GMing (Part 8): Awarding Experience Points

A variety of medals on blue ribbons lying in a pile, representing the concept of a rewards, which is how many players perceive experience points. The evening is over, and the game is finished for tonight. Everyone is ready to go home. There’s one last thing left to do. It’s finally time to award experience points. For some players, this is, in some ways, the entire point of the game. They see it as a reward for having done a good job. Getting a lot of experience indicates that they’re a proficient gamer. After all, it helps them feel as if they were useful to the completion of the goal. For that reason, awarding experience points is an important and often delicate task.

Depending on the system you’re using, this can be a very easy task, or it can be daunting. Let’s look at some of the intricacies involved in effectively awarding experience.

A look at experience in different game systems

Experience points work differently in different games. For example, in the most popular game (that being, of course, Dungeons and Dragons), every foe your character defeats is worth a set amount of XP (short for ‘experience points’), and everyone who participated in defeating that foe earns an equal amount of that XP value. Thus, the more monsters (or other opponents) that you vanquish, the stronger your character becomes.

Other games are more fluid. In GURPS, for example, rather than receiving ‘experience points,’ you earn additional ‘character points.’ These points are the same as those used to create your character in the first place. You can use these to purchase (or improve) skills, advantages, and attributes, or to ‘buy off’ disadvantages. This is done in the same way as purchasing these traits during character creation. The rules suggest that players receive up to five points at the end of each session.

In the Storyteller System, by contrast, players receive experience points at the end of each session according to the following criteria:

  1. Award one point automatically.
  2. Award one point if the player played in character.
  3. Award one point if the player played entertainingly.
  4. Award one point if the player can demonstrate something that his character learned.
  5. Award one point if the player displayed heroism during the session.

In addition, at the end of each story arc, characters may receive up to three extra points:

  1. Award one point if the players were successful in completing their mission.
  2. Award one point if the characters experienced danger in the course of the story.
  3. Award one point if the players displayed resourcefulness in completing their tasks.

Alternate forms of Experience Points

Some games dispense with the idea of using ‘points’ to represent character growth. Fate Core, for example, uses ‘milestones.’ At the end of each session, the GM decides if the game is ending on a ‘minor milestone’ (normally, the end of a standard session), a ‘significant milestone’ (in general terms, the end of a major plot point), or a ‘major milestone’ (a massive story event, like the death of a major enemy or the end of a story arc). Players are allowed to alter their characters in certain specifically defined ways when they reach a milestone.

For example, a minor milestone allows you to switch ranks of two skills. A significant milestone might let you gain an additional skill point. A major milestone allows you to change your High Concept (in essence, redefining who and what your character is), as well as granting you an additional point of Refresh.

Another example is the original Call of Cthulhu. Instead of giving you points, you roll any skills (which are ranked from 1 to 100) that you used in the course of the game. If you fail a specific skill roll, that skill goes up by one point.

Awarding Experience

Obviously, some of these systems mean that you, as GM, don’t have any real responsibility in deciding how to give points. D&D makes it all a matter of counting. How many monsters did the party kill? How many XP was each one worth? Tally it up and divide. Likewise, Call of Cthulhu takes control out of your hands and places it firmly in the dominion of the dice.

But in systems like Changeling and GURPS, the GM must determine who gets points, and how many.

The most important thing is to ensure that no one feels excluded. Some GMs may make the mistake of using experience points as a form of control, rewarding those who play the game the way he thinks it ‘should’ be played, and punishing those who have a contrasting play style. But in doing this, you’re making the game less fun for those players, which is the opposite of the GM’s goal.

My System

In my gaming group, where we play Changeling: The Dreaming almost exclusively, we use this system:

  1. Players get one point for survival. If a character died and came back to life, he does not get this point.
  2. Players get one point for learning. They must describe what the character learned. It must be something he didn’t already know. You can’t get a point for something someone else already said.
  3. One point for heroism. We don’t always interpret ‘heroism’ literally; I recall a session in which a character received this point for ‘sexual heroism.’ I don’t remember what the character did, but I do remember the term ‘sexual heroism’ being mentioned.
  4. One point for playing in character. In the first few sessions, I tend to be lax about this, as the players get a handle on their characters, but as time goes on, I get stricter.
  5. The voting point. I call out, ‘One, two three, point!’ Everybody points at someone else. They can point for whatever reason they like. Maybe they point at someone who was instrumental in achieving success, or someone who was particularly funny. Whoever gets the most votes gets this point. In early sessions, ties will result in both players getting a point, but later, I get stricter, so ties result in no points.

This system rewards creativity and characterisation. It also allows the players some level of say in determining who gets points. And it makes the experience of awarding experience fun in its own right!

I would love to hear what other ideas people have. Share your group’s preferred method of ‘milking the XP cow,’ and always remember to be fair and (to a point) generous with your experience points. I’ll see you back here next week, and until then,

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.