Experience is the Point

I saw a post the other day that mentioned a D&D game where the DM awarded experience points, not for doing stuff, but for playing in line with your alignment. It was touted as a good idea. A comment pointed out the issue that alignment is often subjective. The OP replied with, “Make it Objective.”

This touches on one of my gaming hot buttons. Not the alignment part – quite frankly I’ve never had an issue with it and just don’t care – but rather, the experience points part. I have played a lot of games, run a lot of games, and read a lot of games. There are as many ways to handle experience and advancement in games as there are dice systems… actually, probably more.

Alternate experience systems often leave me cold though. I mean, the point of experience systems is right in the name: Experience. You don’t get better at swinging a sword because you stay true to your alignment. You get better by swinging it a lot and learning better ways of swinging it to get the results you want.

But that brings up the question, “what is a good way to present experience?”

The answer often depends on the kind of game you are running, etc. Personally, I prefer point-buy creation systems and I’m usually a fan of the incremental growth approach that happens when you get awarded pools of experience points with which to raise your character’s traits in whatever way you see fit.

This also, of course, depends on how your game views downtime and training and stuff like that. If characters have a lot of free time, or are part of an organization, or something similar, then it makes sense that they could take a class or get a mentor or just practice to learn a skill that isn’t an “everyday” skill for them when adventuring.

But those concerns don’t address the idea of, “what should experience points be awarded for?”

Again, there are many answers, but I’m going to just take a stab at a few things I’ve seen over the years that stuck out to me (rather than actually answering the question).

D&D (and its ilk) has always seemed strange to me. Starting from the idea of awarding experience for gold, I’ve always been confused by that. 2nd Edition had the weirdness of awarding XP for class specific actions. You know, stuff you’re going to do anyway because that’s your niche in the group. Over time, the game seemed to shift to awarding the majority of experience for combat encounters and has reached a point with 5e where it’s generally okay to just dispense with XP altogether and just have the DM tell you when to level up. (Nothing wrong with that if it works for you.)

But something to really like is the fact that D&D experience points are very generic and holistic. You just get better overall – your combat stats, your class abilities, etc. – by virtue of earning a pool of XP that represents your total growth between levels. It’s an acknowledgement of the gradual change of your character over time.

Call of Cthulhu always did something that I loved with the way it grew characters. Instead of having any experience points at all, you just got to check skills as you used them and then you got the chance to improve skills as you went along. This really appeals to my sense of, “you get better by doing” except that it can end up being very frustrating for players (if you constantly miss the roll on improvement checks) and for GMs (as players see this as a min-max challenge and make up reasons to check skills during play just to get a chance to roll for improvement later).

Star Wars D6 (WEG) also had a weird twist to their growth system. You’d get character points for completing adventures that you could then use to improve your character – but – those points were also the currency you’d spend in-play to improve rolls or save your bacon when you get shot a little too hard. Which means that you could end up in a similar trap to CoC where you struggle with a series of bad rolls and that wipes out your gains. Which feels unsatisfying because, you still experienced shit. You still practiced and grew and learned things.

Deadlands did something similar with cashing in Fate Chips for XP. Not only were Fate Chips more rare than Character Points in Star Wars D6 but they were drawn at random so it was easy again for a run of bad luck to stunt or even cripple your advancement.

Of course, you could go whole hog and just run character advancement like Amber Diceless where you earned your points at the end of story arcs and didn’t even know how many points you actually had to work with. That was always exciting and weird.

I could go on but I really just wonder… What do you like? How do you recommend handling character growth/experience? I’m genuinely interested in trying to find a path I’m happy with but that also won’t frustrate players.

As always, thanks for reading.

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