Earlier today, I read the latest post over at Room 209 Gaming, and it got me thinking. You should absolutely go read the post, but if that's a lot to ask, I'll sum up the parts that grabbed me: experience points are the way you get players to do the thing you want them to do. This is not the least bit new, but this time I got serious about trying to rephrase that into a broader statement. Said effort brought me around to a few thoughts that I want to explore.
I absolutely agree that experience points are intended to be a primary carrot that motivates the players to do whatever the game or the GM "wants" them to spend their energy doing. The past few decades of game design have seen that develop from "amass treasure, and fight monsters on the way" to "just fight some monsters, and maybe get quest XP rewards also" to solely quest XP, rewards for things that uphold or alter your character's nature, rewards for things your character learned about the world, and so on. What I wanted was a summary that inclusively expressed what the designer and GM both want from that model of XP.
Experience points are the carrot for engaging with the game's content.
The different ways and reasons for awarding XP are attempts to do one of two things: either direct the engagement toward channels that interest the person making the decision, or simply quantify that engagement. Directing the engagement is what Ray Watters talks about in the Room 209 post, and most commentary on XP, dwells on: if you reward something, you must want lots of it. I was a little perplexed by Ray's argument that giving out XP for more things creates an environment that is stressful for the players. I would generally think of giving out XP for more things as the GM recognizing more actions as contributing to the game. I guess one could think of XP as getting graded on a test and aiming for an A; that line of thinking makes a lot more sense in published modules, where the module likely hands out additional XP for engaging with optional parts of the module's content, so any content you miss is like points off.
Quantifying the engagement is a goal that people don't talk about as much. The way I run Aurikesh, I need to award numerical XP, because players have multiple characters and don't play every session, so they advance unevenly and I want to track that in a way that is fair to everyone. What basis should I use for awarding XP, given that party members range from first to third level and many sessions involve no combat? As it happens, I use an arbitrary combination of combat XP and story-advancement XP; this sometimes sends mixed messages to the players, because there's not a detailed reason that they get 20 XP more or less than last time. The good thing about almost any kind of system is the resultant transparency and the feedback that XP totals represent.
As a side note, none of this applies in a LARP, except that player XP nominations as used in CI/Ro3 theoretically allow players to reward one another for game-improving behavior. Stands-in-Fire's discussions of other ways we could be handling advancement have their own merits, of course.
For a lot of games - for what D&D presents as its default, basic game - basing all XP on resolving encounters is a pretty logical approach. Given 3-6 moderately- to highly-distractable players and only so many hours to play in, focus is at a premium. To get them to pay attention and minimize distracting table-talk, the game gives them more XP for getting through more encounters. Given how long it takes to resolve a situation through combat versus how long it usually takes to talk your way out of a fight, the "optimal" solution might be to bullshit your way though as many encounters as possible, Miles Vorkosigan-style.
Still, I don't recommend hanging all XP on the number of encounters resolved for more mature, engaged groups. It requires tallying encounters, defining their boundaries and victory conditions, and so on, in a way that becomes intrusive once everyone is comfortable with their characters and goals. Below the cut: the next realization.
I wasn't done thinking about engagement, though. I run tabletop games and LARPs, and I design video games for a living. Getting an audience to engage with the content I'm offering is pretty much my top creative priority. This led me to thinking about the trend in indie gaming that tries to write out the GM or minimize the GM's role in creating content, including more lateral content creation approaches like Smallville.
Everyone brings content to the table, and everyone's emotional goal in playing the game is for other people to engage with, acknowledge, and appreciate that content.
This is important to me because (I think) it explains things about why some game elements contribute as much as they do to the enjoyment of players and GMs. Strap in, this is going to involve a lot of rambling... sorry 'bout that.
The content that players chiefly bring to the table is their characters. They shape personalities, abilities, and flaws: in a lot of campaigns it's the only thing they own. I think that everything players want comes back to the setting and the other players engaging with their characters: acknowledgement flows in every direction. It doesn't matter if it's other players upholding their characterization and sharing in their goals and stories or if it is the NPCs giving them recognition and conflict.
I mentioned a character's abilities as part of the content that the player brings to the table. It isn't just that players like to succeed; there are groups where hilarious incompetence (at least in some tasks) is the way the setting and the GM uphold the player's decisions. Most players, though, bring with them a concept of heroism, and failure feels like a rejection of their ideas. Roleplaying advice columns have said for decades that players need to embrace failure and run with it. My advice would be for players to refine their concept of heroism to focus on suffering temporary setbacks and overcoming them: this upholds and acknowledges the GM's content. Yeah, I don't really expect this to be popular, but it might make an interesting change-up in most campaigns.
Since that won't happen, players can give GMs what they want just by accepting and engaging with the setting: talking to and about NPCs as if they are as real as the player's character, making plans as if the goal matters, allowing their characters to feel and show fear in the face of overwhelming threat. It's fiction - everyone at the table is telling inventive lies, but if I say your lies are true and you say the same back to me, it becomes something pretty cool.
If I'm on to something here, or even if I'm just full of it, one of the best things you can do in a game is to show that you care about what brought to the table. Weaving character histories together is a basic but powerful step. I'll be the first to tell you that remembering the details of other people's actions and character histories is hard, but it's incredibly rewarding to the other person. It builds camaraderie and cements the consensual reality of the game.
Yeah, all of this is oldest-advice-in-the-book territory for a lot of people. It's the reasons why this works that I suspect a lot of people haven't internalized. (If this is totally old news to you, then just bear with me and be satisfied that there are plenty of other players at your table or in your LARP who are still working toward these epiphanies.)
I do occasionally see games reward player-generated content with XP; our Arcana Evolved DM does this for journals, a player-side wiki, and the like. The XP are a decent bribe; my only regret with the way it works is that our journals are all private, so that we can't engage in-character with the things other players have written, save for sidelong references.
This brings me back around to Ray Watters's post, as Infinite Earths promises a systemic approach to rewarding player-proposed goals. The point of the system is to grant additional rewards to those players that go beyond the presented content and develop goals of their own, as a signal that they have engaged with the setting.
The one caution I'd throw up for this is a matter of social contract: when the game's action has turned to one player's proposed goals, it can be altogether too easy to make the next part of the story follow up on those goals. See, the player's engagement with the GM's content and the whole group's engagement with that one player's content create a positive feedback loop for that player and the GM, and emotionally incline them toward continuing in that vein. This is how good GMs fall into favoritism, so the social contract needs to remind everyone to keep directing their interest toward the content that other people are bringing to the table.