Friday, May 28, 2010

Negative XP

The commentary at end of this panel from Darths & Droids web comic
Before slaughtering intermixed hordes of NPCs, some of whom are evil and worth experience points, and some of whom are innocent and count as a penalty against experience points
got me wondering about negative experience points.  I can't recall any game that uses them. That's potentially fairly damming evidence that they suck.  On the one hand it's fun to slay everything that moves, on the other hack & slash and the craven quest for xp tend to limit the choices players actually make and the types of games/campaigns/encounters that work. 

Lots of systems over the years have been created to address that problem.  Story rewards, xp mostly for treasure, xp for overcoming rather than just for killing opponents, gaining fixed xp or entire levels as characters reach key points in campaign arc (choo choo!) and games with no xp at all.

But, what about negative xp?

For the obvious innocents; town folk, farmer's cows, cleric of mercy.  For killing the non-combatant orcs?  What about failing to act?  Failing to save innocents? Say party went after treasure instead or fled in the night leaving villagers deal with the undead spirits they awoke.  [that assumes a very particular moral code, one I'm sure I'd be willing to foist onto players.]  Attacking and killing the
"bad monster" before it has chance to open it's mouth and characters discover it's an ally?

Like all reward systems, xp shapes behavior.  Negative xp would be no exception.  My current campaign is all about the killing things, Glory, and taking their stuff, Gold. It's also fairly hack and slashish (or at least I don't mind if players take it that way.  Adventure and fun before seriousness.)  So, most "bad" behaviors that neg xp might influence aren't issues.  But, in other campaigns these are sorts of things I'd like to discourage.
  • attacking things on sight
  • attacking everything
  • picking attack/kill everything over other options (cause it's more xp)
  • never capture, never show mercy
  • vigilantism
  • general running amok (slaying innocents, killing farmer Bob's chickens)
For several of them I've used various techniques.  But, to those who greedily accumulate xp over all else, nothing snaps them into attention as loosing xp.


  1. I've been playing a lot of Fallout 3 lately and it has karma points which determine your reputation. Kill good guys or lie or steal and you get negative karma.

    Hackmaster has honor points which function about the same way. Act against your alignment and you lose honor.

  2. RE Behavior Machanics: With the training of my beagles, I've found that positive reinforcement (i.e. rewarding good behavior), works about 100 times better than negative reinforcement (i.e. punishing bad behavior).

    In my old OLD Marvel Super Heroes campaign, I had a GM that allowed karma to become "negative." This was in an attempt to prevent us from acting like we had "nothing to lose" upon hitting 0 in the karma pool (in MSH, you lose ALL karma if you cause the death of someone...something some of us liked to do. And once you reach 0, losing "all" your good karma doesn't seem like a bad penalty). 'Course, mechanically this doesn't do anything except prevent one from spending karma points or improving wasn't much of a deterrent. In fact, sending it into the NEGATIVES made me (as a player) never want to bother trying to earn GOOD karma, as I was so far "in the hole" (several thousands of points) to ever see the light of day.

    Karma I can buy as a fluctuating resource, and losing karma (even withOUT a "negative pool") can be a bitch...though if you're simply at 0 you can start climbing back to hero status.

    XP is NOT karma: it's supposed to represent a character's actual pool of experience and is directly linked to in-game effectiveness. People don't become "less experienced" from doing bad things.

    Karma is a metagame mechanic used to modify dice good and you get "good luck." Having 0 doesn't mean your character has less fighting ability or power, just that you are completely at the whims of capricious fate. Reducing a D&D character's XP tanks hit points, attack ability, number of attacks, thief skills, spell use, etc.

    Now if you want to say the character is suffering a "curse from the gods" (such as clerics getting a reduction in XP/level due to acting against the tenets of their fait/alignment)...well, THAT I buy in a supernatural RPG like D&D. But as penalties to "mindless hack & slash?" No...that's a little too goody-good for D&D.

  3. some things you could try:

    * attacking things on sight
    give less xp for such irrational behavior (especially if the fight could have been avoided)

    * attacking everything
    if your players really do this you should talk to them about it. no xp-system will fix this.

    * picking attack/kill everything over other options (cause it's more xp)
    give the same amount of xp for peaceful solutions. (in some cases more) if you give more, the xp-hogging players will change their ways quickly. ;)

    * never capture, never show mercy
    give xp once an opponent is defeated, not once it is dead.

    * vigilantism
    depends on setting. this might not always be a problem.

    * general running amok (slaying innocents, killing farmer Bob's chickens)
    should never give xp anyway. again, talk to the players. killing innocents and livestock doesn't sound very "glorious" to me. don't get me started on what any law-enforcers would have to say about such behavior!

    negative xp has an enormous downside... you can lose levels, which is usually crap. (yes, i hate level drain!)

    what you can do is simply give out no xp after a session/encounter (and your reasoning for doing it). then talk about it.

    i think your problems are better solved by discussion (what kind of game do the players want? what kind of game do you want?) than by xp-rewards.

  4. This was a thought experiment, I'm not not having these problems, currently.

    That is a lot of great advice, would make great "dealing with problem player's" type blog entry!

    @JB "that's a little too goody-good for D&D"
    I like this argument/sentiment the best.

  5. My group back in high school experimented with negative xp, but it's just too punitive. It turns the GM into a babysitter who's constantly threatening to take away dessert privileges. Much better to encourage behavior through positive reinforcement.


All Time Most Popular Posts

Follow by Email