Recently, I found myself perusing a thread on the Paizo forums. It’s not something I make a habit of, but I noticed they were sending me some traffic, so I thought I’d take a look to see why. The thread was addressing the issue of experience points, and asked the question: are they necessary for a good game? In the course of the discussion, my old Simple Experience Points piece was shared by a poster named Azaelas Fayth, which is pretty cool.
Scanning the thread, I was surprised to note that many, if not most of the responses replied in the negative. A large group of Pathfinder players seem to prefer running games without experience points. Instead, characters are granted levels either ‘every few sessions,’ or at story appropriate moments. I find this particularly interesting, because it’s what I did for such a long time, and I was never satisfied with it. In fact it was that very dissatisfaction which made me so excited when I encountered Paul’s simple experience points system, and drove me to adapt it for Pathfinder. To quote myself:
“Almost every game I’ve run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they’ve earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome.
At best, the method I’ve been using make experience points redundant. At worst, my method reduces player agency. It’s an arrangement I’ve never been happy with” -Me, 10/22/11
Some of the posters in this thread even went so far as to assert that experience points are an outmoded concept, kept alive by misguided tradition rather than actual usefulness. And, in fairness to that viewpoint, it’s not entirely wrong in this case. Pathfinder removed the experience point cost from all spells and rituals, and in doing so, removed the very last reason why experience point totals need to be so large. Calculating those large numbers is time consuming and frustrating, even with the improvements Pathfinder made to how experience points are calculated.
But is completely removing experience points from the game really the best solution?
To be fair once again, my impression from reading the thread is that most of those participating could be classified as “story gamers.” So my viewpoint may not be very relevant to the kind of game they’re trying to run. I’m not sure why a story gamer would choose a mechanically heavy system like Pathfinder to play with, but who am I to judge? I play oldschool, high-mortality games with Pathfinder. If anyone is the odd ball out, it’s me.
I’ve come to the understanding that in a role playing game, the means by which characters gain new levels, defines the game’s goal. The players are free to do as they choose in the game world, but they will not achieve greater status and power until they direct their attention towards whatever actions will help them level up. In most games, reaching a new level is a big step. One which takes a significant investment of time, to properly offset the significant boost in power and status the character will receive.
Once a player has set their sights on a goal, they may become frustrated if they cannot see progress towards that goal. I would consider this to be reasonable behavior, particularly in games where gaining a new level can require months of weekly game sessions to accomplish. As such, it is helpful if the player can more easily acquire a tangible ‘piece’ of a new level, and over time, watch those pieces accumulate, as they grow ever closer to the number of pieces required to reach a new level. In Pathfinder, those pieces are called experience points, and they are received primarily by slaying monsters. Thus monster slaying could be said to be the point of the game.
Interestingly, though, there’s nothing stopping a GM from redefining the goal of the game, and breaking each level into different sized pieces. To demonstrate what I mean, here are three examples of three completely different experience point systems, all of which I’ve used:
- In my ToKiMo Pathfinder campaign, I reward players for overcoming challenges. Any challenge will do. Defeating monsters is one type of challenge my players enjoy. But they also enjoy the challenge of avoiding traps, or talking their way out of a tight spot. Both of those challenges also give experience points, and they do so at the same rate as combat. I also require only 30 experience points for each level in that game, and award either 1, 2, or 3 xp per challenge, depending on how difficult I determine it to be beforehand. As an added bonus, choosing a number between 1 and 3 is a lot easier than calculated thousands, or hundreds of thousands of XP. I can easily grant XP to my players immediately after the challenge is overcome, rather than waiting until after the session to do so.
- In my Dungeons & Dragons & Little Brothers OD&D campaign, the point of the game is to find and recover treasure. To facilitate that, players gain 1 experience point for each 1 gold piece they spend. The effect this system has had on the game has been amazing! Players are always happy to find treasure, but I’ve never seen players so happy as they are in this game, where every silver candlestick or ancient vase brings them one step closer to their next level. Of all the experience point systems I’ve ever used, I think this is easily the most fun. Plus, it’s utterly simple, since I don’t need to do anything. All I do is tell the players how much gold they find, and they do the rest!
- In my as yet unfinished Legend of Zelda Adventure System, there is no experience points, nor any other ‘piece’ of a level for players to collect. It a character wants to advance, they must seek out and destroy a great monster. If they can accomplish this feat, they immediately advance to the next level. Like the GP for XP idea, this requires no real work on the GM’s part.
As you can see, each of these three has a unique goal, and a unique ‘piece’ size. (Overcome challenges, recover gold, defeat great monsters / 30, thousands, and 1 respectively). When you and your group sit down to play a new game, it might be interesting to briefly ask: what do we want the goal of the game to be, and how can we represent that?