PbtA Advancement - on a Miss vs Highlighted Stats

I’d like to ask what is everyone’s opinions on advancement systems for PbtA games.

AW has a highlighted stat system. I never played it so I don’t know how it works.

Other games award xp when a player rolls a miss.

Finally, many games have end of the game questions.

What interesting advancement systems for pbta/fitd games you like and why?


I really like highlighting stats, it’s easy to forget and requires a bit of familiarity with the playbooks, which is why I think many (any?) games don’t implement it. But it should signal what different players are interested to see in game.

Most games I’ve read award XP on a missed roll which I think is cool, but I ALWAYS forget, so questions are a nice way to mark XP, everyone is doing it.

I like Thirsty Sword Lesbians questions because they give the players a lot of agency and reinforce familiarity with safety tools (i probably should incorporate that question in other games)

The Veil also has questions, but they are framed in a very intense way: “If a belief is tested/gets you into trobule/changed/erased and resolved” The veil is amazing at getting people into the minds of their characters, and these questions guarantee that even if you don’t play to the beliefs you wrote, you question those beliefs and think about who your character is.

Finally Flying Circus grans XP when you clear stress 1:1 so there’s an incentive for characters to live fast and burn out, so burning out is mechanized. It does wonders to reinforce theme


Uncharted Worlds has the idea of XP triggers. Basically you get XP when certain problems come up, like a playbook might say you trigger XP when your ship has some kind of pest on board. Unlike an after action question, XP triggers go of immediately. You basically order specific types of problems with the GM and get XP for that. XP triggers may shower the whole crew, or only a single character. I stole this for my Star Trek hack, which started out with XP on miss. But getting better through failing didn’t fit the hyper professional and competent people of Starfleet. The hack has after action questions as well.

For my magic school game I have used the classic XP on Miss, called Inspiration, and after some playtests included a second kind of XP called Training. Training is exclusively to get more spells and comes out of certain moves. Inpiration / Advancements can give spell mastery wholesale as well, typically as part of stat increases (“Master a Forbidden spell to uncover hidden information and raise Learning.”) Training provides for a more continuous interaction with learning magic, which is what the game is about, than would be possible through the rather big and chunky advancement typical in PbtA.


I’m not really a big fan of “XP on miss” anymore. Sure, it makes a nice “consolation prize” for players to be able to say “Well, I rolled bad, but at least I get XP!” but it sortof abdicates on using XP to guide play in any sort of meaningful fashion. It MAY encourage people to try things they are bad at, but I’m not entirely convinced of that, and even if the idea IS to encourage people to try things they are bad at, it’s not a particularly good way to encourage that, because you don’t actually get XP for “trying something you are bad at” – you get XP for “rolling badly, regardless of whether you were good at the thing or not”. Which is not really something you have any control over.

So I feel like if you want to reward people for doing things they’re bad at, reward them for things they are bad at. If you want to encourage them to do risky stuff, reward them for doing risky stuff (See: XP for Desperate Actions in Blades in the Dark).

Similarly, due to the nature of PbtA games, you can’t and don’t want to rationalize this as “learning from your mistakes” since there’s no guarantee the character has done anything wrong on a 6-, and you don’t want to get people into the mindset of “6- means my character screwed up.”

Highlighting stats doesn’t have any of these problems, and allows the table to “steer” themselves a bit, which is fun; The only downside to this method is that it’s a little easy to forget.

My preference for XP remains Blades in the Dark-style XP triggers, where there are certain things the PCs can do for XP, which are guaranteed payout, and which are reviewed at the end of the session to make sure they’re not missed. It also allows greater customization between playbooks, if you use such things.


Highlights can be good to steer Player behaviour.
It’s best for systems that, like AW, have Stats that express PC behaviour: acting in a HARD way looks and feels different than acting in a COOL way. This works if specific moves are ties to specific stats (like AW does) so that by choosing to use a certain stat rather than another the Player ends up triggering different moves.
So my PC is trying to persuade an NPC… I could do this in a thousand ways, but since I have HARD highlighted I opt to Go Aggro on them, resulting in a scene where I rough the NPC up, instead of a scene where I chat and discuss and manipulate and barter.

As this requires conscious effort and might sometimes put the PC in a problematic situation, the system works best with “heavy XPs” (in AW you only need 5 XPs to get an Advancement) rather than ones with “light XPs” (in DW you need an increasing amount of XPs to level up, from 8 to 18)

Then again, in my experience most Players tend to forget about this and just play their PC however they feel at the moment. But as time passes, and they keep NOT earning XP because they play without thinking, they eventually get into the habit of playing in a more aware and intentional way. When this happens it is greatly rewarding for the whole table :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

But let me tell you why Fantasy World instead uses a mix of other systems :wink:

  1. Since the stats represent some abilities/qualities of the PC, rather than a kind of behaviour, the highlight system would not be very effective. Instead…

  2. On a Snag (a roll of 1-6) you get Expedience Points (XP :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: ) that work both as an active resource to fuel actions and moves, and as pocket change that can be converted into actual advancement when saved up a bit.

  3. Some Class moves allow the PC to earn or spend XPs. And sometimes even “Growth marks” (see later).

  4. The End of Session move is basically a little “ritual” that, through a series of questions, has each Player remember and evaluate the session just played and what their PC actually did in it.
    These questions focus mostly on a few core PC aspects that drive the whole game forward (the personal Issue and Doubt each PC has).

    • Any meaningful engagement is rewarded with 1 Growth mark, like if you act to address your Issue, or act despite your Doubt, or act because of your Doubt, or opt to abandon your current Issue or Doubt.

    • Any major change is rewarded with 3 Growth marks, like if you resolve your Issue or master your Doubt.

    • Some focus is also given to minor elements, like memorable moments, or coming up with new character details about their Blood and Kin. This stuff gets you XPs. And XPs can convert into Growth on a 5-to-1 basis.

Since you need 5 Growth marks to unlock a new character option, Growth ends up being the “heavy” currency while XPs are a very “light” one, especially because you would need 25 XPs to get the same weight of 5 Growth marks, and the game caps the max XPs you can hold at 10, and you can only ever convert them into marks during the End of Session move, not during play… so you end up learning to spend them to boost your PC actions rather than hoard them.

This leaves Players free to have their PC behave however they like… this is not what drives the themes and drama. Instead the focus is on personal Issues and Doubts, rewarding Players for bringing those into play and, by gradually changing and resolving them, creates emergent character arcs.

There really are many ways to mix and match different “progression” mechanics :smiley:
It all depends on each game’s unique design goals.


I think I’ve rationalized the XP on a miss as having “an experience” You’ve experienced this bad outcome and make a note of it. And I’d say that for XP in general for most PbtAs.

Afterwards, expending XP to get access to new moves means gaining access to “the tools” associated with that activity. Specially for moves that require a roll. Take Monster of the Week, The Big Entrance (a move from The Chosen) at any time before that you could have made a big entrance, any character could make a big entrance. But when you unlock that move you’ve figured how to make it to catch everyone’s attention. When before it would have been Act Under Pressure

Turning back into XP on a miss. I’d say you’ve experienced times your big entrance attempts hasn’t worked by any number of reasons, and later all those experiences lead you to considerably increasing the effectiveness of your big entrance. In BitD terms, unlocking a move trough XP would permanently increase a move’s Effect, and many times increase a move’s Position

1 Like

This feels like an ex-post-facto explanation – what if the character has never actually tried making a big entrance before? Certainly, they almost certainly haven’t tried enough times to earn all the XP to buy the move – this isn’t Burning Wheel we’re talking about. A character can learn The Big Entrance without ever once having tried to make one previously.

I don’t think we are well served by trying to “Rationalize” XP for failure. If you use it, you should use it because you like the design impact, not because you can rationalize it as “learning from your mistakes” or whatever.


Yeah, but that’s not really what I am saying am I? And both approaches are not mutually exclusive. What I am saying is the character experiences stuff, those experiences are abstracted as XP. Maybe the character has never tried to make a big entrance, but if you take the move is because you, and therefore, the character, are interested in trying that. And in order to do that you would pull from previous experiences. Otherwise you wouldn’t even know what a big entrance is

I’m not really sure where you are going with this then, because now it just sounds like you are explaining that XP means “Experience” and that’s how your character gets new stuff, which is… correct, but maybe a little bit fundamental?

Or, to put it another way: “your character experiences stuff and that gives you XP and you spend XP on stuff that interests you” is true for all modes of XP under discussion, and doesn’t really pertain to any of them in particular?

1 Like

These are basically Keys (originally from The Shadow of Yesterday, then further popularized in Lady Blackbird).

I like these, as well. Cartel handles them pretty nicely, for example.

Some of my favourites are in the Mortal playbook for Monsterhearts - chase those moves as sources of XP and you’re going to have an amazing and difficult road ahead of you. Beautifully done.

When I run Monsterhearts, I also allow players to highlight either a stat for another PC or an element in the fiction. Usually these are NPCs - things in the story that you want other PCs to use moves on.

So you might highlight “Ms. Noonan, the Ethics teacher”, and this session anyone who uses a move or a String on her marks XP. It’s a great tool for the MC to focus their attention for the session. (“Ah, they want to see Ms. Noonan, the lifeguard, and Rosie… ok, let’s see what they’re up to and frame those scenes!”) Just that choice was often enough to drive a session.


Now, that is cool.

I never made the connection to Keys, but yeah. I guess because in Uncharted Worlds they are built into the playbooks instead of chosen freely. And because they can give XP to the whole crew.

Yeah, I went with “Playbook” Specific XP triggers in Shepherds, with a mechanic for them changing slowly as the character grows up.

On the game I’m working on your character has a positive and negative pole, so you might have “Experienced” and “Cynical” as your positive and negative poles and then as your character advances you have XP triggers like “When your positive pole leads you to heal someone who needs it, mark XP” and “When your negative pole leads you to turn someone away who seeks your help, mark XP.”

There’s also an XP trigger tied to using up a set of per-scene points during the scene, as a way to encourage players to expend them. I haven’t got to playtesting quite yet, so we’ll see what comes of those…

The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power has the interesting take on highlights: MC doesn’t mark highlights, instead two players on the left and right of the player marks highlights. This create a peculiar notion, when you put into consideration that The SCUP is essentially PC vs PC game (like “Game of Thrones” or “imagine AW, but in GoT and in non-Western fantasy”). Players are enticed to put some nasty highlight to put someone into a decision of “whether to get 1 xp from a scene by using Move with uses my worst stat or not?”.

MC picks one of three Entanglements for each character (every playbook has their own list) instead. You can get 1 xp per session by fulfilling the criteria.