Today I wanted to write about something that I have been thinking a great deal about over the past year. In this time I have been introduced to a bunch of new games all with different ways of providing character advancement. From standard D&D level advancement to the somewhat bartering XP of Cypher to gaining XP through failure in Powered by the Apocalypse games, there are so many different methods of advancing characters. Most recently I have begun playing Star Trek Adventures and, well, there is no XP. Not only that but I have seen XP alternatives and different ways of awarding it. Today I want to talk a bit about what I have been doing with XP, why I think XP is important, and why it I am using it for Star Trek adventurers.
Experience Points & Levels
Let’s start with the simple idea of experience points. This is, as far as I know, the oldest backbone to character enhancement. Whether you played Rifts or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, your character earned XP. Now, it could be complicated in those days with XP being specifically awarded for certain enemies defeated, tasks being performed, clever rolls, or simply playing to alignment. Of course there is also the fact that you could once just convert treasure and gold into more experience, but that was an age of dungeon crawling ruin looting. What it comes down to is this: the more you do the more XP you earn. And, of course, we all like having more of stuff even if it is just an imaginary number of some abstract concept.
The number alone is not really enough, though. What you need is also something that number builds to. It is hard to just want more XP if that doesn’t get you anything. You kill monsters for XP, you only want to kill more monsters because you want more XP. You loot treasure because its nice to have, and gold can get you some followers and equipment, but eventually you have more than you know what to do with. Why loot more? Well, to convert it into XP of course! And where does all this XP go? Well you all know the answer to that leveling up! The next level is the goal and the who reason to find every way to earn every last drop you can squeeze out of the GM.
Levels are, again, just more arbitrary numbers on a piece of paper when it comes down to it. They just represent certain gates or thresholds you have achieved. Basically, they are short hand for the larger number that is XP. What is important about levels is that they represent stages at which we, as players, get to write down new things and we, as characters, get access to new abilities and greater power. In myths, television, movies, and novels the heroes are not burdened by the knowledge of XP and how close they are to the next level and becoming better at what they do. Nevertheless, these things happen to the characters. Levels represent the behind the scenes and allow us to gauge when those advancements are appropriately rewarded. But sometimes games do away with levels.
Levels Gone Missing!
Not every game has levels. Many, in fact, do away with that concept all together. Many of these games still have XP, though, and they work in a way that allows that XP to mean something without attaching it to the arbitrary gates that are levels. Savage Worlds, for example, grants you an advancement at every 5 XP. That may be chosen from a list and when you have achieved 20 XP you have reached the Seasoned tier. These tiers are similar to levels in D&D, but different in two ways. First, as a universal system these are not class-linked so you aren’t being awarded something specific. Secondly, they are gates that simply add to the choices granted and allow previous choices to be made an additional time. The tier system is a way to make sure characters do not get too powerful too quickly, while still allowing them to freely chose what type of character they want to be.
Other games treat XP completely different. Powered by the Apocalypse games are one of my favorite alternative ways of awarding XP. In these games, failing on a roll grants you a single experience point. Check off your box when it happens. Every 5 failures grants your character an advancement. This may be chosen from a list and there is a limit to what you have to choose from. What is nice about this system is that it relies on failure to grant XP. That means you cannot advance without actively taking a part. Succeed and it is good news. Fail and it is still pretty good news. It is one of the first lessons I learned DMing, long before I moved outside D&D. Failure should be rewards because failure means you tried. Sure we live in an age of people complaining about participation trophies and all the hullaballoo around that, but in a nice neat world at the RPG table rewards are in the form of XP and that X stands for EXPERIENCE, which all failures grant. So keep this in mind for later in the article because it is important. Failure should be rewarded.
The last missing level example I want to talk about is another favorite alternative of mine: Star Wars Edge of the Empire. This and the related games utilize a system by which XP is earned through deeds just like other games. In this case though, XP is a form of currency that can be spent on advancing your character. Want to multiclass? Spend XP. Want to improve a skill? XP. New ability? XP. Everything has a cost and the more varied your abilities the more expensive it becomes to dip your toe elsewhere. The better you become at a skill, the more expensive it is advance that skill. I like this a lot. It allows you to make the character you want pretty freely while still holding you back from overpowering too quickly. It also allows some planning and saving. You don’t HAVE to pick your level’s ability now or feel underpowered. You can say, nah I’ll wait and take THAT really cool thing soon. It couples the enjoyment of advancement with the feel of spending something while maintaining the nice feel of earning XP. It has all the marking of saving up allowance for that action figure you wanted. It also appeals to the odd folks who really jive off forming a budget and spending plan too.
As Levels Fade, So Too Does XP
This is the most recent advent and discovery for me and it is….odd. It is not new to me, not as a concept. Still, an utter lack of XP confounded me. Let’s start with the concept. Obviously, lots of games have rid themselves of levels. Let us flip that concept on its head a bit and get rid of XP instead. In that case you have the concept that is commonly known as Milestone Advancement. At least in the D&D world. This represents a more narrative way of leveling up the party without worrying about who has how much XP. The concept does two jobs. The first is that narrative bit which links us closer to the myths and stories we are trying to replicate. It allows for advancement of heroes to happen at an appropriate time, whenever that may be. In doin this, the DM or GM simply say when the characters earn a level and there you are! Because of this a whole party can level at the same time and here is my second lesson I learned DMing. Just award everyone the same amount of XP. It is less important than the first and more a quality of life thing. I do this because then I can keep everyone’s math in line. Everyone levels together and no one gets left behind. Additionally, no one is made to feel bad for not being as helpful on any given quest.
But what about getting rid of XP and levels?? What do we do now!? How do we know when characters have gotten better? What is the point of it all? These could be answered to various degrees of existential and philosophical inanity, but let’s just focus on the crunchy bits important for a game being played. Getting rid of these in a game genre defined around overcoming obstacles and getting better at doing that is a challenge. While simply free-forming the game and deciding it is easy enough and all well and good, it doesn’t much make for a salable game now does it. So, games like this need something clever. I know of two examples, but will focus on the one I’m involved with. Let’s give the first the courtesy of being mentioned though. Burning Wheel involves both a success and failure track in its skill system which both need to be filled in order to advance that skill. The long and short of it is that the game encourages both easy and difficult tasks being attempted if you want to get any better at something.
The game that I have been working with, however, is Star Trek Adventures. I love what Modiphius has done, but when I was looking at character advancement for my players I discovered something crazy. No levels AND no XP. Well then how do they advance? My thought was that perhaps there were milestones of some kind like every mission or adventure, but learned that was not the case either. Instead STA focuses on spotlight moments. True to the series each character needs their spotlight moments within various arcs, stories, and missions. Some of these allow different things to be rearranged, but when you have gone through enough of them you can also truly advance the character and add to their capabilities. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept and the way it pulls from Star Trek, but it just isn’t for me. My games are a little more….crazy? Sometimes lots happens and no one has a special shining moment. Other times lots of failure happens but the characters still get by. There is just something about clean numbers for XP that I like.
That is why I am using XP in STA instead of the normal system.
Now you were probably expecting more. This is kind of anticlimactic, a cliffhanger, perhaps a letdown. The article is longer than I anticipated. I was hoping to get out one more outlining the XP system I have devised for STA, but I think it deserves a whole second part. For the TL;DR people the above is about XP and leveling and what they are to a game. It includes examples of when these are tweaked or eliminated and what lessons they represent for me personally in terms of rewarding XP. But I never got to tell you how I reward XP or why I do it that way. I think that, first, I will write about my STA experience point mechanic. Following that I will do a sequel to this diving into XP and why I think it is an important mechanic. It will explain why I go from appreciating and enjoying the lessons of different systems (including Burning Wheel) to needing XP. I will give you a hint: Burning Wheel leaves in certain encouragements that STA does not despite neither having XP.