Character Advancement–Moving Beyond XP

“Dungeons and Dragons” set the standard. As PCs complete tasks and adventures, they earn points. These “experience points” determine when  a PC advances to the next level. And when that magic time arrives, the PC increases in skill, combat ability and magical strength.

With few exceptions, this structure appears in almost every RPG game ever created.  It dawned on me today that this is a miserable way to advance a PC. No matter what the PC did during the period from second to third level for example, he receives the same benefits. A PC that spent an entire campaign at sea as a fighter receives the same advancement benefits as a land-based archer. Of course, individual players can customize how they advance to a certain extent by choosing new skills and feats, but the underlying mechanic never changes. Every PC gets a fixed amount of skills and  combat ability that never varies.

This is easy to manage from a meta-game perspective, but it lacks elegance.  I have another idea.  Treat the PC as a living creature that evolves based on specific events in the campaign. Treat him like the fictional character he is and have him evolve. Take Merry from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He has a clear arc that moves him from a humble hobbit to hero that makes sense based on what he experiences.

1. Hobbit with no combat ability

2. Picks up a few sword fighting skills while traveling with more skilled adventurers.

3. Joins an army

4. Kills a RingWraith! Earns the title of “BAD ASS.”

5. Sees his homeland invaded and promptly raises an army to defeat the villian.

I am the first to admit what I am suggesting is probably not feasible. At least, not without a great relationship between the players and the DM and some very creative rules. The players essentially lose control of their own advancement in favor of what the DM creates in the campaign. I see issues with players that want a mounted fighter and spend the entire campaign at sea learning how to be a marine because that is the nature of the campaign.

As for rules, the only solution I could come up for rules with is tracking rounds in combat or damage dealt for the combat abilities and once you hit a certain level have the PCs combat ability increase. I remember an old version of “Call of Cthulhu” I played used a similar mechanic for skills. They only advanced if you used them. This is little better than XP, but at least you have to do specific actions to increase specific abilities instead of a standard “package” of new abilities at each level.

Are there any games out there besides the aforementioned “Cthulhu” that use this type of advancement?

What say you? Am I totally crazy or is this a good idea?

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

One thought on “Character Advancement–Moving Beyond XP

  • December 11, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    I agree entirely, only I’d take it a lot further. Levels are a dinosaur of a mechanic and a vestigial holdover from more primitive times. Using them is unimaginative at best.

    How about a point-buy system? Do away with levels entirely and let players use XP to fuel their advancement? It’s a lot of bookkeeping, doing what you describe, but if you as a GM assign points to a character’s skills and attributes as the game goes along, and tell them when they advance a rank, you simulate actual experience. PC fights with a sword a lot? give him some Weapon Proficiency xp and some for strength and stamina. Spends a lot of time in high court? Give him points in Charisma and Knowledge: Politics.

    You don’t need an existing system out there to do this, just do it. If you want, you can use the levels chart as a guide to how fast to advance the characters.

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