Play worlds, not rules, part 2: Experience Levels

Yesterday, I wrote about the stone age of roleplaying games. Today, I’d like to share with you how I’m handling experience in my games.

A few days ago, I asked my fellow Google+ gamers: How do you level up in your game? And: why? A whopping 76 percent answered “XP”, while the rest said they used a milestone rule of some sort. I think this is interesting and telling at the same time. For the majority of players, Experience Points seem to be inextricably intertwined with roleplaying. But in the early days, XP didn’t exist.

How did Dave Arneson referee Blackmoor (at least, at one point in time)?

  • Here’s XP. If you survive an adventure, you gain a level. BAM. The world is strange, random and dangerous so power was there for those who dared, but so was death.” (1)
  • “Roleplaying was just that. You were judged based how well you played your role of elf, dwarf, cleric, mage, fighter or thief. It was like, we all know about Hamlet so show us your Hamlet interpretation. The goal was to work within the cliche.” (2)
  • “Dave gives out “roleplaying points” in game that you can trade in for re-rolls.” (3)

And Chirine ba Kal says:

  • (Question: Experience points… From your descriptions of game play you often talked your way out of situations. How was experience points determined then? The printed rule (Empire of the Petal Throne) specify looting and killing. Even so much as “the killing blow”. Was experience based on “value of service rendered” more often then just killing and looting?”): Answer: “I don’t know. We never really counted experience points in my time with Phil. We just got on with the job and got it done, and we’d get promotions and stuff like that. Sorry. We just didn’t play that way.” (4)
  • “We never paid much attention to ‘experience points’, as we played with some very tough and very clever GMs who rated us on simple survival more then anything else.” (5)

How I’m handling experience levels:

I was never good at giving out xp. Or maybe more correct, I never bothered. It always seemed not worth the effort, and so I pretty soon switched to giving out experience levels when it felt right to all of us. Then, in the early 90s, along came Theatrix, a fantastic diceless rpg that still makes my spine tingle. Theatrix favored a solution called “dramatical appropriateness”. When it was dramatically appropriate, characters gained a new experience level. This is how we’re handling experience to this day.

**addition: Other stone-age things I’m inlcuding:

  1. Dave’s “Roleplaying Points”. Play well, get points, use them for rerolls. Dirty, dirty, dirty narrative rpg trick, shame on you!
  2. The more clichéd my group plays their characters, the better. I don’t want Deep Drama™ and Real Acting™ in the precious few hours away from my family and job. I want cheap thrills, constant action, involved-but-not-super-complex plots, and cheesy but lovable characters. Because I love Bollywood and Hong Kong/Korean flicks a lot more than arthouse cinema.
Play worlds, not rules, part 1: Juggling ideas for stone-age rpg sessions
Play worlds, not rules, part 2: Experience levels
Play worlds, not rules, part 3: Playing around with dice
Play worlds, not rules, part 4: Short example of true Blackmoor gaming
Play worlds, not rules, part 5: How we roll


One thought on “Play worlds, not rules, part 2: Experience Levels

  1. Sorta…. Arneson did advocate for roleplaying points but he also invented the idea of xp points for treasures and monsters and kept track of that stuff. The players didn't know a whole lot about it, but Arneson did explain the system to Greg Svenson in 1972 when giving him some notes for running games. Svenson wrote them down in his copy of Chainmail. Arneson counted the monsters HP as XP, get 1000 points to level up if you are a fighter, or find a magic sword. There's more detail on my Blog if you are interested.


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