The Experience Experience

“Experience is the name we give to our mistakes.”
Oscar Wilde

Experience, the if, when and how of characters getting better, is one of the big game mechanics choices for any system. There are pretty much as many systems out there as games, but I feel that most of them revolve around just a few distinct concepts. I make no claim that the systems I give as examples are the first or best examples of these systems. These are just the places were I first encountered them.

A Brief, Very Arbitrary History of Experience

WhitecoverI started gaming with the grand daddy of them all, DnD. Not that there was much other choice at the time. The experience system was reasonably complex. Each creature generated a certain number of experience points (XP), often thousands, based on things like its number of hit point dice. The XP was then split amongst the party if they defeated it. Each class had different amounts of XP it needed to gain the next level, and that amount changed with each level. Later iterations made some things smoother, like all classes requiring the same amount of XP to go up a level. Other things, like the calculations for how much XP an encounter was worth, became even more complex. When you went up a level you received more hit points, often better saving throws and combat skills, spell casters received more spells, etc.


I encountered a somewhat different take on experience with Champions. The system didn’t use levels, you purchased what abilities you wanted from a pool of points and XP were simply more points to purchase abilities. Instead of charging thousands of points for everything the system used more reasonable numbers. 10 points was a decided increase to an ability. Thus it didn’t have complex charts trying to differentiate between a 3d8+1 hit die monster and a 3d8 hit die monster that had poison. The system just didn’t have that level of resolution. So the rewards were more basic, some for playing, more if the opponent was more powerful, bonuses for roleplaying, etc. It was a much less complicated system, though still basically the same idea. You got XP that in turn were directly spent to increase the character’s abilities. This general style is probably the most common experience system in modern games.

bnbrq2Runequest, on the other hand, presented a radical departure from this style of character development. Runequest did not use XP. Instead, if you used a skill during a game and succeeded, you recorded that success. At the end of the story you would roll for any skill that had succeeded during the game. If you failed that skill roll the skill increased. So there were no charts indicating experience for an encounter, nor bonuses for good roleplaying. Character advancement was a mechanical part of the skill system. Sophie notes that Bunnies and Burrows used a similar system and was published two years prior to Runequest.

Traveller Mock Cover.indd

A different take that really irritated me at the time was presented in Traveller. In the original game the character advancement system was nothing. Really, nothing. Characters never got better. If your character didn’t start with combat skills, they would never have combat skills.

ArsMWhile the details vary greatly, every experience system I’ve seen is in broad terms one or more of these systems. An example of using multiple systems in one game is Ars Magica. In that game, magic experience was handled by a mechanical system. Studying magic took a certain amount of time and resources in the game. The player would then roll to see how much they had learned. However, skills used a simple XP system. The GM would give out a few XP after each story that could be used to increase skills in the same way the skill points in character creation were used to increase skills.

coverSLAn example of a combined system is found in Seven Leagues. The game uses a point buy system for choosing improvements. However, XP are allotted by a fusion between a simple XP system and a mechanical system. Whenever someone tries to use a skill in the game the GM assigns a bonus to the roll based on the description of the action, usually from 0 to +3. Especially for conflicts, these bonuses are a core part of how actions are resolved. However, they are also a character’s experience points, making gaining XP a mechanical part of task resolution. Because the awards are based on the GM’s call, rather than the result of the roll, and can be spent on any improvement, this system is closer to a simple XP point buy system than a Runequest style mechanical one. However, the mechanical component controls how much XP the GM awards. There is simply no way to balance or alter XP awards without severely skewing task resolution.

While the details will heavily affect the outcome, each of the systems presented above has strengths and weaknesses seen in most of its incarnations that may deserve a closer look.

Complex Versus Simple Experience Rewards

DnD’s complicated experience rewards were a relic of the hobby’s wargame roots. They took a great deal of time and effort to figure. There were complex formulas of XP for hit dice and special abilities like poison. Then the XP for each encounter had to be totaled and divvied up. The reason for all this effort was fairness. In a wargame there are winners and losers and you wouldn’t want the reward for winning a fight one week to be different from winning basically the same fight next week. The wargame background also lead to adversarial style roleplaying where the GM was considered pitted against the players. The very rigid XP guides were partially intended to prevent GM abuse. Not that it necessarily worked. I’ve known several GMs who played the system, specifically looking for special abilities that made an encounter difficult to defeat but gave relatively little XP reward. Most modern groups just don’t share these kinds of concerns so the complex XP systems are a great deal of work for very little benefit.

What I call simple experience systems are those were the GM basically decides how much XP to reward. Any formulas are quite simple, like did they play and were the opponents more or less powerful than the characters? The big advantage here is that it usually takes whole seconds to determine the XP reward. However, they can suffer from arbitrariness. Yes, the GM might give the characters few points after defeating an incredibly powerful opponent, but as I mentioned this isn’t a large concern for most groups. The real problem is that most of these systems encourage giving extra XP for great roleplaying and clever choices. This will often be an extra point for some of the characters in addition to the 3 to 5 points these systems usually give everyone. So some players get a 20-33% bonus to their XP. Now, I like rewarding players for being clever and entertaining me. It’s nice to be able to recognize the skill and effort and to encourage play that keeps me entertained during the game. But I also recognize that what constitutes “good roleplaying” is subjective. So what I’m really rewarding is playing the game my way. It’s my game, so that’s not so bad. However, I much prefer temporary bonuses like points that allow someone to reroll a bad roll, useful but not overwhelming or permanent. An extra point of XP now and then may not cause issues, but if it’s the same people getting the bonus every time they can start to outstrip the other players in terms of being able to effect the game world. In the case of the fusion system used in Seven Leagues, the mechanical part actively forces characters to get different amounts of XP. Different XP rewards can also lead to social complications as the horrible death of my Star Wars campaign after only one session attests.


Some people I knew wanted me to run a Star Wars game, back when it was the old West End Games D6 rules. So I set up a campaign, people made characters, and we had our first session. One player made an armchair historian. Another had an interesting take on the failed Jedi. Everyone else made combat characters. The mission was to rescue a prisoner from an Imperial outpost. The historian got in good with the base commander by telling him that he is interested in writing a book on his military career. He then convinced the commander to personally lead the response to the diversion the characters set up across town. This got the commander and many troopers out of the building. The historian then took over the office. Meanwhile, the rest of the team got into a fight with some of the remaining troopers and killed them. Then everyone but the Jedi decided to just run around the station shooting everything in sight. The Jedi decided to actually rescue the prisoner. He put on a commander’s uniform, went down to the cellblock and told them he was there to move the prisoner. When the guards called the commander’s office, the historian confirmed the order. The Jedi then just flew off with the prisoner in an Imperial shuttle, victory. When handing out XP I gave everyone 6 except for the historian and the Jedi, who got 8 each. This seemed perfectly fair as they had done all the planning and all the work to rescue the guy, without a single use of Jedi powers to boot. However, the other players were very put off by the idea of getting fewer XP. Interest in the game promptly vanished. One dead campaign.

Levels Versus Point Buy

Many people dislike level systems. The sudden increases in abilities rather than a gradual increase strike some as unrealistic. Often the benefits of increasing in level are predefined or provide limited options. For example, a DnD wizard will get more hit points and more spells and occasionally an increase in their combat skill. They may want to take something other than an increase in their very sub-par combat skill, like more spells, but they can’t. This can make it difficult to construct the kind of character a player wants.

Ironically, the weaknesses of level systems are also their strengths. While a sudden increase in ability may seem odd, at least it usually feels like the character is more capable. An increase in stealth skill from 25% to 28% is an increase, but not something that is going to get noticed during play. While constraining, limiting choices can also make decisions easier. When presented with too many choices people often find making a decision difficult. In psychology it’s known as seven, plus or minus two. We always called it analysis paralysis. If a specific style of character advancement is desired, the predefined increases are an easy way to obtain this. For example, most point-buy systems encourage a significant amount of specialization so it is rare to see a James Bond-like character who is very broadly competent. In a level-based system the GM could give every 2nd level spy a choice of SCUBA, hang gliding, or parachuting skill. Adding skills like this at every level would force broad competence over time.

The strengths and weaknesses of point-buy systems are pretty much the inverse of level systems. They generally offer a great deal of choice and customization and more incremental development. However, they often have balance problems and can be very daunting to new players.

mnm2Level- and point-buy systems can also be combined. Mutants and Masterminds uses a system where experience can be spent just like the points used to make the character, but at certain amounts of experience the character also increases in level. Level acts as a limit on how powerful the character’s abilities can be.

Mechanical Systems

Mechanical systems work advancement directly into the mechanics of playing the game, for example, the previously mentioned Runequest. The big advantages to such systems are that they are even and predictible, require little if any decision-making, and usually make sense from a real-world point of view. For most of these systems there is nothing arbitrary about the results. If the rules say the character gets better, they do. There is no ability for GMs to specifically favor or hinder a character or group. This also means that the systems are usually fairly quick to adjudicate as the GM doesn’t need to add up xp or decide how much to reward. There are usually no decisions on the player’s part either. In Runequest if you roll to see if your stealth skill goes up and it does, then your stealth skill goes up. You can’t decide to put that advance into sword parry instead. Philosophically, mechanical systems often try to model a real-world approach to experience. You get better at skills that you use all the time and push to their limit. Because this makes much more sense than most other systems, there is something aesthetically pleasing about most mechanical systems.

The big problem with mechanical systems is while they are fair, they are rarely just. Through a little good or bad luck a character can end up ahead or behind everyone else, not through actions or superior or poor play, just due to some dice rolls. In the Runequest game I played in, I started with a decent skill in spear. As a combat type I ended up using the skill a great deal and with a little luck got pretty good at it. Another character in the group was much more magically-oriented but the player wanted to increase their sword skill a little as a backup for when they ran out of juice or got rushed. They had been trying since before I joined the game. Because their base skill was low, it was dangerous to actually try to fight with such a low skill, and they were often called on in combat to cast spells I went from OK to really good while they never gained a single point. Given the effort the player put into trying to get the skill up, they deserved better.

While it has a mechanical aspect to it, the experience system from Seven Leagues is closer to a simple XP system in terms of pros and cons. The XP results from judgment calls by the GM on the coolness of the player’s description and can be spent on anything the player wants. Since the award is based solely on the assigned bonus and not on success or failure, the system has no element of chance. As a result it simply doesn’t have the kinds of benefits or drawbacks of a Runequest style mechanic.

No Experience

Traveller’s lack of character advancement really irritated me as a teenager. After all, who doesn’t like to see their character get better? It also didn’t make any sense. Sure, your life as a diplomat might not have taught you combat skills. But after a decade of constant involvement in firefights, I don’t care what your background is, you are going to get better at fighting. However, I have come to appreciate that in certain circumstances characters shouldn’t get better. The classic example is Batman. He’s a human being already at the top in most skills and abilities. He might pick up a new language or gadget but there is simply no reason he would ever get significantly more capable. Experience may also be incompatible with story. I recently finished a Mutants and Masterminds game where the characters were the super police. They were supposed to have powers but not at the level of regular superheroes. In MnM a typical super is level 10, 150 points. We started at level 8, 120 points. It would have made sense for some characters to get better at detective work or other job related skills. However, any significant amount of XP would start to push the characters into the realm of full on supers, a place we had specifically decided not to go. So in the end, we didn’t get XP, and it worked out well. The characters grew as characters, but not in power, and a good time was had by all. While much more exception than rule, sometimes no XP is the best plan.

Final Thoughts

This article has already dragged on way too long, but I wanted to mention how I’m generally handling XP these days. In the DnD game I’m in, we do not keep track of XP or who attends the games or anything like that. Every few adventures the GMs get together and say that everyone goes up a level. It doesn’t matter if they just joined the game or missed several sessions, everyone is at the same level. This gives all the players an equal opportunity to affect the game world. Some people hate that kind of set up as they feel that advancement should be earned by time at the table. Exalted specifically tells GM’s not to treat XP this way for this exact reason. But it’s a game, not work. I feel that the penalty for missing a game is not getting to play.


3 Responses

  1. I feel that the penalty for missing a game is not getting to play.

    That’s a great philosophy. Probably the best way to look at it.

    The Continuum RPG has a interesting XP system, somewhat similar to the mechanical systems of Runequest / Call of Cthulhu / etc, but also tuned to work with Continuum’s time travel premise.

    The character sheet is full of little clocks. Every time you roll the dice, you tick off a clock on the attribute and skill you used – regardless of success or failure. Every so many clocks raises the skill.

    Where it gets interesting is that every skill also has a time code of how many days it takes to get a clock by just study and practice. As time travelers, the PCs can always pop off to college, “instant guitar lessons” like the end of the 2nd Bill & Ted movie. However, they pay for it in age – If a skill takes 30 days to get a clock, and 10 clocks to level up, I’m a year older when I get back. Use this method too much, and you’ll age your character into the old folks home.

    What I really like about it is that it allows for a player who’s missed a few sessions, to keep up with the group – “I was off studying, so I’ve got about as many clocks filled as you guys did.” They end up every bit as advanced as the other PCs, but a bit older.

  2. […] Bibliography 1. Wikipedia 2. Delta's D&D Hotspot – gaming blog 3. Emerald City Game Fest – gaming blog (the article linked is more about experience, but discusses Seven +/- 2 concept in a […]

  3. […] experience system is a very simple level system. The game master gives out a small number of experience points (xp) for playing and every five xp […]

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