Longer Campaigns Without XP

I’ve experimented a lot with using Marks as narrative hit points in various contexts, so you probably are not wrong.

Whether my memory is right or not, what I remember is pretty cool.

Whenever you:
– enter a battle
– take damage
– skip a nights sleep
– others for the specific genre.

then Mark one of the following:
– flavor stuff
– positive stuff
– bad stuff
– stuff that impacts how you will die.
– death

But maybe that’s just Night Witches. It’s been too long.

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That rings a bell but cue the Rutger Hauer tears in the rain speech because all that design thinking happened on G+.

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This is largely what Star Trek Adventures is about re: character advancement. The characters start off as highly functional Starfleet officers; in some cases, you might even be playing the captain or XO, meaning there’s not really a lot of in-game promotions or mechanical growth to look forward to.

So it sort of requires a different mindset to approaching the game. It’s not about leveling up and unlocking the next feat or perk or more awesome gear or uber stats. It’s about exploring the characters, their interations, the galaxy, the unknown, etc. As long as the players grok that character advancement isn’t really the point of the game, a good time can be had. Some players and GMs really struggle with the distinction.

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The game I am working on (and running) now has no XP or other codified advancement. It is a bit weird fantasy adventure, so not that dissimilar to the implied setting of Troika.

While the game is mainly about discovery, so the main “carrot” in my game is world-building and system-building (players have a say on what moves to add to the mechanics), we also lean into the tried and true fantasy tropes.

With that I found that a good carrot to quench that tropey fantasy thirst is good magic items.

Magic items in my games are more like Arcana from Into the Odd or Stonetop. So they don’t just make you better at hitting things, but each create new play opportunities (e.g a padlock that can seal any room and place a ghost inside, a mushroom that will let you enter the mind of a dead person it grew on, but will make the person who ingested it seem dead, a seal that will summon a demon, but have no way on controlling it etc.). This still makes the player characters feel more powerful (they have a wider breath of choices for their approach), but it avoids growing the numbers on a character sheet.

I guess it is similar to accumulating of tech in Traveller mentioned before.

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I am curious on what can incentivize a group in the long run

For me and for the people I’ve played with, the majority of out long-form play experience has been with character-driven, rules light, freeform-ish campaigns. For this type of play, some of the main incentives include

  • seeing how the events unfold,
  • seeing how our characters’ personal issues develop and relationships deepen,
  • seeing the long-term effects of out characters’ actions in the game world,
  • learning more about how the game world works,
  • enjoying the escalation of scale as once distant events and characters become into focus,
  • having our characters’ reputations grow due to our actions, and
  • getting more attached with what’s familiar.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a long-term campaign with actual experience points. What motivates me is the content of the game. If it’s good, I’ll keep playing. If it’s not, there’s no amount of mechanical reinforcement that could make me stay.

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Normally I play in campaigns without XP, but there was one where XP was used and I appreciated it. I think this might be an interesting example in terms of a non-obvious benefit from using XP.

It was a game of Exalted at a pretty high power level. Three factors were relevant:

  • The game was quite chaotic, with all characters running in different directions, chance superpower effects teleporting us all over the place and so on.
  • Exalted has a lot of superpowers for different character and creature types that involve mind control, changing personality attributes, etc. Essentially forcing themselves on your character play.
  • My character was a builder, basically, geared towards creating something lasting.

I approached the game from my character’s perspective, but that was frustrating because it was very hard to get anything done. Maybe I should have played a chaos trickster and it would have been easier, but I didn’t. I played an empire builder who’s efforts were stymied.

In time, I started to find this increasingly frustrating, especially as it felt like i had to fight just to keep my character coherent (from all that mind magic stuff etc). The one area where i had absolute control was XP. I could set goals, I got XP, goals were realized, I could use new powers in the game. That was fun.

Then one time because of one of those superpower effects from Death Lord or a Neverborn or some such, I momentarily lost control of how I spend XP.

I hated it so viscerally! I was so angry! At first I felt a little foolish because I thought it was silly to react so much to something like XP, but then I started thinking about the larger framework, about what I can control and achieve as a player in this game, and what I can’t.

So in summary, spending XP is control and self-determination, which can matter if a game is super chaotic.

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