Tuesday 9 August 2022


 Sometimes XP is sometimes framed as an amalgam of:

  • Reward for doing something (get XP for Treasure/Killing/RP/Attendance)
  • Catalyst for character growth (you level up when you get enough XP)
  • Objective of the game (levelling up is "the point" and you do that via XP)

If you tie all three together you're moving into a real hot-zone of incentives, an understandably contentious topic. Relax, I'm not here to write about Skinner Boxes, Grinding, and Degenerate Strategies. 

In short, my feeling is that rewarding players with character improvement in return for achieving goals in a specific way impedes some of the key strengths of TTRPGs for little or no benefit in return. 

When I come across something that's widespread, but doesn't appeal to me, I try to dig down into the core of it, because there's always something there. I don't have to like it, but it can be useful to understand it. 

I think those three points above come down to questions the players are thinking when they play the game, or maybe even hypothetical questions that arise before anything hits the table. 

Above I listed them in the order they generally occur (get XP, level up, reach high level) but when I sit down to play a new game I'm usually thinking in the other direction.

Something like this: 


Okay, what's the point of this game? 

Hey I'm not being rude here. I know we're here to have fun, and we organised this game weeks ago, but I mean what's the objective? 

To get as much treasure as possible out of the dungeon without dying? Great, I'm in.

We're knights hoping to rise up through the ranks by doing knightly things? Cool. 

The demon-queen must be stopped? I don't see how we're doing that as a bunch of rat catchers but sure I'm up for a challenge. 


Count me in for a 6 week campaign, sounds great. 

So what's going to change over the length of this campaign?

Will my character get more powerful between sessions? Or in session? 

Level up between each session sounds good to me. 

Oh, you want to do a time-skip after session 3? Sounds neat. We just rebuild the character at Level 6 after that?

Traveller-style sounds fun. It's more about earning money to open up options that weren't viable for us before, right? Can I buy a space halberd somewhere?


So I know we're trying to kill the Demon Queen, and I know that will be easier when we've amassed power through either money or influence, but every place we've been has just been a pit of horrible monsters and nothing of value.

Sure, we're scraping some coins together, and we're doing that time-skip later which means we'll be in a better position, but I feel like there's just not enough reason to justify going down into another horrible demon pit right now. 

Ohh, we've heard that the Demon Queen's true name is in the Gristletome buried underneath Bonehenge? That'll be tough to get, but let's put together a plan.

Travelling Demonhunters are up for hire? We don't have the money, but if we can get the local Bishop on board they'll press them into helping us? Ugh, the Bishop is going to send us on some deathtrap errand in return, right?

Wait, this is just hooks, isn't it? Shouldn't we be talking about getting little tokens or something here? 

Hang on, where's the rulebook?

Mechanics, or lack of

A purist might look at those queries and see that they're all being resolved without the use of in-game mechanics, but instead through GM advice and setting player expectations. Just old fashioned communication. Author to GM, GM to players. 

If you're finding yourself dissatisfied with how incentive systems are working in your game, I'd recommend considering the alternatives. 


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