Not sure why this popped back into my mind, but a conversation I was having recently got me to remembering something I did as the GM of a large chat based game - and that I fully condone and would do again today in a smaller game. The action in question, which was very controversial at the time and still kind of is today, was that I put a cap on how much XP a character could have stored (i.e. unspent) on their character at any one time. Now, this was a high cap. Something like 52 XP in a game where maxing out a skill that you didn't have on your sheet (i.e. going from rank 0 to rank 10) cost 55 XP, and raising a trait to 5 (very powerful raise) only cost 20 XP. Today, I want to talk about this idea, why I like it, why players dislike it, and all that fun stuff.
Points Are For Spending, Not For Hoarding
We've all (likely) been in a game before where the GM looks at someone's sheet and goes "umm, you have 30 xp unspent on your sheet..." Then, it clicks for you. This is why that character has seemed so weak of late. Why they've been missing so much in combat, doing lackluster damage when they do hit, and yet don't seem particularly strong in any other area. It can happen with other spendables, but XP seems to be the big culprit. The answer most likely to be given - in my experience anyhow - for why the person is hoarding XP? "I like having a lot, and I don't want to spend it."
Now, far be it for me to tell you how to have fun, but spendable points are for spending. There is no benefit to hoarding it. It isn't like money where having a whole ton of XP unspent (but a weak character) is going to suddenly be advantageous to you (well, depending on system and house rules I suppose). Even worse, the hoarding can actually be harmful for the game, or at least cause undue stress on the part of the GM.
Now, in this game there was like 100+ players, which also caused other problems. So, the solution was to cap how much XP a player could have on their sheet just lying their.
The Player's Side
On the player's side of things, I can see how this could be viewed as unfair. After all, you are effectively being told that you can not earn any more XP. You are full up, and no more will be coming for you. That means you get no reward (or less reward if you were very close to the cap) for continued play and adventuring. Obviously, this is something to be concerned about. Along with this came cries that people were saving up for big spends down the line, or looking to get something specific, or just waiting for it to "feel like the right time" for their character to progress.
Obviously, since I still think the idea is fine, I don't buy any of those reasons. Why? Well, because of how high I set the cap. See, I would agree with a lot of them with a lower cap, but a cap of 52 XP is not particularly low. In the game in question, you got 4 XP a week. Which meant that 52 XP was the equivalent of 13 weeks of XP. The most expensive thing you could buy in the game was a stat to rank 10, which cost 40 XP, and like I said, going from skill rank 0 to skill rank 10 was just a little bit over the 52 XP mark. So, the idea that people are saving up doesn't fly, nor does going for something specific. Feeling like the right time, maybe, but we are talking over 3 months of play here. In 3 months your character hasn't grown enough to buy anything with their XP? At that point I start to doubt you are playing.
My other reasons come in two flavors, mechanical and narrative. Mechanically, there are also issues. Beyond the fact that you can buy more than the most expensive thing at the cap, there are other concerns as well. One of those concerns is the power level of the character in question and fairness to other players. Now, this is less of an issue in Table Top (for certain GMs), but when the possibility of PVP is high, it is something to watch out for.
What do I mean about power level? Simply this. Make a character with the starting character points in your favorite point buy system. Now that he's made, add 10 XP to him. Then add 10 more XP. Then 10 more, and keep going in increments of 10 XP until you've reached 100 XP. Now, build a different character with starting character points plus 100 XP. The second character will likely be more powerful and focused, because you knew all the points right from the get go. Meanwhile,t he first character has considerations of smaller XP pools to go over. They're more likely a bit more spread out. They didn't drop 30 XP on a stat to 7 because they never had 30 XP at one time to spend. The other person did though, didn't they?
Then there is the other issue of game balance, which is setting up encounters. See, character power level doesn't matter as much to a good GM, because they'll set up encounters to challenge the players specifically. However, in this case, you have the potential for a character to jump up the power rankings very quickly. They mass spend their 50+ XP, and suddenly they've gone from "apprentice fighter" to "legendary swordsman". Which kind of sucks for the GM if they've spent a few hours carefully honing the challenge setting for the PC to be at a lower power level (this is where the undue stress comes in).
Narratively, my reasons are a bit more vague. Namely coming down to this. Experience represents your character's growth over time. It is very rare for a character to just jump up power levels suddenly and rapidly. Progressing at a rapid rate, maybe, but to just shoot from a mook to a legend over night is a bit far fetched for me to believe without some serious story reasons for it.
There is also the group dynamics that it can mess up, as suddenly the person who was a nobody is the main striker for the team, and other players are left their wondering just what the hell happened.
Risk For Power
This is something I thought up while writing this, and is in the player's case. That increased power I mentioned, is gained at a risk. The player is staying at a lower power level for longer, in order to reap the rewards of having a bulk of XP to spend at once. From a purely game theory perspective, I can see and be more ok with that.
So, would I do it again? Yes, I would. Hell, I said that above. But, let me get some things clear. I would do it again in a heart beat for a big game. When you have 100+ players, a team of 8-20 GMs, and a strong possibility of PVP combat in your game, game balance is a bigger issue than it is in your home game of 4-6 players. In a game like that, I would start with the rule. In a table top game, I'd be more prone to asking why the player isn't spending XP and what they're trying to do.
Also, keep in mind that one of the reasons I'm for this is because of how high the cap is. The cap in no way, shape, or form hinders a player from being able to buy anything that they'd want in the game. In fact, they can buy the most expensive thing, and still have room for other things at the same time. Even someone saving up for power wouldn't be too heavily impacted by this, because they could still buy those high powered things.
Do I recommend it for every game? No, I don't. Some games don't need it, and some groups won't like it. However, it is something to keep in mind if you ever start having a problem with someone regularly not spending their XP. Don't take action until it starts causing issues for the group, or you, but don't be afraid to tell the player to spend their XP or you'll cap how much they can carry around.
The fun thing about issues like this is that I know other opinions will be out there. I'd love to hear your arguments either for, or against this. Just please do me a favor and read the post thoroughly first. It's not going to be fun if your arguments are already addressed (unless you are specifically attacking my arguments against that).