Last time I asked if experience points in roleplaying games are necessary, and more or less talked myself into believing they are. But I can't say I'm happy about that conclusion. How come?
Because I think experience points and character advancement have a corroding effect on roleplaying campaigns.
Here's why: the unrelenting focus on winning XPs and leveling up tends to encourage players to think of their characters as they will be in the future, rather than as they are. I subscribe to a Facebook group for players of the Pathfinder roleplaying game, and one of the perennial topics of discussion is all the quirky and/or badass "builds" players come up with for characters in the game.
Now these "builds" are not interesting concepts for characters in the sense of being imaginary people with intriguing quirks or unusual outlooks on life. No, they're combinations of powers and abilities, formed by adroit use of the "multiclassing" rules in the game by players.
So, if my character is a 4th-level Fighter and then takes two levels as a Brawler and then one level as a Summoner, I can get this combination of abilities which will then let me do this weird or overpowered thing . . .
If Pathfinder was a point-based game system like GURPS, in which players really do build their characters at the start of play, this wouldn't be a problem. But many of the "builds" in Pathfinder require characters who are 10th or 12th level before the whole process is complete. Which means the player can be running that character for years of actual gaming before the "build" is complete. I strongly suspect that a majority of Pathfinder characters never reach their intended "build" because the Gamemasters get bored with the campaign or the players graduate high school and go off to college.
More to the point, it's a serious obstacle to the "immersion" in the roleplaying experience we all love if your character isn't a character but an incomplete set of abilities lacking only 5600 more XP to become the character you want. While the "hero's journey" of a character like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker is interesting, we can also enjoy the adventures of "complete" characters like Conan or Han Solo. In the course of his adventures in the Star Wars films, Han experiences a moral awakening and meets the love of his life, but there's no sense that he gets better at piloting spaceships or beating greedy bounty-hunters to the draw in a gunfight.
The most common fix for this is to simply start the campaign at a higher level. If all the heroes are 10th level at the start of play, they can have all their cool powers already assembled. There is much to be said for this approach, especially since the heroes can go up against very powerful foes like dragons, giants, or mind-flayers.
True enough — but it also means the heroes are basically un-threatenable by any ordinary mortals. They're comic-book superheroes, not the Fellowship of the Ring. That rules out all kinds of potential adventures.
I'd like to propose a different solution, one which can be used with low-level characters, which preserves the entertainment value of leveling up and gaining new abilities, but which makes it impossible for the players to "live in the future" and obsess over what their characters are going to be.
Here's how it works: the gamemaster draws up a list of new abilities or improvements for the characters, and then hands them out unpredictably — possibly reflecting the experiences the heroes have gone through or the enemies they've defeated. So if the player characters faced a dragon and nearly got incinerated by its breath, the brave fighter could gain improved ability to resist intense heat, while the clever thief could get better at dodging. If they had to make peace between warring goblin tribes, the wizard might gain in charisma and the cleric gains the bardic ability to encourage others by singing.
This could also be used in reverse, to show the effect of curses or injuries. After fighting a vampire, the ranger is permanently weakened by having his life force nearly drained away. A bad burn from the dragon's breath might make the cleric less agile in the future as scar tissue slows her down.
In short, the players don't know what the future holds for their characters. (They might make suggestions or add items to the gamemaster's reward list, but they still wouldn't know what improvements their characters will get after any given session.) That's entirely reasonable: nobody, fictional or real, knows for sure what's going to happen. We have wishes and hopes, but those are often disappointed, or come true in ways we didn't expect.
I haven't had the opportunity to try this method myself, but perhaps I'll get the chance. It all depends on what rewards and penalties fate throws my way.
To see how characters I created deal with fate and chance, buy my ebook Outlaws and Aliens!