It is a well understood, but little expressed fact that the "theory" behind roleplaying games has very little to do with academic inquiry and the establishing of truths. Instead, most of our theorizing rely on pure guesswork, marketing gimmicks and internalized industry standards. Even if someone approaches a theoretical truth about what Games are (or should be), there is no established and accessible way for the rest of us to know whether what they are talking about makes sense, except an abstract, formal logic. As a result of this vague framework, game developers usually get up hung up on this or that specific, usually highly personal thing. It's their own Theory Heartbreaker, coincidentally related to the new game they are selling.
The most common among these Theory Heartbreakers are XP. There's a popular school of thought that posits that RPG mechanics are a form of mind control, and believe this is a good thing. Most commonly, they refer to XP as a key proof of this. The idea is that if game designers reward the right thing with XP, they will engender a specific type of play at the table. Makes sense right? Carrot, stick. If I give my child a piece of candy as a reward, they WILL clean their room.
There are immediate problems, but let me first do a disclaimer: I cannot possibly know what kind of solutions your table or game has, so let the critique be about what I'm actually critiquing. Also, my "evidence" is obviously anecdotal to what I've played and watched, which is a lot, but that's all anyone has to go on. Refer to the first paragraph: we don't really have an academic way of establishing these things as true, and there can always be some other, equally anecdotal piece of evidence contradicting me.
So, our premise is the following: XP is a tool for players. It is a way to reward certain behavior, and rewarding certain behavior will lead to a specific style of play. Want a game about fighting large foes? Reward fighting large foes with XP! Want a game about bonding emotionally with others? Reward emotional bondning with XP! Want a game about eating the rich? Well they'll get a big, juicy XP once they gobble down that Warren Buffet smoothie!
Now just like anyone else, I'd be ready to accept most of that premise. I worked on those assumptions myself while designing. But the problem is that this is rarely how it pans out at the table. Sure, there is sometimes one or more people who are completely obsessed with doing whatever gets them XP, but most of the time, the majority of the table do not think like that. They think about their character, the world, the dice they'll have to roll and the challenges they are facing. They think about what is immediate to them. Occasionally there are cheers, laughs and even applause, but it is rarely because they get XP, and mostly because of something rewarding that happened during play. Now, if XP is supposed to be this central aspect to play, why isn't it?
The obvious answer is that regardless of what you decide to reward, the vast majority of XP systems are not only part of the games dreaded Meta-level, they are furthermore a summary that happens after play.1 That's two levels of removal from what is considered the essential part of RPG play - the interaction with a fictional reality by fictional means. While this level of reflection is certainly necessary for a lot of games, it's also alienating us from actual play.
My thesis is that XP is mostly an inconsistent tool for encouraging a specific type of play, and games that lean heavily on players getting XP by acting in a certain way usually ruin the activity they are trying to promote, or limit the games potential.
For posterity, lets look at some systems and their text to see what their actual intention is.
Dungeons and Dragons 5E
The obvious first choice is to look at the punching bag of OSR and Storygamers alike: the 5E experience system. Interestingly, the Players Handbook doesn't even really tell the players what precise actions gets them XP:
"As your character goes on adventures and overcomes challenges, he or she gains experience, represented by experience points. A character who reaches a specified experience point total advances in capability. This advancement is called gaining a level." Players Handbook, p. 15
This might as well say "you gain XP for playing the game." Perhaps the player can GUESS what this means, because they have a preconceived idea of what a DND adventure is, but it doesn't tell us that the player SHOULD do anything except go on adventures.
Now, anyone who's had a discussion about Dungeons and Dragons knows that "DND gives XP for killing stuff". This is usually said in a condescending or concerned tone, and implies that it rewards murderhoboism and other asocial activites. But the fact is that the players, if we assume they don't read the DMG or ask the GM outright, would not have any idea that this is the case from reading the rules. While I'd wager that most players who have played more than once would be privy to it, it doesn't change the fact that the Player's Handbook didn't seem to tell the players to do anything but adventure and roll dice. Add to this the fact that most by-the-books 5E players don't seem to have this problem of murderhoboism after extended play, and already our thesis is falling apart.
So what about the DMG - how does it phrase XP?
"Experience points (XP) fuel level advancement for player characters and are most often the reward for completing combat encounters. Each monster has an XP value based on its challenge rating. When adventurers defeat one or more monsters-typically by killing, routing, or capturing them-they divide the total XP value of the monsters evenly among themselves. If the party received substantial assistance from one or more NPCs, count those NPCs as party members when dividing up the XP. (Because the NPCs made the fight easier, individual characters receive fewer XP.)" Dungeon Masters Guide, page 260So there we have it, mean old WOTC, telling us to kill. Except, even then, it refers to a page in the DMG that tells you how the GM should give it, which means the player-side ability to act on and maximize their XP-output is even more obscure. For you as a player to know whether killing something is worth it, you have to have meta-knowledge of:
- The challenge rating of the foe you're facing, which in cases where the DM or adventure has its own CR, could be impossible
- Know the XP treshold of your party, which entails having knowledge about your fellow players character sheet.
- Know the "Encounter Difficulty", which is based on the total enemy XP for the encounter compared to a level-based table that exists only in the DMG.
- Know how much XP per character you'd receive, which is the total XP divided by all the characters and all NPCs.
This doesn't look like something that is designed to incentivize a style of play. This isn't an algorithm that a player can be expected to act according to. Now of course, you could just kill everything and get XP that way, but since it is level based, you'd more likely be wasting your time killing whatever low-XP peasant you came upon, and the DMG doesn't seem to encourage that kind of encounter design.
My main point: XP, in DND5E, isn't for players. It is for the Dungeon Master so that they can plan out level appropriate encounters. You get XP for doing what the Dungeon Master has planned. More than anything, this encourages the Dungeon Master to run railroaded battles completely bound by the current skill of the party, instead of encouraging the players to kill more.
I ran a Dungeon World game for about a year, and while it was excellent for improvising an adventure on the spot, it was also immensely frustrating to run a long term campaign in. Dungeon World seems, based on what how I've seen the designers talk about it, to be a game designed with the premise that specific types of XP reward specific types of play. In fact, if XP tells us what the game rewards, then Dungeon World rewards like 3 games at once. Some of the XP is based on personal goals that characters set up for themselves, some are goals set up for other players, and some are contingent on the game master giving the players the right hard moves or getting to a space in the narrative. You can also get XP for failing a roll (which is strangely not outlined in the End of Session Move), which is not a goal that a player can actively work toward. except by attempting to roll lots of dice, I guess, but that didn't really happen for us. Here's the move:
"When you reach the end of a session, choose one of your bonds that you feel is resolved When you reach the end of a session, choose one of your bonds that you feel is resolved (completely explored, no longer relevant, or otherwise). Ask the player of the character you have the bond with if they agree. If they do, mark XP and write a new bond with whomever you wish.
Once bonds have been updated look at your alignment. If you fulfilled that alignment at least once this session, mark XP.
Then answer these three questions as a group:
Did we learn something new and important about the world?
Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
Did we loot a memorable treasure? For each “yes” answer everyone marks XP." Dungeon World, p. 76
On face value, a bond is a good idea if you want your players to explore their fictional relationships to the other characters. But what happened was that they forgot about all the other stuff. I had prepared all the stuff about new important things about the world, monsters, treasure, I even tried to challenge their convictions.
But since the players got to set up Bonds as their own mini-quest, what happened was they'd struggle for about 4 minutes to figure out what their Bond should be, spend the entire session trying to resolve them, then spend the majority of the End of Session time arguing for whether or not their bond was resolved. In the unlikely case that the bond was actually resolved, they'd have to take more time writing a new one, and there are only limited example bonds in the book.
Since Bond-resolving wasn't a guaranteed XP, many sessions were almost completely XP-less. The time we took to ask ourselves if we had fulfilled any of the other stuff felt more like the game designers humiliating us for not having done what they wanted. The alignment stuff was the worst, since it told the players they weren't fulfilling an expectation of a character before that character had even been played, and were thus punished for deviating from that mold. You can change alignment, but then you've just created another expectation.
But is there a lesson here, more than that this particular XP-system was a bit unfocused and confused. The way XP was introduced as a desirable purpose of play, rather than the natural outcome of play, led to frustration, distraction and resentment. The thing it wanted to include in the game either wasn't included, or felt like a chore.
I intended to discuss a bunch more, but woo boy did this drag on. On to the next point:
XP for "Roleplay" makes roleplaying worse
Here's a thing that people are worried about: "if you don't have a rule that says your players should do actual roleplaying, they won't". Now, even if there is a chance that a certain player is particularly uninterested in doing anything but tagging along and experiencing the unfolding narrative, that is fine. Games have the ability to offer multiple levels of engagement, and the premise that people who don't engage on the high-dramatic level are doing it wrong is like the roleplaying version of hating games that have Easy Mode.
But I understand the impulse. If your game has a thesis or invokes genres best suited for intense roleplay, there's a risk it might fall flat unless all engage on the same level, which is fine if you can find the group. I don't have the great solutions for you, but I will warn you that XP might just make it worse.
Lets establish what kind of thing I'm talking about:
Seems simple, right? Since by this logic, XP is an incentive for Doing Stuff. While this might work for some players, the fact is that roleplaying becomes very difficult when it is held up against the authority of a character sheet or rulebook instead of being a product of play.
"If you expressed your characters beliefs/ideology/core trait etc, gain an XP"
"Priests can get one XP per session if they pray"
Roleplaying - as in portraying a fictional character with a history that precedes the actual play of the game and has independent motivations from its author, is an incredibly powerful thing. But the exciting thing about roleplay is how a character interacts with the fictional world around them, something a character sheet (or your games equivalent) cannot do.
The roleplay might be rewarding, dramatic, profoundly transformative for your character, in ways that a character sheet or general XP-system cannot predict or engender. To end such a session with a book-keeping ritual wherein you realize that this play was subpar compared to your character sheet, and then being denied the essential currency of your game for it, just sucks.
In a roleplaying game, you are in charge and you are acting in a way that you think makes sense. YOU have agency, and we want to see that agency reflected in both game and mechanic. What's exciting is that you can subvert whatever expectation you want, on your terms. When games reward you for fulfilling an archetype there are two outcomes: either you play a character so archetypal it becomes an uninteresting cliché, or it becomes a constant end-of-game disappointment to find out why your character doesn't match what someone not present at the table expected of you. Either no agency or agency punished.
We once again hit upon the problem of XP being divorced and alienated from actual play. It doesn't tell us what was produced by the playing of the game, it tells us to compare that play based on agame designers expectations. We then get to ask ourselves the most awful kind of question:"Did you have the wrong kind of fun?"
So what then, is XP for?
What XP seems to be good at doing is communicating to Game Masters (in games where those exist) how the game excepts you to set up encounters and settings. XP for Gold? Then my system most have Gold, and a place to find it. XP for killing monsters? Then my game must have monsters. XP for discovering new places or truths about the universe? Have that in your game.
In 5E, as much as I wish it would have been something else, it does literally address experience points directly to the person who is in charge of running the adventure as a form of structuring play, instead of telling players that they should strive toward X or Y. Sure, that structure is implied to be "a slow crawl toward the next thing to fight", but that is infinitely more useful for the table. You don't have to do any guesswork, you are provided a framework and the players are free to do whatever they want. It's just that whatever they want is probably going to result in some form of combat.
If we inverse XP, and look at it as a GM checklist, it becomes a quite useful tool. Granted, it can be abused, and the excessive focus on balance and controlled adventures in DND is proof of that.
I think, if we really want to incentivize a specific style of play, we make the immediate mechanical impact of it rewarding. The central reason that people turn to combat in DND is that combat FEELS incredibly good in that system. Not only does rolling a Nat20 feel good, it is also the feeling of using all your special items, weapons and spells. You don't go into combat because you want XP, you go into combat because you're looking to try out that new Horn of Blasting you got from killing a Wizard, or something.
Similarly, we can dissuade certain player actions by setting up a mechanical disadvantage to them. Don't want your players to fight all the monsters, like you do in 5E? Communicate to them that engaging in all combat is instant death, because of high mortality and the like. Don't want your high-level art thief PCs to pick-pocket every grandma they see? Send the guards after them!
I find that kind of immediate design, that addressed and privileges the act of play itself, to be preferable over meta-game incentives. Besides, XP-incentivization talk sounds a lot like how neoliberals talk about the unemployed, but that is another discussion for another blog.
After all that, we still reward XP, but we think about it differently.
1 Obvious exceptions, like CoC advancement and XP based on good/bad rolls are not included. ↩