Greetings all! Tonight I have the sequel to an article I wrote a few weeks ago titled, For The Love Of XP. In it I go over experience points and how they have been used in various games and how the concepts of level and XP have disappeared from RPGs. I love many of these mechanics, but the lack of XP, for me, is something troublesome. I have spent a long time developing alternatives to strict combat XP and personal methods to awarding XP for all kinds of things. Often they change and are loose and carefree. The point is I award XP because my players generally like it and I use it to encourage more than mindless murder-hoboing. In fact I award it for really funny puns in one game. Because it is worth it. That is a subject for the third article, though. We already took a brief look at XP and levels in general, but tonight I want to talk about adding it to a game. Because, no matter what game it is, it needs to be a part of the game before you can manipulate how it is awarded to players.
Star Trek Adventures’ Spotlight System
First off, last time I was a little inaccurate. STA does in fact utilize a milestone method of advancement. Spotlights are just one type of these milestones. The other two are normal and arc milestones. The normal milestones are awarded for characters who have had an impact. It encourages players to participate and be a little less passive than they might be. It doesn’t take much, and can be earned by challenging one of their character’s values. The spotlight milestone is for those who had a more significant impact on a mission. This is meant to highlight a specific character. This goes against one of my tendencies when it comes to XP: unbalanced advancement. Don’t worry we can address that next week, because the concept as a whole is actually one I have seen in other games and one I want to tap more in mine. Why? Because the players are intended to vote on who earned the mission’s spotlight milestone. Finally comes the arc milestone. This is supposed to be granted at the end of story arcs to those who have earned enough spotlights. Alternatively the GM can award them more organically based on how they are trying to tell the story and how characters act.
This system is important to understand. It focuses on encouraging GMs to equally spotlight players throughout a range of sessions, while also encouraging players to try and do their part and challenge those things that might allow them to act complacently or overly simple and passive. That is important to me. I think XP can also be used to encourage this. Without getting into it too much, I think the idea of XP and levels has a subconscious boost to encouraging things. When it comes down to it people like achievements. Before we get into changing this system I want to mention what is earned. Normal and spotlight milestones allow a rearrangement of stats. This is something I REALLY like. Built into this system is a method, a reward for players that doesn’t give them something new but allows them to adapt their mechanics to the way they have changed playing. They may also adjust supporting characters (player driven NPCs) and their ship. The arc milestone is what allows you to upgrade a character or the ship. It allows you to choose from a number of options such as a new talent (ability), a new focus (skill buff), stat boost, or a new Value (role-playing point). Suffice it to say, this mirrors the way that characters seem to advance and grow in the shows. It is a beautiful mechanic, very elegant. But it is not for me.
Changing The System
Okay so for you to understand why this came up you need to know a little bit about one of my campaigns. This game is over two years old and features 50 sessions with the same three characters and players. These people are those who I met and became fast friends with from World of Warcraft. I have been to one’s wedding and two have even become grandparents since we began this game. The thing is up until a month ago, it was 5th Edition D&D. XP, levels, and all. At one point we started talking Star Trek…okay many points…and I came up with a brilliant idea to have them foray into that universe temporarily. Needless to say, they loved the idea and here we are. But then I realized I didn’t know how to reward them, even though I could easily run adventures much as I had before. Sure the mechanics are all different but my style remains similar. That and my players love XP, they want XP, and they want to know how close they are to leveling. Also, how am I supposed to award puns without XP?!?
Two things needed to be added to STA for me to make this work the way I wanted: XP and levels. I started with levels because those are the gates, the milestones which represent why you have been earning XP. Luckily, STA provided a nice baseline to add this manipulation in the form of arc milestones. Because these were the points at which advancement, instead of adjustment, it was the perfect base from which to make levels. So, for my system each level up represents an arc milestone. Now, I like easy math and the next step is determining how much XP is required for each level up. So I chose 100 XP for level 1. This requires two spotlight milestones (50 xp each for those counting). From there level 2 would be another 150 XP (because it requires 3 spotlight milestones) for a total of 250 XP. From there 200 XP for a total of 450 XP and so on. Those familiar with STA will notice that the math doesn’t quite workout due to the fact that 2 spotlights means the next becomes an arc and three more means the next one becomes an arc. That’s a total of 7 arcs which would be 350 XP for Level 2. I did this on purpose to maintain a slightly better, slightly quicker scaling and there would be nothing wrong in doing otherwise.
So how do we still fit in the rewards for those spotlights and normal milestones? Well, we already have an XP value for spotlights: 50. We can act similarly by assigning a halved value for normal milestones. That makes normal milestones equivalent to 25 xp. So, with this method things are going to become more regulated and players are all going to get spotlights and arcs at the same time (unless you assign XP individually which I do not). If you are curious on how I handle normal and spotlight milestones, they are taken care of as they come up and generally between sessions because I award XP at the end of each session. At 25 XP my party got the effect of a normal milestone, at 50 XP a spotlight, at 75 XP another normal, and at 100 they got an arc milestone. Following that they will get normal at 125, spotlight at 150, normal at 175, spotlight at 200, normal at 225, and arc at 250. This pattern continues for as far as you take a party.
Distribution of normal and spotlight milestones will absolutely favor more spotlights than the game calls for in future levels and that might need balancing, I admit. But for me, for a start, it works really well. I can award XP as I usually do. My players know when awards are coming. Additionally I will be able to get a rough estimate on how to advance them back in the D&D world, because they are the same characters. Sort of. But that’s another story.
I hope that is enough information to give you a clear idea of what I am doing. I also hope it lets those who haven’t played STA understand their advancement mechanics. In the final part of this I want to go over my XP methodology. This will include how I do it and approximately how much I reward and why. I also want to address what I hope to encourage by doing it this way and what game mechanics I hope it emulates. I love XP as a concept as a reward and there is much we can gain from it. Stay tuned for part three next week when I pull all this together and never forget: you can run the game however you want even if it means throwing out XP and levels instead of adding them!