In one-shot games, we often just accept that character advancement isn’t going to happen. But it’s a key feature of play in some systems, and allowing PCs to grow and develop (alongside their emergent character development) makes the game more epic. The sole exception is in Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) games, where the sequence of checks mean that players can, and often do, clock up a number of incremental advances even in a 4-hour slot. As a player, it’s one of my big draws of playing a PBTA game that I get to unlock new abilities quickly.
In this online article, Mike Mearls proposes replacing the somewhat arcane D&D experience system with a simpler 3-Pillar system. PCs gain experience points from discovering locations and/or liberating treasure, swaying influential NPCs, and defeating monsters, and these are equally weighted in his system. Leaving aside my biggest issue with it (the imbalance in D&D having lots of rules to support defeating monsters, slightly fewer for exploring locations, and very few for interacting with NPCs), it’s a good move. If I run D&D for in the future, I’ll certainly use it.
But I’m not sure it goes far enough. I’d like to replace this with an Apocalypse World-style XP system for D&D, as below:
You have 10 XP check boxes. Write them on your character sheet
Check an XP box when
- You defeat a worthy opponent
- You liberate a valuable treasure
- You explore a dangerous location
- You win the backing of an important NPC
When you have checked all 10 off, erase all the boxes and level up.
That’s the basic system. For one-shots, I’d be tempted to reduce the number of checks to 5; this virtually guarantees that PCs will level up during the session –you may want to pre-level your pregens if this is the case in order that levelling up doesn’t take too long at the table.
Hacking for other systems
For 13th Age, I’d have a mark on the 5th check box (3rd if I was levelling up on a the 5th) for an incremental advance – with 10 checks levelling up anyway.
For Cypher System games such as Numenera or The Strange, I’d keep it at 5 and allow an advance when they’re checked off. I’d give out what the rules refer to as XP as Bennies (giving them out 2 at a time to a player and asking them to pass one on as per the rules) and only allow the players to spend them on rerolls, not on advancement.
For games that aren’t limited to levels, I’d set the track at 5 and then award a ‘package’ of advancement points that they spend all at once however they like – again, if the system is complex I’d add in a pre-levelled option for PCs.
Hacking the Triggers
Of course, it’s easy to modify what you get checks for. For instance, in a Star Trek-style space opera game you might want the following:
Check an XP box when:
- You overcome a problem with ingenuity
- You encounter a new planet, species, or technology
- You defend the Federation’s values against threat
Or, just as simply, for any game you could borrow from Dungeon World and have simply
Check an XP box when:
- You fail at an important skll check
- You miss an attack (only award once per combat)
- You play your character in accordance with their alignment (only award once per combat)
I should give these a slight health warning, in that I’ve not playtested these at all – but I’m planning to use them in all my relevant one-shot games in the near future, especially when using level-based systems. Are there any other XP hacks that you are keen on? And what would you set your XP triggers as?