The WotC designers have just presented some polls about how XP progression should work in D&D Next and there’s a lively discussion on ENWorld about it. I have mentioned in passing that none of our group’s Pathfinder campaigns use XP any more, but I thought this was a good time to unpack that a little and discuss why XP are an outmoded solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.
Some of the drawbacks of XP are obvious. It adds a significant amount of non-fun accounting to the game. Most of that burden is on the GM, who has to look up charts and add numbers like it’s tax time for the last 15 minutes of the session, and then all the players get to do some too. This is Dungeons & Dragons, not Accountants & Ledgers. The justification is usually that it’s a “necessary evil” as the only sound way to conduct character advancement; we’ll examine the falseness of this claim below.
It Makes Adventures Suck More
I was just listening to a Know Direction podcast where Amber Scott was talking about the process of working on an Adventure Path chapter lately, and discussed that some of the challenge was the changing/padding required to generate the ‘right XP budget’ and that the actual theme/story of the adventure had to be compromised somewhat to make that work. That sucks, and it illustrates how any published adventure has to make a lot of Hobson’s choices just to get the ‘correct amount’ of XP generated. I had a discussion with James Jacobs about a number of questionable, from the story and GM standpoint, decisions in the Dragon’s Demand module – it was giving out “story awards” to the tune of 200 XP for climbing a DC10 mount of rubble to enter the dungeon. He justified it by saying “Yes but we need people to get from first to sixth level over the course of this one module to fight our end dragon so we padded the shit out of it” (I’m paraphrasing.
RPGA/Organized Play adventures, from my experience there, suffer horribly from this problem. I was a Living Greyhawk Triad and most attempts to innovate in adventures were squashed by the ever-dominant need to have “N encounters that generate X XP for levels Y-Z in H hours.” Of course the other layers of homogeneity required of OP on top of that make the problem even worse, but that’s a big part of it. And in the end, if there is a “correct amount” of XP to give, then why are you spending the effort to micromanage it?
So basically the adventures we play are not as good as they could be from other perspectives because of this unnecessary constraint.
It Makes Players Suck More
Here’s the deal – I like open-ended, in character roleplay, and the ability for PCs to innovate to reach their goals (often referred to as Combat As War in online discussions). XP for monsters (I’m not sure adding “for gp” really helps that) drives a playstyle where you confront everything head-on, grinding like it’s WoW. If the goal is “save the princess from a castle full of bad guys,” you can’t just do that, because the ugly head of metagaming rises up and says “If you just scry and teleport in and grab her you won’t get as many XP as if you do a room-to-room fight with every orc…” Therefore you start making decisions based on metagame concerns instead of in-game factors. Of course as the GM you can try to give compensating story awards for solving it with different approaches – but then why are you tracking XP again, if there’s a “right number” to give?
I was in a team that took Silver in the D&D Open at Gen Con back in… Uh, the 1990s sometime. We didn’t get Gold, we were told, because we bypassed the penultimate encounter (a nuisance encounter of some humanoids) by flying over it to beard the BBEG directly. So even though our judge said we rocked the adventure and did it better/faster/cheaper (no character loss) than everyone else, you know, we didn’t harvest enough souls. Lesson learned, we’ll shout our battle cry of “No Witnesses!” in the future.
Obviously, the theory behind XP is that they are a needed reward system. Pavlov, Gygax, and Ayn Rand have worked together to come up with the ultimate system of motivating PCs to go out there and adventure, and it is both that and a semi-realistic way to reflect people getting better at what they do.
The problem is, these motivations are a thin lie to begin with, and don’t accomplish their desired ends in practice either.
First alleged reason to have XP, motivation. Without XP you don’t incentivize desired behavior in the game. I’m pretty sure we all play D&D to have fun, and adventuring is fun. If there weren’t XP, would our characters not go out and defeat the invading orc hordes? What degree of player and GM sucking must be required for such a low rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to kick in?
Second alleged reason to have XP, realism. It models the growth of your character by getting better through experience and shepherds them through their Campbellian arc. OK, so the more goblins I murder, I get better at playing my lute? Ridiculous. You could make this claim for a system like BRP where you “tick” skills you use and those skills advance, but the dull blade of XP as implemented in D&D and its derivatives can make no such virtuous claim to simulation.
Let’s look at XP in practice. First, let’s assume you are running a story-oriented game, or using an Adventure Path or series of modules (that’s not a new idea, ahem, T1-4, A-14, GDQ1-7). To not have that go badly awry, you need the PCs to be at a certain level at certain times. So unless they successfully tread the primrose path on the adventure you’ve set up for them, you as the GM end up needing to accommodate that. Throw in some random encounters, some story awards, role-playing awards, some side adventures, because you know you can’t send them to the Demonweb unless they’re at least approaching the right level.
But if you are trying to generate a ‘correct amount’ of XP then having XP is of no value, as it loses its lovely alleged Randian properties. It can’t motivate behavior if you’re trying to get them to the right number by any means necessary. You could argue that it provides the illusion of player agency, if your players are dumb, but in the end you have a predetermined outcome and are forcing yourself and your players to jump through more and more hoops to realize it. Boo.
But XP also hurts sandbox gaming. Why? It’s the Gygax Way, right, he wouldn’t have written it if it wasn’t the right thing to do? Don’t tell me about “OSR” like I’m a noob; I’ve been playing D&D since the original Red Box.
D&D is still a game full of murderous cretins, and the XP system is a lot of the reason for that. I find it hard to say that the behaviors XP drive are actually the desired ones. Even the D&D Next article I link discusses XP in terms of “how many goblins you need to kill to level.” As discussed above, actual innovative goal-achievement, one of the pillars of the OSR, is quite specifically countermanded by XP (unless, again, you adopt the “give them anyway” rubric, and get to do extra math to justify a predetermined outcome). A decent GM should be able to reward desired behavior in the game. Do you get nothing for saving the princess or completing a quest besides XP, really? And if you get loot, isn’t that its own reward?
Well, what we do is “level when the GM says.” Pretty simple. Sure, this might be a problem in those first spazzy 12-year-old games we all had, where the GM’s trying to screw the players and all – but how many pages of rules have been written trying to fix that lowest-common-denominator problem, and has it actually succeeded? No, those who are playing “level 30 silver dragons!” or “being killed by cats!” type games continue to do so. This approach requires zero math and is very easy for the GM – pulling out a level 7 adventure you want to run? You don’t have to throw weeks of grind at the PCs, just tell them “you level!” In my Reavers campaign, the PCs are like 7th level after four years of play, because I have plenty of piratey adventures appropriate for those levels to bring them!
Or… Now, this is super hippy-dippy, and I know that before I say it, but you could even just level by consensus, in a more sandbox game. If the GM cares about what level they’re prepping for, then the GM should level. If the GM is just “whatever, I’m a judge OD&D style, hexcrawl yourselves into a coma” then maybe players should spend more time at the levels they enjoy. I personally would usually vote not to level, as I enjoy the low/mid-levels best and over about 12 starts to suck.
Or, you could level by IRL time. This is interesting because it allows you to set a goal as to how long a campaign should take, and since levels will vary it will vary the speed at which the PCs progress to naturally keep them on track. Let’s say our gaming group says “OK, Paul is going to run Wrath of the Righteous next, and we want it to last a year and then go on to something else.” Then you set out a schedule – to finish out, PCs have to be level 16, so they need to get more than a level per month, say one every 3 weeks, to make that happen. So then level on schedule. This is kinda brilliant, because as you level up, earlier parts of the adventure get easier, and you accelerate – more encounters/day, more adventure/IRL week. If you get ahead, it’s harder, and you are slowed down accordingly.
You can somewhat mitigate the cost vs benefit equation here by using a simpler rubric, like “you level after X adventures/sessions/whatever”, where X = character level or a constant. This loses some GM control (especially if it’s “sessions”) but it’s a good compromise for, say, Organized Play setups where you need a way to track character leveling outside the bounds of a traditional campaign.
A very simulation-minded GM could derive their own way of character advancement – in-game time, whatever – easily on top of this framework.
XP As An Option?
Sure, but so, in D&D Next or whatever, can’t we just have XP as an option and “GM levels whenever” as an option?
As described above, XP forces compromise from both the adventure author and GM in terms of adventure design and the players in terms of in-character play. Having “the option” not to XP doesn’t help that all that much – we already have that option, but our adventures and players are still tainted by the XP-oriented mindset. So even those deciding not to use XP will get compromise adventures that had to be designed with that stricture in mind. Kill it with fire.
XP Should Be Buried Now
I know that it’s so “traditional” that it’s hard to accept, but after 30 years of gaming and some careful analysis I really can’t say that the many man-hours spent calculating XP (or worse, gerrymandering it as a GM) have had anywhere near a positive return on investment in terms of game quality or fun.