Monday, March 14, 2011

Experience Points & Character Progression

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.

The Extremes
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.

XPless Progression
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.

Blind Progression
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.

The Idea
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.

Anything Else?
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.


  1. My "toolbox" system KORE uses an XPless progression, as does my newest creation "How to Train Your Dragon the RPG"

    Much like BRP, in KORE, successful use of an ability grants the chance that you will improve with that improvment growing more difficult as the ability increases to a maximum of 10 (from which no improvment is possible.)

    In How to Train Your Dragon, any successful use results in an improved statistic at the end of a session. There is no upper limit to a statistic, so growth without bound is reasonable.

  2. I'm not a fan of levels, I'm not sure where that idea came from (yes, D&D, I mean where did they get the idea). I prefer point buy. I like the Xpless progression that you're looking at but doesn't have an already explained mechanism for learning new skills. It also encourages players to use skills just for the sake of using them, which I suppose isn't bad because they're practicing but it might need something to prevent abuse IMHO.

    I'm increasingly a fan of allowing players to do other things with their Xp beyond advancing. Things like re-rolling a failed dice roll, or maybe even taking over narration of a situation if enough Xp were expended.

    Icar does some interesting things with Xp (Rp in Icar) where you can slowly change the personality of a character in what is call the "deviant wheel" and also swap out what are called "psychotheatrics" which are a set of randomly rolled good and bad traits. That's usually the kind of thing I've seen as a permanent condition.

  3. Kevin, those both sound pretty cool.

    Emmet, I also don't much care for levels. it just feels weird to all the sudden get so much progression. I don't mind how Dark Heresy does it, where you buy things and eventually unlock new things you can buy, but even that can be confining.

    As far as the origin? Not sure. My guess would be it was the easiest way to do it at the time, combined with the roots of table top war gaming where it might make more sense as you're dealing with armies, not people.

  4. XP of some sort is important from a gamist perspective; you want to get better at doing stuff. In effect it is a currency that affects the future play of the game.

    Another way progression can happen is in systems like FATE or Universalis, that add descriptors as a result of a situation. For example, a character develops a debilitating fear of spiders after they were ensnared and hung from stalactites. Both systems have a point-based currency, but I'm sure we can all think of a character we've had whose behaviour changed overtime regardless of XP system.

    So I guess I'm saying that progression can occur irrespective of XP, but that XP facilitates quantifying it...

  5. Aaron: Good call with FATE.

    Something I've thought about is how Zelda handles progression.
    The only stats Link has are, generally: health, mana and the quantities he can store of various stuff. And these are changed through exploration and specific achievements.
    Everything else is done with equipment that is handeled in a narrativist way (the items are different because of what they let you do rather than being clones of each other with different numbers invovled and some differing effects).

    Also interesting to note while I'm on the topic of video games: Morrowind has the BRP method of skill use causes skill increase, but also has leveling for increasing attributes.

  6. That is an interesting combination in Morrowind, good spot Ry.

    Zelda also is a good example of other ways of doing things. Link doesn't get better at sword fighting as the game goes along, he simply gets better swords. Granted, you could argue in the new game that he does progress as he learns the legendary techniques.

  7. One of the more intriguing RPGs I've read was Misspent Youth. They system focuses on role-playing with very little roll-playing. When you create a character, you just create your character's personality and background. You have five convictions, three chosen from a list and two made-up by the player. These are called your free convictions. Each of these has an "opposite" sold conviction that you get when you sell out one of your convictions. You sell out whenever you're faced with a situation where only selling out will allow you to come out the victor. You pick a conviction, sell it out, and it permanently changes to something quite the opposite. This makes your character's personality change as this is the only defined aspect of your character.

    I hope I explained it well enough. Basically, the only way to advance your character in the system is to take something that defines your character and twist it into a gross exaggeration or the opposite of what it previously was. Basically it changes from something that represents your youthful rebelliousness into something that brings you closer to The Man.

  8. The "Zelda method" of advancement where increases are primarily handled via item use and acquisition would likely work really well in a supers game where the abilities of the character are considered to be somewhat static.