Experience points started off the hobby as a necessary (or at least convenient) tool for allowing characters to grow. But the evolution of systems has trended towards the more granular and the evolution of game play has trended towards more coherent stories. It’s questionable why many games still rely on exp for advancement, but first we need to understand the power of advancement itself.
Back in 2005, Dan Bayn wrote a very persuasive article about Advancement Addiction. To sum up: psychological conditioning theories potentially indicate that linking character rewards to game play makes players increasingly crave these rewards and associate them with fun. Experience (and advancement in general) isn’t just a convenient counter to justify a character gradually growing more competent, but is a powerful psychological driver in itself. Players of games with any form of classic advancement begin to confuse the advancement with the fun. Try an experiment at your game table:
- Run an all-out, dramatically exciting game session that hits stated character in-story goals, but claim that kind of session doesn’t count for advancement rewards.
- Run a pretty slow and mundane session (maybe a combat slog with boring foes), but give out a bunch of advancement afterwards.
- Get your players to give their honest assessment of perceived fun and which type of session they’d like to see more of.
- Now do the same thing again but flip which session gives rewards and see how that changes opinions.
Clearly, you’re hoping your players are cool enough to realize the trap you’re setting and admit that the better game was better. But even excellent players having an excellent time still miss the thrill of building up their characters, as Harbinger of Doom mentions in his Spirit of the Century actual play writeup. There’s anecdotal evidence that players that primarily focus on indie games without much in the way of advancement can get over the urge, but I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that most players of classic RPGs are conditioned to expect rewards in the form of our characters kicking more ass the more we play. Somehow it doesn’t feel fun to have a character that doesn’t get more powerful, even if the character started out with tremendous power to start with (start a Nobilis game with double the suggested character build points and then count the sessions until the players start asking when they can make their literal demigods more powerful).
So advancement addiction is a hard thing to overcome, and you may not even want to. But why does exp make everything worse?
Experience, by its nature, is designed to make advancement more granular. You don’t get a level or even just a skill point, but a collection of experience points that can be traded for such once a certain accumulation is reached. Experience is generally, by virtue of being so granular, designed to be awarded at variable rates. In classic use, you defeat a goblin for X exp and an orc for Y. In more story-based games, you get X for a slow session and Y for a session where a lot was accomplished. Experience awards explicitly reinforce doing the stuff the game/GM wants you to do vs. doing other stuff (potentially more fun stuff, if experience is not correctly synched).
The classic example (exp for monster defeats) is the one that frames all understanding of exp awards. Awarding experience for more difficult defeats implicitly creates a world in which defeating challenging opponents is the most valuable teaching tool. This is not necessarily wrong, but leads to all player characters essentially being violent thrill seekers each looking for the next challenging fight. Sure, they prioritize threats for all the classic reasons—stealing treasure, defending innocents, pursuing a villain—but the classic style means that it’s a completely valid choice to rough up targets that could be just as easily left alone (i.e., who runs from random encounters?). Classic experience awards incentivize making every PC a bully.
Variable rewards certainly have their uses, of course. Sometimes a GM has to rely on the exp card to get players to tackle a challenge in a way that’s probably more fun for everyone (e.g., face the tunnel of challenges or hire a pack of sherpas to guide you safely to the other side of the mountain?). It provides a carrot for players when there’s no reasonable in-story justification for doing things (always remember. though, that the stick version of the same behavior is often called “Railroading”).
Ultimately, however, most GMs cheat, especially when there is a big change in power with each level. If the next big part of your campaign involves a lot of challenges appropriate to 5th level characters, you probably don’t want to let the characters get much past or short of 5th before they get there. So monsters get added if the players are falling behind and taken away if they’re getting far enough ahead, all based on some kind of dogmatic interpretation of how many encounters the game designers thought was appropriate between each level.
Module series are forced to do this shamelessly: if Module 1 starts at 1st level and Module 2 expects the characters to be around 4th level, you can count up the exp awards from every fight in the book and see that the module writer made sure you’d get pretty much exactly to the right spot for Module 2. If your players skip fights, you’ll need to make up the exp somewhere. If you add any improvisation on your own part, you may want to scale back something from the official text. In many ways, the GM is trapped using a mathematical system to attempt to justify “this is a 4th level adventure so I want you to be 4th level now.”
Maybe you buy into the math, and you carefully arrange it all to add up. I know I frequently just start going holistic: “it feels like it makes sense for you to level up now.” The GM may or may not continue the fiction of experience points and their relationship to character advancement, but, in a tabletop game, it’s actually not really that big of a deal. A competent GM will make sure to lay out challenges that feel reasonable and give out experience or just pure advancement when it seems appropriate. In a GM-run game, I feel like experience points are generally an unnecessary complication for an already worrisome addiction to advancement, but it ultimately doesn’t matter because the GM can compensate to make the fun and the advancement continue to line up.
The real problem is that video games don’t have a GM.
To paraphrase a quote of forgotten attribution, “Gary Gygax doesn’t have to let you keep fighting goblins if it’s not fun anymore, even if they’re still worth exp.” When a GM is running a game, it’s very unlikely that the players will be able to experiment fighting with a bunch of different monsters and then choose to only fight the monsters with the best risk to reward ratio until they level up and then start going after bigger targets with an even better risk to reward ratio. You can’t decide goblins are an easier fight than kobolds and then only fight goblins until you feel capable of moving on to the easier of ogres and worgs.
In video games, players do this all the time.
As mentioned in the first post in this series, “adding RPG elements” to a video game almost always includes exp. Computers are great at counting things. If a goblin is worth 1 exp, a computer can give you an accurate exp count after going through a whole warren of goblins without missing a beat. Theoretically, computers are also way more impartial than a GM, so the exp numbers that would likely get fudged in a tabletop game can be rock solid. Hell, there’s often a benefit for letting a player keep fighting stuff at the current level until he wants more challenge and moves on.
But the problem is that computer games automate the problem too well. A variable reinforcement conditioning that is debatable behind a tabletop game is so obvious as to be a running joke about video games, especially MMOs like World of Warcraft. Click the attack button a few times and you get a reward! Click it enough and you get a big prize! It’s very clearly a Skinner Box, and a lot of that is due not just to rigid interpretation of the awarding of exp, but due to the capacity to choose targets.
That’s right, we’re talking about grind (and we have been this entire series!).
Just to pick an example that fits my MMO of choice at the moment, City of Heroes features a wide variety of high-level enemy groups. One group uses a lot of crowd control and stays at range. Another has lieutenants that are completely impervious half the time and all of them drain endurance when they die. Still another turns invisible and always drops piles of slowing effects at your feet until you can barely move. Then there’s a group that does basically normal damage, automatically clusters up for area effect attacks if you’ll let them, and their major trick is that, when you defeat them, they sometimes resurrect themselves with less powers so you can defeat them for exp again. I’ve never really been in a pickup group where the members wanted to fight anything else but Freakshow if they could help it.
As a designer of video RPGs, particularly MMORPGs, the use of experience points has the subtle and invasive effect of causing your player behavior to flow like water seeking the lowest point: an unfortunate mass of your players will eventually hit on the behavior with the best time or risk to reward ratio in the game, and perform that behavior far more often than the fun inherent in the behavior supports. They can’t help it, everything in the game told them that leveling up is fun, and, in fact, implied that it’s the whole point. They’ll murder Freakshow, Earth Revenants, or your game’s grind-mob du jour for hours and hate you for how boring it is, while hundreds of more interesting fights await them. With exp in play, you can’t make players participate in things because it’s more fun unless you also make it worth a better exp ratio. Sure, you can write quests, but that just shifts the goalpost. As soon as you have one category of quest that gives better rewards no matter what it’s about, watch the players do that category more.
At the end of the day, if your game has exp your player has a number on his screen (perhaps represented as a colored bar). You have taught that player not only that making that number go higher is fun, but that it is implicitly the point of your game. It doesn’t matter how well written and scripted your quest or how interesting the AI is on your monster, its success and failure will really come down to whether there’s anything else comparable that makes the exp number go up faster. The only solution is to discard exp entirely.
And if you’ve followed me along this far and are now screaming, “oh yeah, even if I buy that it’s a good idea to kick out one of the core features of every RPG video game, what would I do instead!?” then I ask for only one more week of your patience. Next week, in the final installment of this series, I’ll talk about things you might do instead to replace exp with something less conducive to grind.