Fiddling with XP, part 2: Something old, something new

Previously I rambled for a while about XP systems, and how my ideal would be granular and world-associated – i.e. the way it works makes sense from an in-world perspective as well as a meta, mechanical one. Assuming a D&D-style class-and-level system, though, here’s the kind of thing I’d like to see. (Note that this was heavily inspired by Peter Dell’Orto’s XP house rules for his GURPS Dungeon Fantastic campaign.)

At the end of each session, expedition or mission, everyone who participated gets a base award. The recommended value is three points, although this can be adjusted based on the length of the session and the needs of the campaign. This value is adjusted based on how the party fared, and given to each participating player (i.e. it is not divided up between them).

Losing materiel penalizes the award by one point. Some small expenditures may be tolerated for the opening moves of an extended campaign, but in general a party that expends significant resources without profit probably hasn’t learned much.

Losing personnel penalizes the award by one point. NPCs who die in the line of duty do not have to be counted (although there should be social repercussions within the game world for parties who regularly sacrifice their followers), but if any PCs die, the party probably hasn’t learned much. Horror themed campaigns may set the bar a little higher, only imposing a penalty if two or more PCs die in the same time period.

+ Victory gives a bonus point. If the party has completed a major mission, fully explored a moderate-sized dungeon, defeated a recurring villain or slain an especially fearsome beast, they have probably learned something. A victory bonus is based on major party goals, and is not necessarily tied to victory in battle, or even the defeat of an opponent.

+ Being awesome in play gives a bonus point. Clever plans pulled off without a hitch, bold or dramatic moves that snatch success from the jaws of failure, and other bits of play that impress the DM indicate that the party is learning. Note that lucky dice rolls, or long shots that count on them, do not earn a bonus point: getting lucky with the dice in a tense situation is reward enough.

+ Unlocking achievements gives a bonus point. If the party reaches some interesting milestone in their adventures, they are probably learning and the DM may reward them with another XP. Mapping a whole dungeon, finding all the special sites hidden in the forest, and other accomplishments that don’t readily fall under the “victory” or “awesome” headings may merit this bonus.

* * *

In addition, each player has the potential to adjust their individual reward: at the start of play, anyone who wishes may choose a goal under one of the rubrics of Acquisition, Challenge, Conquest, Discovery, or Exploration (see below). The goal should be specific, and it is recommended that all players discuss their options and choose character goals that don’t conflict with each other. (It’s fine to have everyone select the same goal: that just means everyone will be on the same wavelength for a while.) Achieving your specific goal through play gets your character another bonus XP when awards are made, but carries a risk.

If through poor play the character fails to get closer to their goal (or gets further from it!), their individual XP reward is penalized by one point. In effect, making an individual-reward goal is placing a bet of one XP that it can be accomplished. (Note that failure resulting from DM caveat rather than poor choices on the player’s part should not be penalized; the player backs their stake with their skill and engagement in the game-world and story.)

* Acquisition means getting something material or useful: a great treasure hoard, a legendary magic sword or ring, a castle or tract of land, a formula for a spell, the broomstick of the Witch of the West. If the character ends the session with it in their possession, they get a bonus XP. Remaining empty-handed – or worse, allowing the treasure to be stolen by someone else, or the castle burned and sacked – merits a penalty.

* Challenge means performing some great feat. Crossing the Mountains of Madness, bringing the world-egg to its hatching-place, and the like. Some “challenges” (e.g. slaying the beast that haunts the moors) may be more accurately represented another way (e.g. as “conquest”), but it’s not a huge deal: “challenge” is intended as a catch-all category for goals that don’t fit neatly elsewhere, but the only reason I made categories at all was to get players thinking about different kinds of goals they could pursue. Failure implies that the character has not learned how to meet the challenge yet, and results in a penalty.

* Conquest means overcoming opponents. This may be through combat (slaying the dragon, taking the head of the bandit king, routing an opposing army) or other means (humiliating the vizier and seeing him driven from the court; convincing the princess to marry a suitor of your choosing instead of your rival’s son). Defeat or stalemate means the character cannot yet overcome their enemies, and results in a penalty.

* Discovery (in contrast to Exploration) means solving a mystery. Understanding a riddle, learning the identity of the Masked Man, finding the source of the corruption in the village, tracking the werewolf to its lair. Penalties are imposed if the players stymie themselves, muddy the waters, or do something so catastrophic that the puzzle is no longer solvable. (Probably no bonus should be given if they stumble into the answer through sheer dumb luck, either; keep in mind that these XP rewards are for good play and are given to show that the character has improved and therefore become better able to meet their goals.)

* Exploration means finding new things. In a megadungeon this might be a matter of getting to the lowest level, mapping most or all of one extensive level, or uncovering a hard-to-find or hard-to-reach location. A penalty may be applied if the character does nothing but retread old ground, or if they cause a pathway that they had planned to explore to become closed to them.

Finally, the group may choose to award one final bonus point to an MVP: if some character saves the party, advances their goals dramatically, or simply manages to entertain everyone with engaging play, the other players may reward them with an extra XP. This is a player-side version of the “awesome” bonus that the DM can award.

 * * *

What are the consequences of this system? Well, in an absolute train wreck, it means that a player can get zero XP. A base of three points, minus penalties for materiel and personnel losses, would have the DM giving a group reward of one point to each player (note that the group award is never zero); a player who bet on some goal and lost would have thrown away even that single point.

On the other hand, in case of a brilliant session full of amazing play, the party might get a base of three, all three bonuses from the DM, and on top of that an individual might fulfill a goal and be voted MVP, for a total of eight points. But for most sessions I would expect to see an average player getting four or five points: slightly above the base of three, because there are more opportunities for bonuses than penalties, and most gaming settings are conducive to a few small victories per session with only occasional setbacks.

Which brings us to the question of progression. Think about the charts from last time: what kind of curve do we want? It would be simple to make it linear: just keep the amount needed for each level increase the same. An exponential curve is similarly easy: just double the requirement each time, as in Original D&D. The problem with the former is that it yields no curve for the “learning curve,” and the problem with the latter is (since rewards stay about the same throughout) that each time you advance in level, you know that you’ll need to play as many sessions as you have already, all over again, plus one, before you see the next advancement. This seems like it would become a drag quickly… and it still fails to replicate a real-world learning curve.

…On that note, what is a real-world learning curve like? Google tells me it looks like this:

It actually looks very much like an arctan (x) graph

From here, by way of Google Image Search.

Note the slow start as well as the indefinitely extensible plateau. Most versions of D&D actually do away with the slow start by relegating it to backstory: it has been pointed out that once upon a time, first-level fighters were called “veterans,” implying that getting from mundane zero-level status to any kind of class and level at all meant building up enough experience to reach the rapid-advancement part of the curve. In in-world terms, that’s good stuff: implied character history can be a hook for roleplaying. A certain minimum of competence is necessary to hook players into the heroic power fantasy, too.

But the more options a system offers and the more variables it takes into account, the more time people need to get used to it before they can start making meaningful decisions. In this age of computer-based RPGs, part of the fun for many players is tinkering with a complex system, figuring out “builds” that allow them to squeeze the maximum effectiveness out of a given style or aesthetic of play. But for a beginner who just wants to grab a sword and hunt down some beasts, a streamlined introduction to play is good, and a breaking-in period that allows them to make informed decisions when they reach their first level-up is better.

(One alternate approach here is the one taken by roguelikes: a high-turnover situation with frequent character death that allows for experimentation on the fly without needing to worry about one bad investment having long-term repercussions… but most beginners probably aren’t interested in an experience where they die and die and die again, even if death does come less frequently over time as they gain competence. There’s a reason roguelikes are still a niche in the computer-based gaming world!) 

The next question is, where do we want to put the turning points in the curve? Well, the last couple of editions of D&D-product have been explicitly divided by design into “tiers” of play (a division that some would argue has been included, implicitly, from the very beginning). It makes sense for the first tier to be your slow start, your second tier to be your rapid advancement, and everything after to proceed at a more sedate pace. Where you draw the dividing line depends on the particulars of the system, but most D&Ds would probably put the turning points at around 5th and 10th levels respectively.

Just as a very rough approximate example, then, let’s say this: twenty-five XP (between three and seven sessions or missions, for all but the most disastrous players) to go up a level at first, slowly decreasing by 5 every couple of levels to a minimum of ten (two to four sessions/missions). After that, just ten XP per level until 10th – and then for each level beyond that, five more (i.e. about one extra session) than the previous one.

Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
XP req. 0 25 25 20 20 15 15 10 10 10
Total XP 0 25 50 70 90 105 120 130 140 150
Level 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
XP req. 15 20 25 30 35 40 45 50 55 60
Total XP 165 185 210 240 275 315 360 410 465 525

That gives us a progression that looks like this:

Don't expect this one to be a final version. I'm proud of it for now, though.

Flip the x and y axes to get the arctan-ish shape of the “learning curve.”

Today’s post is already closing in on 2000 words, so that’s enough for now. Next time I’ll explain my choices in greater depth and throw in some more possible add-ons for the rules governing rewards – concerning not just XP, but treasure as well. Fun!

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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