Epic Drive-Thru RPG Newsletter Quote

In the Drive-Thru RPG newsletter sent on 06/17/2010, their column called “A Better Game” caught my eye. They don’t seem to have a permanent home on the web for those articles, so I can’t link you to it (though you can see their latest newsletter here and sign up for it here). Instead, I quote it here in its entirety so that I can refer to it in this post.

A Better Game

A certain news network likes to use the phrase “Fair and Balanced.” It is entirely up to you to decide if they use it honestly or ironically, but I borrow their phrase for a completely different discussion.


Specifically, experience in RPGs. Almost all RPGs have some kind of advancement scheme. It usually involves the acquisition of points of some kind, or some other measure of levels or thresholds. Once enough points (or whatever) are achieved, a player character can be upgraded in some fashion. This is, frankly, one of the most compelling aspects of RPGs for many players.

(It is, in fact, probably THE most important RPG-like element of online games, but that’s another discussion…)

The question posed and, for own self, answered in this week’s article is – do you let everyone advance at different rates, or do you keep it even?

There are three primary ways a player can find their character falling behind in experience in a campaign.

1) They are a new player entering an existing campaign, one where the other players have been playing and gaining experience before they arrived.

2) Their character died, and now they are starting with a new one.

3) They missed a session and didn’t get the XPs that others received for that game.

In some games (fairly rare from what I’ve seen), GMs actually give out different XP awards to different players. This is normally based on different actions and achievements for that session. It’s not at all common, but would be another source of unbalanced XP totals and character advancement.

My challenge to the GMs who do any of the above is – why?

You see, RPGs are cooperative gaming experiences. They are not inherently competitive. The point is for a group of players to work together, via their characters, to achieve goals, overcome obstacles, and enjoy a shared story. Granted, there are some occassions where a GM will choose to run a game that pits the PCs against one another; this most often happens in live-action games, but sometimes a tabletop game will go there.

The vast majority of RPGs are fully cooperative games. The GM is not an adversay, but a facilitator of story and fun, presenting their creation for all to enjoy. The players do not compete with each other; rather, they find ways to work together in order to overcome the obstacles they face together.

So why is it so many GMs feel compelled to “make things fair” by penalizing players where experience is concerned?

Seriously, think about it. Your instinct may be that “it’s not fair, since Jim’s been playing from the beginning and has never missed a session, to let Kyle have the same XP” if Kyle’s missed three sessions due to work.

Why isn’t it fair? Is Kyle in competition with Jim? Is there really something to be gained by Jim’s character having that much more advancement over Kyle’s? Does it promote harmony or cooperation in the game? Is there a need to “punish” Kyle for missing the game?

And what about Julia, whose character died last session? Is she to be “punished” for that by having her character come in at half the experience of everyone else? Why? Does this make Jim feel better? I’d argue he might well feel uncomfortable, knowing Julia’s already suffered for the loss of a character, and now has to struggle with one less capable than everyone else.

Then there’s Matt. He’s new to the group and has just joined the game with a new character. If you make him start at some level below everyone else, what does this tell him? That he’s less valuable for being new? That the other players are more valued? That newbies are meant to suffer?

Seriously, this is an outdated mode of thinking. RPGs are meant to be truly balanced and fair for all players at the table, I believe*. There is far more to be gained by keeping the PCs at the same experience level. For one, it’s a heckuva lot easier to manage (“I lost my old sheet. What XP are we at now?”). For another, it’s much easier to balance encounters when the GM knows everyone’s operating at about the same level.

Players don’t agonize over choosing an important family function over coming to the game. Players are more willing to take those heroic risks that make for great and epic scenes if they know, even in death, that their fun with the campaign isn’t going to be unfairly diminished. New players don’t have to suffer “newbie suck” when entering an ongoing campaign, instead enjoying the same level of play everyone else is.

Ask your players, GM. I think you’ll be very surprised to find out most of them would be in favor of everyone just being at the same XP level. They aren’t there to compete or win against each other; they are there to share in the world and story you are presenting for them. In truth, I believe you’d find more of them resent the punishment aspect of missing XPs than those who think having more because they didn’t die and were at every session is a good thing.

In other words – what promotes the most actual fun?

Think about it.

~ SPF (06/17/2010)

* – Yes, I’ve heard the arguments for letting characters be at different power levels, etc., as a means of recreating some fiction tropes. That’s fine if it’s the intent of the game, and everyone is up for it and knows that’s the point going in. It’s a fairly experimental idea, one that works for some groups, but I can see a lot of “gee, let’s watch Roy rule the game some more” going on.

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  1. June 22, 2010 at 8:32 am

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