Monday, September 16, 2013

Thoughts on Experience Points

Experience Points seem to be one of those rules that people like to argue about. Some people like experience points and regularly use them in their games, others despise them and prefer a more "ad hoc" system of character advancement, and some have no opinion one way or the other and just roll with the punches.

For the first few years of my gaming career, I would place myself among the gamers who disliked experience points and rarely used them in my games. Usually, when playing a game like D&D or Pathfinder that used XP, I would just ignore it and have the players level up whenever it was appropriate. While this "ad hoc" system worked for the most part, I always felt weird using it for reasons I could never figure out.

Eventually, after thinking long and hard about it, I realized why I was feeling weird about using the system. Basically, I was stripping the players of some of their agency in the game. While I was basing the level rewards on the actions of the character, I was still the deciding factor in when they leveled up instead of the players themselves. With experience points, the players receive a different number of points based on the challenges they choose to face. Because of that choice, the players are determining how fast their character's advance instead of just the GM.

Now, while my opinion of experience points as a mechanic have changed, I still have some problems with the way they are presented. I've never liked the large amounts that it uses, especially when you realize they are using those big numbers for pretty much nostalgic reasons. In some of the older editions of the game, characters would earn experience from acquiring gold pieces as well, which made the large number of experience points needed for each level make sense. However, since the newer editions don't use that standard anymore, there's really no need for the big numbers.

Instead, you could easily make it where characters need 10 XP to reach the next level. They receive 1 XP from monsters with a CR lower than theirs, disabling traps, and handling RP challenges (like a diplomatic situation). They receive 2 XP from monsters with a CR equal to theirs. They receive 3 XP from monsters with a CR higher than theirs and for completing an adventure. If you want advancement to be somewhat slower, maybe make it where they need 20 or 30 XP. That makes the numbers a lot easier to handle and hand out during the game. I know I'm not the first person to come up with this kind of system (similar systems have shown up on Blog of Holding and Papers & Pencils for example), but I think its still a good idea to point out the designers could have gone with a much easier system instead of keeping with the traditional numbers just because of nostalgia.

Also, I think it would be cool if more groups experimented with what actions and choices will reward experience and which won't. For example, lets say your group is playing a game where the characters are treasure hunters and most of the adventures revolve around that idea. You could possibly reinstate the "Gold for XP" rule from older editions of D&D or grant experience whenever the characters find a magic item or artifact. Doing so would reinforce the concept of the campaign since the players are being rewarded for finding treasure. There would probably be some universal things that grant experience (like fighting monsters and completing quests), but you can add an additional one or two just to reinforce the concept of the setting and rewarding players for playing with that concept. Just a thought.

So, dear readers, what are your opinions on experience points? Do you love, hate them, or have no strong opinion either way? If you love or hate them, why? I'd love to hear your thoughts.