For The Love Of XP Part 3: My Love Of XP
Good evening everyone! We have arrived at the final part to the short series entitles For The Love of XP. You can find the first part here and you can find the second part here. The short of it is that I wanted to talk about why I love XP and prefer it’s use enough that I added it to Star Trek Adventures. In the first part I briefly go over my experience finding games with alternative advancement methods and different ways of using XP. Even games without it! The second part is more about the STA system of advancement and the XP replacement I have been using. Strewn throughout the two are mentions of what those different systems encourage in the players. These are things I hope to come back to today as I get into my uses of XP….finally.
Real quick, let’s talk about why XP is important to me. I mentioned it a little before but it stems from one place, really, and that is that I like things that give me a sense of achievements. Let’s be honest, a lot of people do even if XP doesn’t represent that to them. And it doesn’t have to! Keep that in mind, none of what I say is something you need to do, use, or agree with. But, I prefer to use XP because of that sense of reward and achievement it instills. There are many rewards that people can get from adventuring, roleplaying, or whatever else goes on at your table but XP is something that is…well…just a number. However, like the achievement points in a video game, the increasing number is a reward system that triggers some subconscious enjoyments for many. It is an adding of something to something more. More than that, it represents a portion of a goal that can be seen. It allows you to track and see how close you are to something even more meaningful, something you know you’ll get eventually and something that everyone loves: leveling up! Other games have other ways of doing this. Alternatives to levels or alternative to XP both serve the purposes of the game, but if you ask me XP can serve those purposes as well. Especially, if your group loves XP like me and mine.
XP For Everyone!
Before I talk about rewarding XP, I want to talk about something I changed early on in my DMing career. Many games, especially older ones, encourage rewarding XP to individuals. Some of this may be evenly split from something like a combat that everyone participated in, but others are not. If, for example, the thief has a heavy trap-disabling game than she might earn a significant amount of XP that the others won’t have. Once upon a time, of course, there were different amounts of XP required to level. Like the change to standardized XP amounts, I decided to standardize how much XP the party has. The process to that point was slow and had some in-betweens, but now I am at a point where that is just how I run games.
First off, I take total XP for a session and divide it among those who helped. If a PC was missing but run by the group, they count. If a powerful NPC helped, they count. If there were other helps, either partial or by minor NPCs, I count them as partial party members. Then, that divided amount is equally given to all party members. This includes those who were not at the session. I understand not rewarding missing players, but more often it feels like punishing them and I don’t like that. It also means people level at different times which can be very time consuming. Additionally, in terms of players who may not be as helpful one session or plays low-key I find more active players are willing to share XP and make sure everyone is comfortable and having fun. For them it is about the good time and finding ways to get them to come out of a shell more than it is about who earned how many XP. Finally, I have yet to talk to a player of mine who wants to keep XP from missing party members. They would rather have folks who can keep up without worry and would rather let them be the same.
Moments & Milestones
Let’s talk about why I don’t go for narratively timed leveling. I love the idea, but there is too much variability in how that works. STA has the best way I’ve seen from it, but puts a certain weight on the group. Each player must participate a certain amount and in certain ways, which might not work well for all players. Additionally, there is inherently the need for the GM to make sure there are moments for the players to equally jump upon. That’s a bit a work. Maybe not for all groups, but certainly for some. For me, XP seems a little more flexible. Then there is the other side of the coin with D&D and milestone rewards. These aren’t really specific and at the whim of the DM, but really just makes it easier to say, “hey you finished the adventure, are back in town, and now have some down time so you can level up.” I get that, but I love far more when a group is deep in a dungeon and at their wits end and level up. It might not give them the supplies they need, the time they need, or anything else they need. You know what it does do? Gives them happiness and hope. And that is the best part of hitting that XP goal.
For me, I see milestones and moments and whatever other word you might use as an opportunity to reward some extra XP. Have a big character building moment? XP! Follow through with an adventure? XP! Change the way an NPC sees life? XP! All of these are little moments that make the story what it was and deserves being rewarded. Sometimes it is a small reward. Sometimes it is huge. It all depends.
Failure Deserves XP
One of the biggest things new GMs might not understand is that failure deserves XP. I am not sure who would even argue with me on this, but failure is how we learn. It is how we learn the biggest lessons in real life. More of us are built on our failures than our successes, if you ask me. As such, failures should be rewarded with XP. Now, two games I mentioned in part one do this. First off, advancing skills in Burning Wheel based games requires success AND failure. It is not enough to always be right, to get better you must also be wrong. Powered by the Apocalypse games have advancement completely based on failure. You NEED to fail a certain number of times to gain more abilities or increase stats.
To clarify, these systems encourage players to try out things. In fact, games like those PbtA encourage attempts at things you might not be good at especially. This, in turn, is a way to get you to be active and act as your character would instead of allowing every action to be taken by the most efficient character. Additionally, it works to challenge you as a player and you as a character. It challenges you to try difficult things instead of taking the easy way out. It encourages you to do things you wouldn’t do. There are lots of other method of encouraging this, but there is no reason not to add XP into that mix of encouragement. That is the two-fold reason I do it. First you can learn from failure. Second rewarding failed attempts encourages players to act outside of optimal choice, to challenge themselves, and take risks.
As a side note, you might wonder how much. Once again, it depends. Generally speaking, though, it is less than success. You might think I wouldn’t do that, or that I might even reward more, based on the fact that lessons are how we learn. Instead I use less because it encourages a bit of gambling. Why? Because I also base rewards on how hard things are, but let’s put that on hold.
Just Reward Everything
Okay, when it comes down to it XP is inherently a thing that the human brain likes, even if it is just subconsciously. Because of this it can be used to encourage all kinds of things. Beyond that it can be used to reward EVERYTHING. Treasure, information, and other things that are more tangible to the characters are not always easy to reward. Sometimes there is no real opportunity to do so, or it would be really strange. But XP that is on the other side of the fourth wall and that stuff can be handed out like candy! Now I’ll say it again, it depends. That is a key thing to understand about me using XP all the time and rewarding it so often. It always depends. In this case I say it because of the example I have used and will repeat now. I reward XP to one of my groups for laughter. This is not a comedic game or a silly story. It is not a system that encourages laughing any more than seriousness. This is a group of people I have known for almost a decade and we have always been able to go from serious to hilarity to serious relatively easily. As such I know that laughter, generally, won’t destroy a session. Even if it is a two hour session. I wouldn’t do this for every group, but this one. They get little bits for it. Puns can get bonus tick marks, and tears might get many. In the end it adds up to a decent extra amount, but not game breaking. The thing is, we play for an escape and the laughs are needed, sometimes more than others. And this group that can get back to it and then laugh again soon, well, that’s more XP for them. In every way! When it comes down to it XP is a way of rewarding anything that you appreciate on either side of the fourth wall.
So the last thing I need to talk about is why it depends. First of all, even D&D is not very descriptive about how much XP to give out for what, especially if your handing it out for a lot like I do. Second of all, things scale non-linearly. You cannot just reward a specific percent for the same thing than it might be more than the average monster. You also cannot choose a single amount, because then it will slowly become more meaningless. The key is to try to keep it a certain level of meaningfulness, no matter what level the players are. That is part of it. Relative rewards need to be maintained. They need to be maintained throughout levels so that whatever it is you are trying to reward, to encourage, is maintained. Just enough to encourage but not enough to cause them to focus on any one thing. Reward diversity!
That is part of why I like the gambling aspect of less XP for failure. XP for failure encourages attempts at things that are risky. But what does less XP for failure encourage? Not much unless you guarantee that its more than the easy way out. Which is why I also scale XP based on how easy things were. A skill check might not reward anything unless it is challenging. Side effects from failure? Worth more. When it comes down to it, my players know that the harder things are for them the more they will get out of it in the end. Success or failure. The more they challenge themselves, the crazier the ideas, the more clever the ideas, the more XP they get! The combining of these two encourage players to balance out the likelihood of success and doing things the hard way. This allows them to take risks for more XP and not be afraid of failing. This balance allows them to focus more on what their characters would do more than how likely they are to succeed or how much XP they get. In the end they will get the most out of balancing the two!
These are things that I feel I can better convey with XP rewards. This is why I added XP to Star Trek Adventures. My players appreciate how I do XP and prefer it. But that brings me to my last explicit point I want to try to make. Be up front with players. Tell them what you are awarding XP for. Explain what gets more and what gets less. I do not have explicit numbers. Every session might be slightly different because I award what feel right based on: group, game, level, actions, ease of completion, risks taken, and more. But they know the basic relationships. They know risk equals more XP but so does success. It is a balance both of what you want from the characters and what the players want from the game. It is a balance of what everyone wants from playing both on the game side and the real-life side. There are inherent ways of getting that, intrinsic values, but honestly using XP and rewarding it in certain ways can provide a greater foundation on those desires and goals.
When it comes down to it I don’t use XP to manipulate my players, though it might seem that way a bit. No, I use it to manipulate the group as a whole. WHAT!? You might say. Yes I inform my players how they earn XP and how they don’t. But the point of getting together is fun and escape. If they know how it works than I am not manipulating them they understand that I am rewarding and challenging them and asking them to balance risk/reward. They know some players may carry the team and they know that some may enjoy the ride. It is up to all of us to be okay with that. But what XP does is allow us a little hacking of our own minds as a group. It is a way to get us to maximize some of our enjoyment by incentivizing us to play the way we want to. When it comes down to it, it is the same thing I do to myself when I make a to do list and write 10 things down instead of clean my room. In the end I feel more accomplished, feel better, can get more done, and don’t hit a wall of laziness as easily. There is no harm in tricking ourselves into doing things better for ourselves!