Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Granular Experience Points

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 19, 2015

Some people I know have dropped the concept of experience points from their D&D / Pathfinder campaigns. They simply allow the players to level up their characters at appropriate times.

Is this a revolting idea to me, as an “old school” D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) player? Nah, not really. Sure, I think the game is missing something without it, but I’ve run games like that myself. Other game systems, but sure. There’s no problem with awarding experience points – basically a marker for tracking improvement (or spending directly on improvement, in many skill-based systems).

In fact, one can ask – what is the purpose of having the finer resolution of traditional, D&D-style experience points?

I’m glad one asked! While I love it simply as a matter of tradition, there’s more to it than that. Here are several reasons. Several of them reflect an inherent understanding of game design on the part of the original designers. Maybe these factors came about by chance, but I think the style of game we all enjoy gained popularity specifically because of these elements.

First of all, the obvious – it allows finite but measurable progress in a game system that doesn’t offer frequent improvements. A single battle may not impact things by much, but a dozen? Unfortunately, this particular element was perhaps overly exploited by early D&D players, giving the game its bloodthirsty reputation. After all, every little kill counted, right?

Secondly, it allows unequal, non-linear progress. This was especially true in earlier editions of D&D, which tended to suffer higher character mortality rates. A series of encounters that would barely move the needle for a high-level character (back then, 8th level or so was pretty high) might bring a new character up to 2nd or even 3rd level. Thus, after a couple of adventures “mentoring” a new character, they were quickly brought up to a level where they could pull their own weight, and yet the more advanced characters still enjoyed a little bit of measurable progress.

But on another front – rather than giving such a direct, linear bonus to character actions, in the old days a higher attribute score would give a character an experience point bonus. So a Magic User with a very high Intelligence score might progress 10% faster than normal. So he or she might have started out relatively equal to everyone else, but the 18 intelligence magic user moved to the head of the class faster. In order for that bonus to be useful, XP had to be doled out in chunks large enough that 10% meant a reasonable whole number. Now, I can’t say that I was really fond of the unequal progress mechanic (and since it has largely gone the way of the dodo, I guess I wasn’t alone in that), but it was at least an interesting approach.

Now, for anything else to be meaningful, experience points had to be something in some level of control by the player. In modern games, so much seems to be left in the hands of the game master, even to the point of scaling encounters up or down to match the character level, it might make sense not to bother with incremental XP. But in the old days, a chunk of the experience points were solidly in the player’s hands. Maybe they didn’t know what points there were to be had, and there were no guarantees. The bulk of the experience point award came from the accumulation of treasure, and that was notoriously well-hidden, trapped, and / or disguised back in the old days. That was the POINT. If the game were played as intended, something like a third of the experience point potential was not obvious.

So third – it means that XP can be a direct reward for player-driven exploration and clever play. In some cases (particularly in modern computer and console RPGs), it gives the player the chance to decide whether or not to push forward to bigger challenges, or to stay at the current level (these days, it might mean to “grind for XP,” but that’s not necessarily the case). It also drove some pretty sociopathic character behavior, killing everything in sight to squeeze out the last few experience points. But this third point is perhaps the most powerful of them all… it puts more of the progress of the game in the player’s hands.

In the end, it really depends on the kind of game players want to play. While I prefer the more traditional method with the advantages it confers, I still enjoy systems where the leveling is more of a scheduled event, or a system like Hero or Storyteller where experience points are few and directly used for character building. Since character progression is one of the major defining elements of an RPG, it exerts a major influence on the flavor of the entire game system.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • Cuthalion said,

    I definitely like having it as a way to see how close you’re getting to the next milestone. But really, even RPGs like Savage Worlds or The One Ring, where you’re given small amounts of exp at a time accomplish that, because you tend to get a little at the end of each session, and you know how much you need to improve things.

    Still like big numbers though!