Longer Campaigns Without XP

One of the lifelong wishes I have is to run a long-term campaign. My current system of choice is Troika! The main issue is that there is not much in terms of coded-in advancement. That leads me to the question of how to engage a group long term without the XP gain carrot.

(I do realize that the wish I have might not be plausible, but I am curious on what can incentivize a group in the long run.)


They could choose from a variety of rewards -
1-home/castle/lair/headquarter upgrade
2-increased revenue for self or loved one
3-greater narrative say (eg this arc they get to choose the parameters of the high risk high return season climax)
4-greater change option (eg they get to twist a plot or element from the existing plots)
5-they get a cool familiar/mount/ally
6-they become a recruiter for another team, that you can use for spin off series when not all the regular players show up


I think this largely comes down to the tastes of the people in the group. I’ve played with folks who really want to level up and pick powers from a list between sessions, and I’ve played with folks who don’t care if there’s no advancement at all. (Troika is in between, at least, as you do get to mark skills as you use them for a chance to improve them.)

If you think your players need more incentive, consider bolting on something like the Dungeon World end of session move, or expand Troika XP to allow it to gain new skills if you try them untrained enough times. If you think your players don’t need that specifically, but still need to be hooked somehow, consider narrative hooks like a mission or a looming threat. But personally I would just try to run it as written and only try to find a solution if it turns out there is indeed a problem.


What does long term mean to you?


When I’ve been running Troika!, I’ve gated advancement rewards behind stated achievements up front


People play years-long Traveller campaigns without advancement, so I don’t think it’s implausible at all!

I tried to make an overview of the alternatives at one point:

Besides advancement a campaign might be propelled by…

decline. A downward spiral. Delta Green or The One Ring do this.

character change. Fate with its milestones tries to do that.

an arms race. Shadowrun.

base building. The Ark in Mutant: Year Zero.

networking. Expanding a relationship map, watching it grow or change. Hillfolk is an example. Also maybe building reputation in a more resource-focused sense.

chronicling. Generational play in a year-by-year mode. Pendragon and The One Ring.

anthologizing. Episodes tied together by returning characters or factions. Remember Tomorrow has it.

changing the setting and/or mode of play. Kuro, Makkura, Kuro Tensei. The Veil, The Veil: Cascade, The Veil: Inheritance.

exploration. Hexcrawls or other kinds of strongly map-focused gaming.

investigation. Follow the clues. Trail of Cthulhu’s Spine or Night’s Black Agents Conspyramid.

questions. The Uniform Survey in Sign in Stranger.

railroading. Many a published campaign.


I’m curious as to what you mean by “the XP gain carrot”? Simply a points collection system for advancement or something bigger - a lack of mechanical character advancement and improvement over time?

If it’s the first there’s plenty who will tell you it’s easy - just use milestone leveling. I personally dislike that system, but for scene driven or plotted campaigns I can see how it works fine. It’s harder to work with in a sandbox system of course.

If it’s mechanical advancement (leveling/skill improvement and ability gain) more broadly I suspect you’ll have to rely on player goals. Goals from survival/wealth acquisition to solving world threatening problems. While a base/town building mechanic (something as simple as the party being the hunters/scavengers for a band of survivors/refugees) could work - helping the players develop individual character goals through play has encouraged long term play in my experience because it’s not entirely top down and GM driven. Faction interaction is good to establish this - NPCs that the players can like or hate, help or thwart - all with goals that have setting altering effects.


I’ve run several Marvel Heroic campaigns where because we’re using established heroes, there really isn’t any room for ‘zero to hero’ advancement like in most F20 games. So we did what the book recommends and created a slate of ‘unlockables’ that PCs could spend xp on.

Like, you could burn xp to call in Nick Fury to help you out of a jam, or to introduce a supporting character from the comics, or to borrow one of the Avengers’ quinjets for a mission or something. So, they were using it to enhance play and ‘build’ their PCs, but not by adding to stats and powers. If you want a reasonable flat power curve across your campaign, this seems to work pretty well.


I stopped using XP as a mechanic years ago when I ran a superhero campaign and the kind of advancement that XP systems create didn’t seem to fit the genre.

Since then, I’ve never used XP again. My reason for this is that its such a strong incentive, it tends to focus attention on mechanical character advancement. To me, that feels like a distraction from the kind of socially oriented, character based game I want to run. (No prob if others like it! Each according to their own…)

I’m not much of a rebel in my own scene: Of all the campaigns I’ve played in, only a small minority used XP. I do realize I may be in a non-representative section of the international rpg community…

In superhero games, a from of character progression did appear, but very stealthily. What happened was that the players got increasingly clever at using their characters, especially together, making them significantly more effective at the end of the campaign.


I’m thinking anything longer than 6 sessions.


sometimes letting them contribute is its own reward

one pathfinder game I started by asking each player to give me something they could see, they could smell and they could hear, and i’d weave them into the game some how.

one player thought he was being clever and asked for a STFU stick, so in the third session he got a rod of silence with 3 charges, what he didn’t know was each had magnitude. 1st charge=silence 15ft radius, 1 hour. 2nd charge=1 mile radius, 1 day, 3rd charge=planetary, stopped all vibration-floating castles crashed, magical wards collapsed… :smiley:


I’ve rarely, if ever, used XP to drive a campaign. The one exception might be glory in Pendragon, where the outward manifestation of glory was much more important than the leveling up aspect.

There have been some amazing responses to this already, many that have included stuff I came here to reply.

I guess the biggest issue is why are your players playing? If it because they are XP driven, then any given RPG board game would probably work as well as RPGs for their gaming enjoyment.

I’ve never played Troika, but I think the kinds of stories the system is designed to facilitate would help you to find the right carrots. Why do you love Troika? What are your favorite elements? How can those facilitate greater player involvement/buy in? That’s currency you use to replace the XP market.

As Julian inferred, Traveller does this XP replacement through accumulation of technology or resources. Some games could use social entanglements or resolution, while others could expand the realm in which they operate.

But really, why Troika? I’m interested in hearing more.


tbh, Troika! hits the right notes for me in terms of how I run games tone-wise and in general. It’s also flexible enough that I can shift any of those things if needed.


Personally, I like XP levelling in my games not because “I’m here to level up!”, but because it tells me what the game cares about. That becomes the incentive system, and I like the game telling me what is valuable.

So, for ex, in Blades, you gain XP both for your character’s specific stuff, and a bunch of general marks. Including rolling in desperate circumstances. So, the game rewards those actions.

Some versions of D&D meld XP and GP gain, so the game is meaningfully about loot.

I find that really useful, as a player, to know where I should direct my attentions and what I should strive for.


That’s where “long campaign” starts for me, too! I ask because at this point I have little experience with genuinely looooooong campaigns, like 40 or 140 sessions. For our definition of long campaign, I really don’t think XP or any mechanical incentive is necessary, personally. Offer interesting choices and challenges and stuff to do and focus on the sort of arcs players are articulating for their characters. Either your friends are into it or they aren’t, and if they aren’t, talk about what you all want.


I ran a two year campaign of Itras by that had no xp. Similar with other, shorter, Archipelago-ish games. The carrot of long-term play is the particular satisfaction of seeing the characters and world develop over a longer period. The story gains a kind of momentum that is pleasing to be part of.

It’s interesting to see how much e.g. D&D drifts towards combat. I think that has both to do with the big focus on combat rules and monsters to defeat, also xp rewarding such (at least traditionally).


Well, a focus on combat ends up kind of requiring getting better in a lot of ways, at least in many games. That said I vaguely recall @Jmstar writing some rules a while back that does the opposite for combat - the more you do it the more likely you will eventually get killed in combat…


@shanel This sounds right. I’m pretty sure it was a modification of the Marks system from Night Witches, taking a mark whenever a series of triggers happened. One of these was “Death”, and there was no way to unmark. So … eventually, death is mandated.

Found the post:


This is not the tech I remembered it being, but is probably the material my brain morphed it from! Brains are so weird.

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