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.