I think experience awards can completely change the way the game is played. The GM can weave NPCs with a myriad of needs and quests on an epic scale, and the players are still going to be truly interested in how their particular character gains in power. If combat is the engine that drives character advancement, players are going to seek out combats. In the hex-crawl portions of the game we’re playing now, the players are divided about using their non-combat skills to avoid encounters, or seek out encounters. If they were being rewarded for finding gold coins, they’d pretty likely be spending their non-combat time chasing down leads for lost treasures instead.
Below is a list of the ways I could see awarding experience:
- Completing Quests
- Finding Loot
- Spending Loot
- Class Specific Goals
Experience is one of the main carrots an RPG can provide for players, and the source of experience tells you a lot about what type of game you’re playing. Old-school D&D rewarded acquisition of wealth. This meant that players would focus more on bypassing potentially lethal combats in order to acquire it. Acquiring wealth became a two-fold benefit, since you needed wealth for improved equipment and acquiring wealth also increased a character’s abilities. It encouraged a lot more combat as war, rather than combat as sport encounters. Since combat itself was not assumed to be the engine of progress, combats were not assumed to be fair either.
I have some conflicting ideas on how to handle this. One idea, designed to help squash the 15 minute adventuring day, is to make xp from combat worth variable amounts, depending on how many combats the party has been through since the last extended rest. For example, your first combat after a rest would be worth 50% of normal, your second would be worth normal, third would be worth 150% of normal, and fourth would be worth 200% of normal. The numbers probably need to be rethought, but that’s the gist of it.
Another part of me wants to change the game so that combat is no longer an end goal. To do this, you’d remove all experience benefits from combats, and instead award experience for something else – something you want the game to natively reward. In this case, I think I’d want to reward experience for the completion of quests and mini-quests. I think the idea of rewarding experience for acquisition of loot is out for two reasons. Number one, acquiring loot tends to be its own reward. I don’t think the game needs to work too hard to motivate you to find it. Second, I think old school D&D was built around the concept that the quest goal WAS finding loot. Rewarding the acquisition of wealth was the immature version of awarding experience for completion of quest goals.
One issue I can see with this method is: who decides what’s worthy of a quest reward? Most of the time, this probably isn’t a real issue, but it does beg the question a little bit of who is driving the game, the GM or the players. I’m not sure anything formal needs to be done about this – I think the GM can seed the world with some hooks and see which way the players want to interact with it, and then award XP as they complete either the seeded goals, or ad-hoc experience as they achieve goals of their own design.
Another option is to combine several methods. Maybe some percentage of the experience is awarded from combat, some is awarded from quest completion, and some is awarded for exploration. At first, I was thinking this sounds pretty complicated to both balance and to manage during play, but the Kingmaker campaign from pathfinder does exactly that (xp awarded for explored hexes, xp awarded for combat, xp awarded for mini-quest completion, and xp awarded for kingdom milestones!). To be honest, and maybe this is because I’m not a player, I don’t notice the XP as much coming from all the different directions, probably because a bulk of the XP is still coming from combat. I wonder whether the players feel motivated to explore more hexes because of the xp award (100 xp per player per hex!), or whether they feel compelled to grow their kingdom because of the potential xp awards that can provide.
I think on a whole, I’d want to reward those three elements (quest completion, combat, and exploration) and the real question is how to do it. I think the first step will be to put together a regional map and sprinkle xp awards for exploring various areas of it. For example, finding the lost temple of the moon might be worth 100 xp, and traveling to the black fire of Uhl might be worth 500 xp. These exploration xp awards would probably need to be categorized and then given a consistent xp bonus award. Categories might be based on the distance from the starting location, remoteness of the area, level of wonder, whether the location was hidden or secret, and level of danger involved in finding it. In theory, a party could decide to increase their percentage of experience that comes from exploration by becoming explorers and purposefully exploring as much as the world as possible. That sounds fun to me, so I don’t think there needs to be any mechanical adjustment for it.
Experience for combat would follow the 50%, 100%, 150%, 200%, 250%, 300% etc rule. This might need to be adjusted, for example if the party faces some minor little encounters first (or even meta-game seeks them out) they could artificially inflate their xp. I would need to mechanically address the issue of different weighted combats. I think experience would be static based on the power level of the creature fought. Similar to a core resolution mechanic, we can push the escalating strength of monsters in terms of experience into the static numbers needed to level.
Quests would account for 50% of the experience. There would need to be some categories for quests, with major quest arcs being a significant amount of xp. I’d like for quests to be enough experience that it would sometimes make sense to avoid combats in the completion of quests in order to speed up quest completion. I wouldn’t want a party seeking out every combat in order to maximize the experience gained for the quest. In theory, with experience award from the quest should be enough that bypassing some encounters would actually allow them to potentially complete more quests for quicker gains. I want the party to be heroic, but seeking out lethal combats for meta-game experience purposes seems like an issue the experience reward system could mechanically address.
With all of that being said, I could also just do away with the experience point issue, and let everyone who survives a standard session level up.