Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Meaningful Experience

Posted: July 22, 2012 in Articles, Game Mechanics

Many years ago, I wrote an article about making giving Experience Rewards to characters more meaningful to the character development process. I recently found the article in my archives and thought I would post it here for all to enjoy.

Meaningful Experience

by Jim “The Game Knight” Dickinson


Your party wades through the first two ranks of goblins, slashing and hacking away with glee, before the goblins come to their senses and flee for their lives. The GM awards you experience points for winning the combat so you add the number to your character sheet. Your character is now more experienced than he was before the fight, right?

…but what did he learn? What do the “experience points” represent in the game? And how does your character benefit from them?

Well, most of the answers to these questions point to game mechanics. The rules say that PCs get experience points for doing various things, and sometimes bonuses are thrown in as a reward to players for role-playing well. The points are somehow converted into “levels” or “character points” that increase the character’s abilities or reduce their flaws. Well, from a mechanical standpoint, those are probably pretty acceptable ways of “simulating” what happens when a PC becomes more experienced.

But that isn’t how things work with real human beings. We gain experiences throughout our lives that we draw upon later to help us make better choices, become more proficient, or come to new, intuitive conclusions. In short, Experience is the Great Teacher, and we are her students if we find value and meaning in her lessons. So I would like to introduce an idea to you that I think will make your role-playing “experience” more meaningful to you and your players.

The Experience Journal

Players should have a small notebook to use for their journal. There are lots of options from 3-ring binders with loose-leaf paper, spiral notebooks, or even fancier tablets of stationery that suits the game or character. So long as each player has a notebook and pencil or pen you will be able to implement this idea in your game.

After, or even during, each game session the players should make notes of anything they feel was a significant experience during that session. The GM then reviews their journals and awards points based on the written experiences.

In the e-world in which we live, websites make great journals, and email cannot be overlooked. Players could easily submit emails to the GM for evaluation.

Tracking Experiences

Recording Important Experiences

So what makes an experience important or significant? Well this is very subjective, so it could really be ANYTHING that the player can justify as a meaningful experience. The GM should consider the fact that players may perceive situations throughout the session differently, and this will often be reflected in their notes. There will be obvious experiences that the GM can expect players to jot down, but there will also be some that the GM hadn’t foreseen. The GM shouldn’t rule out the more subtle experiences either, but judge each noted experience on its own merit. If the GM is convinced that the player has found something meaningful there, it should be worth at least a minimum number of points. However, if the player is trying to scam for points, that is another matter entirely. Again, just because it isn’t an obvious experience that the GM would expect to see doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any merit.

Obvious experiences worthy of recording in the journal might be: encountering an important NPC, solving a mystery, discovering uncharted territory, etc. But there are so many other experiences that can be meaningful to the character, some of which are very specific and unique to each PC.

For example, each PC may have an opportunity to arm wrestle the same NPC. This NPC is brawny and mean, and bears a tattoo on his arm that each PC notices as they wrestle with him. Even if everyone loses to him, one player recognizes the tattoo as the symbol of a certain group of cultists from a far away region. Because that single PC made the connection, and discovered that there was at least one cultist in the local area, the encounter took on special meaning for that PC alone. Perhaps if this PC shares this information with the others, they may find the experience meaningful as well.

Types of Experience

There are at least three basic categories, or types, of experience that can be gained: knowledge, training, and insight. Players and GMs should keep these types in mind when reviewing the game session to identify notable experiences.

Knowledge

Experiences that give the PC new knowledge, valuable information, advice or wisdom would fall under this category. This kind of experience can come from studying books, observation, conversation, or instruction. The impact and practicality of the knowledge determines its value. Knowing the name of the blacksmith might not be worth anything, but knowing the true name of a demon might come in handy in a pinch. Training

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same way you boost your swordplay skills! Practicing can also come in the form of actual application of the skill or knowledge. More often than not, the actual performance, where real or serious consequences are at stake, will be more valuable than in a drill. But both experiences lead to the same end, and are both forms of training. One is a rehearsal, and one is “on the job”.

Insight

Some of the most profound experiences are gained through our own cognitive powers. When we put A and B together to get C, powerful, and sometimes life-changing, things can result. New martial art styles are formed from marriages of older, traditional styles. Even so, often insight alone is not enough. Insight can often lead to incorrect conclusions, so often Knowledge AND Training are needed as well. An experienced inventor once said that the invention process was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” But a GM must acknowledge an epiphany that a player has. Those are GREAT experiences of profound significance. Lessons, Knowledge, and Morals

One of the most important parts of the whole exercise of recording experiences in a journal is to have the player demonstrate that the PC learned something from that experience. There must be something gained for the experience to be useful and a benefit to the PC. The experience could be a miserable failure, but if the PC found a moral to the story, or learned something important, then the failure wasn’t in vain. Some would refer to this as learning from the “school of hard knocks”. Not every failure will teach the PC something, but the ones that do can be used to improve and succeed in the future.

This has actually been the basis for entire plot lines in stories and movies. The protagonist fights and loses time and again until he learns what he needs to succeed. This process can take time, but leads to a satisfying climax in the story, because there is a triumph over failure. Sly and Jean-Claude have made a mint on plots like this.

Another interesting aspect of this is that the role-playing experience may become intrinsically more valuable for the player as she takes the opportunity to occasionally learn a “real-life lesson” from an experience in the game. The GM should be sure to reward these kinds of journal entries generously.

Awarding Experience

After players submit their journals, the GM should carefully weigh the value of the recorded experiences. Some experiences may need to be combined with others to make them worth any points at all, while other will be highly valuable on their own. Others still may need to be broken apart and scored individually. The GM should dialogue with the player during this process to make sure there is a clear understanding of what the player wrote.

GMs should be careful about correcting inaccuracies. Probably more often than not, the character’s perception is more important than the facts. These perceptions might lead to wonderful, or at least interesting, character developments and subplots in the future. However, if the player simply misremembered some details while writing, the player will probably be grateful for the correction. Also, because of these kinds of details, it is probably best to keep journal entries just between the GM and the player. If a player chooses to share their PCs experiences with the others (as addressed below), that is fine, but until then it is best to keep the PCs’ experiences confidential.

The GM should deal as diplomatically as possible with players who try to milk the game session for more experience than is deserved. A note about learning that Ale costs 2 dinars more at the Bronze Griffin than at the Lame Centaur, is clearly an attempt at bilking an extra experience point out of the GM (unless this knowledge is somehow vital to solving a mystery somewhere, but I doubt it).

Depending on the player, I would probably chuckle a little, offer a “nice try” and just mark a “0” next to the note. If the player got real serious about the entry, but was unable to convince me to change my mind, I would suspect that the player is frustrated with not getting as many points as others, or maybe he is just having a hard time identifying more relevant things to write. In that case, I would probably just take them aside and help them find a few other experiences that they could jot down. If they really needed some motivation, I might give them something for their journal that I anticipated being useful in a future session. Again, it depends on the players.

One thing you can count on, though, is that the GM will get to know the players and their characters very well, and very quickly. New plot ideas will sprout from ideas that the players have written, and the characters will become much more interesting each game session.

There should be space in the journal (margins are great) for the GM to record the number of experience points earned. There should be enough space for the player to note when those points are spent as well.

Using Your Experiences

Character Improvement

Well it’s time to decide how a character can have “something to show” for his experiences beyond a good campfire story to tell before bedtime. The least complicated, and perhaps the most logical, way to apply the points from these earned experiences would be to pool the added points with all the other unspent experience and follow the character improvement rules of the game as it was done before the journal. So in point-based systems, the experience points usually add to skills or attributes directly, and in level-based games, experience points total up to certain levels.

However, a different approach for point-based systems might be to allow experience points from journal entries to only improve aspects of the character that would logically improve from that specific experience. The player would work with the GM when they want to “cash in” points to improve a skill or trait, or remove or reduce a flaw. The GM would have to agree to the improvement to the character, and the points would be recorded as spent in the journal.

Applying past experiences

Players may find a valuable tool in their journals as they use it to recall details from past game sessions, or apply previous lessons learned to new situations. Journals are a great place to record notes about who owned that sword before it was stolen, which companies owns which freighters, and what everyone’s’ crests and logos look like.

Sharing Experiences

Players may also find value and strength in an exchange of experiences with others in the group. Churches often have meetings where members are encouraged to share their own conversions. Sales meetings are often full of motivating testimonials, too. How do you think Amway has lasted so long? Here are a few ideas how players can share their experiences in a game.

Sharing experiences doesn’t have to be a formal thing. It can take a few minutes, or consume long dialogues full of details. More often then not, they will happen by themselves as characters encounter others during the game. But you can also stage moments in the game where past adventure stories are solicited by NPCs, or by new characters to the party. Nights by the camp fire, or on the starship during long trips, or while on a stakeout. These times can be one on one, or in front of crowds of people. PCs might even have to testify in court and tell the story from their own point of view, maybe even under adversarial questioning. It would be interesting if those points of view differed between PCs, wouldn’t it?

Reminiscing

Players can simply have their characters reminisce over past dungeons, battles, solved puzzles, thwarted or tripped traps, incredible feats, lucky escapes, or whatever! Many RPG players do that already (“Remember when I rolled that Natural 20 and cut that guy’s head clean off right in the middle of his gloat about how he was going to stomp us into pea soup?”) so why not just have them do it in character, telling the story from the PC’s point of view? This would be a great way to fill time before or after a game session, or to introduce them to a new player or character joining the group.

Flashbacks, Recaps, and Reviews

One trick I often used in my own games was to have one of the players that was there for the last session recap what happened the week before. This was mostly for anyone who missed the last game, but I also did this to refresh the story in everyone’s mind before we continued on. Most players liked having their turn with the review, because they often made a game out of pointing out how heroic their own characters were during that session. A few times the player would get raspberries from the others if he stretched the truth too far, but overall, everyone like it. It set the mood for the game.

I have also had NPCs ask the characters questions about their past adventures, to give players a chance to boast a little. Sometimes I did this on the sly in the hopes that during the telling, the player would remember a loose end, or an important clue from a past game.

I have also used flashbacks to help players make logical connections to things happening in the game that the player would make. For example, let’s say the party of adventurers meets a knight who bears a crest that one of the players should recognize. The crest is important to the story, because it is going to hint at whether the party can trust this Knight or not. I tell one of the PCs, “You’ve seen that crest somewhere before…where was it?…Oh yeah, in Kranston during the Winter Festival of Crowns.” I then let the player make the connection on his own. Naturally the rest of the players, if they were not there, will want to know what the connection is. The player might normally answer, “Oh yeah, we can trust him.” But if he has a journal to look back in, he may be able to recount a much more interesting story about how someone bearing that crest came to his aid when thugs in the shady part of town surrounded him.

Advising, Advocating, or Persuading

Players can use their past experiences to sway audiences, or to convince others in one way or another. Players who dig into past journal experiences to gather details that are used in their speeches or the GM should reward dialogues with a better chance at success. Any time players try to bring more details into their games, the quality of the game is bound to improve.

Blue Booking

I honestly cannot remember when I first heard about Blue Booking, but it was in an article or book I was reading that probably had to do with a Champions group that had a GM who rewarded players for writing additional stories between game sessions. He provided them with blue composition notebooks from the University Bookstore to write what their PCs were doing between game sessions. This evolved into a very regular tradition that came to be known as Blue-Booking because of the blue notebooks they used. I remember reading that these players enjoyed the stories that were happening on the sidelines as much or more as the ones happening during their games. On a few occasions, their game sessions were spent just writing in their books and trading their books around the table.

I have had players do things like this as well, and for most it was a great deal of fun for them. Players would write up stories (sometimes in narratives, sometimes in first-person like a diary) that explored their character’s aspects that were not usually brought up during the game. They referred to the more mundane sides, the darker sides, the fearful sides. They talked about what the PC did on his own time, whether it was dating, stalking the streets alone looking for crime, or doing research for a new spell. They would write their stories, taking as much creative license as they dared (I reserved full editing powers), and would stop at the point where they needed or wanted my input or response.

It was a great way for me to let characters shine in their own spotlights as the center of the story. It was a way for me to introduce clues to the mysteries in future scenarios I would run. It was a way for me to get to know their characters better. But it was also a way for me to lead into new stories! These players had great imaginations, and they would often take their stories places I had not thought to go. What great ideas I got from them!

Blue-Booking was the true inspiration for the Experience Journal. Here are some ways to use players’ writings to award experience.

Gaining experience through player writings

Players should have the opportunity to gain experience points by writing narratives about other experiences their PCs have. Again, these stories will often have interactions in them that are more difficult to pull off in a live session. Romances, for example, just don’t get role-played in a typical gaming group, especially if the group is made up of all same-sex players and GM. But a player can write about their character’s romance with the NPC on the side.

Between game sessions

GMs should give their players a chance to learn something between game sessions. Players can be assigned to write some of the things their characters will be doing “on their own time” before the next adventure, and the GM can respond at the next game sessions with the results of their efforts. Sometimes, these private dialogues between GM and player, right in their journal, can be a fascinating addition to the game. Each player feels special in their own way, and can often “bring something new to the table” each session.

Entries like this can be as simple as:

Player: Breggor is going to hang out in the tavern and try to pick-pocket some easy marks. He needs a few more gold to buy more supplies for the next trip the party will take.

And the GM might reply:

GM: You find a few easy marks with little trouble. One is a drunk merchant bragging about a big sale he made to the Barony of DuMount. He was in the bar to celebrate his great profit. You filched 50 gold from him before he started to get suspicious about his lighter purse. Another mark is a woman wearing a cloak of foreign design. Her accent was thick, and she had a real hard time communicating with anyone. She seemed lost and confused, but carried a fair chunk of change. She provided you with about 10 gems of decent value. You will need to have them looked at before you can tell how much they are really worth.

The GM could also give the PC some experience points for this entry, since the character did succeed at getting some practice in on his picking pockets. But perhaps even more valuable will be the hints the GM left for the player. If the GM chooses to use them, he could weave the foreign woman into the story somehow. Maybe she is now too poor to return home (!) and asks to travel with the characters instead. Maybe she is actually a skilled fortuneteller who offers to tell the PCs fortune to earn the money she needs to return home. Everyone takes his or her turn, perhaps with the thief being reluctant. Maybe she will learn that he was the thief. Maybe she won’t. But the GM can play it up and make the thief sweat a little! Other possibility might present itself when the thief tries to sell the gems…

Maybe the PCs will learn later about something going on in the Barony the thief heard about from the merchant. Maybe the thief will be able to “remember” other things the merchant said later, as he was cleaning him out. Maybe he will remember that the reason he made so much money was that…

Well, I think you get the idea.

Flashbacks

Flashbacks almost always come up in the middle of a game session. The players will encounter something that one of the players has encountered before, and that character will usually benefit in some way from that past knowledge. Flashbacks are often just “informational background knowledge”, but they can also be used as the focus for that particular scenario.

To take an example from a recent Star Trek Voyager episode, Seven starts off with a flashback to a part of her past none of us has ever heard about before. She is still a Borg, and she and 3 others are stranded on a planet. They are damaged and have lost their link to the collective. The flashback is referred to often during the episode as we learn, right along with Seven, a dark aspect of her past. The flashback is the focus of the story, and the other Borg from her flashback are encountered again in that episode as well. It makes for an exciting and dynamic story.

So how would you use this in a game? Well, most commonly the GM will mention, maybe even just in passing, some past experience that the PC had that helps him at that moment. The GM and player can make a note of it, and the player then writes a short story about how she knew those facts. Here is an example:

GM: Running down the street, you are looking for a place to hide. Most of the doors are locked, and the ones that aren’t look like really bad places to hide.

Player 1: OK, We keep looking around hoping to find someplace fast before the guards turn down the street and see us.

Player 2: I’ll start looking a bit further down. Maybe there is a second story window we can climb to?

GM: Suddenly a voice calls to you from across the cobbled street. “Joryn? Is that you?” It is a somewhat homely woman you [speaking to Player 2] recognize from your past. She waves you both in and behind the door. A few seconds later and the guards jog past as this woman flirts and waves at them. They ignore her and continue their search for you. After they are gone, she lets you two come out. As you start to leave, she grabs Joryn and plants a big kiss on him, and then waves goodbye.

Player 1: Joryn, who was that woman?

Player 2 looks confused.

GM: Joryn, that’s a flashback story you can write and tell us later.

Player 2: OK, I’ll do that. [Grinning] For now, Brash, all I will say is that her name is Aneeda. As in, “Aneeda nother drink if she’s gonna kiss me again!”

Already the player must have an idea what he will write about. He rolls with the story, and they move on, now having evaded the guard that was chasing them.

Dreams

Once when I was running an email game, I needed another week or so to plan out the next part of the story I was running. All the characters were together in a foreign land and did not know what was going to happen next. They had no idea what to expect. I told them that after they turned in for the night, they all had interesting and/or disturbing dreams. In the morning, around their campfire breakfast, they could share their dreams with everyone else. It bought me the time I needed, but even better, it made for a really fun exchange of dreams. Some were wild, some funny, some scary and foreboding. But each player was allowed to express their own dreams as they wished.

As the GM, I found a plot hook in one of them, and planned to make some version of that player’s dream come true. But with most of them, it was just an interesting exercise in writing and storytelling.

Subplot activities

Sometimes these journal entries can turn into ongoing subplots. That’s great! Reward the player with experience points every now and again for all the writing, and be sure to have the players share some of the better (and probably less private) stories.

The most important point is to enjoy your games. Never make the Experience Journal a labor for your players. Give them the incentive to put in the extra effort, though, and you will be happy with the results. Players will be more invested in their characters, and in the game, and you will have a great deal of material to unfold future stories from. So, enjoy! And make your gaming experience more meaningful!