Wednesday, 11 March 2015

to XP or not to XP, are new DMs so Lazy?

A point raised recently suggested that Roleplay games should not have Experience Points, and my response was, If a GM can't be assed to count up what happened that session and award XP, he's Lazy and if Players feel that they need to grind, kill or overly play-act to get levels, then something is wrong with the Game/DM

To XP or Not to XP, are new DMs so Bad/Lazy?

The Argument was, that by awarding XP to players, you create a bunch of problems that breaks the game flow. Some arguments against XP are

  • Awarding XP is too much accounting and record keeping.
  • XP systems force players to grind, or to 'clear each room' for the XP
  • Adventures have to be 'XP balanced' to ensure a good play experience, which ruins the plot
  • Organised Play / Society games have to have a fair system, XP breaks this
  • It Motivates plays in a bad way, its bad for their psychology
And Some Arguments for Non XP systems are
  • The GM can just skip XP requirements to ensure players are matched to each other
  • It allows you to choose how to 'level your campaign'
  • Players are motivated, not by murder, but by play

Now, Ok, maybe I'm a little OSD&D in my style, but after reading so many articles about how many people are so bad at actually playing and or DMing.. I'm not surprised that people want to trash the XP system.

What is XP?

The reality of Experience Points, is a mathematical representation of the cumulative knowledge and confidence of a player to perform actions to a certain degree of knowledge. a 10th level character is defined by his 10 levels of skills and abilities, based on his experience in using those skills and abilities, but also his confidence in doing so.

So, first up, the Arguments against XP are based on incorrect assumptions of XP in the first place. Awarding XP because the player played well, or from gold gained, or because the GM says its a good idea or is impressed by a cool Simpsons quote, is of course going to put a bad spin on what XP is, so the DM & players are going to be asking themselves.. why am I getting these? and causes motivational issues,

"Quick, Run for your lives, there is a 19th level hero coming, and he only needs 5 more XP!!!"

Against XP


Lets Look at the Points above, Firstly, If you can't do the math, don't be a DM. Your players may not like doing numbers, but certainly OSDMs used to be good with math, in their head, why do you think role-master even exists.. because we could think numbers as fast as we spoke. 

Me? I have the players do a "talk around the fire" after every session, they remember all the events that happened in the adventure, I write them up on white board, or a sheet of paper, and jot the XP for each of those things next to it.. they aren't writing down numbers or making calculations, they are remembering what cool stuff they just did, reinforcing in their characters minds, how cool they are, how confident they are in their skills and how they'd feel about doing those things again in the future..

"So guys, we've just cleared the dungeon, we took out that team of skeletons, dowsed the mummy in oil and lit him up, evaded that rock fall trap

- and we didn't all die,
- Haha, yes, that's right, and we got through those zombie snakes and claimed the treasure from the inverted pyramid trap. yeah, I think we did pretty good.. did I miss anything?"

what an EXPERIENCE they just had!

Grinding & Clearing

If your players are OCD like me, they 'need' to clear each room, not for the XP or the Gold, no, for the feeling that its now "rightened". Heck I am used to taking all the bodies outside and burying them, or burning them in pyres, ensuring the dungeon is cleared..

I think this comes down to what kind of play is happening here, are any of your players good? or lawful? why would slaying all the creatures, just because [XP], even come into this? If the Neutral players are saying things like, Hey, I need to get more practice in, and fighting some monsters is gonna make me feel better as a fighter.. sure.. that makes sense, go ahead, but the DM/GMs role is sometimes to remind players how to stick to their players 'character'.

Possibly its about how XP is awarded. If your still awarding XP for kills, gold and GM brown-nosing then of course grinding will result, That's Bad XP, (see below). The Only problem I can see is more about the balance issue, in the next heading.

Me? If players figure out a way to 'bypass' a room, using clever tactics, if they manage to escape across a bridge and cut in in time, leaving 50 Orcs on the other side, if they cast sleep, and lock the door, on 3-4 guards.. they have "defeated" those creatures and get XP accordingly

"remember that time we trapped those 4 Basilisks in the mirrored room? they were trying to find the hidden door with their eyes closed, wow that was awesome, how cool are we that we defeated 4 Basilisks so cleverly" 

Balance Adventures & Balanced Heroes

This has been a hobgoblin for me, almost a bugbear when ever I hear DMs talking about 'scaling an adventure'. I don't for a second think that the real world scales any difficulty for me when I endevour to find my way across a new area of town, or go to a job interview or study for an exam, and I as sure as hell-fire won't do the same for my world, maybe because I have 8 GMs all running their games in a live environment, so 'scaling' would kill off all realism, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.

I get that most games are being run as 'a couple of friends, getting together to play a different kind of board game. Board games are designed to start everyone equally, and give them a fair chance at some competitive environment to see who is better, or have balanced skills to ensure each person gets a fair turn.

But this is roleplay, not supposed to be a board game. If one of your team hasn't yet got the skills to defeat the creature that's coming up, then the team work together to figure out a way to be a team, how to balance their skills to defeat the creature. The Subliminal point of the game is to figure out how to work better in groups, not force the game to do half your job.

Me? One thing I make clear for new players (either to RP or my system) is that group co-operation is tantamount to winning, information is worth as much as a magical weapon, and negative play will result in dead characters. If the group is not ready for Night on Bald Mountain, then maybe they should travel to The Forest of Doom, Or Hire some NPCs to join the party to boost up their total CR.

"Guys, Guys, come look, this old map points out that there are two Tarrasques in the first temple, and an Allips haunting the second, Maybe we need to hire a Cleric for this one?" 

Bad Motivation from Bad XP

This is mostly what the problem really is. If I play a game where my reward system is purely for killing, then the only thing I should be doing is killing. Most board games [descent] require you to kill the creatures so they don't kill you, so you claim the treasure to win the game. So anything other than attacking and killing the creature is going to end badly.

Roleplay should award XP for all varieties of 'defeating' the monster. In the Original D&D, Arneson pointed out that the XP system was supposed to be class dependent. You gained XP for killing monsters if you were a fighter, for a wizard, you needed to cast spells, for a Cleric most likely healing and rebuking. If your DM doesn't award you XP for talking down an Orc, and getting him to go home and see his mother, as a means to get to the next room, then quit that game and go find a GM, better yet a ProGM.

Me? Well my system already includes this style in the rules, You don't get wizard XP if you don't wizard, A Bard pacifist, doesn't get XP for attacking an Orc with a blade, if anything, he'd be so disgusted with the fact, he'd lose confidence in himself as a pacifist and would lose XP. I do award XP for gold gained, because its not so common a metal to be all over the place, and getting it gives players (a false) sense of confidence, Rogues get double XP for gold, because that's what a Rogue is about.

"Yes, Greedo. I was just going to see your boss. Tell Jabba I've got his money."

Against Non XP systems

Matching the Players to the Game

Well, as I read somewhere quoted below, Why bother with levels then? 

I've played games in D&D where we wrote out a new character sheet for each 'level', so that we could play any published adventure with our 'characters' the matched the level of the campaign, we effectively scratched the whole system of XP and levelling, and treated it all like a big TV series, with flash back sequences to 'previous adventures', I've played level less systems, which gave you bonuses to stats instead [WHFRP+house rules] which worked far better in some ways, but made it nigh on impossible for the GM to figure out how to balance his encounters (which lead to the feeling that it didn't matter, knowledge did)

Besides the points made above about group dynamics and working with what you've got, rather than forcing the game to become, just a game, The problem here is that, if you take away the scaling, and match the game to the players, then your creating the most pointless grind machine ever.

If I have 3 heroes at 2nd level, enter a dungeon with 3x 2nd level goblins, then a room with 2x 2nd level skeletons and the next with 6 x 1st level bats.

How is that any different from

I have 3 heroes at 5th level, enter a Tower with 3x 5th level bugbears, then a room with 2x 5th level Wights and the next with 6 x 2nd level Giant Rats.


I have 3 heroes at 20th level, enter a dungeon with 3x 20th level Demons, then a room with 2x 20th level Liches and the next with 6 x 10th level Vampires.

Then its just a numbers game.

We defeat the first quest, and gain a level, then later we defeat the next quest and gain a level, etc etc etc.. have you been playing WOW too much?

How can you possibly balance anything anyway?

    Lets say I have a character in a game, and we've played for 3 campaigns, gained 3 levels, its a no XP system we've defeated just over 100 approx level equivalent monsters in various ways per campaign, but then our GM moved states, so we had to find a new group. but they live further away and only two of our group can come play at the new location.
    So we meet up, introduce ourselves and our characters, and join their existing game, they have 2 level 4 characters and 1 level 2 character (the previous guy died), so now we have 5 players, this new DM thinks that because there are more heroes he can throw more at us, the first campaign has over 300 level equivalent monsters, doubling our effective understanding of our skills and abilities.. and we gain 1 level!? This DM has his own set of 'rules' on how leveling up works.. 

In an XP based game, this wouldn't happen. creatures have set XP, quests have a fairly robust set of rules on how to set XP for various traps, encounters, figuring out stuff, so the 100 creatures + quest resolution = level would balance enough out, that the 300+quest would surely give the group 2-3 levels.

Home brew rules are all well and good, but when you change certain core rules, you break the ability to continue anything with anyone else.. all new groups would need all new heroes, which for many of you, I think is actually happening, and that's sad. [don't you love your heroes anymore?]

What about Player Differences?

Not everyone is equal, 'equalling play' causes as many de-motivators for players as overly punishing players. If I don't need to worry about full participation to get my level up, why should I pull my weight? Maybe I'll just play as the cleric and hang back for the first 10 levels, healing the party between adventures but not actually endangering my life, until I have enough of the cool things to do some real damage?

What about Absent players? If a player is unable to attend a few sessions, because they're lazy or indifferent, they won't worry about attendance, because they'll get a level every X sessions anyway.. maybe just turning up to the Xth session to just level up

What if I decide that, after the death of my character, I should begin again at 1st, and will watch and learn from my peers, under the guidance and tutelage of these great and mighty heroes, I will surely learn faster to be a great hero like them one day.. Under an XP system, Its pretty obvious that I'll catch up 75% of the groups level after 75% of the time, but other than a (probably poorly designed) house rule, how can a 'every 3 sessions gain a level' system even understand that kind of scenario.

Last Few Points

Absent Players and XP

If a Player is not at the table, but the character is, Its fair to say that the character is not feeling 'like himself' or 'he's out of sorts' and as a result, would not be concentrating on whats going on properly, so he's not 'experiencing' events as much as his friends are and would not/should not get full XP. some GMs might harshly give 0%, while others might give half, my research into the human mind suggests that distracted students learn only 20% of their lessons, so in turn, I give only 20% of events experience to characters, whose players are not in attendance.

Roleplay and XP

If a player is demonstrating some kind of 'experience' as a result of their role-playing, i.e. they point out that their character is obeying their thirst, and must drink from the suspicious fountain, because they have no water in their water-skin, might make sense that they would 'experience' what its like to give in to their needs in times of peril. On the other hand, play-acting their characters voice, movements or other things, might help the roleplay experience, the character has no relevant 'experience' happening.. besides the fun of doing so, players should be rewarded out of game by words of encouragement or other meta elements, giving XP in game from out of game events, is akin to Pay To Win style games, The meta event should not change the game.


While searching for other arguments in this topic I found these threads to be (un)helpful.

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