Infinite Experience, Part the First

By | May 11, 2013

Experience points, or XP, are the throttle that determines how quickly characters advance in most level-based systems. Players can usually receive a small amount of bonus XP for going above and beyond, but this is rarely as much as a full encounter or a completed adventure.

If combat were the only way to gain experience, some parties would have an easier time than others. Many systems have ways to avoid this, usually by expanding the options for earning experience. Disarming traps, collecting and spending gold, skillfully avoiding combats and clever roleplaying are just some of the additional ways systems can award experience.

There is a weakness in this kind of design. Each additional way to gain experience points can feel like something characters must do in order to be the most efficient. I absolutely loved The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when I was a teenager. I can clearly remember searching every corner of the map, cutting down every patch of tall grass to find rupees, and breaking open every clay pot to see what was inside.

Additionally, that same sort of approach to experience points can deform the game by subtly encouraging players to behave in specific ways. For instance, a game that provides high amounts of XP for killing enemies, but less for other activities, will be more combat-focused. Those players who don’t change how they act just because of the rules are then punished by being behind those who chase down the most efficient source of XP.

Regardless of how it is earned, a certain amount of XP is bound to trickle in over time as characters adventure. This means that for many game tables, XP is less of a reward and more of an inducement. Players receive XP when they do what the game system expects or what the person handing out XP likes. This line of thinking is why some groups skip XP altogether, instead preferring for the Guide to say when Players gain levels.

There are many reasons for this, but a strong one is that most modules and premade adventures don’t work as well unless Players gain levels at specific times. These adventures are then built to give out “bonus” XP for certain things to keep the levels in the place the designer expected. But once again, this really isn’t a reward. It’s simply required to keep the module working as intended.

With all that in mind, we wanted to come up with a simple XP system that was easy to understand and that fit with our design goals. Our system is meant to provide Players the flexibility to fine-tune how well their Character excels in fighting, talking and skills. We also want a system that allows Players and Guides to shape stories together.

The XP rules we made for Infinite Earths can easily be adapted to any game that uses levels and even those that allow Players to spend experience points to buy individual character improvements instead of whole levels.

Players earn an Experience Point whenever a story goal is achieved. The amount of XP it takes to earn a level is equal to that level. Thus, reaching Level 2 requires earning 2 XP, which means completing 2 story goals. This design offers several things we like:

  1. Players earn levels more quickly at the beginning of their adventuring careers and more slowly as their own personal power grows.
  2. This rewards all styles of play equally. When the story goal is “Protect the Town,” the Players can choose to build walls, fight the enemy off or talk the villagers through an orderly evacuation. All of these options would award the same amount of experience.
  3. Larger and more epic stories can be broken down into a series of story goals that each award experience to represent progress in reaching an overall goal. For example, it takes 20 XP for a Level 19 character to reach Level 20. This helps represent the more complex plots that tend to fill higher-level play.
  4. Players who set their own goals – in addition to or instead of those from the Guide – can be assured of continued XP gains as they carve out their own tales in the world.

That last one is of particular import to us for a few reasons. One, it supports both module and sandbox styles of play. But it also rewards Players who are more engaged with the plots and stories of the game.

I’ll give an example. I’ve run the “Escape from Monthos Vil” module several times now for different groups. In the town of Monthos Vil, there are some leaders who dislike each other and make things more difficult for the Players seeking cooperation.

Some groups work with one or the other NPC. Other groups choose to work around them. A few decided to try to patch things up between the two characters. They set another goal for themselves in addition to the others in the scenario – and in so doing earned another XP.

The Monthos Vil scenario has opportunities to earn about 8 XP, assuming the Players don’t set their own story goals and achieve them. The module is for Level 3 characters, so the Players need 4 XP to reach Level 4.

So what do the Players do with the rest of the XP, you ask? That’s something I’ll go over next week.