Hacking XP for a more meaningful life

Experience and advancement are a pretty common feature of a bunch of roleplaying systems. In general, they follow this formula:

  1. Your character performs one of a number of pre-specified actions (a trigger)
  2. You get some form of immaterial, mechanical token or point
  3. Either now or later you “spend” a number of these tokens to alter or improve your character in some intrinsic way.

The variety of triggers in step one depends heavily on the game, and can influence what the players want to do as well. For example, a narrativist1 game (which will focus on the story or narrative aspects of the game) will likely reward players who reveal aspects of their character (e.g. FATE, Lady Blackbird), while a gamist game (which focuses on overcoming obstacles) will more likely reward clever thinking or tactical success (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons). Similarly, when you get to improve your character varies from game to game: sometimes you need downtime, sometimes you need a certain amount of experience points (XP), etc.

There’s a few systems that break from this tradition. FATE, for example, uses FATE points in the manner described above, but actual experience/advancement is independent of triggers, happening when the GM declares it. These seem to be exceptions to the rule, however.

The customised advancement treadmill

There’s a few things you can do to mix up this XP/advancement system. Here’s two of them:

Tailored triggers

A common trick to make people play different characters in different manners is to give each character a different set of triggers. For example, AD&D second edition had a series of optional rules that allowed different classes to gain XP based on what sort of challenges they overcame. Thus a thief (who doesn’t fare well in toe-to-toe combat) gains XP for traps that they disarm or locks they pick. This encourages thieves to be, well, thiefy, while fighters (who gain XP based on the total hit dice of monsters they defeat) get to be fighter-y, and so on.

Tailored triggers see a bunch of use in narrativist games, generally because people believe they encourage character development. For example, in Lady Blackbird, if I have the Key of the Lost Parent, I gain XP every time I ask someone if they knew my father. Now I’m asking everyone if they knew my father, because that gets me XP, and it reinforces an aspect about my character. FATE’s aspects play a similar role in the game. In effect, your triggers are now mechanically-enforced flags2.

Pre-meditated advancement

The system I presented at the top of this post assumes that you choose where to put your advance after you’ve earned your XP. There’s a good reason we do this in most RPGs: keeping track of how you got your XP and where you can spend it, sucks. It seems there was a craze in the 80s-90s where simulationist games would have you track which skills you use, so you couldn’t advance swordfighting if you’d only done diplomacy for the last five sessions. Burning Wheel has something like this for its advancement system. It’s not a bad way of doing it: as long as you put some thought into the design, you can push most of the paperwork into the background. It’s always going to add some complexity, though.

Some systems have semi-premeditated advancement: your choice of advances is limited (but not completely constrained) by what you’ve picked previously. I’m still considering this pre-meditated.

Combining the two: the Chuubo’s method

One game that attempts both of these is Jenna Moran’s latest RPG, Chuubo’s Marvellous Wish-Granting Engine. Chuubo’s is the spiritual successor to Nobilis, and its approach is to allow players to pick quests for their character. Each quest has its own trigger, and once you’ve hit the XP requirement your quest is complete. You gain a perk for your trouble (which is related to the quest itself) and pick a new quest.

It’s a weird system, very much unlike your standard XP gain mechanic, but I like it (despite not having tried it in play). Much like Lady Blackbird’s keys, you can pick how you gain XP based on your character, but unlike those keys you have a goal in sight.3 You end up with a very player-driven XP mechanic which looks something like this:

  1. I pick my quests, and how I gain XP.
  2. Now, every session, I’m looking for a way to advance my quest. If my quest is to become a better swordsman, every session I want to have a scene where I’ve just finished practising my sword-fighting, or I’m about to go talk to the village blacksmith about how to keep my sword in good nick, or whatever.
  3. Once I’ve done this enough, I get to mark a perk (probably related to being a better swordsman now). Now I pick a new quest, and off I go!

I like it because it mirrors real life, but in the spirit of narrativist play, it avoids the boring bits no one wants to see. One way it does this is by carefully picking triggers for you. If your quest is “fix up a house”, your trigger isn’t when you spend time alone at your house, working on it (because that’s boring). You trigger XP by explaining how what just happened (why you happened to be passing by, why you have a hammer in your backpack, why you have nowhere to sleep and you’re crashing at your friend’s place) was because of the house. Which leads to interaction, which leads to scenes. Compared to the old-school simulationist mantra of “Use the skill, check the box”, Chuubo’s regards this requirement to practise one’s skills an opportunity to bring them up in play.

And that’s pretty awesome.

Up next

So far I’ve looked at the XP/advancement system as a mechanic, and how it can emphasise the mood of the game. In the next article I’m going to discuss making my own XP system, based on what I’ve talked about here. It’ll take cues from Chuubo’s, but I’ll also be looking to FATE and its cousin, The Shadow of Yesterday, for ideas.

This post is continued here.


  1. Requisite link to GNS Theory

  2. That is, indictors to the GM and other players that say “I want this thing to be prominent in the game” 

  3. Yes, you can buy off your keys in Lady Blackbird, but while you as a player may make these buyoffs your goal, I feel it’s slightly different from Chuubo’s where it’s made explicit that you want to finish your quest one day.