XP in campaigns of Hope & Heroism

When it comes to RPGs that are meant to result in campaigns that follow a certain style or genre, one of the strongest incentives to get players to play along with the concept is the way the game awards experience points. Since the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the early 90s, giving the players XP for defeating enemies has become well established as the most common and perhaps default method of character advancement. Often it is never questioned at all but it’s far from being the only option.

Giving XP for winning fights sends a very strong signal to the players: Go and find any enemy you can and defeat all of them, or you will be at a disadvantage later. It’s a mechanic that tells players not just that it’s okay to fight everything but that they are supposed to fight and defeat everything. Not doing so effectively results in a penalty.

An interesting alternative used by earlier editions of D&D is to give only a small amount of XP for defeating an enemy in combat but a much bigger XP reward for leaving the dungeon with treasure. With a combat system that makes fights pretty dangerous and death a constant risk, taking enemies on head on isn’t such an attractive choice. Instead the option to steal a treasure without a fight looks much more promising. 70 to 80% of the reward for only a fraction of the risk? That sounds like a really good bargain. In some cases avoiding any kind of confrontation becomes the best choice. What are you going to gain from fighting wolves who don’t have any money? The potions and spells to heal the wounds from such a fight could have been much better spend on letting the party steal more treasure. It seems somewhat strange that stealing gold makes a fighter fight better and become more durable, but then it’s just as nonsensical that a wizard would learn new spells from hurling sling stones at enemies. XP are always an abstraction of heroism, they can’t really represent skill training.

When I was looking for interesting Sword & Sorcery games a few years back, one very interesting one was Atlantis The Second Age. In this game players get XP for attempting cool and amazing stunts. And they get full XP regardless of success or failure. It’s so simple but also brilliant. As a GM in a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to play larger than life heroes who do crazy awesome things. Players don’t want to risk their characters getting hurt with nothing to show for the effort. So if you give XP only for successful stunts they will only attempt it when they are reasonably certain they will make it. Playing it safe is not the Sword & Sorcery way. Doing cool stuff that is excessive and out of proportion is the way things are done. Giving full XP even for failed attempts to be awesome encourages players to go looking for opportunities that could serve as a pretext to do something cool. If they fail they get hurt, but you also get hurt when fighting an enemy for XP, so it’s fine.

I really like this approach of both old D&D and Atlantis. Reward the players for acting in ways that match the genre of the campaign. You don’t have to ask the players to do it and you don’t have to explain to them what you want them to do. Players also want to play their characters in the way they see fit, it’s not the GM’s place to tell them what their characters should be doing. But when you reward certain behaviors this does change. Players will adjust their perception of the campaign and image of their character so they can gain more benefit from the way the game handles character advancement. Most players are pretty happy to play a wide range of different characters. But they will make their choice based on what they expect the campaign to be like. Once that choice is made, the GM telling the players what they should be doing is just not done. But seeing the XP reward system in action can make players adjust what they want to play. If you explain it from the start before character creation that’s even better.

When I had abandoned XP for defeating enemies, the new approach I used was to tie character advancement to completing goals. If the players accomplish the objective without getting into any fights they still get the same XP as if they slaughtered everything that moves. But if they failed and could not complete the goal their characters did not advance. This seemed like a good idea and worked quite well for a long time, also because it rarely happened that the players failed completely. It was somewhat based on the ideas of Lamentations of the Flame Princess where getting into fights with nightmare creatures is a certain way towards a quick and horrible death.

But now that I am working on methods to run a more heroic campaign of bold warriors confronting evil, this approach doesn’t seem right anymore. Caution, careful planning, and cutting your losses isn’t the kind of behavior I want to promote with Hope & Heroism. I want something more like Sword & Sorcery with heroic bravery. And I think the way Atlantis approaches XP is the way to go.

What things are expected of heroes in a campaign of Hope & Heroism? I think they should race to the rescue of people in danger, intervene when witnessing injustice, and be an example to others. It’s a style in which it seems very appropriate to treat it as more important to try than to succeed. I want the players to give it their all even when the odds are dismal. “Nah, sorry. This looks too tough for us” isn’t something that players should be saying. So the mildly radical idea is this: Player’s get full XP for an encounter any time they take a risk to save someone or confront villains. Doesn’t matter if they fail or if they have to flee or surrender. It’s the effort that counts. But they only get XP for encounters if it’s to advance an attempt to restore peace and order and save people from danger. Getting into any other fights or dangerous situations without need doesn’t get them any XP.

But of course, any encounter has other consequences beside XP or no XP. Trying to save someone and failing might mean they get no reward and no recognition. Confronting villains will likely gain them new enemies regardless of which side loses the fight. Trying to talk opponents into changing their behavior but leaving with no success will affect how others think of them. In some situations it might be best to not get involved and accept that the odds are stacked against the PCs. But if they risk it anyway, the players always get at least the XP for it. There is always the temptation to interfere even when it’s against the players’ best interest. And for a band of courageous heroes this seems very appropriate to me.

(And now I realized I have to determine XP values for all my monsters. Damn.)

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