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Driftwood: Guided Experience

[1]John’s article [2] 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?

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Driftwood: Guided Experience"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On July 23, 2012 @ 3:55 am

I tend to insist that any XP expenditure is run past me first, meaning if someone wants to put a load of points into the handgun skill, I need to be OK with the amount of time they’ve spent using the weapon and that it translates into them being better. It’s basically as you’ve described above without having to worry about keeping track of different XP income streams.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On July 23, 2012 @ 10:56 am

I like the idea that breaking XP into categories can encourage more frequent “minor” upgrades, that get swept under the carpet while waiting to accumulate the XP for an expensive purchase.

#3 Comment By BishopOfBattle On July 23, 2012 @ 11:55 am

Harn uses a system that is somewhat similar, in that as a player you keep track of every time you use an individual skill. Then, periodically, the GM had us “cash out” by making a number of rolls based on how many check marks we had to determine how much we “learned” over that time and how those skills improved. Ultimately, the system of advancement was much more random but it was based completely on the skills you used the most.

It was interesting, but on the whole I think I prefer a system that gives me (as a player) the opportunity to choose where I want to put my advancement points. I think this system might be a better way to accomplish that goal, though.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 23, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

Dang, another system I’m going to have to invest in… **sigh**

Early Savage Worlds allowed unused Bennies to convert into XP, creating the “use it or save it” vibe. Apparently, this created a disincentive to act heroic, so XP and Bennies were split.

Also, there are more ways to gain power than just personal advancement. Depending on the system, you could gain access to new equipment (including spells, rituals, etc), new contacts and favors, money, other resources, etc.

Finally, allowing players to gradually rebuild their characters to better fit the campaign sounds like a good idea. (Since moving from Colorado, I know my rock climbing skills have languished, but my writing and GMing is better than ever!) Lack of advancement does not mean lack of change.

#5 Comment By Tsenn On July 24, 2012 @ 3:32 am

Something I’ve found with action driven advancement is that some players will try hard to push their skill use for the XP ticks, but others will just forget to note what they’ve earned. Makes balanced progression a little tricky.

#6 Comment By J Gregory On July 24, 2012 @ 3:44 am

Thought I’d mention Call of Cthulhu, where you only get a chance to improve skills that you’ve successfully used. And your characteristics rarely change unless as a result of story contact.

In a way, CoC is the Grandaddy of non-advancement systems.

#7 Comment By HappyFunNorm On July 28, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

I actually prefer something like Dogs in the Vineyard where you advance only when you fail. It forces players to try to do things when they might fail, and mirrors a more realistic situation (IMO) that you learn more from failure than from simple success.

I’m not entirely sure how to mirror that kind of mechanic in D20 variants…