Awarding Experience or Karma

Started by Erudite, December 16, 2008, 10:39:05 AM

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In every RPG I have played the GM rewards players for their play in the game by giving out some type of merit. In some systems this is experience points and in some it is karma or character points.

Through the years I have seen a variety of ways to handle this. Each method seems to have some good points and bad points. I think the method of awarding experience points can be very import. If done right this can help players with different styles and goals come closer together which will help with group dynamics.

Most GMs seem to give out the points at the end of the session or segment of story after several sessions. This is a good method in that the group can focus on play during the game sessions. It is not a good method for couple of reasons though. First, the group can easily forgot about actions and RP that should be rewarded. Second, everyone sees how much everyone else gets and that can cause bad feelings as players may perceive GM favoritism. Also, this is good and bad; focus can shift from the player rewards during play. This is good if it allows focus to be on story. However, it can be bad if players focus on action instead of story or character growth.

Some GMs will use a tracking sheet of their own to record experience throughout the session and then give it out at the end. I have used this method myself but found the tracking slowed me down too much.

Another method I've seen many GMs use is to give out the experience throughout the session as players earn them and the players record them right then. This is good in that RP and actions don't get forgotten by players or the GM. The best effect this method can have if it is used right is that the GM can reward heavier for the type of play they want. Players get immediate rewards for playing that way so it can build good habits and bring everyone closer to the same style of play. This can be bad as it may slow down play while the player records this. It can also make for messy tracking sheets or character sheets.

My method of handling this is really the second method with a small twist. I give out experience points as players earn them; the difference is that I use counters. The players then total up the experience at the end of the session. Currently I use small glass beads with a flat side like the ones used in the bottom of fish tanks. I have also used poker chips. This method seems to work out well as I can reward the players as things happen without slowing things down.

In most cases this method has really helped my groups focus on story and actions that are "in character" as that is what I reward heaviest. Since story and character development are both important to me, this has been great.
My guess is that some of you have found a similar method. If you ever struggle with this issue, give this a try. It has been a big hit with my players and gamers at cons.


I always liked the "key" system in the shadow of yesterday - been dying to try that one out.


I should have addressed this more in terms used on this forum better. Basically by leveraging this technique, with any rule set for experience, I have been able to Drift our Creative Agenda some. As group we have mostly played gamist leaning systems. However, over the years we have built a preference for a more narrative play.

Using this style has allowed me give experience quickly while RP is happening. By in general awarding more for narrative play than just throwing dice, our CA has become more coherent. So far this has not excluded the members of the group that prefer a more gamist play, they just get more involved when dice throwing fires up. And, because they like it and get more involved, and that is the narrative focus of their characters typically, they get more experience rewarded when play moves to the phase. They tend to still enjoy the game and get to advance their character's stats as much as their character's story.

Dionysus, could you explain the "Key" system from Shadows of Yesterday? I've never heard of it or used it.


The "keys" are the ways your character gets XP.

You need to pay xp to gain a key - like focussing on what the character wants to do - their motivation.

eg from the book:

Key of Conscience
Your character has a soft spot for those weaker than their opponents. Gain 1 XP every time your character helps someone who cannot help themselves. Gain 2 XP every time your character defends someone with might who is in danger and cannot save themselves. Gain 5 XP every time your character takes someone in an unfortunate situation and changes their life to where they can help themselves. Buyoff: Ignore a request for help.
The buyoff shown above is a special bit about Keys. Whenever a player has a character perform the action shown in one of the buyoffs, the player can (this is not mandatory) erase the Key and gain 10 XP. Once bought off, a character can never have the same Key again.
Unlike abilities and Secrets, the number of Keys a character can have is limited. A character can have no more than five Keys at one time.

Eero Tuovinen

I also vastly prefer giving out xp in real time, to the extent that I don't nowadays play any games that do it differently, and will house-rule a system to do it this way if it has some lame end-of-session math for this purpose. I also usually expect xp to flow so quickly that it'll have a discernible effect in one session already.

In my current D&D homebrew sort of thing xp is tracked as checkboxes on the character sheet, so it'd take a rather dull individual to spend too much time jotting the xp down. I could use chips as well, but those are already in use as hit points and whatnot. The criteria for xp are public as well, so the players can remind me if I overlook something.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Thanks for the explination Dionysus!

Eero Tuovinen , it sounds like a good method you use as well.

Kevin Smit

I've found that experience awards are one of the more contentious aspects of rpgs.  The thing you have to remember is that experience is a reward system, and reward systems modify behavior.  If xp/ karma is gained solely by killing things, the characters will find ways to kill things (and not look for alternate methods).  I've found that my groups are fairly intolerant of reward systems that lead to differences in reward (why did HE get more xp than ME?).  Players across the board want to feel like they're progressing.  The system that i ended up using was just to allow a progression every few sessions (depending on play time).  It satisfied the players that their characters were getting better while avoiding all of the minutia of what behaviors produce the reward.  Since the game "difficulty" rises in accordance with players progression, nothing really changes except the tools available to the characters.  I've found that progression is more about the players' subjective feeling about their place in the game world than about promoting or punishing particular actions.

The Dragon Master

Kevin Smit: I'd have to disagree with your assesment of  "gamers" and reward mechanisms. For my own part, I prefer a game without any type of "experience" mechanic, or one where that mechanic is... trivial (i.e, Sorcerer and Classic Traveller). I prefer to focus on the characters story*, rather than on raising the stats. If I can't build the character I want to play when I start, I really am not interested in playing in the game period, and having created a character I want to play, I'm not terribly interested in changing the character in the (seemingly) arbitrary way that Experience Points allow for. I'm sure I'm not alone in that, though I'm almost certainly in the minority.

Erudite: Out of curiosity, do your players prefer the game to go this way? That is to say, having their gameplay rewarded if it fits what you want from the player? Or is the standard you're measuring their gameplay from one that was agreed upon by group consensus? Have you had any "player mutiny" since you started doling out experience like this? I'd be interested to hear how the group dynamic (rather than game dynamic) has been altered by this... technique.

*By which I mean the general path that the characters life will take which I have in mind when I create it. An example is the Dragon Blooded magic user I made for Exalted. The whole point of that character was a downward spiral based on the story of Brigid. The character pursuing these mythical points of power in order to increase his own, only to find it was just a myth, and no such places existed, with him eventually running into the Wyld believing that they must have been swallowed up by the Wyld in the distant past.
"You get what everone gets. You get a lifetime." -Death of the Endless
The names Tony


Note: for a somewhat deeper look at the experience mechanic itself, check out this thread: . I tried to define the experience mechanic to some degree.

Kevin, you're right, any reward system will modify behavior at least to a minor degree, even if it only reinforces behavior. I also agree that characters progression in a game is very subjective.

The one thing that hopefully changes with a characters' experience is that the players' feel their characters are getting "better" or becoming "different" and that those differences effect the story and/or the setting. I don't really know of any experience mechanism that really does all of this well right out of the box. I think making any experience mechanic, or any game mechanic for that matter, work well comes down to good group dynamics and a good GM that understands what the group as a whole wants.

What a group and individuals want can vary greatly, so I'm not sure there is a "best" way to handle the experience mechanic. For someone who wants to play a character like Dragon Master, this all pretty much irrelevant; unless the group has a mix of people who share this view and those who don't.

As for my experience using this method of giving out experience, I have found it helped bring everyone together. The players get immediate feedback for their actions and I can see the players' reactions to gaining experience. I never really have used this system to penalize a player for how they play their character. I just try to reward actions based on how well they fit the character and story.

I reward experience for pretty much everything the characters do. If they just want to run around and kill enemies, then they gain experience for it. However, if those actions fit the character, they get more experience. If those actions fit the story, they get more experience. If those actions do both, fit the story and character, they get the most experience.

The surprising thing that has happened is players earn experience a lot more evenly actually. When I just gave out experience at the end of the session, one or two players always seemed to have earned more. This was usually due to a chain reaction of them taking action that fit their character which then directed the situation to more situations that fit their character.

Once I started rewarding experience as the events unfolded, the players who had sat back more quickly learned how to get their characters more involved with the story as it fit their character. It has been a really positive reaction. All of the players quickly immerse themselves and their characters into the story which makes it very easy for me as the GM to provide situations and challenges they can all participate in. This has really had the opposite effect of "railroading" the players to get a cohesive CA.

So, my implementation of this method has allowed me to encourage all of the players, regardless of how they like to play, to get more involved in the story, which in turn provides many more opportunity for them to take action or role-play. This style and implementation didn't happen overnight. This has been an ongoing evolution as the group dynamics and interests evolve, so have my ways of doing things. And, after GMing for almost 20 years, it was only about 2 years ago it all really started to gel together fully with everyone enjoying it. Up until then there was often one or two players who didn't get really involved or complained that they were not getting enough opportunity to earn experience.

The way I do things in what I reward experience for and way may not work for a lot of groups. However, I think using some type of method like I described where the reward for the experience mechanism is given real time, can help create a more cohesive game.