - so long as the environment at the table is open to a bit of meta/table talk. Distributing tokens can be disruptive to RP, so RP heavy games would want to avoid this one. However, a more beer-and-pretzels game would flourish with such a system.

The major pros of this system are that it allows instantaneous gratification for good deeds, and it allows players to openly appreciate each other around the table top. Furthermore, if the pile of tokens is visible to all players at all times, it keeps a constant reminder that they should be trying to play well.

The major cons, however, are that such forms of house keeping increase the payload that a GM already has to handle, and they can be forgotten and used unfairly. When the GM or players remember to use them, one player may get showered in the tokens, but another player may feel forgotten when the tokens are. Furthermore, some players may feel their actions are deserving of tokens, but others at the table do not share this sentiment. Whilst this could be due to Special Snowflakeism, it could also be a popularity issue...

Development Roll "XP"

Development Roll "XP" is not really a system for XP but for the development of a character in the same way that XP would normally occur. This style of game play is rarely seen, but very effective.

How it works is that each skill a character has, has a modifier (sometimes called a Development Roll Modifier, or DRM) which is roll against after the skill is used. If the second roll is successful, the skill increases in level. Usually this can only occur once a session per skill, however. This system has a lot of pros and cons, so it is difficult for me to say a specific game type that it would work well with. I will let you decide.

The major pros of this system are that is allows for a more natural progression of skills - the more you use something, the better you get at using it. Naturally. It also allows for instantaneous progression, and encourages players to use skills in new and interesting ways - such as their Trade skills, or their Performer skills... The ones that normally just collect dust on the character sheet.

The major cons, however, are that such systems can result in grossly exaggerated skills very quickly. Skills that are used more than others grow much much faster, to the point where every character will have a very high Perception Skill, and yet low skills in everything else. This may make sense in some settings, but not everything. Furthermore, everything is left up to the dice, so some players can just have bad luck again and again, and others can speed through everything. This makes it impossible for a GM to balance a party, meaning it cannot be used accurately for hack and slash style games.

The Perfect System

First of all, there isn't one. But by combining the systems in interesting ways you can come close to a perfect system.

Perhaps taking the Flat-Rate system and attaching it to the Development Roll system. Every player has a set amount of skills they can increase, but they have to roll for each one. If they don't succeed in making all of their rolls, they are allowed to try to roll for different skills.

Or take the Goal-Oriented system and combine it with Reward - allowing players to set their own Goals openly and place a "bounty" on an action being done. Perhaps players can even bet XP from a pool on the completion of tasks, so players are competing to kill a monster with the final blow for more XP?

Or take the Democratic system and the Extra Curricular system and make a contest each week for the best in-game artwork, or the best short story. Allow players to vote on their favourite entry, and the winner gets more XP than the others, but everyone who enters gets some.

Try combining three or more systems. Or all of them!

Let me know if you've got any cool systems, or if you can think of clever ways to combine them below!