In Defense of Experience Points

Munchkin Card Game - Whine at the GM, Go Up a Level
A card from the Munchkin game, from Steve Jackson Games

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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?

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18 thoughts on “In Defense of Experience Points”

  1. One of the things that I really like about my new go-to gaming system Savage Worlds is that there is a two-tiered reward system. On the one hand there are the classic XP, which are handed out at the rate of about 2-3 per session, with a level-up every 5 XP (regardless of level, independent of kills). On the other there’s the meta-gaming ‘Benny’, an immediate reward that can be given to a player for any reason; good role-play, solving a problem, killing a monster (though this rarely), even cracking a good joke at the table. Bennies can then be cashed in to re-roll almost any roll. It’s a great tool for GMs to train gamers through Pavlovian response ;)
    Character advancement still takes place in the classic manner, so that problem is solved. The GM can make the game be about whatever s/he wants it to be by (a) awarding XP for what s/he regards as being important and (b) appropriate use of Bennies.

  2. Overcoming challenges grants xp at my gaming table.
    I like it because it promotes creative and easy solutions.

    I don’t have any experience with ‘seek out and destroy a great monster’ for levelling.
    But wouldn’t players focus too much on that in order to gain new levels?

    1. The Great Monsters of the LOZAS system are not something players could easily just walk out and kill. The idea was that players may need to seek out special tactics or items to defeat those monsters, and that it would take 3-4 sessions of work before the players would be ready to kill one.

      You might call it similar to Shadow of the Colossus, but in a tabletop environment.

      The idea was still in its infancy when I set the project on the back burner, but I think it still shows a lot of promise. I wanted the game to be about hunting down and killing big bad guys, and I think the XP system will promote that.

  3. I have been using your simple XP system (and a few pages of other things you’ve written) for the Pathfinder game I’m running at home, and my players/family and I are loving it. It’s as simple as it says in the title, and not having to deal with huge and varied numbers (like we do in our AD&D game) makes bookkeeping and level advancement a breeze. Now that they’re at level 2 I’m going to start working in your hero point system!

    Oh, and we adapted your called shots rules to 1st edition. It’s great.

  4. I play in a couple of rotating GM campaigns. I’ve used a variety of XP systems, but one rule I always use, that many of my fellow GM’s don’t, is that you must be present for your character to earn XP, because I like people to be there to run their characters. If the character is along for the ride, but someone else is running him, he gets no XP. I don’t know if it encourages attendance or not, but it makes me feel good.

    1. I, and the other GMs I play with, would agree with you!

      Personally I love a game where players gain XP independently of one another. You’d be surprised by what a level 1 character can do in a party where the average level is 4 or 5.

      1. Yeah. One of the GM’s in my day group is basically giving everyone the same experience, including characters that are new, or are not even on the adventure. From a player perspective, it’s okay, since it means I don’t have to feel like anyone is getting ahead of me, but…

        There was 7th Sea game I got into late (like weeks late), and rather than giving me a new character that would mess up his story line, the GM gave me SIgismundo, the follower another player had bought to serve as a translator, built on half the points as everyone else. I had a blast. The other players thought I would mess with the player who had originally purchased Sigismundo, since he was something of a munchkin, but I din’t think that would be fair, so I was 100% loyal and obedient. Sigismundo’s enthusiasm did get him into trouble from time to time, but eventually, when he leapt from the deck of the ship onto the back of a Kraken that had his boss grabbed, and slew it (apparently the rest of the party had got it down to about three hp with their firearms and such), the GM was so impressed that he granted me the 50 XP necessary to catch up to everyone else, and declared me a “real boy”.

  5. Last week we were setting up to play the AD&D game my dad is running, and my mom said she wanted to join us, but was adamant that she didn’t want to take the time to create a character. We have a Dwarf fighter in the party that floats between players and I suggested she use him. She wanted to play a spellcaster so I asked if she wanted to play the level 1 cleric henchwoman of my character instead. Dad said “There is no way she is playing a first level character with you guys. She won’t be able to do anything!” Mind, the rest of us are levels 5-7. So I let her play my Half-Elf level 5 Ranger/Cleric and decided it was the perfect opportunity to play Hermy, a Minotaur Fighter/Illusionist that I rolled up last summer but haven’t been able to play with yet. I failed my know spell check for every spell I wanted save for Color Spray, then we started play.
    Not two minutes in and the party was faced with a hydra. Hermy won initiative, and cast her one useful spell… And stunned 4 of the 5 hydra heads for enough rounds that we were able to kill the thing. My father then apologized for his comment on the uselessness of first level characters.

  6. Sonova! I am Azaelas Fayth!

    On-Topic: The people in that thread are a surprisingly small group of players…
    Some of the others I have talked to are fond of No XP in a Story focused campaign.
    If it is a Sandbox Campaign they enjoy XP in some form.

    Not that they wouldn’t turn down an early GM Fiat Level Up…

    1. As I said in that thread, I’m of the opinion that the GM shouldn’t really concern him or herself with ‘story.’ But like many of my interactions with the Paizo community of late, that thread reinforced for me that I really don’t have a place there. I find myself much more at home in the OSR.

      1. It is probably just the people in the threads.

        I have linked to some of your stuff before and it was nicely received.

        I will say that after thinking about it…

        I have to say that a GM should just provide a Story framework that the Players fill in. And I feel Exp. has a place in some campaigns.

        And I am the opposite on the OSR thing…

        1. I’m not offended by their disagreement with my beliefs, I just think it is…lacking in sufficient consideration for the value of the system? The people on the Paizo forums seem like a decent bunch, they just have a general outlook which is opposed to my own.

          You and I disagree about the importance of GMs taking part in the story. But since I’m more at home in the OSR, and you don’t feel at home there, it’s to be expected that we have some different views on how games should be run. I’m glad you can still find things to enjoy about my writing, and I very much appreciate all the links you post!

            1. At that point I wouldn’t call it a story, so much as an environment.

              Though in my games, if I have a BBEG at all, the players can kill him or her at level 1 if they’re clever enough.

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