Superhero RPGs and XP Systems

I ran session 108 of my ongoing Superhero campaign last night. That’s rather a lot, for a campaign that started while the players were in their thirties, and I finally did something I probably should have done in session one: throw out the XP system.

I’ve always hesitated to do this because XP is one of those fundamental bedrocks of RPG systems going back to Dungeons and Dragons. The theory is simple: you go out, you do things, and you get better because of it.

Pretty much every Superhero RPG system I’ve come across will have some method of doing exactly that, allowing characters to inch their way forward in incremental steps, or save up the points to make big, wholesale changes and additions to their power. And because most superhero systems view character creation as a range of options built up of points – an energy blast that will cut through a tank will cost you this much, while one that will level a building is this much more – it’s meant to keep heroes at roughly the same level in terms of power.

And from a game perspective, it’s a solid design choice. No-one feels like they’re being short-changed.

From a genre perspective, it’s bizarre.

Superheroes and their abilities evolve, yes, but it’s rarely incremental unless the storyline is young hero learns to develop their powers. Often, the powers are inherently flexible, depending on the writer and the needs of the story. The evolution and advancement of powers is almost always story based – Iron Man discovers he’s unable to work with his suit, for example, and does some combat training with Captain America. For the rest of that story, you get a whole bunch of scenes where Tony Stark nails bad guys with a punch to the jaw, but next week…he’s blasting people with repulsor rays and doing weird shit with technology.

That Captain America training isn’t going to come up again, unless some nerdy writer drags it out of mothballs and highlights again in a future story.

There’s also the complication that superheroes, as a genre, tend towards archetype and iconic. People have a core set of powers and they will alter for a time, when the narrative calls for it, but Spiderman is always going to revert back into a red-band-blue suit, even if you give him shiny armor that powers him up for a year or two or an alien symbiont that makes his life easier.

Those kinds of stories are easy to do when you’re a comic book writer, but games with XP systems that allow you to buy character advancements mean that kind of story either needs to be short-term, or initiated by the player. And player initiation is harder, when there are points and systems in place, because it means math and rebuilding character and…well, when you do revert, do you revert to your original power level? What do you do with all the XP you’ve accumulated in the mean time?

To say nothing of the final inherent problem of point buy systems and XP: for all the illusion of balance between the heroes, it’s the player who is best suited to optimizing and knowing the rules that ends up being the most powerful.

We swapped over to the Marvel Heroic RPG back a while back because it moved us away from Point Buy and towards a more narrative system. It suited the ways the players wanted to use their powers, since there’s rarely any need to calculate what a particular stunt would “cost” to add into the power set. Marvel’s character creation was pretty basic: broad strokes, narrative sense, use the comics as your guide.

Weirdly, for a game that uses massively iconic characters, it still contains a XP system and it is, perhaps, the most superfluous bit of game design I’ve seen. XP is given for playing to the character as written in the comics, and it’s spent on elements of the plot (We’ll get joined by X for this fight, or I go to Reed Richards and get him to build me a weird science thing to help), for Plot Point buying bonuses that can affect your dice rolls and do funky things with your powers, and for advancements to a character that will disappear at the end of a story arc.

And it probably works great, if you’re using the game as intended, playing Marvel heroes in a temporary storyline, but in a campaign it falls apart quickly. We’ve stuck with it for over a year, with varying degrees of success, and realistically the most optimal use of XP are advancement and session-by-session plot point bonuses.

In getting rid of the XP system I’m cutting out the middle man and just giving players the thing they buy most often: plot points.

Game balance isn’t a huge concern, since the rules are pretty much designed to let Thor and Black Widow be on the same team without either player feeling cheated or like they cannot contribute, even if their power levels are massively different. This seemed like an overstated thing when I first came across someone explaining how this works, but after forty-odd sessions using the XP system as written, the player who is best-suited to optimizing character creation and system mastery is pretty much the system equivalent of Thor and doesn’t feel like they’re dominating the fight scenes.

Similarly, I got the chance to play a session of my friend Patrick’s high-octane space-adventure Annihilation campaign a few months back, and didn’t notice the game breaking down any differently when people are throwing around fists full of D12s instead of D8s.

And if game balance isn’t a concern, what do we need incremental advancement in powers for? Can we not just do things on a storyline-by-storyline basis? If we do a big campaign arc where one player is learning greater control of her magical powers, making it the focus of her sub-plots and character motivation, does it not make more sense to just give her control of the powers when she hits a narrative milestone rather than waiting for XP to catch up? If the player with light control keeps trying to create holograms, and it’s generally agreed this would be a neat evolution for her powers, why not just add in the holograms to her abilities?

For us, getting rid of the XP rules largely eliminated a clunky part of the system that no-one was really happy about, but also a part of pretty much every superhero RPG that just never works right. Whether it’s been old DC and Marvel systems, Mutants and Masterminds, or any of the other systems I’ve come across, XP based advancement of characters is always a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in superhero games.

So yeah, last night I killed the system. This morning, I got an email from one of the players with well, I’d like to do this sort of thing with this part of my powers, which is basically a whole damn plot-line/sub-plot that explores their abilities in interesting ways that would have been missed completely if we were waiting on the XP to develop things.

I’m not 100% sure I’ve made the right call here, but I am pretty confident.


  1 comment for “Superhero RPGs and XP Systems

  1. 19/02/2016 at 5:55 PM

    I think the idea of adding player-chosen story elements to the mix is a good one, and MHR makes that nice and controllable/quantifiable – but yeah, there’s really no need to attach that to an XP system when you could make Plot Points the currency instead. (And it would line up better with buying Speciality-based resources.)

    In practice, my players have barely touched their XP, and I had to push them a bit to make them spend it – so yeah, I wish I’d had this breakthrough a dozen sessions ago myself.

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