For any fan of roleplaying games, the answer to the question in the title of this post is "Of course!" or maybe "As many as possible!" But I'm not sure that experience points are necessary for roleplaying games — and I've started to wonder if they're actually harmful.
If you're not familiar with roleplaying games, but for some reason are determined to read this post, "experience points" (hereafter XPs because I don't want to keep typing those words) are rewards given out at the end of a game session or the completion of an adventure, to reflect how much the player characters have learned and improved as a result of their exploits.
In the original Dungeons & Dragons, and all its descendants, characters accumulated XPs until they had enough to reach the next "character level" — at which point some or all of their abilities improved. Magic-users got to learn more spells, Fighters got better at hitting things, Thieves got better at sneaking and backstabbing, and so on. This is often called "leveling up." Other games allowed piecemeal improvement: one could spend XPs to improve a skill or a physical attribute. Games like GURPS or HERO System, in which characters were created by expending "character points" simply treated XPs as extra points which could be spent on new or improved abilities — or to "buy off" personal disadvantages. A few games — Runequest and Call of Cthulhu come to mind — didn't have XPs, but instead had players keep track of which skills the characters used during a game session, so that they could then make "skill checks" to see if those abilities improved through use. As a character got better at doing something, it became harder to improve via experience. (This system also had the odd side effect of encouraging players to use wildly inappropriate skills just to get the skill check.)
Now, while XPs are blatantly a "game mechanic" they do reflect a certain amount of both fictional and real-world realism. People do learn by experience, after all. A soldier who has been through combat is probably more skilled than a green recruit. A musician who has played the same piece a hundred times will do it better than someone who is still working through it for the first time. And in fiction there are numerous examples of characters improving and, well, "leveling up" over the course of a story. In The Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin transform from callow young upper-class Hobbit twits to capable warriors and leaders who can free the Shire from enemy occupation. In Star Wars, Luke goes from being a farm boy with an unlikely talent for flying to a powerful Jedi Knight.
But are XPs necessary? After all, there are plenty of examples of characters in fiction who don't "level up" at all in the course of their adventures. Odysseus is a cunning liar and a great archer when he sails off to Troy, and he's the same with a few more grey hairs when he gets back to Ithaca. In modern fiction, James Bond or Captain Kirk both start out hypercompetent and remain that way. (In fact, stories about hypercompetent heroes often focus on the ravages of time and whether they are losing ability rather than improving.)
I can think of one successful roleplaying games which didn't award XPs. Traveller, in its original incarnation, didn't really have an experience mechanic. Heroes were assumed to be highly-skilled veterans so there wasn't much room for improvement. Characters could sometimes take correspondence courses during their long interstellar voyages, but that was about it. So evidently XPs aren't necessary for a roleplaying game. . . . Or are they? Traveller eventually added an experience mechanic in later editions, and even at its most successful the game was never in the same commercial league as Dungeons & Dragons.
Players (not the characters, the actual people sitting around the table) seem to love getting XPs. Well, good old B.F. Skinner pointed out that "reinforcement" encourages subjects to repeat the desired behavior. You get what you reward. Giving out XPs for killing monsters and avoiding traps is a form of reward — and it's a reward for the player rather than the character. The character, after all, gets treasure, magic, prestige in the game world, and maybe a knighthood or a grant of land. The player leaves the table much as he arrived. Giving XPs to the character is a way to signal the player that he's done a good job. Quite simply, it's fun to watch your character get better at doing things, gain new powers, and maybe shed some of those pesky weaknesses. There's a bit of a "power gamer" in all of us.
Traveller, interestingly enough, was famous for its long and complex character creation system, in which the characters went through terms of service in the Galactic armed forces or civilian careers, picking up skills and material benefits before heading out on adventures. Generating Traveller characters was almost as much fun as playing the game — so maybe Traveller scratched that particular player itch in a different way.
And from a blatantly commercial standpoint, characters who "level up" can gain cool new abilities, which are explained in these cool new game supplements, which cost a cool thirty bucks each. In games without XPs, the only things players can drool over and spend money on is new equipment. In a game with XPs, they can drool over gear and character abilities, which means the publisher can sell two supplements instead of one. Note that I'm not sneering at mere commerce here. I've written some of those supplements. Especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, selling a constant stream of supplements was the only way to stay in business.
So perhaps we must accept it as a fact of life: XPs are a necessary component of roleplaying games. In anything but a one-shot scenario, you've got to give the players and characters some kind of reward. But is that a good thing? Does the endless quest for improvement drain attention away from other, equally important aspects of gaming? I'll take that issue up next time.
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