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#162: What is XP for?
I. Dear Reader
It feels like there’s been a recent spate of discussion in RPG circles about the role of incentives (usually just referring to experience points, or XP). While a lot of that discussion has been mean-spirited (with a lot of conflating preference for “the only correct way to do things”), I would like to contribute by try to describe the role of XP is in modern tabletop RPG design, using Blades in the Dark as an example. If you’re a designer or a player, hopefully this helps you think about the role of a mechanic like this.
1. XP paces out advancement
This is probably the number one reason that we have XP in games. Historically, in this hobby, games have offered players to way to advance their characters, letting them grow in a way that makes them more powerful or interesting. For example, in Blades in the Dark, by requiring 6-8 XP to upgrade your character, the game paces out the process of getting new abilities to around every 2-3 sessions or so. By tweaking the amount required, it could’ve made this process shorter or longer.
The primary critique of this use of XP comes from people who question whether advancement is necessary at all. These usually come from folks who are who are either perfectly happy with their character “improving” in non-mechanical ways (like buying a house in-game) or people who prefer changes rather than improvements (getting a cool scar rather than getting better at punching).
2. XP as recap procedure
As Judd Karlman mentions on his blog, having an end of session xp procedure is a way to give everyone an opportunity to “think back on when they were kicking ass or being cunning – remember it and celebrate it while ticking off a box”. The idea is that the end of session procedure becomes a kind of ritual to share your favourite highlights from the session, aiming to deliver a good note for the game to end on.
3. XP as incentive
Some games use XP to encourage players to do things that they might not ordinarily do. This is quite common in the kind of games that I play. For example, in Blades in the Dark, you get XP when your character is in desperate situations. The game is trying to encourage players to take risks as opposed to playing it safe (because they might be coming from games where taking risks was less fun).
These kinds of incentives are usually criticized for two main reasons. One, it is unnecessary, i.e., it encourages behavior that needs no encouragement. Two, it has a negative effect on freedom of roleplay by pointing at a “right way to play”.
Stepping back for a second, I think these are both good criticisms that can be more or less valid, depending on the specific game or style of play. In my experience, in general, they’re least valid when they are theoretical, armchair criticism and tend to be most valid when they come from direct play experience.
With Blades in the Dark specifically, I think XP for taking big risks does lead to players shifting gears and playing differently. Not by itself though! It works because it fits within a whole system meant for that kind of story. The XP is just a tiny little signal.
As for narrowing the realm of roleplay, I think this is broadly true of hyper-specific storygames. They are a kind of game that actively tries to provide constraints - but in the same way a writing prompt is a constraint. It’s hard to be creative without them! Some of these games - not all - tend to involve some amount of discovering who your character is, rather than coming in with a specific idea.
That said, it can be frustrating in Blades in the Dark to pick a playbook with a particular character concept in mind and find that you’re out-of-sync with the game’s XP triggers. This kind of misalignment can happen, for sure, and it is a limitation of Blade’s specific design. The solutions tend to be some form of hacking or just switching playbooks but even with that frustration, I would hesitate to say it’s a problem with XP as a mechanic though.
Though XP doesn’t actually need much defending - like so much of game design convention, the main reason games will continue to include it is because games tend to include it. Players have come to expect it! I’m excited for people to look at these functions of XP and innovate, keeping what excites them and finding ways of changing the rest.
II. Media of the Week
On Roleplay Rescue, Justin Alexander talks about his upcoming book, So You Want To Be A Gamemaster. Alexander is a very popular voice but his advice is often very trad because he assumes (probably rightly) that his audience is playing D&D. Not sure if the book will be useful to me but I’ll try and review it when it comes out.
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III. Links of the Week
Big fan of POCGamer’s underwater series. The latest posts are about Underwater (2020), a horror movie set in a research station in the Mariana trench, and a podcast episode about Cyberpunk RED’s Deepdown setting.
I initially thought Wilderfeast was a 5e thing but it’s not. It’s an original game - half boss battler, half monster eating. From the Polygon review and this interview with the designers, it does seem like a nice, colourful take that cartes equally about monster hunting and monster cooking.
The Golden Cobra challenge is happening again. It’s an annual, themed, very beginner-friendly larp-writing contest.
IV. Small Ads
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