What you award XP for has a massive effect. It's one of the best controls you have to change what goes on in your game; players will naturally seek out whatever action awards it, and you can switch out that thing (or selection of things) without having to think too hard about what else will be impacted by that change.
If you award XP mainly for killing monsters, players will begin to prefer plans that include doing that. If you award XP just for getting the gold out of the dungeon, then you're free to design in a space where all methods of getting past any obstacles between the PCs and the gold are equally valid. I've seen discussions about awarding XP for investing gold into settlements; the overall progress of a campaign is then inextricably reflected in the growth of their home base. You can award increasing XP for exploring a sequence of dungeon rooms without rest. And so on and so forth.
Of course, milestone levelling, i.e. just levelling up players when it feels right, is an option. However, that doesn't work so well for games where PCs may have different levels (as mine does), and I want to take advantage of having an obvious universal carrot for my players to chase after.
XP-for-gold is good, but I'm increasingly finding that I want to be free of the burden of math in my games (related: migrate to usage dice or any other method to avoid tracking exact counts of things), as my players are rarely as happy to whip out an excel spreadsheet and keep strict notes as I am - and I certainly have too much to do to want to do that for them. I also have an interesting conflict where I want mundane purchasing decisions to remain a part of the game beyond level 2-3, and for the first big chest of gold to NOT rocket a single PC to level 10.
I think I now have a way out of this problem. I was already familiar with the large treasures of Ultraviolet Grasslands, and this week I read Arnold's post on Popcorn Levelling, which are both very interesting to me. It is these two things that I have blended together into a new system, which works as follows.
- You need Treasures (that's a keyword) to level up
- Treasures are big, fancy, named things
- They usually have history and artistic value; being magical and having a function is more optional
- Treasures are immediately recognisable as such! These are an obvious carrot, remember!
- A Treasure takes up one* inventory slot, is worth 1XP, and is worth 500 silver* for every WORD in the name
- When you carry a Treasure out of the dungeon (or can be said to have "gotten away with it") you can have the XP
- Keeping a record of all the names of the things you've thus stolen as your XP tracker is highly recommended
- Levelling is a Fibonacci progression: 2XP for level 2, an additional 3XP for 3, an additional 5XP for four, 8XP for five, and so on
- Selling the Treasure, or keeping it, or throwing it into a lake, is up to you. You get the XP either way.
Currently, the XP for a single treasure cannot be subdivided, and there is no guidance for how treasures should be assigned to PCs when obtaining them is usually a team effort. At the moment I'm letting my players sort it out amongst themselves, and if that starts giving bad results I'll implement an extra rule or two. I mainly just want to discourage putting all the treasures onto one PC.
For example, you might obtain the AERIAL PHOTOPLATE ATLAS, TURBO ENCABULATOR, and ARTICULATED MODEL DRAGON; carrying all of them at once will take up eight inventory slots, they are worth a respectable 4000 silver, a single level-1 PC that managed to make off with the lot would jump to level 3, and only need to steal two additional WORDS of Treasure to hit level 4.
This whole thing conceptually echoes the GLoG principle that you should gain abilities that reflect your adventures; now your XP tracker will reflect what you've stolen and be a nice little summary history of your successes and a reminder of where you've been. The character sheet is a living document, steeped in adventuring history.
I've now deployed this in my game and I'll get my first set of results next session. Tell me if you try it for yourself, or just say what your preferred XP system is (and why)!
* To help you set expectations with the above numbers: a warhorse,
suit of plate armour, or Fireball spell would all be worth about 1000
silver, and a skilled mason can comfortably save 4 silver each week
(actual income and cost-of-living are more than that). Conceptualise a
silver as being worth $10 in modern money and you won't be far wrong.
PCs have their strength score in inventory slots. I'm also working with the Goblin Laws of Gaming, where you stop getting class features at level 4, which is about your life expectancy anyway.