Saturday, 15 January 2011

Session-based Experience

Now that I have spilled a ton of pixels on an elaborate and arcane experience point system, it's time to wonder if we shouldn't just throw the whole idea in the trash.

I see turtlenecks in her future.
From quarters too numerous to mention has come the idea that experience in a level-based adventure game should not involve accounting for hundreds or thousands of points based on specific exploits. Instead, it should simply be given for playing, session to session. Five or ten or twenty sessions and you reach the next level. In the true random spirit of the Old School, Clovis's Red Planet game offers a chance for level advancement as a die roll at the end of every session, but the idea is essentially the same.

The advantages of this system are many:
  • Bookkeeping is ridiculously simple
  • Sessions where the action departs from traditional experience-granting activities - investigation, traps and tricks, negotiation - can be rewarded without the tricky job of awarding ad-hoc xp
  • The incentive is just to play, rather than grub every coin and kill every kobold toddler
  • The DM can accurately assess the long-term trajectory of the campaign, and adjust the advancement rate precisely to suit the amount of time available for playing and the needs of the player
My current game, though, is using traditional experience points. Maybe with a different campaign I would experiment with session-based experience, but I see a few advantages in keeping experience more precisely reckoned:

  • The advantage of taking risks and facing powerful foes becomes clear when going after the ogres is worth much more than going after the orcs. While detailed xp is vulnerable to grinding and grubbing, session xp more subtly rewards conservative play.
  • As feedback, too, the varying experience haul from a tough combat where you were nearly wiped out, versus dealing with a few goblins in a cave you missed the first pass through the dungeon, clearly tells players that risk has a reward. 
  • Experience points keep adventurer characters focused on their main goal - to get rich or die trying - especially when experience is strongly tied to treasure.
This last point was the decider for me. I think I'd be more into session-based experience if the campaign had more political intrigue to it. In my current Trossley run, the characters are fortune-seekers, bound by an oath to the valiant and acquisitive St. Hermas. Gold and monster guts is their bread and butter. The experience point system reflects this.

Any other observations about the relative merits of these systems, especially if you have used both, are welcome!


  1. Good points. I think I favor the first approach though, as you lay them out. I think making the risk worth the reward need not be strictly in terms of xp. As to the third, I'd in some ways rather players set their main goal rather than have xp enforce it, as long its one the game we're playing supports in broad strokes.

  2. I've noticed a tad less action and motivation when using session based exp unless there are clearly defined goal posts. Some players realize they get to level up by surviving, enduring or simply avoiding if success is measured simply by avoiding failure.