When I ran Dungeons & Dragons, experience points were often a pain. Third Edition had too much maths in working out encounters, as you’d have to calculate challenge ratings, you were recommended a set amount of encounters and were encouraged to play with balance. It was a whole faff and to be honest I gave up within my first year. I kind of made up how much the group earned, as it wasn’t as up front as it was in AD&D or as simple as the later D&D 4th Edition.
D&D 5E suggested ‘milestone XP’ as an alternative and I immediately jumped on board with that instead of measuring XP the classic way. You worked out when the group should level up and did exactly that. For Hoard of the Dragon Queen I levelled them up seven times in eight chapters, totalling I think about 11 or 12 sessions. The pace felt fine and gave the players more to have fun with at the end of each session.
Actual XP tends to work better in point-buy games like World of Darkness and Legend of the Five Rings, but there are even more fun ways of handling advancement.
PbtA Games – Failure
I first learnt about Powered by the Apocalypse games by listening to Actual Play podcasts and it seemed perfect for that style of play. I picked up bits and pieces just by listening to it, but buying Monsterhearts and Dungeon World really helped. One of the things which I really liked was that failing a roll gave you experience points. A few XP would earn you an advancement and the better you got, the rarer XP would become to match it. Not every PbtA game has it as a mechanic as it’s a design philosophy rather than a strict ruleset to design games with. Still, it’s common enough that you’ll still see it appear in games.
Lady Blackbird – Keys
Keys are a lovely mechanic. They give you two different ways of advancing. Normally a key will give you something minor to do for one XP, or you can do something to completely invalidate the key in order to advance immediately. This encourages more than one type of play, and actually having things pay off narratively in the session. Here’s an example:
Blades in the Dark – Desperate Actions
Blades in the Dark uses a pool of d6’s for actions, with the highest being your result. The consequences differ on your ‘position’ between Controlled, Risky (the default) and Desperate. Each position has a different set of consequences for your roll. A Controlled situation means even a failure could simply mean you need to regroup. Desperate positions are the worst you can get, but there’s an incentive to go through with the action. Whether you succeed or fail, as long as you survive, you get an experience point.
7th Sea Second Edition – DRAMA!
I’m a fan of 7th Sea Second Edition, although its half-tempted to replace the advancement system with Lady Blackbird’s Keys. I actually did do that with the 7th Sea demo I run for the sake of letting players advance quickly and give a little character motivation.
Anyway, the system. The player comes up with a story they want their character to go through, a reward for completing it and the first step on the journey. This can be a lot to ask of players, but it can help the players inform the GM the kind of story they want and weave things in.
A short arc could be that you want to become a better swordsman, which will end with you getting an extra dot in your Weaponry skill. The only thing left to do is to the first step. That could be, ‘find a mentor’. There, a nice, quick storyline to be seeded throughout the group’s story.
A longer arc might be, ‘avenge my mentor’s death’, which will end with you getting the mentor’s unique blade back from her murderer. The first step could be, ‘find out who killed my mentor’ or ‘steal the documents detailing my mentor’s last days’. When you complete it, you and the GM come up with the next step, which might be, ‘find the location of the man who killed my mentor’, and so on.
I love the idea of this system. I get that not every player can come up with these arcs as easily and would love a supplement with more examples people could use for their characters on the Explorer’s Society, in order to provide hooks for players to use.
Heart – Beats
This is a late entry as I’m literally using the Heart book as a surface to write on and only just realised its another perfect example of alternative XP triggers.
Heart has Callings as part of character creation. These are your reasons for delving in the horrendous abstract horror dungeons which lurk under Spire. A Calling could be, ‘Adventure’ where you’re a fool who wants songs written about them or ‘Heartsong’ where you’ve had weird, prophetic dreams about the Heart itself which are calling you.
Each calling has a checklist of Beats, which you pick a couple of at the start of each session. These could involve getting incredibly drunk, slaying a monster far larger than you or even taking some minor Blood fallout when you get hit a lot. If you trigger that Beat in play, you get an advancement. You can switch some of the Beats as you go and there are a large number to choose from.