The Experience or The XP?

There is a hypothesis that the reward mechanisms of a game are the primary driver of behavior in a role-playing game.

I think that hypothesis is wrong.

Take a step backward and think for a moment about who is playing the game. Is it the character?

No. It’s the player. What does the player get when their character acquires XP?

A little dopamine hit that lasts a few minutes? Some degree of status or esteem among other players in their group? A feeling of accomplishment that lasts how long?

XP usually aren’t awarded until the end of a play session. There is no immediate benefit to the player. Even if the character leveled up, the difference isn’t manifested until the next session.

Does anyone in your group ever say…

  • “My favorite part of the game is when you give us XP!”
  • “When you described that monster, all I could think was just how much XP we were going to get!”
  • “When Joe’s character died, my immediate thought was, “Wow, that’s a lot of experience points he lost there.””

Experience Points are an objective. Experience Points are a metric of the players success in keeping their character alive and making decisions that lead to the improvement of the characters. They aren’t the only incentive and they aren’t the primary incentive. They aren’t the reason people keep playing or coming back to play.

You may have offered XP for “out of game” activities like writing character backstories, session notes, character sketches and other creative activities between sessions. Some players will do these things but, many will not. For the players who aren’t interested in doing these activities, the XP is not enough of an incentive.

You may also have players who will do those things even if you don’t offer XP for the activity. The enjoyment of creating is the only incentive required.

Experience Points are an incentive but NOT the main incentive.

The main incentive is the emotional experience of play.

Players don’t want the experience points, they want the emotional experience of the game.

They don’t want what you give them. What they want is how you make them feel.

4 thoughts on “The Experience or The XP?

  1. As far as “XP usually aren’t awarded until the end of a play session” .. I’ve been leaning towards awarding the XP during the session to alleviate much of the bookkeeping on my part. As DM, I’ve got too much on my plate already. In my 2e game I even have the players self-nominate for the class-based awards (e.g. priest casting spell to further ethos).

    So far it’s been working. Less bookkeeping for me, more PC-centered behaviour by the players.

    I am worried though about this extrinsic reward corroding the intrinsic rewards (The Experience, as you say) — a sensible concern according to the literature. I’m still learning techniques to reinforce the intrinsic rewards that occur naturally. Interestingly, this reinforcement typically occurs well after the play session (i.e. not at the “end of session” wrap-up moment).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve done some of this. I mostly run Swords and Wizardry. My rule is, when you get treasure back to civilization, you get XP. You can get treasure out of the dungeon but if you get robbed and loose it on the way back to town, No XP for that treasure. Sometimes that happens in the middle of a session. Typically, I award any XP for defeating a adversaries at the end of the session.

      For me, focusing on the emotional effect of events in the game seems to achieve the goal of intrinsic motivation. Running games that grab the players is what I need to do to motivate them to be active participants in the game.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Travis – another good one. I think I’ve now read some 30+ of your posts and I find them equal parts entertaining, insightful, and educational. I am very glad I bumped into you.

    As for this topic… reading the post reminded me of the beginnings, when we started playing RPGs. This is not the USA we are talking about, so these games officially only arrived in the 90s (not to mention I am not that old).

    Our first experience might have been Star Wars D6. I know we were playing daily, playing a lot. None of us actually read through the whole book – only some parts that were interesting to us. Not that rulebook was thick – we were just lazy, enthusiastic 12-year-olds who wanted to play. We had so much fun, it was insane. Only much-much later did find out that you can actually get character points and advance some skills and abilities and only later again did we see that there are other RPGs where you could get XP and advance a level.

    Getting XP and leveling was not needed to have fun. Now… I think this has changed a bit ever since we were “tainted by XP.” It would take much more effort or a change of perspective to enjoy a game where I can’t “upgrade” my character.


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