Once upon a time, in the far-flung year of 1974, Gary Gygax released the first-ever edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and in so doing singlehandedly created the tabletop roleplaying game as we know it. D&D had precursors, but they were miniatures war games, more akin to Warhammer than to what we would recognize as an RPG. In many ways, Dungeons and Dragons was sui generis, and its long shadow is still cast over the modern tabletop scene. Some games, like Pathfinder and (obviously) Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, are more clearly descended from Gygax’s original design than others, like Monster of the Week, but they all spring, ultimately, from the same source. In many ways, this is Gygax’s world, and the rest of just are just living in it.
One consequence of this is that a lot of D&D concepts pop up in other games, even those not directly emulating D&D, because they’re trying to fit into the mold Gygax laid out. The concepts of character race and class pop up all over the place, and the concept of character advancement by levels is so ubiquitous that it’s only notable when it’s absent from a system. On a more basic level still, while Gygax did not invent the mechanic of resolving events with a dice roll, he introduced the world to polyhedral dice, and whenever a Game Master (another Gygaxian invention!) tells a player to roll and add a bonus, that’s a piece of Gygax’s legacy shining through.
All well and good. But not everything that’s been passed down deserves to be retained. Some concepts we cling to out of tradition, not because they still serve their intended purpose. Some mechanics we take for granted, without ever bothering to consider whether they ought to be. And since I’m sure you read the title of this post before clicking through, I won’t beat around the bush any further: Experience points, in the context of tabletop roleplay, suck. They are a bad way of managing character progression, and are only kept around because as part of the Dungeons and Dragons legacy, game designers keep putting them in unthinkingly. It’s time for experience points to die.
The Problem (For Game Masters)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: DMs/GMs hate dealing with experience points. To players, collecting experience points at the end of a session is as simple as getting a number from your GM, adding it to your existing tally, and checking if you’ve passed the threshold for the next level. To GMs, it involves a lengthy series of calculations to ensure proper distribution, and an awful lot of anxiety-inducing guesstimation when awarding for non-combat accomplishments. It’s not especially difficult, but it can take a fair amount of time, and it’s extremely tedious and unpleasant.
Of course, doing the work of running the campaign is in the GM’s job description. Most of that work is rewarding, but some of it is tedious work that, nonetheless, needs to get done. So, if experience points were providing substantial benefit to the players, GM hardship would be no compelling reason to abandon them. However, I argue that the distribution of experience points provides only marginal benefits over having the GM simply distribute levels at what they judge to be appropriate times, which are more than outweighed by the costs. Experience points, you see, don’t just suck for the GM. They also damage the experience for players as well.
The Problem (For Players)
Suppose your group plays primarily from published adventure modules, as many do. Well, experience points have almost certainly damaged that adventure’s narrative pacing and story structure:
I had a discussion with James Jacobs about a number of questionable, from the story and GM standpoint, decisions in the Dragon’s Demand module – it was giving out “story awards” to the tune of 200 XP for climbing a DC10 mount of rubble to enter the dungeon. He justified it by saying [paraphrased] “Yes but we need people to get from first to sixth level over the course of this one module to fight our end dragon so we padded the shit out of it”.
It’s simple math, really. The module has a starting level, and various setpieces throughout that require the player characters be at a certain level to handle them. If you want to get the places from level X to level X+Y over the course of the module, you need to include sufficient opportunities for XP collection to cover that difference. And if not enough of those opportunities present themselves naturally, well…the XP has to come from somewhere, right? Padding it out may not produce the most enjoyable adventure experience, but if you want them to fight a big dragon at the end, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Now, you may say, your group doesn’t use published adventures, and the GM creates all of the scenarios themselves. Unfortunately, you’ll encounter the same kinds of issues. If the GM wants you to gain a level before fighting The Monster at the End of This Dungeon, because leveling isn’t under their direct control, the only way they can ensure it is by padding out the dungeon with meaningless encounters. Or, in the other direction, if you don’t want your players to become overleveled for an encounter you’ve designed, you may need to drop another cool one that you would otherwise have used.
These types of compromises are largely invisible to the player, since they occur in the design phase, before the player even enters the scene. And yet, wouldn’t your players enjoy the game more if every encounter had a cool narrative, thematic, or mechanical hook, and none of them were simply inserted as padding?
These problems are not insurmountable, of course. In fact, the simplest solution is to simply not care about your party’s advancement at all, and let the XP fall where it may. But it seems to me that totally abrogating your control over character advancement, a crucial part of the gameplay experience, in order to accommodate a system that offers marginal benefits and causes you busywork…is not ideal. A better solution is to simply ditch experience points altogether. Let the GM decide when the party is ready to level, or even decide by consensus among the GM and the party.
Before starting this post, I did some research on the old google machine to find some of the arguments in favor of managing player advancement with experience points (XP). These were genuinely a bit tough to find, because like the water in David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address, the experience system is so assumed that hardly anyone feels the need to comment on its presence unless prompted to by someone else. Some of what I found is genuinely valid! Some of them…less so.
1. Players want to receive experience.
More than one GM reports that their players demand to receive XP in place of GM-fiat advancement. And this is a totally real thing! Ultimately, the GM’s job is to provide a fun time for their players as well as themselves. If your players really can’t be dissuaded from the notion that they need to see a number tick up to feel like they accomplished something, well, you may be stuck with experience points, even though they suck.
I do find it amusing, however, to note that the most vociferous defender of experience points that I could find (whose angry-man-shouting-on-the-internet schtick is so tired and lamely executed that I refuse to so much as link to his essay on the topic) simultaneously made ‘players want XP so GMs who don’t want to do it are lazy and ignorant’ the crucial hinge of his argument while simultaneously admitting that, in his own words, “players suck at knowing what’s good” and are not good judges as to the source of their enjoyment. And he’s absolutely right about that: anybody who’s ever tried to serve up entertainment for an audience, be they GM, author, or game developer, can tell you that there’s always a gap between what people think they want and what they actually want. Our human brains are really bad at determining the cause of our emotional reactions. ‘The players want it’ may be a reason why you’re forced to use XP, but that’s not the same thing as XP being good for the player experience.
Finally, this argument is actually a great reason for why game designers should leave XP tables out of their books altogether. The players can’t demand XP if there’s no XP system to be had.
2. Ticking up your experience points is viscerally pleasing for players.
Some have argued that the simple act of tallying up one’s experience points and seeing the gradual progression toward the next level is enjoyable in itself. And honestly…yeah, sure? I’m not going to try to claim that it isn’t. People enjoy seeing their numbers go up, and enjoy the building anticipation as they approach a new leap in power. Many, many, many video games take advantage of this psychological trick to hook players and keep them playing. MMORPGs and gachapon-based mobile games, in particular, would be dead in the water if not for this. Heck, remember Progress Quest? Just watching a progress bar fill up is satisfying, even without any player input at all!
So, this argument is absolutely valid. But given that these XP-related dopamine hits only come in one or twice a session, maximum, and lack the accentuating animations and sounds that make XP gain so appealing in video games, I question whether this can outweigh the costs of using an XP system.
3. Players need an advancement system that’s independent of GM control, so that they feel like their accomplishments are their own.
This argument has an element of truth to it, but I don’t find it very compelling. It’s definitely possible for players to feel like their ownership of their accomplishments is diminished if they seems to come by GM fiat. To the extent that leveling, in itself, constitutes an accomplishment, you want players to feel like they earned it.
The problem with this argument is that XP distribution is already under the GM’s control. Unless you award XP solely for combat and only by consulting the provided tables (an approach to advancement that not even XP’s most ardent defender would advise), character advancement is under the GM’s control, and can be arbitrarily manipulated. The GM can award XP generously to accelerate character progression, or withhold XP to slow it down. And even in the realm of combat XP, the number and difficulty of encounters is under the GM’s control. The GM’s control over player progression is more indirect and byzantine under XP, but make no mistake: if they want you to get up to level ten so that you’ll be an appropriate level to fight the dragon they’ve put on the deepest level of this dungeon, they’ll get you there, by hook or by crook.
Now, it’s true that in the context of a game, illusions of control can be valuable. Ultimately, the entire game rests on an illusion that the players are independent agents acting out their own will on the game world, while in reality they’re going through a prepared experience that’s more akin to a cross between an escape room and a ghost train ride. But is this particular illusion of control really so valuable that it outweighs the downsides of using XP? Is anybody really fooled by it? I’m skeptical.
This argument feels like a relic of the old days when adversarial GMing was the norm. If the GM is the player’s opponent, then yeah of course the players should want their character’s advancement to be as independent of the GM’s judgment as possible. But if you imagine the GM as collaborator with and facilitator for the player, as the vast majority of modern RPGs do, it simply doesn’t make sense.
4. GMs need XP in order to motivate and guide player behavior.
The thinking behind this one is, if you want to see more of a certain behavior, you can incentivize it with XP rewards. Want to see players engage with intrigue and roleplay? Give out heaps of XP for it. Want to see them use stealth and guile to avoid encounters? Make their numbers go up!
On the surface, this argument seems to have a lot going for it, but I have three problems with it. First, I don’t think it works. Oh, to be sure, if you dole out XP rewards for roleplaying or whatnot, and are clear as to why the bonus XP is being handed out, you may see players modify their behavior in the short term. But I’d be very surprised if this led to long-term changes in playstyle. You may entice them outside of the comforting boundaries of their usual play, but unless they decide they really like it out there, they’ll retreat back to form the moment the reward is removed.
The second is that even if you can change player behaviors, I’m not at all sure that you should. It seems to me to be better to try to meet your players where they are than to try to drag them into the type of play you prefer.
And finally, any behavior reinforcement you can provide with XP rewards is going to be competing with the behavior reinforcements inherent to XP systems, which tilt overwhelmingly towards kick-in-the-door violence-driven play. Game rules are good at modeling physical systems with discrete outcomes, but have more trouble modeling more abstract behavior with more conditional outcomes. In other words, it’s easy to make rules that govern how characters resolve their problems through violence, but it’s a good deal harder to write rules governing how players solve their problems by diplomacy, or trickery, or even stealth. Those sorts of solutions are too dependent on the world and situation the GM’s created for the game rules to handle them in anything but the most general terms. There’s a reason why the typical Player’s Handbook devotes many, many more pages to combat rules than to anything involving roleplay. It’s just easier to systematize.
However, for this very reason, violence represents a consistent well of experience points. Monster difficulty relative to party strength can be – and is, in every system with an XP system that I’ve seen – broken down into a table, from which the GM can mathematically determine the appropriate award. Solve your problems with trickery and guile, and you might get an XP reward. But if you solve your problems through violence, you will get one. The result is that any attempts to use XP to modify player behavior will be competing with XP’s overwhelming natural pull on player behavior, which drives players towards the murderhobo lifestyle.
5. GMs need XP to motivate players, period.
Your players took time out of their week to show up at your house to play a game. Presumably, they actually want to play the game. If you’re finding yourself having to dangle XP rewards in front of them like carrots before horses to get them to engage, perhaps you should do some self-reflection, because clearly something you’re doing isn’t working and the XP is serving as a shoddy patch over it.
6. XP curves are part of the game design; some levels take more experience than others, because those levels correspond to when players will get new and exciting powers, and by making them last longer it gives players chances to adjust to these new capabilities.
Looking at how D&D’s experience curves are set out, it is absolutely plausible that this is the design intent. But…who cares? Do you really think that a bunch of game designers huddled in an office discussing the advancement curve in the abstract are better-positioned to judge how much time your party needs at each level than you, their Game Master, is?
7. GMs like to use loss of XP to punish players who miss sessions.
No! Bad GM! Bad! You wouldn’t tolerate your players resolving out-of-game issues in the game world, would you? So why would you bring their attendance record into the game? Furthermore, players have real lives and sometimes their real lives make it difficult to attend sessions. You shouldn’t punish them for that.
Besides, this just makes your job as GM harder; designing encounters for split-level parties is a lot harder than designing for parties that are around the same level. Just…don’t do this.
Experience points are an archaic holdover from Gygax’s days that have long since worn out their welcome. They either rob GMs of control over player character progression, or their management requires that the GM make sacrifices to the overall player experience. There’s almost no reason to include them except tradition, and plenty of compelling reasons to not include them.
This obviously does not apply to games which utilize XP in a unique or different manner. For example, many Powered by the Apocalypse systems, such as Monster of the Week, award experience points not in response to player successes, but in response to failures. Blow a roll hard enough, and you get an experience point as a consolation prize. That’s cool and performing a very different function from D&D experience.
But classical experience points simply aren’t a useful construct anymore. Leave it in the past where it belongs.