Is XP a vestigial design element in some modern games?

I had a great time playing Hearts of Wulin on Hangouts the other day. But one thing that struck me was how much the game leaned on XP to motivate player behaviour, yet how little I really cared about totting up how many points I had collected.

It was a two-session game, so I was more focused on getting to use the playbook moves I already had, rather than trying to unlock even more. And increasing my stats seemed fairly irrelevant as well in light of the abstract ‘scale’ system used to measure relative character strengths.

I wouldn’t say the XP system was detrimental to the game but it didn’t seem to be doing much either. At most it felt like the game designers giving me a little thumbs up for playing into the tropes of the genre.

I realised that I felt much the same way about XP in the four-part Dungeon World game I played. In fact I think I was due a level up in the last session but I forgot to do it because I was much more interested in the story.

Granted that advancement would be more relevant in a longer campaign, but I think in the indie RPG scene it’s short campaigns that are becoming the norm.

I’m curious if anyone else feels this way about XP in PbtA and beyond. And if it is vestigial are there other ways the game could give that “thumbs up” more effectively? What other rewards could you give instead of increasing character power?

Bennies that let you succeed on future rolls (or describe yourself being awesome)?
Narrative control over the endgame? (Final Girl sort of does this… whoever died the most times gets to narrate the ending)
Gummi bears?
Real money? (This might sound weird but people do play poker with their friends…)

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On the contrary: I really like how most pbta and Blades in the Dark in particular handle XP.

AW uses XP as an obvious reward system: Do the sort of thing the MC and one of your fellow players has asked, gain XP. But also for getting to know people better – including from healing them.

Blades makes it even more obvious: Gain XP for desperate rolls, character-specific triggers, crew-specific triggers, and engaging with the fiction in particular ways.

The whole gaining more power thing for XP though? Agreed, we can toss out quite a lot of that. While a certain sort of character (me) often likes seeing numbers go up, that’s not a source of fun for every player.

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I think that XP (and, more generally, character advancement) is something that needs to be considered carefully in design.

There are lots and lots of games now that do away with it altogether.

I think the games you were playing made XP feel pretty irrelevant because they are designed for long-term play, while your games were short-term. I’d probably omit those systems for a two session game, as well, or attach it to something more relevant than a minor bonus.

Overall, I agree that it’s an important design consideration! Some designers do take it for granted, and that’s a shame.

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The opportunity for a character to change and maybe grow feels good and leads to interesting turns and fun play. There are tons of ways to encourage this! For Night Witches I knew I didn’t want some point economy for people to chase after, so XP comes in the form of Advances, which are just permission to make a change - in most cases prompting a narrative change. For example you can choose to earn a medal, which has an impact on your stats and effectiveness, but also your character’s behavior and reputation, which are completely diegetic and the more important half of the equation. And they occur at a pretty egalitarian pace, so over the course of play pretty much everyone is receiving Advances at the same rate. But they are still basically XP - do a thing the game encourages, get rewarded.

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XP is the default (individual) player incentivization system. It makes total sense in any situation where you want to watch the “zero to hero” progression unfold. It is the default because that’s what the original game had.

Unfortunately that incentive doesn’t hook every type of player (and likely never has). Different people play for different reasons. Different people engage with different parts of the mechanisms of play differently. I am pretty certain there are plenty of D&D players who really could care less about leveling outside of making sure their character can continue to survive and continue to be a party member. They don’t care about their character getting better just to get better - they see it as a utilitarian thing to keep playing. That seems less than ideal to me. (I think it also leads to issues with the sunk cost fallacy around character death/retirement.)

I think XP is also connected to some sort of idea of a level playing field amongst the players - the designers of the game worried that people wouldn’t like it if one kind of character was “more powerful” (whatever that meant) than another so they try to keep things level and only let people get more powerful after doing X. So they design accordingly. On the flip side you have something like Swords Without Master where there is no XP or advancement system. The characters can’t die unless their player specifically narrates them doing so. The characters can basically do anything they want as long as it aligns with the tone of the game and vaguely makes sense in the fiction. This can sometimes lead to gonzo-ness (which happened on occasion in the fiction its based off of (ie Howard/Leiber)) but that could also be prevented with an initial tone conversation. But the stories are always interesting…

I don’t know… I personally play a game until I get bored. If I am enjoying the system and the group and the narrative I’ll keep playing.

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Just popping in to point out that @Thoobn has been thinking about this a bit, and posted a similar thread a while back: Longer Campaigns Without XP Some of those ideas might contribute here as well.

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I’m not sure a lot of PBTA games do zero to hero so much–one of the nicer innovations of AW was that characters tended to broaden, not heighten, their capabilities. (Stat increases obviously help but those were fairly limited and while the marginal improvement was significant, it was nowhere near the sort of power increases D&D offered.) Certainly you can have 10th level PCs in the same party as 1st level PCs in Dungeon World, for example.

In better designed systems, XP are nice crude flags for players to look for–ah, the game wants me to do this!–kind of thing. (Remembering that OD&D gave XP for money, not monster killing, was a driver for the OSR IMHO.) However it’s incumbent on the designer who includes XP to make the XP system support the design. Night Witches does that pretty well. I think Smallville tried, but didn’t quite get there, perhaps because the various subsystems in Smallville always looked coherent on the page but tended to fight each other in play (at least in my limited experience.)

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An anecdote to back up what Shane is saying here - I’m currently playing Moldvay Basic with my friends and we agreed to level up every session and not bother tracking experience. It makes the game so much more fun for us.

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From your anecdotes and my own experience, I would say this is more an issue with XP, or by proxy, long-term growth, just inherently not meaning much in two or four session games, rather than being entirely vestigial in PbtA. Having just finished a 3-session Hearts of Wulin game, I had a similar experience as you. When we were negotiating a PvP duel in the last session, for instance, the suggested offer of XP was completely ignored, since we knew it wasn’t going to matter after that session.

That being said, we did get enough XP in the first two sessions for almost everyone to get an advance, and getting to pick that new move to come into the finale with was still exciting for me (although I didn’t end up using it, but with even one more session I probably could have). As @Jmstar pointed out above, XP can be not only about increasing in power level, but having a currency to engage with that lets you shape your narrative in ways you’re interested in. I think that’s still valuable even in short term play-- if you can get enough XP in one or two sessions to come in with something new and fun on the third, I think that it’s still working.

On the flip side, when I played a longer campaign of The Sprawl (somewhere between half a year to a year, on and off), XP worked exactly as intended. With the benefit of having enough time, the appeal of getting exciting new moves that let us broaden or further define what our badass characters were all about was absolutely there for us.

So maybe the conscientious game designer could try to implement alternative systems in their games for different lengths of play, but the internal economies within PbtA or Blades-style games are usually pretty tightly interwoven, so trying to remove a component like XP and replace it with something else might be easier said than done.

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Is there any reason not to just let the characters use whatever moves they want as long as it makes the story awesome? (And makes sense in the fiction?)

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Pacing mostly. The choices you make with your advances can tie back into the fiction as well; likewise what you aim for. Frex, I think I’m going to want to play the Doomed in a planned game of Masks, and for sure I’ll be aiming to take Burn/Flares with my first advance; so I’m gonna have to dig into the XP triggers for the Doomed and or try a bunch of things my character will suck at. The arc of failure unlocking power is very much on point for comic book stories so I think that’s probably marginally better than just grabbing it right away…but also Masks is pretty good about its XP triggers tying well into its tropes.

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Yep, I agree that it’s mostly a pacing thing. You certainly can play totally well-designed games without XP or any sort of advancement system that work, but I personally do enjoy having that mechanic to engage with that’s measuring out those rewards, particularly if it’s against specific thematically appropriate triggers like in PbtA or FitD games.

Tangentially, the idea of not having any sort of hard limiter on what you can do or when reminds me of when I discovered the console commands in Morrowind as a kid-- I turned on god mode and gave myself 999,999,999 gold and enjoyed buying up anything I wanted and easily killing any monsters I ran into, but I’d get bored within an hour or two, because I’d completely undermined the progression structures that provide goals for you to play towards.

Now of course a TTRPG designed around non-progressive play wouldn’t be as boring or as unbalanced as that, but that’s where I think the value can be in locking off moves or other forms of advances and having them be something to strive for. I’d assume that even a well-balanced game without something like that would lose my interest faster, because I’d do all the stuff I wanted my character to do as soon as I could and then have nowhere else to go. For low-session campaigns or one-shots, that’s probably totally fine, but might become an issue given enough time (I’m also only really vaguely familiar with Swords Without Master or similar games-- there might be people who’ve played longer campaigns in them and didn’t find this to be a problem). Pacing could be measured by the narrative and everyone agreeing on what’s appropriate for your character to be able to do at any given time, but I personally like to have something more solid in the game text or rules guiding me in that regard.

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I like Advancement as in the PbtA context it brings new moves into sessions. That gives me as GM an opportunity to bring situations into sessions that spotlight those moves … so virtuous circle.
I like Advancement systems that drive player behaviours that are in keeping with the genre/tropes on show - that helps players get a handle on those tropes and opens up opportunities for them to drive the story. Another virtuous circle, I’d say. XP for failure was important at the time as it was driving players to be less risk averse and take some story driving risks.
Whether that advancement is mediated by XP or more directly by Keys, for instance, bothers me less, though I think Keys work best for short form games as the ‘unit of advancement’ can be quite big. XP, I think, gives a longer drip feed of advancement.

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Now I should put my money where my mouth us and re-design XP in Eotenweard!

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I’m not sure.

For me, one nice thing about XP and advancement in RPGs is that they allow one to “stage” the complexity of the game. Rather than having people keep track of 20 possible moves or abilities, they start with many fewer (maybe 5-8) to keep track of. Once they’ve mastering those they can start learning more but in a controlled way.

I tend to support allowing players to “reconsider” advancements if they have regrets (or if something else makes more sense in the story) so for me the important part is allowing the possibility space to get larger as players get more comfortable in the system and story, rather than requiring players to consider all possible abilities or moves up front.

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Dream Askew points at an interesting take. It’s diceless, with moves you can always do, “strong moves” that you have to spend tokens to do, and “weak moves” that earn you tokens. The weak moves are built to showcase the flaws of an archetype, while the strong moves showcase the power of the archetype. So the token economy incentivizes you to wax and wane and doesn’t lead you to advancement.

There’s also Lures, which are actions other players can take that earn them a token for interacting with your character. E.g., “When someone participates in one of your rituals for the first time, gain a token.”

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I think classic XP systems make certain assumptions about player motivations and the shape of the story that don’t necessarily apply in all cases. And I think it’s worthwhile for designers to think carefully about what function XP is meant to be serving in their game.

There’s a tendency to latch onto the idea of XP as incentive – I want to motivate my players to do X, so I’ll give them XP for it. But that can sometimes become a kludgy patch over the problem that the gameplay is not intrinsically motivating the player to play in certain ways. I think XP as incentive works best when it’s raised in specific trade-offs (“I’ll give you XP if you accept this bad outcome” type situations).

We should also question the necessary tie between player rewards and character advancement. Making your individual character more powerful is not necessarily the thing that players care about most.

Another issue with traditional XP is its abstraction – you’re accumulating this currency, and then at an arbitrary cut-off point you have enough to buy something cool. That detaches the outcome (the thing you buy with your XP) from the cause (the things that you accumulate XP for). I’d like to see more games that tie those two more closely together.

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Currently I am reading a german RPG called “Midgard” (interestingly it was the first german RPG ever but isn’t very known even in germany, but still played and developed).

And Midgard has an interesting take on XP.
Although it is not explicitly mentioned, XP is here a kind of abstraction of time, time spent doing things.

There are no hard classes in Midgard. The best, I could describe it would be “educational levels”. To a certain degree everyone could become a “magic user”. The direction you push your character is relatively open - relatively means: it is easier for a Mage to learn spells than for a Babarian.

There are two types of XP in Midgard: One general and one special kind. The specialized one, you earn for being exceptional in what you are doing: say you tamed and rode a wild horse (mechanically you rolled a natural 20). You would earn PP (“Praxispunkte”).
The general kind of XP could be earned in two ways depending on the level of bookkeeping you like: XP for actually playing the game (XP per hours played) and achieving certain story relevant goals; or if you want it more fine grained for actually doing things (using a spell, having an encounter etc.).

Along your career you gain XP. As well as there are no classes, there are no levels. There are only grades: which indicate mostly how much time you spent playing / learning.

XP and PP are spent later on to learn things. In order to learn or improve a skill (say riding horses) you have to find a mentor, which you have to pay. Then you could trade money and knowledge (XP and PP - PP being more valuable) for learning sessions.

What I find appealing is that in having a very simulationistic approach it is very neutral. It doesn’t incentivise a special kind of behavior. Experience is happening anyways. Doing things often makes you experienced. Doing things exceptionally makes you even more experienced. And if you want to become a barbarian with alchemistic knowledge you have to study and learn it. Perhaps a bit harder than anyone else in your party - but that is due to their advantage of already having spent more time on having a basic education.

That said - it wasn’t about a “modern game” though - what could be learned is, that XP could be designed in a more abstract or indifferent way, which doesn’t incentivise a certain type of behavior. Perhaps one only counts a completed adventure as one experience and having 5 XP means you did 5 trips into the unknown.

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At most it felt like the game designers giving me a little thumbs up for playing into the tropes of the genre.

Why does the pointers have to be with XP?

What other rewards could you give instead of increasing character power?

Why does it have to be rewards?


But yeah, I’m not satisfied with XP as intensives – for other stuff than competitions – when there are other ways to design an RPG to make the players behave in a certain way.

What I wanted to point out with my post was of course this:

Bennies that let you succeed on future rolls (or describe yourself being awesome)?
Narrative control over the endgame? (Final Girl sort of does this… whoever died the most times gets to narrate the ending)
Gummi bears?
Real money? (This might sound weird but people do play poker with their friends…)

You basically trying to replace the gold star with a silver ribbon. What’s the point, if you’re trying the very same thing – rewarding with tangible rewards?

You can, however, reward by making people feel that what they do, or contribute with, actually matter.

• Building on someone’s idea, other by adding to it or by giving it a twist.
• Saying that something is cool, nodding, or being exited, in order to making them feel appreciated.
• Let them be creative. Lift up their ideas even further, and making them succeed because of them.
• Focus on what they think is fun and reward with giving them more of that. If someone likes acting in character, give more opportunities to act in character.
• Have them create bonds with the setting by letting them create stuff on the spot.
• Have rolls tell the other participants something about the character. Normally, you just roll the dice and is done with it, but have them involve something more about the character, letting them know something more about the character. Ask questions, be interested in their character.

When I was a soccer trainer for kids, I got the advice to always say something good about each kid every practice. I use that guideline for the players as well.

Overjustification effect, and also Cognative Evaluation Theory, says that if you get a tangible reward, that’s not a social one or a result of a competition, a tangible reward (gold star) does nothing or can even decrease the fun of doing the task.

A way of having the players do what you want to do is to let them get to their goal, but in order to do so, they must do something along the way that you want to do. Do you wanna go out and play, then clean up your room first. Even better, if you want to come out of the room, you need to pass all the things along the way that hinders you. I wanted to have my old father bringing his phone with him when he takes hour long walks in the forest, but he didn’t do that until I installed a fitness app that kept track of how long and far he walked. My dad wanted to know the information, so he brought the phone with him in order to get that information.

That’s basically how you can design a game – to make them do what they think is fun, but they have to do other stuff along the way. If you have enough money, you don’t work for the money. You work because of what the money can enable you to do. May it be a trip somewhere, a gadget that you will enjoy, or just going out to eat every Friday.

That’s at least why I withstand some of the roleplaying game systems out there; not for what it does but for what I can achieve in the end.