What's your favorite advancement or experience system in games and why?

What’s your favorite advancement or experience system in games and why?


I like games where you advance skills by using them like RuneQuest and Burning Wheel. It’s fun to see characters organically evolve. My wife and I played a one on one BW game where she played a hunter who was a hermit out in the woods, but when it came to conflicts she was always angling for social rolls. At first it caused tons of problems because she never showered and spent all her time talking to hunting dogs, but before long her social skills got a lot better and hunter was talking her way through and out of all her problems. It’s was satisfying to see the character develop in that way based on the history of the game and how the player plays them.


Hard same. With the addendum: having the option to train or practice to improve in downtime is also really cool. I know the Burning Wheel has this. Haven’t read enough of RuneQuest/Mythras to know if it’s present there. I love the sense of verisimilitude you get from advancing your skills and abilities by using or training them in the fiction.

I think Blades in the Dark has a really interesting mix of do-it-to-advance with its XP on Desperate rolls alongside other XP triggers that reinforce the game’s narrative themes.

I used to really dislike systems that awarded XP unevenly, so this is a big (and recent) change for me. In games that are very focused on steep progression and tactical play, a uniform way of advancing is probably better (all participants earn XP at the same rate). Or, at the very least, you avoid it feeling like one character is sprinting ahead of the others. But this definitely feels like less of an issue in games that don’t care as much about balance or steep progression.


RuneQuest 2nd edition had it for sure. You had to pay gold and spend time based on the skill level. Not sure about later editions but I know they eventually moved away from “use it to improve it” in favor of points-based advancement.


Marvel Heroic awards XP for doing the iconic actions/scenes of the superhero/ine you’re playing. When you’re Thor, you get XP for engaging the biggest threat on the battlefield on your own. When you’re Iron Man, you get XP for lying about your drinking.

Also, at the end of an adventure the player gets to decide which changes to their character are permanent and which will be handwaved away. Maybe you took Daredevil on a cosmic adventure and had him pick up alien artifacts of power, but now that the game is refocusing on the political and personal upheavals of the Superhuman Registration Act, you’re going to “reboot” the character to a more basic form.

You can also spent XP to get aid from NPCs in the storyline or unlock specific restricted heroes for play as PCs, like in a videogame.


I like the milestones systems in Fate and Cortex, but those can be hard to work in for shorter games. For shorter games (like most of the online games I’ve played here and elsewhere), I like standard PbtA “5 checks/xp” advance triggered by a combo of setbacks and bonds/drives.


I like it if the experience system does more than simply expand my capabilities, but changes something about my character in an interesting way. So an example is the Corruption system in Urban Shadows. It’s an XP system of sorts, since as you get more Corruption, you gain new powers. But those powers also draw you deeper into the supernatural world that the game’s about, and ultimately hasten the ending of your story where you become a corrupted NPC.


I love it when a game has the guts to just not have one. You have to examine your design goals: I get why characters need to grow and change as people in any story, but why does every RPG have to have character stat advancement?


Seconding the @RefreshNinja love for Marvel Heroic.

I think of XP as an incentive mechanism.

As such, XP should reward the things the design or the MC want to see. If that’s hitting stuff, then give XP for hitting stuff. Make it direct, else the players won’t feel the connection.

In pbta games this is done out in the open, especially with stat highlighting. At the start of every session, we ask which stat is most interesting. The player highlights it, and everytime the character relies on it enough for the player to roll the dice the character gets XP.

One amazing part of this is watching how play changes as stat highlights shift. This includes characters relying on different stats (and different moves) from session to session, and on players trying to get a specific stat highlighted because they want to use it.

Incentives: People respond to them.


I’ve found myself really liking the “questionair” style of xp gain most. Going back over the content of the session, asking questions, and gaining xp for engaging with mechanics and hitting RP moments does a lot to help us contextualize what has happened and what’s important in our game.


Dungeon World’s XP-on-a-miss.

So perfect for that game in particular.


I love the way Girl Underground does advancement for the Girl (IIRC there’s no XP or advancement for the companion characters). Most XP systems are about growing more powerful, but in GU the Girl advances by becoming more mature. Basically, she starts with a bunch of “manners” that have been taught to her by society, but over the course of the game they get re-written into “beliefs” that she has learned through her adventures. The new beliefs might flatly contradict the manners, or they may capture the real spirit that lies behind the manners.


While it’s not a good fit for all games (and in fact I’m working on a blogpost re: satisfying alternatives) I’m still impressed by how powerful 1 GP = 1 XP winds up being in terms of game design.


I’m particularly fond of the slight tweak of spending gold = XP.


I think Unknown Armies has a neat “experience” system. Failures grant experience checks and successes “harden” you along a certain personality trait. Growing too Hardened has serious costs, but too many failure leads to even worse consequences. It’s like balancing precariously between two different downfalls, which, I think, fits the game’s mood and themes well.


Favorite in practice: XP on a miss, from Dungeon World. Really eases the sting and encourages risk taking.

Favorite in theory, but not at all in practice: Stories, from 7th Sea 2nd edition. Each player basically decides what perk they want to unlock next time they advance, which determines how many steps it’ll take to achieve, starting by just defining the first step and what’s likely to be the final step. Like, my character learned he might be descended from the local equivalent of Loki, the Old Norse Trickster god, and depending on how it ended, he might end up with a “legendary” trait. The first step was finding the eldest skald on the content … which he didn’t manage to do even after 2-3 sessions of foreshadowing, because with 4-5 other players at the table, all of whom making up their own totally disconnected stories independently, that is a lot for the GM to work into their prep. Very engaging for players who like “lonely fun,” makes for great stories when it actually comes up in play, but utterly impractical for the most part.

Edited to add:

Favorite supplemental system: Corruption, from Urban Shadows. The interplay between using powerful abilities that unlock even more powerful abilities, but which in turn can lead to your ruin, is perfect for the genre. It’s pretty thematically key, though, that this is only one path of advancement, with “experience” coming from playing nice with others.


I like open choice.

  • World of Darkness-After character creation you can spend exp to advance anything you like.
  • Most PBTA-After X number of advancements, you can take a Move from another playbook.
    The caveat with both is you need to roleplay learning that new skill/attribute boost/spell/whatever.

So you may start out as a profession/guild/playbook, but you can be a broad or narrow in skills/options as you like. It’s one of the key things that made skill systems and story systems dynamic over level systems, you are not locked into a class or some ridiculous multi classing mechanics.


I think I’m the only person who actually likes the regular advancement system in Urban Shadows, even though the factions are kinda rigid for my taste.

Other than that, I like how in OSR games part of your advancement isn’t actually leveling up, but just getting stuff in-game.


For what it’s worth, I’m also a big fan of the advancement system in Urban Shadows, @Thoobn. I think it does a great job of encouraging the style of play it wants. I also think the parallel advancement tracks of corruption and faction marking lead to interesting choices and dynamic, political play with stakes, which is what the game is going for.