John’s article  on running campaigns with no experience point (XP) advancement presents an interesting issue for those of us that model campaigns like television series. In many series, there’s little actual development; the PCs are capable out of the gate, and advancement is generally limited to story arcs or romantic or professional subplots. When a PC “upgrade” does occur, it usually happens once a season.
Players, however, have an expectation of growth, even if it means that the PCs outgrow the adventures you’ve been running. They also have an expectation that your stories will grow to compensate, even when it means that the street-level superheroes are now galaxy defenders or the small band of heroes that once kept a village free from bandits and roaming monsters is now wandering the planes of existence.
In some cases, the players aren’t actively looking to change the campaign; they just didn’t realize that their advancement choices ‘leveled them out.’ And while we, as GMs, are supposed to compensate for that, we sometimes miss the small details and allow powers when we shouldn’t (summoning deceased spirits is going to have a major impact on murder investigations) or allow skills to get out of hand.
While banning XP advancement is certainly a way to combat this, it can be difficult for a player to retain interest in characters that never change. This is of little concern for a one-shot or mini-campaign, but it can be difficult to maintain player interest in long campaigns, especially as their only outlet to try new things is to change character.
An alternative can be found in Eden Studios’ WitchCraft. Rather than handing out straight XP, it offers an optional rule where you give out different types of XP. Some XP can only be used for combat skills, some for non-combat skills, and some for powers. You also retain the option of handing out some of the XP as “freebies,” allowing the players to use them for anything.
While WitchCraft offers this as a way to ensure that PCs only advance in things they’ve used (they aren’t getting combat XP when they spent the whole session investigationg), you can also use this as a way to guide the players on how to spend XP without taking away all their choices for them.
This is easy to adapt for other games. For example, in a superhero campaign, you might offer “superpower” XP and “mundane” XP. At the end of an adventure, a PC may get enough mundane XP to raise a skill, but it could take several adventures before she has enough superpower XP to develop a new superpower or increase the effectiveness of an old one.
This also encourages players to spend XP rather than bank them. For example, you may hope that your psychic investigators spend a lot of XPs on investigative skills, only to discover that they never get better at research and investigation because they are all banking their points for new psychic powers. This system encourages them to spend XP on those things without worrying that they won’t have points to spend on powers.
I’ve used this system to great effect in many campaigns. How about you? Have you tried a similar system? What pros and cons have you discovered? If not, could you see this working for your group?