Another day with plenty of options, but one called me immediately: Reward, something that is present in almost all TTRPGs and that has become one of my main preoccupations when designing one.
The OG: Experience Points (XP)
The first time I encountered Experience Points (XP) was with the first TTRPG I played—the infamous MERP (Middle-earth Roleplaying Game)—and later with the first TTRPG I ran: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) 2nd Edition.
I remember that the first times I played I didn’t care about how much XP I got. For me playing was its own reward, and one that I considered pretty much invaluable (I still do, to a degree).
Running a game is a different thing, however. I don’t remember much advice on giving out XP from my readings of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 2nd Edition. I remember that nobody should ever gain two levels in one session (!) and that characters who changed alignment got less XP than usual. In general terms, characters got XP from defeating monsters and there were also specific tables for each class group (Warrior, Wizard, Priest, and Rogue), which rewarded behaviors related to each class group’s fiction; e.g. XP for picking pockets for the Rogue classes and XP for researching spells for the Wizard classes.
You accumulate these XP and, when you reach a certain amount—depending upon your character class—you obtain a new level. Each new level implies that your character is tougher and gets new abilities sometimes, depending on their class.
From my current perspective AD&D 2nd Edition was closer to what I consider a good reward system nowadays, although it was poorly implemented. I still remember spending a lot of time after each sessions trying to calculate a specific PC’s total XP accrued during the session.
The Not-XP Systems: Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer (and Other BRP-Based TTRPGs)
My next experience in getting rewards in TTRPGs was while playing Call of Cthulhu (5.5 Edition). To this day, I still consider their reward system to be one of the best. In short, you “mark” any skill you used successfully and then, at the end of the session, you try to roll over your skill percentage in order to increase it.
I find this model very appealing because, first, it is tied to the game fiction; i.e., to improve a skill you have to use it. And, second, it establishes an interesting situation: you’ll often succeed in skills with high percentages (statistically), but you’ll find it harder to improve those—and vice versa.
I encountered the same reward mechanism in Stormbringer (5th Edition) and, as I learned later on, it’s one of the core features of the Basic Role Playing system (or BRP).
From today’s perspective I think this system is still cool, but it’s not without issues. The most important is that it doesn’t really establish a certain behavior pattern that it encourages in players, beyond the obvious “succeed while rolling”. And that’s another thing: it gives you an additional benefit for succeeding which, in my mind, is rather unnecessary. Success is its own reward—and a large one, at that—to add character progress on top of it.
XP to Spend: White Wolf’s Storytelling System
Next on my list was Vampire: The Masquerade (Revised Second Edition) and other TTRPGs under the umbrella of White Wolf’s Storytelling System. These games, in spite of their disparate themes, shared a single experience system. You obtain experience points at the end of a session and then you spend them to improve your characteristics.
This system is very poor, perhaps one of the worst I’ve talked about so far. It has little to do with the game fiction and, what’s worse, is entirely dependent upon the GM’s approval of your behavior during play. What’s more, it has little to do with the fiction, to the point of contradicting them: e.g. one of the most elusive rewards in Vampire: The Masquerade is for when you act heroically (?). Definitely little to appreciate here.
No Reward at All: Fate
Later on in my life as a TTRPGer I discovered systems that didn’t include rewards as I knew them. One such example is Fate, one of my favorite TTRPG systems of all time, which has no real reward for any gameplay. Instead, the system focuses on the fiction and characters change and grow (more the former than the latter) depending on the fiction circumstances. Each momentous change in the story offers the opportunity for characters to change and, every once in a while, to improve their approaches or skills (depending on which version you’re playing).
This mechanism is not really a reward mechanism, so I don’t know if I can include it here alongside the others, but it’s important in the sense that taught me that there could be an alternative to experience when it comes to reward mechanisms in TTRPG—even if the alternative is not very satisfactory, at least from my point of view.
Mark XP: The PbtA Way
And then there’s the games inspired by the groundbreaking Apocalypse World. These games, under the umbrella of being Powered by the Apocalypse introduced a new way of getting rewarded: marking XP. This meant that you earned XP for performing certain actions as your character and, when you had enough of those marks, you cleared them in exchange for an improvement.
This is perhaps the best way of doing rewards in TTRPGs that I know of so far; namely, to reward a behavior with points that can be spent in order to improve one’s character in certain areas.
Of course that there must be many other ways of doing rewards in TTRPGs, but these are the ones I have the most experience (sic), more or less in order, in the last 20 years. Do you know of any reward system you’re particularly fond of? Let me know in the comments below.
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