Experiences vs Experience Points

First pubished 31 December 2020

The system I'm using for my current game is based on the Black Hack, and perhaps my favourite part of it has been the experience system. In place of XP certain actions count as 'experiences' and are recorded on the character sheet. Players can check off a certain number of them to gain a level (in BH equal to their current level, though I'd suggest going a little higher.)

BH requires PCs to carouse to gain a level, though in my game any downtime action can be used to level – training, research, crafting, building relationships – and will be a little more effective for it.

Experiences as Genre Rules

By default, the following qualify as experiences:

In my game we use this list:

Both reward the kind of thing D&D characters expect to be doing – going into strange places, fighting monsters, recovering treasure. But you could easily change the whole tone and genre of the campaign by switching these around, with entries like “share a meal with a new friend” or “come to understand an enemy's motives” for a more Ghibli-style game.

Experiences as a Campaign Record

One unexpected effect of this system was that after a while, PCs end up with Experience sections that look like this:

In other words, an extensive record of the PC's career. Without context, such a list offers only tantalising glimpses of the campaign it represents, but for any of the players every entry brings a memory vividly to mind. It's a log of the campaign created effortlessly as part of the process of play – players are eager to add to it because every entry is a token of the currency they used to grow in power.

Experiences as Currency

And there's more. Because XP now represents specific moments, effects that add or remove XP become particularly interesting. A character who sacrifices XP in some way loses an experience – and all memory of that experience.

When the PCs encountered a stranded Chronomancer seeking retrograde energy to further her journey into the past, she traded the PCs memories of their past for memories of their future. This allowed them to give up an experience to gain a new one – but the new experience could not be spent on levelling until the vision had either come to pass, or been successfully averted.

And a potion called the Blood of the Corrupted, which provided a significant amount of experience in return for certain downsides, could provide the following experiences:

They work just like ordinary experiences, but the PC seeing that on his sheet is likely to get the message that something is very wrong.

Experiences & Magical Items

Another trick is to combine the system with Ben Laurence's system for awakening magic items. Instead of the GM having to watch out for a moment in the game which is epic enough to rouse a Splendid item into magical awakening, I put it in the hands of the players – instead of investing an experience to level up, they can invest it in an item.

This is an out-of-character decision – the player decides that it happens, but the character has no control over it, from their perspective it just happens. As DM I retain control over the specs of the resulting item, so very dramatic and emotive pairings of item and event produce the most powerful magic, while pairing an item with “entered the lair of the one-eyed scabid kobold” might produce something less impressive.

For example, one of the players used Returned Aelix and Ulina, daughters of Saint Balix to Rastingdrung, a quest taken on a vow made to a martyred saint, to empower Joyeuse, the Blade of Saint Maurus, a sword made with fragments of the wheel upon which one of the other saints of the same faith had been martyred, to create:

Joyeuse, Magical Flamberge of the Martyred Libertines

So at this point I'm thoroughly sold on the method; as an experience system it's adequate; but the side effects of using it are what, for me, make it shine.