While not necessarily in every system, experience points make an appearance in the vast majority of role playing games. They are a near constant, whether a system is doing point buy, a level type system, or something in between. They work as a way of tracking how powerful a character is, helping the 'game' aspect along with giving GMs and Players a quick way of trying to keep everything on a somewhat level basis. However, are we using them to their full extent? And are there situations where we don't want them for our games?
Not Broke, Don't Fix
I want to start this off pointing out that there is nothing wrong with experience points. At least not in my mind. RPGs need something to represent how a person increases in ability, and a currency format with XP does work. This isn't a post where I am trying to point out what is wrong with XP. It is one where I want to look at what is such an established norm that "How are Experience Points handled?" is more common a question than "Are there Experience Points?"
I doubt I'll cover everything, or even close to everything, but I can try some of the basics.
I've talked about the extremes of XP usage before. By extremes I don't mean people using them to their fullest - or beyond the normal - but the two ends of how XP is used. Generally, a game strays towards one of these two.
The first method is the level based system. Players gain XP per session, and accrue them as they go along. Eventually, they cross a threshold, and their character levels up. At this point, you gain a certain number of new abilities and skill ranks to increase your power with. This is most commonly seen in video game RPGs now-a-days, but some games still use it. D&D, for example, used it when last I checked.
The second method is point buy. There are no classes and no levels. Different ranks of skills and abilities cost different amounts, and players are free to buy them as they get enough XP to afford them. This has become a very popular form due to the freedom it provides. It lets people "make the character they want" rather than what some pre-set class gives them access to. GURPS is probably the best example of a point buy game.
In between these two extremes are where most games lie. They'll either put some sort of class system over a point buy, perhaps unlocking new potential purchases as you pass milestone amounts of XP - like the 40k line of games from Fantasy Flight; or they'll do a point buy where the amount of points you have puts restrictions on your overall power levels - like Mutants and Masterminds. What works for your game, depends on how you want those to go.
The Ultimate Reward
One of the fun things about having experience points, is it lets you give a reward to a player that is directly relevant to their character and its power level. Now, there is a long history of GMs bribing players for all sorts of desirable activities with XP: from bringing food to the table, giving rides, doing extra work, or just particularly awesome moments of play. No matter how it works though, many players covet these cookies of XP that can be given out, and the GM who isn't careful can quickly find a large power difference in his game.
I honestly haven't seen many systems that do this. In fact, I've only heard of two games that do it that call themselves RPGS. Unsung Heroes, the small little expansion I made, is so simple that it doesn't use XP at all. It simply works that if you survive a session, you get stuff. The other was made in the comments here a few weeks ago. Using the BRP system, someone's GM had progression work by rolling against every skill you'd used during the session at the end. If you rolled higher than your skill, you increased it by 1-3%.
I'll be honest, this is an idea I've been looking to explore - at least as a thought process - so if anyone has other examples of this type of system in action, let me know. No, it doesn't count if XP is called something else by the way.
This is something that was, as far as I can tell, originated in the Amber: Diceless Roleplaying. How it works is simple. The players give the GM a list of what they're working on, and the priority they're giving each action. The GM then keeps track of XP, and spends it for the players as they go along. The idea being that players never get to know what their stats are, or how much they've grown, once character creation is done.
I've done a modified system of this myself, keeping track of XP for people, and spending it based on what I felt the character had worked on most, or would need coming up, and outlined off of a list of their priorities. Now, the characters could see what they had for stats, and when something went up, but they didn't know when such a thing was going to occur. It worked out well, though not quite as well as it does in Amber.
A strange thing to wrap this up with, but the idea behind XP is to represent how people grow and get better while doing things. The systems we have in games are fairly arbitrary. In fact, the "closest to how it probably works" one is the XPless progression for BRP that someone explained in the comments. Arbitrary isn't bad however. RPGs are rarely based on reality, and the PCs are rarely as ordinary as normal people. However, the idea behind how you want people to progress in your game will tell you a lot about how you want to handle XP - or the lack thereof - in your game. So think about it.
A lot of good people have been reading this blog, so I want to know what you all think about XP, Character Progression, and ways to handle it. Sound off in the comments below.