Everyone has their own concept of what an ideal tabletop experience should entail. Sometimes this means a rigid adherence to every detail to really drive home the simulation and aspects of reality inherent in a roleplaying game, right down to the carefully maintained inventory of carried equipment and penalties for anyone a pound past the limit. This is where it’s at for some groups.
That’s just never been the case for me.
When I sit down to run (or play in) a game ultimately the reason is to participate in a story. It’s all storytelling. This system takes a nuanced approach whereas another is far broader and you can pick and choose your favorite (personally I’m waiting for my fiancee to grab a copy of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen for our anniversary; apparently it only uses coins?) but ultimately I think there’s a place in every tabletop gamer’s heart for the original, the irreplaceable, the indomitable: Dungeons and Dragons. But as I mentioned above, everyone’s idea of what makes a good game is different. For me it’s about the story and certainly not the numbers. You sit down to engage it as an empowering experience and getting bogged down in math just doesn’t sit with me (although I’ve seen plenty of satisfaction when someone’s critical mathematical plan falls into place and that is great).
This doesn’t mean you should go fudging dice willy-nilly. If anything it should deter you from doing so. The beautiful thing about roleplaying games is that the story generated is extremely organic – a good session of dice rolling can go places that nobody could have anticipated! When the final hour of play is coming to a close my players aren’t asking me how many experience points they garnered from the encounters because that’s just not how I do it.
In an ideal (or programmed) world every adventure I design still would not reward the exact amount of experience required to properly level a party of characters from 1st to 20th. The imposed structure would diminish all the places the story could go and place responsibilities on the whole of it that would make the module unto a novel or tome. The beauty of the organic structure would be hindered and the story would ultimately suffer for it.
Instead I design encounters by the appropriate CR, adjusting as necessary (via HD enhancement, simple templates or just more foes) to keep players on their toes, making sure that there’s some questions about the scarcity of resources and various other dramatic afflictions (environmental, medical, timed quests, etc). Nobody levels in the middle of the night after killing a randomly encountered animal the day before; they do it when a story arc is complete.
Really that’s the point of the XP rewards system. The difficulty of each entry increases given its CR on a statistics table that corresponds with the experience rewards system (in three different tracks for Pathfinder!).
Removing the numbers, especially if you’re playing in the aforementioned rules set (which does away with the experience cost to create magical items), accomplishes a few important things of note; players are more driven to engage the investigative and social elements of the game since now the rewards aren’t in the slaughter but the story instead. Character development quite literally carries its own rewards now.
When I am using a proper experience point system, there’s always room for grabbing some points on the side. Canny conversations, clever use of resources, innovative approaches to obstacles; all of these get you something for your troubles, as they should.
But what about the players that just don’t have the skills to outwit a castle guard in conversation, or the bard at your table that insists on singing in real life every time they do so during the game?
I get liberal with the gift giving (I encouraged that bard to be as reckless as possible – his singing was atrocious) and find ways that they can shine (such as the inspiring bravery suggested above) that don’t require a dice roll or a quickly solved puzzle. Did they give somebody a ride to game? What about recounting the events of last session? Maybe they can be the group cartographer?
You want every player walking away from the game feeling as though they engaged the story and played an essential part; make sure that if you are using numbers that this is reflected in the characters statistics. Nobody wants to take an hour out of game to go searching the woods for a creature to pop just so they can get that next level, right? How many wild hogs will it take to get my next feat is a question no GM or DM wants to be asked.
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