Monday, February 3, 2014

Removing XP - or Changing the Way it is Rewarded?

By the time this is in print I'll have run another Saturday night game of Pathfinder and I may have decided to remove XP least in terms of the RAW. Saturday nights are good "experimentation nights" and I have been thinking hard about my recent 13th Age games, along with the realization that removing experience gain from combats has had a profound effect on how people try to play.

One of the most evident issues with 4E in my experience was that the game was built to encourage combat. Contrary to all evidence you could indeed run 4E as a robust role-playing game filled with derring do, exploration, chatty adventurers and sinister plots without once lifting a blade or spell to battle. However, in doing so you were basically ignoring 90% of the game rules as written and also leaning heavily on the quest reward mechanic which 4E (to its credit) utilized. Most players didn't play 4E this way for a simple reason: the fun in the game was in "murderation set to max" on the Cuisinart, and the greatest volume of experience came not from talking to your foes but mashing them into paste.

Pathfinder has this problem in spades, although I realize it's at least partially my fault because I have been sticking to the book and forgetting old ways. You can award XP for story and non combat items, but the truth is the game is balanced around a steady rate of progression based on the never ending cycle of murder that adventurers are encouraged to engage in. The story rewards, as I distribute them, have gotten modest over the years because I don't want to dole out XP too large in value, causing the PCs to skyrocket to higher levels before I am ready.

Years ago in the AD&D era of gaming I tended to be less formulaic and more reserved in my XP rewards. I tended to grant XP based on several conditionals, including the pace I wanted (slow for long campaigns, fast for short campaigns with limited time) and extra XP for those really cool moments that PCs engaged in. I handed out monster XP but it was never as much as it would be in later editions. Memories of this resurfaced with the recent D&D design article (here), talking about exactly that. One thing the article critically overlooks is the fact that in AD&D it wasn't just goblins that were giving you 1E you were gaining XP through loot, and in 2E you had a variety of class-based actions which could grant you XP. Collectively this XP allowed you to advance at a decent pace, but not just because of monster murdering.

The excision of XP rewards from 13th Age demonstrates how actually needless XP is, although 13th Age, thanks to its design principles, allows for incremental advancement which is just a fancy way of handing out rewards piecemeal, and without much book-keeping. 1st and 2nd edition AD&D both made experience gain from sources other than fighting important, and as such encouraged an array of actions in player behavior. These approaches all have a liberating benefit to players, who will naturally experiment with all sorts of stuff just because when they realize that their game progression is not dependent on specific actions (such as murder).

For Saturday night I think I'll move to a new model of XP awards, and let players know that this model will now hand out experience based exclusively on "story accomplishment." That the story accomplishment award will be a combination of deeds, actions and events and that yes I will consider creatures murdered into this number but it will no longer be an automatic conditional to slaughter that XP is doled out. I want to see if this change of course has an effect on how people play, much as I have already seen in the 13th Age games. There's something magic there in watching a group figure out impressive ways to sidestep fights just because they know it benefits them to do so, and there is no penalty for such creativity. I'd really like to see that same mindset in my Pathfinder games. Not that those groups aren't creative, but when it comes time to kill things, the murderhobo mindset takes over and subsumes everyone into an XP-pinata-beating killing spree.

Behind the scenes story accomplishment is going to be my metric for "how much time I want them to spend getting to the next level," with some variables thrown in to allow for better rewards for exceptional deeds. This may be the smoking gun I've been looking for to spur renewed creativity in the Pathfinder games....we shall see.


  1. Another approach, which my group has found to work well, is the "Awesome Point" model used in Old School Hack. At the beginning of the session you put our 4-5 tokens per player which are Awesome Points. Anyone at the table can award a play an AP for anything (anything) which they think is "awesome". APs can then be spent for bonuses and once all players have spent 12 APs the group levels together.

    1. That's a really cool idea....I think I'll run that idea out to my players and see if they want to try it.

  2. I'm trying something similar to this in my own game with XP.

    Forgive the amateur-hour formatting.

    You can look over a couple of adventures to see about how it works.