One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I think the Danaides are actually a allegory for writing blog articles. At least my articles. Articles where I write two entire pages and still don‘t know what my freaking point is. I have like 50 thoughts fueling the blog-barrel and it‘s not getting any closer to filling up. But then I fixed the leaks and: surprise! Out comes a useful barrel. Article. Whatever…

What we are talking about today is goals and why a good game turns its player into happy Sisyphus.

Start Making Sense Please…

For Sisyphus to roll his stone up the mountain, we have to start at the base of the mountain:

Why do we play games? As players, not GMs. That’s where the trouble starts: Some players enjoy creating and developing their character as a storyline. Some like to game the system, minmax, some love the board game tactical aspect of monster-chess. Some just like being with their friends, and some like the impro-acting aspect. Some like… I could go on and on.

The gist of it is this: Players come to the table for vastly different reasons.

And that isn’t limited to Pen&Paper Games. Videogames have this problem too, especially multiplayer games. And Videogames are far more limited in scope than roleplaying games.

Example 1 – Hearthstone:

In Hearthstone you win by reducing your opponent to 0 HP. So you would think every player would do his darndest to achieve that. However, as it turns out, some players like to win a certain way. They really like a combo or a card that is underpowered, but really cool when you can pull it off.

Other players want to troll. They want their opponent to be miserable, to suffer, to ragequit. They do their turn and then wait until their turn-timer runs out, just so you have to wait. They use the chat to annoy you. They are the reason there IS a Turn-timer, the reason there ISN‘T a direct chat and the reason you can mute even the limited chat there is.

Example 2 – Twilight Imperium:

I recently played Twilight Imperium for the first time. I was playing to win, BUT I wouldn‘t betray anyone because I hate betrayl games. I wouldn‘t win at all cost, allthough that‘s the games goal. Isun was playing to build a bigass huge army, she wanted to have all her units on the board. Azilut was getting upset because we weren‘t playing the game right.

Further down the evening Ka‘ass started a fight, purely because he researched a bigass War-ship and wanted to try it out. And lastely Azilut gave me a victory point at 23:40 to end the game because he got tired and wanted to catch the tram in time.

Everybody at the table set their own goals. And we all had fun despite „playing wrong“.

The imminent problem with this is, that some of those goals clash with each other and some are even mutually exclusive. And it is difficult to communicate to each other clearly what you want. Especially when you have players that only ever played in one group. You cannot differentiate between playstyles if you only ever played one way.

Where do XP come into this?

Glad you asked. XP are used as an incentive, to make certain goals extra attractive. They create what we call an extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is a motivation to do a task because you get a reward for doing it, that has nothing to do with the task in itself. I.e. Paid labor.

Intrinsic motivation is a motivation to do a task because you get a reward out of said task. Running away from a bear, repairing your favourite thing, etc.

The funny thing about XP is that the extrinsic motivation they provide ties back into the intrinsic motivation of playing the game. In other words: You don’t care for XP in a game you don’t play. You only care about XP in the games you do play.

The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards can come into conflict. And that is different from the conflicting goals among the players.

When XP and goals come into conflict you get grind. “Oh, I really hate killing mosquito bears, but I need the XP, so I can get back to bartering.”. That is not such a big problem with RPGs, but still I throw it in here, because I think it is one of the reasons milestone XP have become so prominent nowadays.

What we want is the extrinsic XP-Reward and the intrinsic game reward to overlap. And I think the best way to achieve this is in the way of using the XP criteria as a communicator between players and GM:

The player should be rewarded for what they want to do. In my utopian XP-System the player chooses a goal for her character like „Take revenge against the church“ and whenever the character kills a bunch of priests he gets XP. That goal communicates to the GM what the players wants to do with their characters during gameplay. But it goes further than that:

The difference in XP among the characters serves as guidance to the GM: It shows the GM which goals have been neglected lately. If John is 300 XP behind, it‘s time to focus on John‘s Characters goals.

If the players share goals, they divide XP. E.g. the Dragon is worth 400 XP and you have a group of four players. John and Joe share the “kill monsters” goal. So John and Joe each get 200 XP when the group kills the dragon.

You probably want several goals for each Character and a rather large overlap between goals. You might determine which goals to pick from via background, culture, Class and race. You can premake goals and/or give the players the opportunity to create their own. I also think it is important that the player gets an opportunity to change goals.

An important thing to understand is to not let your players optimize the fun out of the game. If a player sees that killing things gives XP, they might be inclined to get that XP in the easiest way possible (buy and kill large amount of chicken or whatever). Usually I think this is less of a problem in Rpgs than it is often proclaimed. Nevertheless, the GM should ask several questions of any goal:

  • What is your Goal? What do you want to achieve? (just dead priests or an end of the church)
  • How do you want to achieve it? How do you want to achieve this? How far do you want to go? (Achieving Wealth is one thing, but do you want to trade, rob or steal?)
  • Is it a challenge? Difficult & risky tasks give high XP, tasks that are of no challenge or present no risk give no XP.
  • What is your motivation? Why does the character want revenge? Why do you want to kill priests? This is more of a question that ties into the context of the story.

Other Ways to Make Sisyphus Happy

Furthermore, progression systems (independent of XP) can serve several more functions:

  • They delay content to avoid overwhelming the player in the beginning.
  • They simulate the process of the character learning new stuff and getting better.
  • They provide a meaningful roleplaying choice.
  • They are a problem to solve, something to tinker with for minmaxers.
  • They provide the player with a sense of getting better.

Not every system ticks all those boxes. So let’s take a look at other mechanics in XP-Systems and their influences.

Players or Rules in Control of XP

Sometimes the GM is not part of giving out XP. The players can vote on XP, or the rules present very strict parameters (for example “Mutant: Year Zero”).

Completion vs. Participation

Systems can reward completed activities (the monster is killed, the spell is cast, the gold is secured). But they can also reward participation: I often had GMs reward “roleplay-heavy sessions” or vote players on best performance of the evening.

I have not much experience with this method, but I find it to encourage arbitrary XP. If you cannot put a fix rule to it, and instead let it open to opinion, that doesn’t create a incentive system. On the other hand I think it is worth rewarding a player who manages to entertain everyone at the table.

Group XP

Group XP means that the whole group get XP, in oposition to every player gets XP. When the group of four characters kills a Dragon and the Dragon is worth 4000 XP every player gets 1000 XP. Or you have a single group-XP-pool and abbandon character XP altogether.

I often heared players complain about intraparty balance due to XP and suggesting group-XP because they didn’t want their character to lack behind, if they miss a session.

Missing Players

Interestingly I have never seen a roleplaying game address the issue of a player missing from the table. However it is an issue that happens. You could of course just wait until next gamenight, but usually people play with one missing player. Even the glorious movie Gamers quotes this problem.

Does the character move along as a NPC Zombie, doing nothing? Does another Player take control of the character? Does the GM take control of the character? Do you call the player and ask him what his character would do?

I just find it odd that this subject isn’t even touched upon in most “how to be a GM” guides like nobody is admitting the reality of it.

Milestone XP

Milestone XP is a quite recent system, at least as far as I am aware. Milestone XP describes the GM saying „you level up“ at some arbitrary point instead of keeping track of XP. Usually the GM ties that into completed quests, story-arcs and so on.

One advantage of this is that the GM can set the fun part of leveling up wherever they want. Especially when the general tension is at it’s lowest (at the end of an adventure), this is an advantage.

This is also the reason why completed quests give XP in the first place.
Learning by doing

Learning by doing involves tracking progress not in form of one XP pool but in many different XP pools. Whatever ability you use, you gain XP in that particular ability. Skyrim does this approach. For RPGs I find Burning Wheel quite interesting where you aquire XP for failed checks. Aka you only level up when you need to because you fail all the time and it lessens the pain of loosing.

One of the biggest disadvantages of this approach is the extensive bookkeeping. It also limits the players choices for her character

Keep the Rock rolling

Remember that wanting something is much more fun than having it (that’s why rpgs have high levels: to let the players dream). The human body increases endorphine output before you get something, when you put in the annoying work. In order to get your lazy ass of the couch to achieve it. You always need the players to want something (and that goes further than XP and probably more into GMing than into game design). Highest Levels in Ad&d for me served more the point of aspiration than achieving.

Further Reading:

Bartle’s Taxonomy

The Angry GM defined 8 kinds of fun in RPGs (LINK).

The Lord of the Rings online Achievement System & Elite Dangerous XP System discussed in Di&D Episode 51

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