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Lenore Coffee avatar 10:23 AM on 08.29.2009  (server time)
Arbitrary Experience—Where’s the “Earn” in “Learn”?

My Fallout 3 character is one badass little honeypot. I stacked Sneak, Small & Big Guns to 100; Agility and Perception are at 10. When I first started playing, I’d tiptoe around Raider camps and lure them out one at a time to be picked off like distracted little deer (rabid and ammo-laden though they may be). Now, however, I hunt those bitches down, striking known camps when enough time has passed for them to respawn in even greater, more armored numbers.

This is, of course, after a couple early attempts at the game when I ventured towards creating what I felt were more interesting and complex characters based on skill, which promptly led to my inevitable and repeated slaughter. My Charisma is shite, Speech and Barter next to nothing, yet I spend a good part of the game picking the bones of my victims for goods to sell and trade, and my Karma is so stellar that I’ve attained a follower from the Brotherhood of Steel and random Wastelanders approach me bearing gifts.

One would think that, based on these two main components in my gameplay, attributes like Charisma, Speech, and Barter would rise, yet due to the arbitrary nature of XP expenditure in games, I get to place it where I damn well please. Due to my aforementioned failures, I learned to place these points in areas that would better ensure my survival rather than in places more reflective of the kind of “actual” experience my character was garnering through play.

So what does it mean to gain experience in a game? Back in my tabletop and online roleplaying days, XP was most often granted in much the same way—play a bit, earn some points, and spend them where you damn well please. No matter if I’d devoted my time to investigating the intricacies of a plot or simply terrorizing whomever I could find—I got the points and placed them where I desired, no matter how much (or little) it had to do with the way my character behaved.

Once I started GMing, however, I took a new approach. The characters under my care had to earn the experience they sought, and I didn’t simply assign a number to by divvied out as the player saw fit. Based on the actions of each character, the time devoted to and success by which they had performed certain tasks or actively pursued particular skills or sets of knowledge, I assigned them very specific points of experience. If a character spent most of her time slaying enemies, I would offer points in skills and attributes such as Melee, Strength, Guns, Agility, etc. If another devoted his play to seducing every other character and NPC in the game, they might gain some Charisma, Seduction, Speech, or even lose points in some of these areas if his efforts were dreadfully disastrous.

Naturally, some players disliked this XP “assignment” regime I developed in my games, and I invited those few to promptly fuck off, but for the most part I found a troupe of players that became more focused, more purpose-driven, and endowed with a sense of reward for this acknowledgment of their efforts. Further, it encouraged them to devote more time and creativity toward earning what they wanted for their characters and to develop more intricate, complex, and realistic personalities, knowing that I would steer the details of the story to compliment and challenge each of their strengths and weaknesses through the course of play.

So in most games with Experience Points, I continually find myself in the same cycle of arbitrary adherence to earning what I can to assign what I must for the simple sake of survival. It’s most often not a reflection of the character I’m building through concept and action, but it’s what the game requires to manage gangs of Super Mutants or regain health by sliding my electrically-charged ass across power lines or even set off viral detectors whilst pointing the finger at another patsied soldier.

I just don’t see why it’s so damn difficult to set up a system by which a character earns new powers or skills based on the actions one, as a player, chooses to make. Especially in the expansive RPGiverse, an engine should be able to track the types of maneuvers one makes and thus assign XP to reflect these actions. It’s cause and effect. It’s consequence, and the possibilities for greater depth, immersion, and commitment to a game and one’s character could, in this way, expand profoundly.

It’s not about an algorithm insinuating worth, but the player’s interaction with the code of his or her gamespace to realize the decisions we make, as those who wield our characters often with so much abandon, may indeed shape meaning from the incongruous intentions of these, our binary souls.

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