Removing XP from Fantasy Games

edited August 2009 in Story Games
What would happen if you were to remove XP from a fantasy game? This isn't solely a question about traditional games like D&D since TSOY too had XP.

If you have to define XP to clarify your statement, go ahead. I assume that XP, in the end, increases the power/effectiveness of the character. Even XP spent in TSOY to buy a new Key presumably does so because the player wants to move the character to that mode of play and thus get more XP.

Comments

  • I assume XP to mean any sort of resource that is used to strengthen the PCs' capabilities over time, usually permanently (or at least in a stable manner); this resource generally derives from successful actions in a highly valued realm of achievement (combat, f'r instance).

    That being said...

    Personally, I think this would lend itself to play involving shorter, more to-the-point stories.
    If the element of "advancement" manifests only in-story (new NPC allies, cool gear, etc.) or in-character (the player portrays the character differently over time in some great or small way), then there's no "level" to get to, no place one has to reach before the character has "arrived". No need to make the character so vague that zhe really can develop into something over time; you can flesh 'em out from the get-go, no apologies necessary ^_^
  • Here's a theory I have—

    Campbell is crazy, but his discussion of the monomyth does apply for the fantasy genre; it's about the characters learning about themselves and the world. XP is/was a kludgey way of handling this. Looking at the oldest games, you can see that the XP ramp includes things apart from simply being more powerful, especially the ability to engage with larger things in the world. That's why you start out hunting rats and then when you learn where the dragons re, you can fight them and have a fighting chance.

    I don't interpret this necessarily as an increase in PC effectiveness, since you don't often (apart from in West Marches-style games) return to older opponents; it's simultaneously a tutorial mode and a pacing mechanic. When you hit a new XP benchmark, you're done with a particular opponent group and you move on.

    If you're not using XP, you might want a different kind of pacing mechanic in play.

  • Well, games that allow/encourage that kind of growth in power (relative to low-level opponents at any rate) are the ones that need the pacing mechanic in the first place.

    If there is no such attempt at a Campbellian advancement track, or any real power-gains at all, then there are simply Weak, Average, Strong, and Powerful characters. Vampire: the Masquerade deals with this concept differently - yes, there are insanely powerful characters out there, but it's so difficult to become one of them that, effectively, the power scale is fairly tight (not to mention how slowly XP actually results in power-gains).
  • Mark, do you mean removing reward?
    Or just a specific reward?
  • edited August 2009
    I played 7 sessions of Mouse Guard and XP didn't really matter very much. Cutting it out entirely wouldn't have really done that much since the Burning Wheel XP systems seem only to really engage in long-term play. So I guess my answer is... it doesn't do that much as long as you can sustain interesting play without advancement. Most indie games (like Mouse Guard) have a lot of situation generators that are really cool without needing advancement to keep changing the stakes / tactics. Even in TSOY, you could easily have Keys generate something besides XP, like tokens that gave you +1 when spent on rolls. Or, uh, M&Ms that you could eat.
  • I've played games without XP, for instance, a Fate/SotC Hack where the number of skills you had set levels never changed (1 Superb, 2 Great, etc.) but you could swap skills around (so your great Being-a-hand-to-hand-fighter skill swaps with your Superb Being-a-General skill, to show how your character's story and interests have developed).
    I've also GM'd several long-term games (1 year +), but fantasy and scifi, over the last 20 years that had a rate of advancement so slow that it was to all intents and purpose none existent (my preference actually).

    To my biased eyes, these were better experiences, than the standard model of advancement.

    If the game is interesting, people will want to play. Pure power-based improvement is not the only way to keep a game interesting.
  • The place where XP is important is in combat heavy games where advancement is important in order to get new toys to play with in combat and to justify facing new foes so that the combat doesn't get boring. It also provides a handy and clear cut method for XP gain: killing things (and taking their stuff).

    Without decent advancement, combat-heavy games tend to drag. But non-combat heavy games need it less since the stuff they deal with tends on a whole to not "get boring" (or really, get too easy) as fast or ever in some cases.
  • Note that in DnD, oWoD, Shadowrun, and a bunch more, gear = power. So, no advancement also means that the fighter never gets a sword that can cut down a mountain, the Hermetic Mage never gets a demon-calling athame from his good buddy Xachol, Lord of the Abyss, and the Decker never finds a hot Russian datadisc with an illegal and highly chatty AI. Those are all pretty strong fantasy tropes.
  • A couple of games that work well without an xp system are The Pool and Dogs. I'm guessing fantasy is meant here as D&D/final fantasy type genres? Your basic Tolkien world of elves, dwarves, and orcs? The Pool's system of character creation has to do with writing down a short bio of your character, extrapolating skills from that, giving them bonuses (but I forget how). To advance you continue the character's bio at the end of each session with some word limit (there is a word limit for creation as well). No xp needed, no measure of achievement except for the story told.
  • edited August 2009
    Interesting thread. It's a issue because a lot of gamers are trained to expect the XP power-ups. It can become one of the major psychological payoffs for playing (and WoW draws on that big-time), to the extent that it's hard to float anything different. I've certainly played with people who are all about making their character "more powerful". But in the source material this is rarely apparent, at least in the sense of developing higher skills or funky powers. It tends to be more about the characters being iconic, such that they don't need to change.

    (If you think all that's tough for fantasy, try doing superheroes.)

    I've wrestled with experience a bit in the revision of my Albion game. It's phrased as "investment", sinking some points into an aspect of the character at the time a trigger event comes up, which could be spending a week with the local fencing master or surviving a fiery attack. As well as improving skills, learning spells, etc, characters can gain 'feats' making them better at aspects of a skill or other stuff like having a reputation with a certain group of people, and can give their gear 'weavings' to make it better at certain kinds of thing in the future. They can also invest in a one-off semi-magical result from a skill use. It's all half a step away from standard XP stuff.

    I guess one approach is to give options for characters to "improve" in ways that are more about the story than 'levelling up".
  • In our current not-Heroquest-at-all-anymore campaign, we're doing it like this:
    - During the game, the players can ask "campaign questions" - "what's the governor's secret plan?", "what lies beyond the Mountains of Ming?", stuff like that.
    - The GM sets up relevant quests for the questions.
    - When a quest is fulfilled, the characters all level up at the same time.
    - When they level up, they can get higher stats, or skills, or life points, or more spells. (Only one of the above).
  • My players don't care about XP. Really, they don't. More than once, I've had to force them to sit down and spend the XP I'd been awarding, and more than once I've simply not bothered giving out XP. Their characters already have interesting options, as far as they're concerned, so why do they need more?

    It took me years to figure that out.
  • I like the idea of removing XP. Of course it depends on what kind of notation. D&D notation involves a lot of erasing, and I don't like erasing a hole in my character sheet. If XP were indicated with a tally, with for example each set of five being one level, I'd be more willing to stick with it. If XP is used to get to the next level, I'd prefer to just have levelling up be on a per session or per adventure basis - at whatever point the players get the hang of their current abilities, and would like some more stuff to play with, level them up.
  • edited August 2009
    Posted By: migoI like the idea of removing XP. Of course it depends on what kind of notation. D&D notation involves a lot of erasing, and I don't like erasing a hole in my character sheet. If XP were indicated with a tally, with for example each set of five being one level, I'd be more willing to stick with it.
    Savage Worlds is a bit like this.You get 1-3 points per session, get a little something for your character every 5 points accumulated, and go into a new "rank" bracket every 20 points, which gives you access to new stuff you can pick up.
  • In Dogs, fallout is XP.
  • To comment quickly on crpgs like WoW.... video games rely on xp because it is the easiest way to record your level increases in an automated setting. A game could eliminate the numbers you see, and just give you your choice in rewards (sort of like Mario RPG), but ultimately it still has to calculate numbers in the background.

    For anyone looking to ween themselves from xp (either recording, granting, or awarding), I suggest checking out a system like The Pool. The advancement comes from the session, and is recorded in an historical way.
  • Posted By: EricNote that in DnD, oWoD, Shadowrun, and a bunch more, gear = power. So, no advancement also means that the fighter never gets a sword that can cut down a mountain, the Hermetic Mage never gets a demon-calling athame from his good buddy Xachol, Lord of the Abyss, and the Decker never finds a hot Russian datadisc with an illegal and highly chatty AI. Those are all pretty strong fantasy tropes.
    Actually, in the oWoD, there was no means of buying gear with XP. Gear had to come strictly from the narrative. The idea of buying Backgrounds, which included the "I have cool magical gear" or "I have a badass vampire nightclub" or whatever, with XP, didn't get codified until the nWoD (or at the very least until very very late in the cycle of versions, past when I stopped buying main oWoD rulebooks).
  • Posted By: HohoIf you're not using XP, you might want a different kind of pacing mechanic in play.
    That's something I missed about XP in some games - pacing. In our 4E game, we level up when the story arc is done with no worry about actual XP totals.

    Good observation, Shreyas.
  • My trad-ish RPG Höstdimma (Postapocalyptic 17-th century fantasy swashbuckling awesomeness, all in Bork.) skipps the XP all together.

    It is a point-buy system, and the players may redistribute their points to reflect changes in their characters' current state, but the total power level remains the same.

    As for actual play experience with that system... well... we have only been playing one-offs. But still I think it is a good idea, as it becomes easier to write adventures and scale encounters.
  • edited August 2009
    Posted By: JDCorleyPosted By: EricNote that in DnD, oWoD, Shadowrun, and a bunch more, gear = power. So, no advancement also means that the fighter never gets a sword that can cut down a mountain, the Hermetic Mage never gets a demon-calling athame from his good buddy Xachol, Lord of the Abyss, and the Decker never finds a hot Russian datadisc with an illegal and highly chatty AI. Those are all pretty strong fantasy tropes.
    Actually, in the oWoD, there was no means of buying gear with XP. Gear had to come strictly from the narrative. The idea of buying Backgrounds, which included the "I have cool magical gear" or "I have a badass vampire nightclub" or whatever, with XP, didn't get codified until the nWoD (or at the very least until very very late in the cycle of versions, past when I stopped buying main oWoD rulebooks).
    It seems my point was lost. Gear is a separate, parallel advancement track in many trad games. Having more kewl powerz through XP is one way of advancing, and having more kewl powerz through a magic amulet is another way of advancing. So, if you want 'no advancement,' you have to lock down shiny power-filled toys as well as XP.
  • Bear with me a bit. I am actually on topic.

    Luke Crane, Thor Olavsrud, Rob Bohl, Keith Senkowski, Kevin Allen Jr, Jared Sorensen and I had a really interesting conversation on Wednesday at Gen Con after the Diana Jones Award ceremony. It was about roleplaying as an emergent property of early D&D. Kevin and I think later editions of d20 and D&D don't actually provoke roleplaying, that any roleplaying that happens is only because roleplaying is part of gaming culture. But we're not sure what exactly it was about early D&D that provoked roleplaying. Since that conversation I've been calling roleplaying a "Woodstock94" effect; you know how everyone got naked and slid around in the mud at the Woodstock '94 event commemorating the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, just the way everyone did at Woodstock in 1969? They did it because they'd seen the Woodstock movie, not because public nakedness was a part of the larger 1994 cultural zeitgeist. Roleplaying in D&D 4e is something you do because it adheres to the culture from having been an emergent property of early games.

    And for what it's worth, I think a lot of designers are thinking that with the later success of focused indie style games, that we've lost something important. We've ushered up a trend of character play being eclipsed by mechanics-focused authoring. We've lost a lot of the roleplaying from the hobby. It's a concern you can see a lot of indie designers worrying at.

    I wrote a letter of "advice to Italian roleplayers on having an enjoyable time with My Life with Master" prior to the publication of the Italian translation in which I characterize the problem as "workshopping" the narrative. (Their forums appear to be down currently, or I'd link you to it.) Vincent's terminology for the solution is "leading with the fiction" (which addresses the "flogging the mechanics" part, but leaves too much room for players authoring at each other for my gaming tastes). Joe McDonald calls the desired activity "character resolution". Christian Griffen writes a good blog post about it here: http://www.berengad.com/blog/?p=40

    Anyway, I recently described the Gen Con conversation to Chris Perrin, and asked what he thought it was about early RPGs that produced roleplaying as an emergent property, and his answer was "character advancement"...and he clarified that advancement is about successive goals, and:

    "I think the act of moving towards a goal breaks down the barriers so the mind can assign care...once you care, role playing happens."

    So...if removing XP from a fantasy game also removes the structure by which the player develops and progresses the character, I think Chris would say that you'll end up without naturally emergent roleplaying.

    Paul
  • Paul, that was a good post. It made my brain expand slightly.

    Can you maybe break this bit down into slightly friendlier terms?
    Posted By: Paul CzegeWe've ushered up a trend of character play being eclipsed by mechanics-focused authoring.
  • Brian, maybe this?

    The detached, story-level mechanics that were trendy a few seasons ago (see: scene framing, stake-setting, player-authored pacing (PTA), fanmail mechanics, things like TSoY's Keys and Fate's Aspects) occupy an amount of our processing power.

    If we weren't using that processing power for author-level crunchiness, we could be thinking about our characters more.

  • Hey Brian,

    I think lots of indie games have skewed many of us to where our play behavior is more like authoring at each other than it is character play. We play many indie games to use the engine of the mechanics to author something that affects the other players. But the result is, paradoxically, less affecting. Because for a story to be affecting it must be made from some of the author's bare personality and honest identity. When a player's character is a tool for affecting others, more than a membrane for two-way communication, play is "awesome" but boring. We appreciate the creativity and talents of our fellow players, but have no contact with their identities.

    Does that make sense?

    Paul
  • Alternatively...mechanics focused authoring eclipsing character play is a good thing.

    *I* happen to think its a VERY good thing...even to the point of going as far as saying an inherently superior thing.

    Mentioned here merely as a counterpoint to the current trend of suggesting that authoring focus is "missing" something essential that character focus somehow magically possesses.

    Personally I put this trend down to the normal attitude inherent in all "indie" endeavors of rejecting that which has been proven successful in favor of continually looking for the next thing to rail about.
  • Paul, I think you're saying a thing that has some unexamined assumptions that are problematic at best. Sure, if we play tunelessly, then our song will not move the listener, but I think one instrument is as good as another.

    That said, I do feel a hollowness in the low-hanging-fruit play of games that engineer gratuitously violent situations in order to make players writhe. I don't feel that my judgement in Dogs is particularly compelling, as it's squeezed out of me by force.

  • Paul (and Shreyas and Ralph, if you like) ... I get those points, but I'm not quite sure I can connect it to anything.

    If this were the Forge, maybe someone would come along and demand we use Actual Play examples. It isn't, so I won't, but maybe you could throw me an example anyway, even a made-up one.

    Shreyas mentioned The Shadow of Yesterday as an example of a game where authoring mechanics eat up the mental processing power that could be used for role-playing characters. That's a game I know, and his comment doesn't quite ring true to me.

    So how would these kinds of mechanics hinder role-playing, in a way that the mechanics of another kind of game (say, Savage Worlds, which was mentioned upthread, and has zero authoring mechanics) would not?
  • Hey Brian,

    The reason Acts of Evil is not a published game is because in playtest after playtest the game is only fun for both the GM and the players if the players manage to inhabit a curiosity about the NPCs and the occult activities the GM has prepped for the terrenes and roleplay characters they aren't consciously authoring as evil. The game is fantastic when evilness emerges from the player's use of the equations to express and resolve curiosity and self-absorption. But probably 85% of playtesters focus in on the equations and proceed to flog their way down the path to occult godhood they see in them, consciously and thinly authoring unsubtly evil characters. It's not dramatically interesting for the players, and it's not dramatically interesting for the GM.

    And I don't know how to solve it.

    Paul
  • I wouldn't say 'hinder roleplaying' so much as 'create additional things to think about that aren't inherently fun to think about.'

    I don't really think it's that fun to look at my sheet and be like "Oh, I have the Key of the Goat-Molester! If I go smell that goat's butt, I get 2XP!" I don't really think it's that much fun to do that thing in order to cash in on the mechanical stimulus—it devalues the action's inherent value by making it a thing I get paid for. Prostitution instead of sex.

    But if I had just decided a while ago that my character has an interest in goats, I'd just do that because character portrayal is fun and valuable.

  • Simon's got a 30 year old game of D&D which I've joined. We're all playing disgustingly highly powered characters. I think I might be the lowest level at 23. You get a lot of fireballs at that level. One of the things that strongly attracts me to the game is that when you level up, which happens about every fourth session, it doesn't make much difference to the characters. To a large extent, the effect of XPs has been removed from the game and that makes me happy.

    I'm not against advancement and change but XPs is such an out of character mechanic that it destroys the continuity of the game for me and removes the interest in in-game objectives.
  • So, two things then: pacing and moving towards a goal to car about the character. If you get rid of levels as power enhancements, you'll still need a way to connect to the character and a way to methodically move the story along to new plateaus.
  • Someone who knows about InSpectres, doesn't that break things into well-defined story stages? Does that tell us anything useful as a contrast?

    I'm thinking of how players can get psychological payoff from story events rather than kewl schtix.
  • I started a new thread to discuss the stuff about role-playing vs character authoring, because a) it is super interesting to me at the moment, and b) seems to have ranged somewhat away from Mark's original point for this thread.
  • Posted By: Paul CzegeI wrote a letter of "advice to Italian roleplayers on having an enjoyable time with My Life with Master" prior to the publication of the Italian translation in which I characterize the problem as "workshopping" the narrative. (Their forums appear to be down currently, or I'd link you to it.)
    Hi Paul! The forum changed its name in www.gentechegioca.it, and the oldest links don't work anymore (the articles are still there, but with different links)

    The link to your message to Italian Players is here: advice on having an enjoyable time with My Life with Master
  • edited September 2009
    Posted By: Paul CzegeChris Perrin (...) "I think the act of moving towards a goal breaks down the barriers so the mind can assign care...once you care, role playing happens."
    Oh, this sounds good to me. It also rhymes with experience from my current campaign (see previous post).
  • Posted By: EricIt seems my point was lost. Gear is a separate, parallel advancement track in many trad games. Having more kewl powerz through XP is one way of advancing, and having more kewl powerz through a magic amulet is another way of advancing. So, if you want 'no advancement,' you have to lock down shiny power-filled toys as well as XP.
    Oh, I get it! Yes.
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