One of the things that nearly all role playing games have in common is some form of “advancement” — experience points, advancement points, milestones; a point where the characters’ journeys and experiences lead to them getting better at certain things.

The oldest form of this was “leveling up” in Dungeons & Dragons — you would hit a certain number of experience points and would suddenly be better at fighing, have more spells to cast, gain hit points (get tougher), etc. It happens boop! just like that. You would gain XP for the events of a session based on the monsters opposed and other story aspects. Realistic? No — but it set the stage for RPGs, both tabletop and electronic, to come.

Other games came along that broke the experience/session pattern — James Bond: 007, for instance, gave you experience at the end of a mission, rather than per session. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has a very nice system based on playing to the milestones you set for your character. As you address them, you gain points, rather than for the villain of the week you beat up. (I have a real soft spot for this mechanic!)

What is the best way to handle experience? This is usually where I should get wishy-washy and say “what works best for your campaign”, but after a few decades of doing this, i feel confident about this one: experience points (or whatever you call them), should be given at the end of a specific adventure or chapter in the same, unless there was some specific thing in the session that would have led to gaining or improving a skill. (Montage!)

Characters shouldn’t just jump in abilities after the equivalent of a day or two wandering in a dungeon, or fighting for a few days on the beach at Normandy. It takes time to process mental skills, it takes longer to hone physical prowess in something, and the better you are, the harder it is to improve that little bit more. (Just ask an Olympian…) I wouldn’t suggest just rolling this out on your game group without talking the reasoning through with them. you might get lynched. But here’s my reasoning:

1) Over the course of a session representing a day or more, a player should be able to learn one new skill at a very basic level. (If you want to give them advancement/session.) Didn’t you just say the very opposite thing a second ago? Not quite…okay, I did,

It’s really easy to learn a new skill at a truly basic level. One trip out to a firing range, and most people can get from not knowing how to work a firearm to being able to hit center mass(ish) most of the time. You can learn to ride a motorcycle or drive stick with a few hours practice. You’re not good at it, but you can do it. You can learn a couple of phrases of a new language, or start to parse bits of a language similar to one you are good with. You might have picked up just enough information to actually be dangerous to yourself, in that you might not be up to the difficulty of an ordinary task with the skill.

2) Most real development for the characters takes place in the spaces between the big moments. Sure, you kicked the snot out of those Imperial TIE fighters…but what did you learn? Most fighter pilots learn from their mistakes and successes during after action reports where they study gunsite footage and analyse what worked and why. This is why I say most points should be given at the end of a major chapter or adventure of a campaign.

3) One way to handle learning basic skills when you don’t have points is to go into “point debt.” I will allow characters who use a new skill well enough to learn the basics to take the skill on loan. s soon as they have the experience to cover it, they pay.

For more advanced skills, suggesting to your world-trotting archeologist could learn the various languages at his Linguistics skill (or whatever) if he has a certain length of time, then give him a discount on the cost of improving the language skill if he waits that length of time to buy it.

But what about…?

The improvement of skills, hit points, and the like is not the only sort of advancement players see. As they move through the game’s campaign, they might see themselves amass power or wealth. These benefits often come with responsibilities or other consequences. If your 20th level fighter has not carved his own petty kingdom, Conan-like, from the power structure of your fantasy world, how much of his time is now taken up with satisfying the needs of his people? What about that aqueduct they need? How about filling that granary for the winter? Whaddya mean my treasurer absconded with the kingdom’s cash? How does he account for justice? If he is a hard tyrant, how long before there is an usurper? Might that be his own friends?

This is a type of advancement that comes from role playing, and which could be tied to “leveling up” (“Hey, you’re a 13th level science officer now — you get your promotion to lieutenant commander!”) or through role playing. Recently, a player character that started as a raw lieutenant junior in our Galactica campaign got a surprise promotion to captain and squadron leader. (Ah…attrition!) We’re only just starting to touch on how this new responsibility is alienating from her old friends…she’s the boss now. She hasn’t found out, yet, that just doing things your own way when you are responsible for 8-10 vipers and pilots isn’t an option. She’s also under more scrutiny from the command, and who wants to lose a promotion? Pressure!

In a police game, maybe you finally get to run an op yourself. All eyes on you, tiger; don’t screw it up, or we’ll ask you where you don’t want to get assigned next. A private eye might have a few high-profile cases, and now has too much work. You hire a few more dicks, but are you pounding the streets or are you supervising Manny, Moe, and Jack half the time..?

By dropping responsibility on top of the characters, as well as position, you can help create challenges they can’t just swing their +5 Vorpal sword through to solve.

Then there’s the ultimate advancement…retirement (or death.) What is the consequence of a hero, king, whatever stepping away from his position? Do they just fade into obscurity, as General MacArthur said? Would it have been more appropriate for James T Kirk to have died ignominiously slipping in the shower? (Bones: “He was right…he did die alone.”) Or is it better to get dragged back into one last mission/case/fight? (“You did not just say that!”)

Advancement can be so much more than just handing out experience points.