Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Removing the XP GAINED mindset

by katerha
Removing the XP GAINED mindset
by Tobie Abad
Originally published in 2008.

Being a storyteller (gamemaster, referee, judge, rolemaster, narrator, dungeonmaster, et al) for over 20 years, I have gone through many role-playing, storytelling and interactive storytelling games and each one I have played in had one thing in common: experience charts or tables.

[quick note: there are games without maturation charts, but sadly, I have yet to try them. if you have, consider yourself lucky!  Today, as of the republishing of this article, I thankfully have been exposed to other games such as the no-character sheet Paranoia, and the beautiful games of John Wick.  But anyway, continue reading!]

Although there is nothing wrong with XP charts and tables, there are times when a gaming group finds themselves degenerating into a "How much XP did I gain?" group with their main focus becoming earning ENOUGH POINTS to get certain stats. Note that this even happens with groups that are not TWINKS.  (A term that now, with the republishing of the article seems dated.  Twinks now refers more to hot young men.  Hmm.)   I have seen players struggling to rack up points to raise their social stats, or buy new skills they never had, or simply reflect current changes in their character which were story-dependent.

And there are times that a maturation chart does not work. This holds true for games that have flashback sequences, non-linear approaches, and games that are played in varying time points. If you had 2 game sessions that contained a story that lasted four game days, and 2 game sessions that reflected the events of three weeks, why should the amount of experience points be the same? And even if not, why should the point rewards differ from down time and real time moments?

There are many ways to deal with this; ranging from devising your own experience point scheme, to adjusting the tables and so forth. Personally, I'd do away with the experience point system altogether. Why?

I don't see how they work with my storytelling approaches. I've had games that play into a flashback sequence that then touches into another shorter flashback. I've had games that are set in ten year intervals. I've had games that play forward, then suddenly halt midway for the players to assume the OTHER cast of NPCs who they are against, so they can see why the NPCs feel that way towards them.

I stretch the limits of storytelling approaches to touch on all perspectives. First to Third.

Why should playing one of the enemies for 90% of the gametime, for example, give the character points to buy new traits? But the Player should be "rewarded" somehow right?

And do these character sheets really reflect the character well. Looking at a basic White Wolf character sheet, I do believe that every single person of at least college level would have ONE dot in everything. We all know a little bit of everything. Perhaps a lot of what we know are misconceptions. Or assumptions based on films. But with every pouch of errors, we do carry an ounce of truth.

Why should a Player take the whole game session to finally earn that single point in politics, when its common knowledge to have that dot?

What about when the storyteller makes use of flashback sequences or nonlinear storytelling. These actually encourage the removal of the XP GAINED mindset. After all, the game would simply be bogged down with unnecessary computations if one follows these maturation charts to the hilt.

I believe that the XP GAINED mindset is detrimental to the game. It makes one value the "points" of a character sheet more than the game itself. I don't believe that getting more points to adjust your character sheet is an adequate reward.

The Story and scenes itself in a game can be a reward.
Think, for a moment, that the game is a movie. Each time a player has his turn (See Scenes and Routines) he is given the limelight of the camera, with the movie focussing on his moment.

Wouldn't it be great to make sure that each game session, you get a wonderful moment of "camera time" with a major emotional/action packed/psychologically challenging moment?

A simple fight scene is treated like a Matrix-inspired duel? A seduction scene becomes as memorable as Basic Instinct's "chair sequence". A moment contemplating on the past turns into a full blown sequence of information and recollection like those done in Millenium and Profiler?

Getting the players interested in getting thier "five minutes of fame" might seem difficult, but its not. Especially if you help them realise that points are not what makes the game fun. Its the way the story flows. And if the story allows their characters to shine, even for a moment... then they are getting the best out of the game.

Was Samuel Jackson really "worth seeing" in Episode One? Compare his appearance to that of other characters. Even Yoda's. Who earned their "limelight scene?"

But what about their "evolution" and "development" as characters, you ask?

The storyteller controls the world.
He controls the weather, the landscape, the mood, the climate, the overall environment. He also controls each and every other living or unliving thing in the world used in the game (and those outside if you play that sort of a game). He controls their mood, their memories, their emotions and experiences. The storyteller controls time, chance (excluding the dice... but not always) and the very laws of physics, relativity, and the unknown.

Why can't the storyteller control the character's development?
Wait!  Before you start throwing pitchforks and the like, I didn't mean being in total control over what changes in the character sheet. I mean being an existing guide judge to the developments. You think that storywise, the character should learn the rudiments of martial arts in two days? Go for it. Give the points. The heck with computations. You want that elder vampire to learn with great difficulty how to use the cellular phone? Then reflect it by giving the points only when you believe the player roleplayed trying hard enough.

Let the game and the story reflect the traits that are increased.  And then just GIVE it.

Never let the mathematics of evolution and the genetics of pen and paper games bog down fantastic stories and games. If they can suspend disbelief in movies and tell us that a civilian learn to use a military rifle and fight hand to hand within a day, then why shouldn't our players' characters?

You want to have a game that focuses on the kill to advance the characters? Maybe you oughta stick with TSR.... or videogames. Not that they're bad, of course.

Last, stop being afraid of what is called "Power Creep."
This mindset was originally born from games like Dungeons and Dragons where all characters followed a pre-set chart of advancements as the levels increased.  But since there were various character types, the was always a question of balance.  Is the 18th level Fighter balanced with the 18th level Wizard?  Would some players who are only at level 5 feel overshadowed by players who are level 9?  

by ewen and donabel
The fear of power creep also reminds me of how it felt whenever new expansions of collectible card games came out.  Consider how a White Scout with 1/2 in Magic the Gathering seemed quite okay before for a one white mana cost and how with new expansions there are one white mana creatures that are already at 2/1 plus some special ability.  Many would feel cheated that "later editions" had better cards.

Ultimately, in the business of publishing a game, the idea of having to release something cooler and stronger each new iteration is a real feeling that needs to be hit.  After all, would anyone want to buy an expansion that was filled will less powerful cards?  Or a new book that offers character types that seem to be just the same old stuff?  

In a table-top game among friends, however, the fear of power creep should be irrelevant.  Given how there are so many other ways for player characters to be challenged other than merely direct outright combat, I saw no reason to have a group where one character is empowered by god-like abilities, and the others might not be.  Just like superhero groups like the Justice League, or even popular fiction books like Neil Gaiman's Sandman or Lord of the Rings, a great storyteller will learn to throw challenges to the players to match their expectations and enhance the fun.  A bad storyteller would simply find reasons to have all players constantly at the same power level and battle out with the same level of challenge.  (Yes, bad storytellers would be very akin to a person being in charge of an MMO. It doesn't matter if you hit level 3 or level 300, the monsters all scale with you.)

So just say goodbye to fearing power creep and instead get to know what makes the player characters tick.  Play on their strengths and their weaknesses.  Challenge them in situations where they might NOT want to use their powers or abilities.  Make them question the ease of using their powers.  Maybe something can easily be resolved with a use of super strength.  But would it be the best solution given how the group is trying to keep a low profile?  Make the challenges more creative than just matching a "challenge rating" and you'll see how Power Creep very quickly becomes irrelevant.  (God knows how happy I was to read in John Wick's Play Dirty a very similar viewpoint towards Power Creep.  After years of doing this, it made me feel like I've been doing the right thing.)

And once that feels irrelevant, you'll realize rewarding players with whole new powers, or points, or dots (depending on what game you use) is totally acceptable when it is meant to enhance the story.

The illusion of "balance" should never outweigh the importance of having a fun game.

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