On the Experience for Growth

What do you give experience points for?

A bit of a light post on this holiday, stating some things discussed in a recent G+ post, and covered ad nauseum since the creation of role-playing games.

If you have a mechanic for improving your characters, then how your players leverage that mechanic will drive their behavior.

Storygame, D&D, whatever, it doesn't matter. The real questions are: What behaviors are you driving? and How is this processed by the players?

What Behaviors are You Driving?

Whatever you give improvements for, players will seek via the least resistant path. Give experience points for fighting? Player's will kill every creature they possibly can. Give experience points for gold? Players will ignore anything presented that doesn't give the possibility of monetary reward or more power to acquire monetary awards. Give no experience points for fighting? Players will go to absurd lengths to avoid combat.

How is This Processed by the Players?

How do the players identify this goal? How can they know if they have achieved it? This is a huge issue with any sort of subjective award. 

Any time the reward mechanic is subjective player confusion results. 

Can you tell me as a player, specifically before the game what I must do to earn my role-playing experience award? If not, then how is that activity supposed to motivate my actions?

Examples abound: The 'peaceful' cleric who "goes to pray at the temple" in an off-hand statement in town, and yet gleefully murders wounded creatures for the experience points. The fighter fleeing combat or fighting at range. The assassin engaging in melee. The player who only talks in character. The player who won't talk in character. 

There is no objective right or wrong answer to the above statements. Depending on the situation any, all, or none of the above could be considered "good" or "bad" role-playing, creating two major problems. 
  1. The players don't know what they have to do to earn experience points, besides sussing out whatever subjective standard the Dungeon Master has set in his head. 
  2. The Dungeon Master has no objective standard to insure he is being fair. It fundamentally depends on his personal, subjective, judgement. 
The behavior this leads to in play gathered from my 20 years experience of gaming, is either
  1. Players explicitly checking out of character with their Dungeon Master about what actions will gain them experience
  2. Players attempting to be loud, dramatic, attention seeking characters, 'cause that's 'role-playing'
  3. Players complaining when given experience that they were playing their anti-social, lone wolf, character correctly.

Outside options

Of course you can sidestep the whole issue by just having everyone level every few sessions, but then you give up the ability to drive player choices.

This also allows you to drive genera conventions by rewarding the behaviors. 

You see, that's the idea of experience. It's clear you can just become more powerful at intervals, but experience can drive behavior which is its strength. When I see someone complain about experience for gold, what they are actually complaining about is a mechanism that causes players to be creative.*

Many of these people are focused on the "story", or their very myopic definition of such**, I could relate the story of every single experience for wealth game I've ever played in! If you want your 'story' to be something else, then change your reward structure to something objective! Look at Marvel Super Heroes, or Old School Hack for examples!

*Because if award experience for gold, you try to get gold without exposing yourself to the risk of fighting monsters. How do you get past a monster? Creative play.

** This is, of course, different then "I want a game about interpersonal drama, relationships between people, or focused on character growth and change." My personal experience is that when someone derides experience for treasure because 'they want a story' what they are actually saying is "I want to be in a situation where I can justifiably tell someone else how to act." It is ipso facto true that when you play a game, a story of what happens results, so their statement is literally nonsense and just a cover for their attempt to control future experiences from being as negative as their past experiences.

Perhaps they should get more experience!


  1. With the game I'm running now, I told my players that they get experience points for 'contributing' in whatever way their characters were able to, as long as it made the game interesting.

    The sneaky lone-wolf plays carefully and explores, the mad wizard plays evilly, they let the warrior be the one in combat, and the loud one at the table goes gonzo when there's NPCs. Everyone has the idea that they gain experience by playing to their strengths.

    What I didn't tell them was that I don't actually organise their exp and just let them level up at the end of a campaign chapter.
    It's been half a year and I don't think they've realised yet.

  2. I like exploration based around explicit goal achievement - eg exploring, killing monsters, killing treasure - with any reward for 'roleplaying' being very occasional individual rewards for some very fun bit of characterisation. 5e's Inspiration award does that well.


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