On Monday I talked about how you're doing XP in your game all wrong. Today I want to talk about how much XP you should be giving out. Unfortunately, since every game uses a different scale and system for XP, I can't just be like "seven. You should give out 7 XP every session and you'll be good" because, well, if I was getting 7 XP per session of D&D or even something like Deathwatch or Dark Heresy, I think I'd leave the game and give the GM a lot of angry glances.
With that in mind, my goal is to talk about how to come up with a plan for giving out XP, and then - hopefully - you can give out the right amount. I will, however, share the numbers I've come up with for my L5R game and my Star Wars game using FFG's system. Feel free to copy, comment, or critique as you will.
Step 1: What Is The Desired Power Arc For Your Story
When you are coming up with a plan for your XP, it helps to first consider the arc of your story. Where do you expect your characters to begin - for most people this is as "fresh new PCs with just character creation points" or "level 1" for level based games - and where do you expect them to be by the end of your campaign. Next, you want to take a guess at about how many sessions you expect for the game to get to that level.
Now, this takes a lot of planning and knowing what kind of story you want to run ahead of time. It doesn't necessarily work for campaign type games where the idea is exploring a world, but it works great for story games where you have a decided beginning and end point ahead of time. Don't worry if you don't know how strong you want your PCs to be just yet, the other steps will help out too.
That said, if you know - for example - that you want your PCs to enter the game as fresh baby level one characters and leave the game as level 7 seasoned adventurers, and you have ten sessions for your game than it's probably a good idea to plan your XP rewards so the PCs hit level 7 by the pen-ultimate session so they have some time to enjoy their max power level. Have five sessions for a mini-D&D campaign? Doing a level a session might be a great way to go through things.
Step 2: How Much Does A Significant Piece Of Character Growth Cost?
This is not just for point buy systems. Level based systems make this simple, the only significant character advancement (mechanically) is going up a level. Point buy systems however have other ways of doing it. What constitutes as significant is up to you, and based on the session. For L5R raising a ring is significant early, and a single trait is significant later on. For FFG's Star Wars system, a Tier 4 or 5 Talent is a pretty significant advancement. Other games have other rates.
The point is, how much does it cost to have that advancement? Ok, now that is what your players are going to want. So you want to make sure you are giving enough for them to ding one of these advancements fairly regularly. How regularly? I'd say every 2-3 sessions with some change left over is a good rate.
Now, the idea here is that if it takes 2-3 sessions for a significant advancement, then smaller advancements can be acquired faster. If it takes 20 XP to get a Tier 4 talent, and you give 15 XP a session it means that a player can get several small things, or 1-2 moderate things every session, and as they get stronger they don't have to wait too long before they get that big toy they've been gunning for.
Step 3: How Long Do You Have Between Sessions?
Consider how long you have between sessions. If you're meeting every week, then you care more about session count than time between. If you're meeting every two weeks, you're borderline for considering real world time over session time. More than two weeks and you might want to consider giving a little extra.
Why? Because at a game every 3 weeks or every month (or longer) you have so long between sessions that it can feel like forever between XP expenditures. That 2 sessions to get 20 XP for a Tier 4 advantage is now 2 months of game, and in that time the player has to also not be distracted by other small things they may pick up just to feel like they have some form of growth or forget about the XP they've been hoarding, inadvertently harming their character's growth while still feeling like they're not growing despite having a pool of XP.
This step, is of course, the most optional, but it is something you should consider. Who knows it may even help keep the game on track with the PCs getting stronger that little bit faster.
Step 4: What Does The System Recommend?
Most systems recommend a certain amount of XP for each session and what to give it for. Read this section, balance these numbers, compare them to what you already have against how long it takes to have a significant character advancement, and how long you have in your game to get to the maximum level.
These Steps Combined...
If you combine these steps you should come up with an amount that works for your game to have stable, but frequent, progression for the characters. If you have a session limit and a max level planned, you know your max. By knowing how costly a big advance is, and pacing it to happen every 1-2 sessions you also have a rate of growth for your characters.
I'd focus on a comfortable growth rate for your players over your power curve. Story can be scaled, after all, but player satisfaction is absolute. It's also worth while to tune to your group. If your group is fine with slower progression with good story, you don't need to give as much. If they're all about the mechanics? You might need to give a little more.
In L5R I've recently settled on the amount of 6XP per session, this is up 1 from my old standard of 5. I like 6XP per session because it means that if a player wants to raise a skill up to rank 6 they only need to wait 1 session to have the XP for it. A skill at 7 or higher takes longer, but as 7 represents mastery and is worth a bit of wait time. With 6 XP a character can also get a trait to 3 in two sessions, or to 4 in 3 sessions. They're also free to combine saving a little XP while raising skills to smaller amounts than 6. Lastly, it means that my PCs are going to be going up in insight rank (at least to insight rank 2, and then 3) after about 5-10 sessions depending on their starting build. This makes a rate that lets them experience their growth in power, while constantly feel like they're moving forward.
In Star Wars (the Fantasy Flight System, not Saga or WEG) I give 15xp as a base value for the session, and then give more for significant events and happenings. I do this because the book recommends five XP per hour of game, and my game tends to have about 3 hours of play in each session (around other stuff going on.) This also means that, as I used in an example, my players only need to save for 2 sessions for any level of advantage in their career, and can get up to a Tier 3 advantage every session (or rank 3 in a skill in their career.) The extra boosts nudge them along further, faster, but only when they've done something special to deserve it.
These are my rates. They work fairly well for my games, and they let my PCs grow at a moderate rate while still feeling like they've earned their progression. Hopefully it helps you out too.