Experience; a currency or a benchmark?

Okay, so since I’ve been looking a lot at D&D lately, I’ve recently started considering the nature of experience as a system. Now, my background in games originated with the White Wolf systems like Exalted and World of Darkness; it wasn’t until I came to university that I actually played Dungeons and Dragons at all, and to be honest, the way the system worked was fairly alien to me. One of the things that always differentiated it from the games I’d played previously was the idea of experience. Now most games have an experience system of one kind of another, whether they call it that or “advances”, “power points” or whatever, there’s some way in which characters progress, generally from the events that happen in game, but it’s the method by which the experience is gathered that I was thinking of.

Now in most White Wolf games experience is a set amount per session and is handed out at the end to all the players equally. Some GMs will keep a single tally for the group, some might deduct XP for people who’ve missed sessions, whatever, but what I’m really focusing on is that the XP isn’t a kind of loot you get from monster or per encounter or what have you. It’s a means of progression for your character as the game goes on, recognising that a session spent discussing the party’s morals in a bar is just as important for the roleplaying experience as is slaying a group of evil vampires.

D&D, in most of its iterations as far as I’m aware, follows a different system. You get XP for defeating foes and beating encounters, for overcoming challenges and completing objectives; on the surface perhaps a system which encourages players to take more action in games, and to want to fight monsters and save princesses, etc… However, I think it does lead to some of the bad behaviours that I don’t particularly love about roleplaying; the idea that its more worthy for character progression to be conquering goals than it is to simply have a good time and enjoy the roleplaying experience. It also eggs on a situation where only players who were at a certain session benefit from the XP gathered there. While I can understand that rationale, I don’t think anyone has ever quit a game on the basis that the other players who only show up occasionally get equal XP to the normal players, wheras I’ve certainly been in situations in the past where I’ve wanted to leave a game because a GM insisted on docking people XP for not showing up or given less/0xp for characters who start a game late.

I think that XP is definitely a necessary part of roleplaying, as it allows for character progression. Without it, in long term games, your characters would never learn to do new things, progress their ability, go from young farmboy to king of the universe, etc… We need some ability to progress our character’s stats. But I think to use it as a stick to make sure players show up, and then again as another form of loot taken from completing encounters, just encourages games where no-one really cares about their characters and just want to kill the dragon to reach the next level.

Opinions? Which way do you prefer to hand out/receive XP? Do you think late starters/people who miss sessions should lose XP?

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