Infinite Experience, Part the Second

By | May 18, 2013

Last week, I talked about how experience points are shorthand for how much power a roleplaying game system expects a Character to possess. That means in addition to granting levels, XP also can serve as a rough measure of the amount of money and equipment available to a Character. XP also can be a measure of a Character’s influence in games where Characters automatically gain followers, a base of operations or other social benefits at higher levels.

For more than a decade, level-based d20 games have closely linked character level, money and equipment. In order to make the math work across 20 levels, there were assumptions baked into the system about when players would gain certain levels of power from outside sources.

For some Players, this expectation had the unfortunate side effect of making treasure and magical items feel less special and more like a ticket needed to proceed further in the game. Even worse, this assumption made playing in a setting where magic was rare more difficult.

Variant rules emerged to remove the various “plus 1s” found on almost every type of gear and just include the assumed gains in each level gained by the characters. This method reinforced the idea that the bonuses from such items weren’t a reward – they were required in order for such games to work as intended.

This made us realize that XP is tied just as closely to treasure and gear as it is to level. That’s why we decided that the Infinite Earths game should allow Players and Guides to use XP to shape their game into something that fits best for them.

Here’s how it works: Each adventure or story offers certain opportunities for the Players determined by the Guide. These opportunities determine what options the Players have for rewards at the end of a session or adventure. Infinite Earths allows all Characters to use the XP they earn to gain levels, gold, Fame, Relationships, magic and other improvements separately.

Some options are almost always available, such as gold, Fame or gaining a level. Others are available depending on the Players’ actions. Say the story focused on two antagonistic noble houses trying to gain political power. The Players could spend their XP to improve their Relationship with the noble house they choose to help, or perhaps with both if they mended fences or acted neutrally.

Magic items or abilities often are rewards in fantasy games. Magical items do not provide static numerical bonuses to d20 rolls in Infinite Earths. We came to this decision for two reasons – to make the math simpler and to make magical items feel more special. Instead, we aim to make magic items more personal and more extraordinary by linking accomplishments at the table to the available rewards.

Let’s say a character defeated a fiery demon over the course of a story. This could have been through strength of arms, vocational knowledge of the priesthood or simply a silver tongue. At the end of that story, the Player could spend some of his XP to gain an infusion of magic into one of his pieces of equipment. The effect could take the form of a fiery sword, armor that protects against Unholy creatures or even a trinket that helps drive out other demons.

This method directly ties Player actions with the magical rewards he or she receives. These items aren’t bought in a shop or found in a tomb. These items become magical because the Players used them to accomplish great things.

Let’s say an entire Fellowship of Players defeated this fiery demon. One Player spends his XP to add fire damage to his weapon. Another spends XP to make his shield protect against Unholy creatures. A third turns in his XP for a quick payday of gold. Yet another spends his XP on Fame so more people will know his part in the story of the demon’s defeat. And all of them decide to spend some of their XP to improve their Relationship with the town they saved from the demon’s fire.

There are a few limits. A Character cannot gain more than one level at a time, no matter how many XP he has. The Guide typically awards XP at the end of stories, adventures and modules, which limits how often Players can spend their XP. Each time XP is awarded, the Guide tells Players about any new or limited opportunities for spending XP. Improving Relationships with major NPCs who were part of the story is a good example of a new option for XP.

This approach to XP also offers the Guide another tool to help create a specific feel for the story and setting. A world where magic is rare would provide few opportunities for Players to spend XP on magical improvements. A setting where almost everyone is scraping together every copper just to survive would limit chances to turn in XP for gold.

Players also can help shape the type of game they want and even craft their own end-game experience through how they use XP. A Player who wants to start his own guild or personal army can focus on Fame and Relationships. Those who want ever-expanding luxury can accumulate gold. And those who want everyone to know their name can gather more Fame.

This doesn’t mean that all gold, magic, Fame and Relationships are acquired with XP. Each adventure, in addition to XP, has base rewards such as money, fame, and even Renowns for participating in extraordinary events.  XP is used to allow Players to further shape their rewards to suit their individual interests. By choosing their own rewards, Players can seft themselves apart and focus on what they want most while remaining balanced against each other.

Ultimately, this XP system is meant to give both Players and the Guide more control over exactly how rewards are handled so story and character decisions aren’t forced to fit our assumptions as designers of the rules.

Next week, I’ll talk about the amount of XP available through adventures and walk through an example of how the Infinite Earths Experience system works. See you next time!