XP Systems #2: A Solution

Previously, I wrote about what I want to see in an experience system. Before I start, let’s recap the six traits I want in one:

  • The XP mechanic should create a positive feedback loop, reinforcing the game’s (and group’s!) creative agenda;
  • It should have a low dependency on dungeon master fiat, so you don’t have to decide when players receive rewards, which can unnecessarily put the players and you at odds with each other;
  • It should be predictable, so that you can assess how well it’s working;
  • It should provide a sense of progression to the players;
  • It should be support both collective and individual rewards, allowing you to reward the group for functioning well while also rewarding players for showing agency (increasing their engagement); and
  • It should not require a lot of prep to administer, or you’ll not keep up with it, and the system won’t work as well as it should (or even properly).

About the System

This system builds on a few things I have been doing with my group for the last few years. Some of these are ideas I have borrowed from other games, particularly Dungeon World. I find the End of Session move works quite well in many games, but I’ve encountered a few problems with it. I’ll discuss the main one a bit later when I talk about the identity problem. Anyway, other ideas come from things I have been doing with my group that aren’t based on any particular game mechanic. Instead, they’re based on observing my players’ behaviors and using my experience with things like Getting Things Done and applying the lessons I’ve learned practicing that to game design.

Before I continue, I’m going to go into why GTD matters here in a bit more detail. One of the core things that makes GTD work effectively is clearing your mind of distractions by recording them in a trusted external system that you review regularly. When you clarify those ideas, you turn them into actionable tasks — next actions, which are the very next thing you can do to move something to completion. When you are chosing next actions to do, you consult your lists (typically organized by context) and choose an action to do. If you haven’t clarified your next actions, this process will fail because you will hesitate to engage with actions that are not well-defined. It’s this clarity that makes the system work. How is this relevant? It’s the psychology behind that I have applied to players and how they interact with the game. It’s easy for players to get distracted by red herrings during play, so if they have something that reminds them of what they want to accomplish in a session, they’ll be more focused and more successful.

Let’s also take some time now to discuss the identity problem. The identity problem is an issue I have noticed with some players where they treat anything on their character sheet about their character as part of their character’s identity. They hesitate to or won’t change or remove something on their character sheet. It’s as if those statements cease being true once they are no longer written down. For background information, that’s not a big deal, but it causes problems with game mechanics that rely on those things changing. Take bonds, a mechanics in Dungeon World where players write statements about their characters’ relationships to other players’ characters. When you and the other player agree a bond is resolved, you erase it and mark XP, and now you can replace it with a new bond between that other character or with a different one. The idea is you should be resolving bonds with some regularity as your relationships develop, but some players just won’t change their bonds, which messes up the XP economy. One alternative to this system is to use flags instead, a mechanic developed by Rob Donoghue of Evil Hat, which embraces the effectively static nature of these things. I’ve chosen a different approach to address this problem.

Goals

The approach I have taken is to instead create a mechanic I call “Individual Goals”. An individual goal is something that the player wants to accomplish during the session. You might be tempted to think this is something the character wants to do, but you would be wrong. This mechanic is explicitly for the player. This is something called a dissociated mechanic — a mechanic that has no in-character explanation or tie to the in-game world. By making the mechanic for the player, I accomplish two things. First, I give them a checklist of things to do in the session. If they decide at the start they want to talk to the town guard about a serial killer, they can just write that down. The checklist will always be there in front of them, reminding them of that conversation they should be seeking out and having, just in case things get heated, and they go chasing a bunch of kobolds into the sewers. Second, I avoid the identity problem.

I can’t stress enough how important it is that goals not be something the character wants to accomplish. There’s usually a lot of overlap, and that’s not a problem, but it’s important that players never lose sight of the fact that individual goals are their goals. One way to help reinforce this is to have players erase their goals at the end of every session. You can also write them on index cards and throw away (or recycle) the cards.

Players have two individual goals, but they receive XP only for the first one they complete in a session. In my experience, players rarely complete both, so that helps limit the negative impact when that happens. If players do complete both goals, you can give them an alternate reward. I like to give them story currency, such as an additional hero point or starting the next session with inspiration already (obviously, this is system dependent). You could use more than two goals, but you’ll need to tweak how many qualify for XP and how many should receive alternate rewards based on the way your group plays.

Complementing individual goals are “Group Goals”. Unlike individual goals, group goals are picked at the start of the session. Before the campaign, you should create a list of statements about the game that relate to its themes and styles of play. If you wait until session zero to decide some aspects of your campaign, you can wait to define appropriate goals until then, but you should still define the more universal goals prior to then. For example, in a typical fantasy RPG, you might create goals like “Find an awesome treasure” or “Learn something new about the world”. These goals are also dissociated, but you reuse the same list from session to session instead of creating them from scratch every time. You pick only a few of these goals to qualify for XP at the start of each session, so having them all written down helps serve as documentation. Additionally, it avoids group analysis paralysis.

Unlike individual goals, every group goal completed rewards XP. Since these goals are less specific (being thematically focused), it’s reasonable to expect the group to complete them all every session. I intend to use three group goals with my group. I don’t have a strong reason for that other than it’s what we’ve been doing with the adapted End of Session questions we’ve been using, but I expect two goals would be too easy to complete every session while four or more goals would commonly result in at least some of the goals not being competed. Since the intent of this system is to create a feedback loop that reinforces the game’s themes, having goals regularly go uncompleted would undermine its effectiveness. Similarly, having too few causes similar problems by not providing enough input into the system. When tweaking the number of group goals, you should want to strike a balance between what your group can reasonably do in a session and what they cannot.

There is one more thing that’s very important to the success of this system. You don’t reward the XP. You have no say here. The group — the players — decide by consensus whether they complete their goals. You do this at the end of the session, going over each one and asking the group whether they completed it. If everyone agrees, that goal rewards XP (or alternate rewards, as appropriate). If everyone disagrees, it does not. If there is no consensus, the players should discuss amongst themselves until they reach consensus. Removing you, the DM, from the equation helps reduce the adversarial relationship between you and the group. Of course, this is dependent on having a good group, but if you have bad players in your group, you have other problems to address first.

Rewarding XP

The amount of XP you give out for completing goals is based on how quickly you want the PCs to gain levels. There are some other factors involved, depending on how you decide to integrate it with the system you’re using, but that’s the most important factor. First, decide whether you want your PCs to gain levels at a steady rate or some other rate that scales with their current level. Once you know that, plan out about how many sessions it should take for them to gain a level. If PCs should advance at a steady rate, that could be any number of sessions, but it should take about the same number of sessions regardless. If you decide later levels should take longer, then increase the number of sessions for each new levels. Once you decide that, you’ll use that information to determine the actual quantity of XP they receive. Additionally, you’ll be able to tell whether your game is on track depending on whether your PCs are actually advancing at the expected rate.

That’s the beauty of the feedback loop. When things aren’t working as they should, you’ll know because PCs won’t progress at the expected rate, and you’ll have their incomplete goals as evidence that you need to course correct. Before you make any changes, you should talk to your players first. They may not realize what they’re doing, and you can work together to move the game back on track. Otherwise, you may want to consider creating new goals or working with them to create better individual goals (if failing to complete those is their problem). If you do create new group goals, you can keep the old goals. Those serve as a reminder of the game’s original themes, and the players may want to revisit them later. If not, there’s no harm in dropping them (or even reinstating them later).

Determining the amount of XP to reward once you know the expected rate of advancement is pretty easy. Multiple the number of sessions by the number of goals you expect players to complete, then divide the XP required for the next level by that number. If that’s too complicated, you can take the simpler approach of using a method similar to the one used in Dungeon World. In Dungeon World, PCs receive 1 XP when they do something to gain XP, and it takes a small amount of XP to gain a new level (current level + 7, by default). That’s the system I prefer to use, but it doesn’t work well with digital tools that don’t allow you to customize XP progression (such as D&D Beyond). If you’re using those kinds of tools and want to use them to track XP, you’ll need to use the calculaton method. That’s what I plan to do for my upcoming campaign. I’ll discuss specifics in my next post.

The Procedure

Putting that all together, the procedure looks like the following in practice:

  • Before the campaign starts: create the group goals that represent the themes of our game. Optionally, augment this list with campaign-specific group goals during session zero. If you haven’t already (e.g., from a prior campaign), decide how much XP to award for completing goals.
  • At the start of the session: pick group goals and define individual goals for the session. I suggest integrating this with your recap procedure.
  • At the end of the session: go through each goal and have the players decide by consensus which ones will earn them XP. For those that do, award them the appropriate amount of XP. Players should erase their individual goals.

Next post, I’ll discuss the goals and XP progression I plan to use in my next campaign. I’ll also dig into the reasoning behind why I chose the things I did.