The Gearhead Gamer: No XP

Guest Writer: Peter Bryant


I listened to an excellent debate on the use, or in the case of this blog, the disuse of experience points. I found myself agreeing with the concept of abandoning the practice all together. So, taken by the thought of this, I did a point-counter-point blog for my first Gearhead Gamer post to Multiverse.


Leveling Up Paradox

Point: You work really hard developing your character and you don’t really get anywhere. The better they get, the harder their challenges get. Or at least they should. And if they don’t, you’d be bored. So, instead of fighting orcs your character is now fighting storm giants. Instead of picking simple locks, they’re breaking into Dwarven master-locked vaults. If you look at the relative difficulty, it’s the same. If you needed to roll a 12 on the dice before, you probably still need to roll something similar. It can feel like you’re running painfully hard on a hamster wheel. Lots of movement but you’re still not going anywhere.

Counter Point: Your theater of the mind is evolving and your character is growing. It’s a sense of accomplishment and the trappings are getting cooler. Your character has gone from no magic weapons to wielding a +5 Soul Eating blade. Your wizard can now rain down a shower of meteors on a town if need be. And your character is now leading armies into battle against hoards of the damned, not just saving a small village from raiders.


Point: This is the aspect of your character always having to train, train, train. Or go and kill things, and then kill more things, and yet more things. All in the long and painful effort to try and get XP so that they can level up or raise that next skill. It’s especially painful in the beginning because your character can’t do much and won’t be able to for a while. And, more to the point, by the time you’ve built that character up where you’d like them, you’re off to the next system to start all over again.

Counter Point: Then again, sometimes it’s not the destination but the journey. Being super powerful is not always as much fun. Having mundane challenges along the way makes for great stories. If you want to play powerful characters, you can always start out with some XP during character creation.

Team Competition

Point: Oh, here’s my favorite. You’ve got to play to win right? And everyone wants – no needs – that XP. There’s a quiet competition to get as much XP as you can. No one says it but everyone is in competition. Admit it, you hate when another player gets more XP than you.

Sometimes it’s because they are better or more involved players. Sometimes it’s because they can make more sessions. Whatever the reason, it sucks when a fellow role-player advances faster than you and this can create animosity. Especially if it’s everyone but you. Nobody likes to have the character that can’t do anything.

Counter Point: Competition brings out the best in people, without it we often fail to be our best. Additionally, some people like to play characters that are a challenge.

The Great XPeriment

There are more dynamics to this I’m sure but I think those three get my point across. So where do we go from here?

I think everyone should try to run a campaign where the characters start at the top of their game. Agree that everyone will make the character they want at the level/rank they want them to be. Make sure it’s all out in the open, so no one will feel slighted if they have a less powerful character. You may well enjoy this sort of campaign more than you’d ever realize. We did it once and it was one of my favorites.


If you’re planning on designing a system that does this as its core mechanic, you can just skip the section on XP and spending it. You simply allow players to advance anything they want if they lay the ground work down. Characters would have to find a teacher through game play, pay any fees, and take the time to train.


If you don’t think your players could give up XP completely…


In place of experience, players could get one reward point every time you play or maybe two if they excel in their gamesmenship. If they want their character to develop in any way, they need to work it out with the game master. Maybe the character wants to train in something. Maybe they want a new ability or spell or to make a special item. Whatever it is that would advance them in some way they will use one of their reward points. The GM will work out what they need to do and provide it for them for the point.  This is sort of like XP only in a scaled down way.


For example. Let’s say John wants his character to gain another weapon proficiency. As a GM I would say “sure, your character needs to train for one month with a master and it will cost “x” amount of money. And you’ll need to spend one reward point.” For that point I make sure the character is able to find a master and has the month to train.


As for the competitive aspect, it pretty much goes out the window. No one is going to care if your character has learned a few more things than theirs did because their character is already at a point that they are content. Everyone can focus more on enjoying the game and telling the collective story and less about leveling up.

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  1. Avatar

    Part of the character advancement is the journey to NOT SUCK. Sure as you advance you will find bigger challenges, but not everything will do that. Tasks that were difficult you can now do satisfyingly well. Not all locks become master locks. You don’t worry about falling when you have to enter a 2nd story window any more. People can appreciate the speed and flourishes of your swordplay or gun play. You gain not only power but breadth of ability. Unless you are playing a strict class system, you will branch out and add nuance to your character, all without having to treat advancement like a grind. How you advance is up to you, your gm, the story, and the game system. XP’s are just one method.

  2. Avatar
    John Enfield

    I’ve not had any problem with players complaining about XP for two reasons. One, I design my campaigns so that they are engaging stories to be a part of at every level. The interest in the story doesn’t depend on how big and bad the monsters are nor on how tough the traps are to crack for example, but rather on the players’ ability to think things through, make good, logical decisions, deal with moral quandaries (sometimes), how to deal with interesting and weird NPCs (some of whom have no stats and can’t be just killed) etc. and less on the abilities of their characters on the sheets.

    Second, I reward small amounts of XP (because I do agree with your point about the hamster wheel situation of leveling up, only to discover that now a lot of the challenges are equally leveled up – I try to avoid that by not leveling my game world with the players. They only come across tougher enemies, traps etc, if they find their way into the places that have them. Sometimes, low level players wander their way into some really tough places in my game world and have to retreat, making a note to come back later when they are actually ready 🙂 ) and try to keep the leveling up from happening too rapidly, partly by only allowing characters to level up once they’ve trained for a while and have had a few full rests, and then, can only apply the XP they’ve gained to skills and such that they were actually using (no leveling up in charisma by bashing orc heads in :), you have to actually attempt to do things that require charisma to earn XP in it for example).

    So, I guess I do a bit of a hybrid approach. I make it so that XP is slow to earn and leveling up doesn’t happen very often, but I make it so that it the main interest, fun and excitement of the campaign isn’t found in leveling up anyway.

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