Falling back in love with Experience Points

Basically everyone knows what experience points are and what they’re supposed to represent – they’re a number on a scale that represents approximately how good your character is, generally acquired from practice-makes-perfect behavior. But, with the advent of 4th edition especially (although this behavior began primarily in 3rd edition, similar to how the removal of wandering monsters as a concept began in third edition and was more or less finalized in 4th), I’ve been noticing that a lot of people running closed table narrative driven campaigns have completely ditched experience points. The characters just level up every other session, or every third session, or if they have a particularly long continuous arc every 4th session. But what I’ve also noticed is a drastic increase in the amount of new reward mechanics, like fun points, or other ways to give out small bonuses for good player behavior. If it works for Pavlov (assuming good RPG behavior is reflexive at least) or Skinner it should work for us, right?

Well, that’s just the thing, actually. I got down to thinking about general game design the other day and I’ve realized that experience points in the campaign I’m running right now (very open table and sandbox, based very heavily on the concept of West Marches, even going so far as to lift the name and cardinal direction in homage) have an extremely important role to play. And, looking again at the way experience points worked in second edition (the first place I came across listing them, and those values more-or-less agree with how they were in 1st edition as well), I come away with a distinct impression. Experience points are the DM’s most powerful method of behavioral reinforcement or modification. Levelling up is basically the biggest boon you can receive in a game of D&D, often times even more useful than a powerful magic item, and especially in recent times when magic items have had the significance of their plusses reduced (back when everything was a D6 damage a +1 was a lot more useful than it is on a D12), and been stripped of a lot of their most awesome powers (just look around and you’ll find the complaints that “magic items are no longer magical” abound – while I don’t entirely agree, for sake of argument it’s a good idea to indulge them for now). With experience points you can assign a reward to all sorts of tasks (just like fun points), and they can be the primary rewarding factor. For instance, in second edition as I mentioned, a rogue would get experience points for looting treasure while a wizard would get experience points for researching new spells. These directly encouraged players to follow the kind of behavior their role was designed to do. Now, you may say, what if the player wants to play more of a Han Solo than a Robin Hood? Well, that’s surprisingly easy to deal with: simply change what he gets rewarded XP for from one thing to another. Maybe whenever he resists the temptation to engage in his rogueish behavior he gains experience, creating an interesting (and challenging) choice: do I want to level up or get the most loot? Obviously this is not a blanket statement to “return to the old school” since some things that were once awarded XP (personally delivering the killing blow to a monster) wouldn’t fly in some newer games (like 4th edition, where strikers would thusly be wallowing in XP), but still I think it’s worth consideration.

Basically, experience points answer the question “how do I reward goal-seeking behavior?” They’re what allows a DM to sculpt a particular campaign (or even adventure or arc) into the thematics that they (and/or the players) envision. In my case, since West Marches as a concept is about player initiative and exploring history from an outside-in perspective, I make sure to give out experience points for whenever players take that initiative, whenever they explore the history and try to piece it together, and, of course, whenever completing these goals puts them in the path of dangerous foes, wicked traps, and/or cunning puzzles. And you know what? I’ve got players making all sorts of maps and recording down the dialog of sessions and putting together the things they learn, exactly as I intended. What systems like fun points look to emulate is, in essence, the reward structure that experience points have given us all along. The only problem is that we’ve suddenly decided that we’re too good for them, and that the party all always contribute equally so that they should all always be the same level in the cooperative experience. This leads us to another problem, which is the hypocrisy of systems like fun points (not to say that they’re bad, just ironic) – they grant in-game rewards like bonuses, and they accumulate when players do “good things”. In other words, they’re experience points by another name.

While a rare campaign might benefit from “non-experience point experience points”, and some may find they have no need for such a carrot at all, I think that maybe we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel here, and we should also think twice before we throw it away. Give experience points, assigned in ways that aren’t necessarily split evenly among the PCs, a second chance in your game – you may be surprised at the results!


The Hydra DM


Posted on December 3, 2011, in Rules Design and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I am definitely one of the organic “level when it feels right” DMs and that came after a long period of time of being strictly beholden to experience points. This changed after playing through a year+ long mega-dungeon where we leveled up via exploration, not monster kills. (If we had leveled up normally we would have been level 8 by the time we left the first of 10 dungeon levels…) I found this system worked well for what we were doing, but not necessarily for every game. But it also made me rethink xp from kills that is typical. That said, I wish xp mattered more in the past two generations of dnd, as you’ve pointed out, and this is a great start, I think, to reimplementing a fun, albeit Pavlovian, system. Great article, keep up the good work! 🙂

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: The Power of +1 | The Id DM

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