There is no rules concept more thoroughly tied to RPGs than Experience Points. They’ve been with the hobby since the earliest editions of D&D and are the first thing added to give “RPG-elements” to a video game that didn’t have them before. If your RPG features character advancement at all, chances are that advancement is tied to some variation of exp.
In the beginning…
Anyone running a game blog focused on the return to old school D&D can tell you that the earliest forms of gaming don’t really match the assumptions of most modern games. Whether or not that’s a failing, it’s pretty obvious that some things have become significantly different as the hobby has evolved.
The first editions of D&D (and experiments that led to it such as Braunstein) were iterations of the concept of simply zooming in on the individual units in a wargame and playing them rather than acting as their commander. That is, the first RPG characters were operating on game engines modified from wargames. This is another thing very obvious to those that have been in the hobby a long time: anecdotes indicate that the earliest versions of D&D relied heavily on players also owning a copy of TSR’s wargame, Chainmail, as a reference.
I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Chainmail to speculate on whether it used an exp mechanic, and would welcome any input on that in the comments. Unit advancement in early computer war sims leads me to believe it must have had some impartial way to advance, or at least differentiate, units from novice, to trained, to veteran. This is an abstraction that works very well for wargames: it’s pretty much impossible to track the individual capabilities of units when you’re managing dozens, so it makes sense to divide them into fixed tiers of competency.
It was only natural that the earliest RPGs did things the same way, based as they were on wargame rules. Most early systems were heavily level-based, and D&D even used titles for levels clearly defining the gradual improvement of competency tiers. The question was how to discretely allow characters to progress from one level to the next.
An interesting facet of level-based games that didn’t really even go away until D&D’s third edition was that character classes weren’t explicitly balanced against one another. In a straight up fight, a fighter was simply better than a thief, and a mage would eventually become powerful enough to exceed them both. There needed to be some mechanism by which balance could be achieved, and it made sense to do that by speed of gaining levels. A class that was half as capable as another would level up twice as fast, thereby using higher level to compensate for less effectiveness at the same level.
Finally, old school play was dominated by the concept of the adventurer in the style of Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: a charming rogue that used wit and combat savvy to improve his place in the world. These were not superheroes, gamely laying down their lives for the good of a community, but whirlwinds of disaster separated from villains mostly by a preference for preying on other predators rather than upon the innocent.
This ethos expressed itself in gaming revolving around the dungeon crawl: your character’s primary goal was the discovery and robbery of hidden places guarded by creatures whose deaths no one in civilized society would mourn. Certainly, these warrens of monsters were often a significant threat to the surrounding humans and demi-humans, but the player character’s primary motivation was treasure and glory. Life as an adventurer was difficult and deadly: the monsters were going to do everything in their power to beat you, and you were going to do everything in yours to ensure an unfair fight in your favor, or to bypass the monsters entirely unless combat was absolutely required to take their treasure.
All these assumptions cascaded into the need for experience points:
- Advancement pinned to across-the-board upgrades with levels
- Classes not balanced in capability against other classes at the same levels
- Roguish and often competitive PCs seeking to minimize effort and maximize wealth and glory
- A high chance of dying and having to start a new character fresh
With these four inputs, exp simply made sense as a concept. It provided a somewhat objective method to determine when character could advance in level. It allowed weaker classes to advance faster than stronger ones. It gave players a carrot for clever play by allowing them to improve faster. It gave players a stick for incautious play by providing something that death would take away (either via resurrection penalty or simply starting a new character at nothing). It was an excellent fit for the needs of the era.
But those four assumptions have less and less of a place in RPGs every year…