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Do Role Playing Games Need XP?

Thursday, March 18th, 2010
1 Comment

When making rules for a role playing game there is the ongoing balancing act between narrative and simulation.  Both of which ultimately need to create fun.  At one extreme you’ve a game like Over the Edge with very lightweight rule system and at the other end you’ve got rules heavy, simulation game like Rolemaster.  Both have their place and both have advantages and disadvantages.  A rules light game can be as hard to run (harder in some ways for a novice) than a rules heavy game.

When I wrote Under Stairs Over Stairs I deliberately decided that character development should be based on a character’s age not on how many fights they had been in.  However over the years some of the feedback I’ve had suggests some players would prefer an experience system.  They’re just more comfortable with games that keep the elements most games have like Statistics, Skills, Combat Rules, Experience Rules and buying equipment with cash.  The further a game moves from the comfort zone the less they like the sound of it.

Simulating an episodic TV shows before the story arc era of shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents an interesting dilemma.  In that era, where episodic and serial TV shows were clearly separate, characters didn’t develop much from one episode to the other.  There were good reasons for this: channels could show the episodes in any order and repeat them in any order without having to worry about it.  Writers didn’t need coordinating so the story line maintained continuity.  Crucially it was felt the audience could miss an episode and then start watching again.

So in the game I’m running I’ve been talking to the players about how we can simulate this narrative style in-game since the setting is style after episodic TV shows.  Traditional experience systems see XP awarded and characters improving from adventure to adventure.  The game has that kind of system at the moment.  Episodic TV didn’t see characters changing and growing.  They usually began as fully formed heroes, at least once the pilot episode set them up, and then carried on in the same way for the rest of their dramatic lives.

I’ve been considering a few different approaches to take to this.  The first is simply to not bother with XP.  The second is to not bother with XP but to allow players to reshape their characters a little between episodes by moving skills or stats round till they are happy with the balance.    A slight variation on these possibilities is to give the players more points when creating their character’s so they start out better.  Many games are designed with the idea that the characters will become more powerful and thus deal with bigger challenges as time goes on so this would balance that out.

Another thought is to use XP but instead use it to buy prominence in an episode’s story or to buy central casting in the next episode.  I’ve seen this in a few games – role buying in Hong Kong Action Theatre springs immediately to mind.  I’m wondering if a system that allows the players to buy into the story could work. A little XP would net them a part in the adventure’s B plot.  A bit more would buy them a connection with a character in the story or being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.  A really big spend in advance of the adventure would let them buy a pivotal position in the next adventure.

So would throwing out XP or using it in a different way make you less likely to be interested in a game?  How would you feel about buying a bigger role for your character in a game?

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One Response to Do Role Playing Games Need XP?

Ken St. Andre Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Xp have a vital function in tunnels and trolls. They serve as a kind of divine currency to increase character attributes. If you had a role-playing game where character attributes were not variable, there would be no need of xp. In such a game, character reputation might be more important.

on the other hand, part of the fun of roleplaying as we know it is the number crunching. Face it! We gamers love the numbers, whether it's a d20 roll to succeed. or the sheer joy of rolling 100D6 for that trollhammer that you acquired.

Still, I was looking for chaotic ideas to put in the chaotic 8th edition of t & t. Doing with XP is brilliant--very chaotic, less bookkeeping. I like. Thanks for the idea!

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