I expect to be running 5e in the near future, but I don’t like the XP system. It’s probably fair to say that I’m not a fan of the way most D&D-likes handle XP and advancement.
I’ll go into detail a bit later what I want out of an XP system, but the crux of the problem with 5e is that its is overwhelmingly biased towards combat. That wasn’t always the case. In the original editions of D&D, you also received XP for finding treasure. There are a couple of suggestions in the XP Dungeon Master’s Guide, but they don’t quite do what I would like to do either.
Over this and the next post, I’m going to discuss what I would like out of an XP system and propose a structure that meets those goals.
After thinking about it and what I have been doing over the last few campaigns, I’ve decided that there are six traits that I want out of an XP system.
One of the most important traits is that it should convey a sense of progression. This is one of the reasons why I do not like milestone-based advancement. There are a couple of ways milestones can be done, but I don’t like any of them. Something akin to the system in Fate Core is what usually comes to mind when I think of milestones: a system based on progressing through the plot; but it’s possible that these are handed out when it makes sense by the GM. The problem is this robs the game of an important feedback loop.
At the most basic, players engage the games via its structures. Their characters behave and engage the game using the techniques the system provides, and they treat most scenarios as challenges to be overcome. They want to advance, so they can more easily overcome those challenges. If you give them a structure to control that, they will engage with it, which makes them stronger and also opens up new challenges and opportunities. Even if the specifics are (often very) different, the same goes regardless of game type (from 5e to Dogs in the Vineyard), since they are still games at their core. If this structure is chosen carefully, it will reinforce the game’s creative agenda, the type of game as well as its themes and mechanics. This is where 5e has problems, because its combat-focused progression mechanics encourages players to approach most problems as combat challenges and to treat fights as things they are supposed to win, because that is how they get rewarded. As I mentioned before, there are options in the DMG, but they have problems such as still being challenge-focused or resting almost entirely on GM fiat.
Minimizing GM fiat, or more generally: avoiding player or GM bias; is another property that I consider very important. The problem with GM fiat is that it is very dependent on the quality of the GM, meaning that rulings can vary from table to table and even along a GM’s career as he or she gains experience. GM fiat is fine when it appears to work, but as soon as the expectations of the players and the GM’s decision making no longer align. This can cause group disharmony and reduce player engagement. If you’ve played in a game that awards XP for completing character-driven goals, then you’ve probably also experienced the disappointment of not receiving XP even though you thought you completed yours. This is why I like to rely on group consensus to determine whether players have met their goals (when I use a goal-based XP mechanic), but that can also be problematic in other situations.
XP rewards should be predictable. This goes along with creating a gameplay loop that reinforces the game’s creative agenda. If the gameplay loop is functioning effectively, then the rewards should come regularly. If it’s not, then the rewards will start coming irregularly. This allows the structure to serve the additional purpose of being a canary that tells you when your game has gone off track. One tricky aspect of this approach is that you want to be specific in how you reinforce that agenda without being too specific. I mentioned that consensus-based systems can have problems, and this is one I have seen. I have found, at least for my group, that people are reluctant to recalibrate the structure, because it has become an identity statement for the campaign, and they don’t want to abandon that. To put it another way: if the structure in place is there to reinforce a pirates on the high seas game, and it turned into a game of courtly intrigue, players may choose to keep the original structure, because that is what the game is supposed to be, instead of what it actually is.
Additionally, and relatedly to consensus, XP rewards should be awarded collectively while still providing opportunities for individual rewards. There are two reasons for this dichotomy. You want the group to engage the game at a high level. If someone is pulling the group away from its goals, then the structure should incentivize the group to redirect back—while still being malleable enough to adapt automatically when the group’s interest changes. At the same time, you want players to play their characters as individuals with their own agendas, because giving them a bit of agency again increases engagement while also functions as a source of possible plot hooks and future adventure ideas. Additionally, if it causes some mild inter-PC, that can be a source of drama (in the storytelling sense, hopefully).
Finally, the XP system should require minimal prep. If it offers any customization, it should be done in session 0 and then not revisited until either the next campaign or a large shift in the current campaign that is effectively a reboot with its own session 0 even if it’s building on established PC and their relationships. What I don’t want to have to do is prep plots to make the system work or calculate scenario or challenge values, and I definitely don’t want to have to plan out the game in advance. That’s why we play to find out what happens, because I don’t like knowing what happens before it does.
Next time, I’ll discuss a system that addresses or implements the things I want out of an XP system. It will convey a sense of progression to the players, reinforce the game’s creative agenda, minimize the role and effect of GM fiat and player biases, 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 it in session 0 of our next campaign, I suppose).