XP Systems #1: The Problem

As I’m wrapping up my current campaign, I’m looking at any tweaks I would like to make for my next one. We’re going to be switching to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but I don’t like the way it handles advancement and awarding experience points. Over the next few posts, I’m going to discuss an alternative to the methods for advancement laid out in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as well as its implementation. Before I get to that, I first want to discuss the issues I have with how XP is handled by default in D&D as well as what I would like out of a system.

The crux of the problem with experience in 5e is that its is overwhelmingly biased towards combat. It’s been that way for the last few editions, but that wasn’t always the case. Older editions of D&D also awarded XP for returning bringing gold and treasure back to town, amongst other things. As the game got more codified and more focused on providing suitably balanced challenges for the players’ characters, the default method for awarding XP is solely based on defeating opponents, which players tend to take to mean killing them. That’s why I say it’s biased towards combat. If the players’ characters don’t defeat something, then it’s at the discretion of the dungeon master whether they receive anything. Even though I’m the DM, I don’t like leaving things to DM fiat when I can.

For my last few campaigns, I’ve made changes to the way I handle XP. There are some things I have been trying, and now I’m going to discuss the basis for those. There are a handful of traits I think are important in a system, and I want the system the games I run to use something that has as many of them as possible (if not all of them, preferably). I also want to note up front that these traits were considered with an expectation that I will be running a game with an immersive orientation. For games that focus more on exploring a narrative and its themes, I’m not quite sure how applicable they are. I think maybe somewhat, but I haven’t thought about it in detail beyond wanting to make that disclaimer.

Desired Traits

One of the most important traits is that it should convey a sense of progression. Players generally like to feel like their characters are getting more capable and proficient, and a good XP system will allow them to anticipate when that will happen. It’s like being excited to receive birthday presents. You know it’s going to happen, and it usually happens every year like clockwork, but there’s still a sense of anticipation. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like milestone-based advancement. There’s no sense of progression or anticipation. There are a couple of ways it can be done. The worst ones base it entirely on DM fiat, leveling up the characters when the DM thinks it makes sense for that to happen. The system that comes to mind for me is the one that Fate Core uses for advancement. In that system, you get to make various changes depending on your progress through the current story. That’s a bit better as far as anticipation goes, since you can usually tell when you are hitting an important part of the story, but it doesn’t really work very well for sandbox play. I’ve had games where PCs walked away from the current plot, since they really just wanted to get out of where they were. I don’t view that as a failure, since we play to find out what happens (as games like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World would put it), but that also means I can’t rely on the story to gate progression. Additionally, if you tie things too closely to your story, you run the risk of prepping plots. Don’t prep plots. Tied into this is the need for a feedback loop, where the reward mechanism ties into the gameplay and reinforces it.

The way players engage the game is through its structures. D&D has a gameplay loop where PCs go looking for adventure, engage that adventure (slaying the dragon, saving the prince, etc), and then use the proceeds from that adventure to equip themselves for the next adventure. Every game has a core gameplay loop, or else it wouldn’t be a game. A good XP system will tie into the core gameplay loop of your game, reinforcing its themes and mechanics. D&D 5e calls out three pillars: exploration, combat, and social interaction. However, you only (officially) receive XP for one of those three things. I’ve pointed this out several times already, but it’s important to call out, because that colors the way the system works in practice. When the reward is XP for fighting, PCs will approach most problems as combat challenges with an expectation they are supposed to win them. There is definitely room for improvement, and it’s not just layering DM fiat on top of the current XP system.

The goal of minimizing DM fiat is to reduce or eliminate opportunities for the DM to come into conflict with the players’ expectations. Regardless of the quality of the DM, there are times when you shouldn’t give the players what they want. Maybe they didn’t earn it, or their actions had consequences. When you’ve been set up as the sole arbiter of what counts (for progression, success, victory, or whatever), that means you’re eventually going to be at odds with your players. When that happens, there’s a good chance you’ll disappoint someone, and it will affect their engagement with the game. Once you’ve lost your players, it’s difficult to get them to come back into the game and doing that thing you’d like them to do, since they can’t trust that they’ll get rewarded when they think they deserve it. This is a problem with games that base XP on players’ having completed certain actions and leaving it to the DM to decide whether the players did them suitably. One way to mitigate this is by relying on consensus, but that can also have problems.

Another important trait is predictability. That’s for you, not the players. When your feedback loop is functioning effectively, then the rewards should come regularly. When it’s not, then the rewards will start coming irregularly. That allows you to see when there are problems in your game, serving as a sort of canary in the coal-mine. However, you have to be careful about how you engage with your feedback loop. If the system codifies a limited set of conditions for gaining XP, and you try to rely on both consensus to both determine when to award XP and when to make changes to the game, you may find that players may hesitate to change something they consider part of the game’s identity. This the problem I mentioned with consensus, which I think is good overall, but I also think can be tweaked. I’ll discuss that more in my next article.

There are two more traits that are important. The penultimate trait is that a good XP system should support both collective and individual XP rewards. There are two reasons for this. You want to keep the group roughly at parity, which can help you gauge how dangerous potential foes are to the PCs. While I don’t advocate for worrying too much about encounter balance, you should still telegraph to PCs when they are entering a potentially dangerous area, even if just to create appropriate atmosphere. However, you also want to reward characters for behaving as individuals with their own agendas. Giving players agency will generally increase their engagement. You have to be careful that they can still work together, but that’s what the collective rewards should help encourage and reinforce.

Finally, the system should require minimal prep. If it offers any customization, it should be done prior to the campaign or at latest in session zero and not revisited until the next campaign or unless you need to make changes because the current one has gone in a new direction. The fact is I’m lazy. I don’t want to have to plan or budget or track how many things someone has accomplished in the session. Additionally, if the system requires a lot of maintenance, you probably won}t keep up with it. Along with predictability and collective and individual rewards, this trait serves as the backbone for the system I will propose in my next post.

Next Time

In my next post, I’ll provided a high level overview of a system that has these traits along with procedures for implementing it. The system will convey a sense of progression to the players, reinforce the game’s creative agenda, minimize the role and effect of fiat and bias, provide for both group and individual awards, and do all this without requiring a ton of prep from me (other than devising the mechanic and then executing prior to the campaign, I suppose).