Lessons from the Isle of Joy: XP in a Survival Game

This post is, yes, me trying to convince you to check out my latest RPG project, the Isle of Joy over on Kickstarter right now. However, since I’m not used to selling my stuff, I am going wrap the sales pitch in bacon some short essays on actionable related to RPGs. Maybe they’ll be things most GMs have figured out for themselves, maybe not, but I’d like to share what I got from the experience of designing and playtesting the book. 

Today, I’m going to address how to handle the question of XP in a game where the focus becomes survival and/or exploration, and where gold and jewels stop being the most coveted treasure of all. 

I know, I know: in old-school games, treasure, above all else, drives how player characters collect XP. 

However, I’ll be honest: when it comes to RPGs, I’m actually interested in settings and scenarios where at least some of the “treasure” is more intangible, and how even dedicated treasure-hunters are likely to change tack once they become castaways or lost in the woods or whatever. Suddenly, just staying alive (and maybe figuring out a way to escape) take priority over any amount of gold and jewels, since it’s not like one can spend cash in the jungle. In a setting like this, it’s necessary to develop a different sense of what treasure is and does. Of course, that’s not to say that my players didn’t also harvest useful items along the way. One chance roll on a “what washes up onshore?” table was a game-changer for one of my players, turning his somewhat feeble older character into a force to be reckoned with (though, sometimes also, a threat to his own allies that needed to be carefully managed). Another time, a discarded toy led my players to a spot where they glimpsed a fragment of the secret origin of the Isle. 

The thing is that in a lot of old-school RPG systems, XP-for-gold (or XP-for-silver) is a hard-and-fast rule, and anything beyond XP for treasure (and a little for combat) isn’t really supported. There are lots of reasons for this, one of them being that it’s easy to bookkeep this and subject to fewer judgment calls. Another is that it encourages a certain kind of play. (It’s little surprise that players grind for XP willingly: our societies in the modern world are full of such systems and they’re really successful at driving our mass behavior, after all.)

However, if you’re dropping characters into a setting where gold and jewels cannot really buy them much, for any length of time, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that in practical terms other things suddenly become treasure. Proverbially, other things suddenly become “worth their weight in gold.” GMs might want to reflect that in how they award XP, and players might appreciate GMs doing so. 

Below is a kind of shot-in-the-dark taxonomy of the types of “treasure” that suddenly matter in a situation like that, along with thoughts on how a GM might award XP to encourage PCs who engage with it: 

  • Useful objects. A cask of wine or a barrel of salt pork can make all the difference when it comes to surviving the next day, whether the player characters are consuming these goods themselves, or using them as bargaining chips with one or more of the factions they encounter on the Isle. Likewise, they won’t be the only ones scavenging along the shoreline, so the pursuit of these kinds of items can also lead to encounters (or skirmishes) with members of other factions, as well.
    • Handling XP: This is easy: if the PCs had to do something to get or maximize their use of the resource, give the item an XP value equivalent to its sale price if the PCs bargain with it, or double its sale price if the PCs use it to meet their own basic needs. If they just had a bit of it and then left it to spoil, then the temporary benefit is its own reward. Bear in mind that preserved foods are essentially worth a lot more in a wilderness survival situation.
  • Magical objects. A stray magical object can better equip a character to survive. It can also help facilitate a character learning more about the setting of the adventure (see knowledge, below). It mioght be an object lesson for a PC (especially when it comes to sursed objects), or a crucial survival tool, depending on circumstances.
    • Handling XP: Rules as written, in OSE (and many other OSR/NuSR systems) magical items don’t count when awarding XP, for good reason: these objects are their own reward. That said, I would consider an XP bonus for any character who survives a session while laboring under the effects of a cursed object, or a magical item that is a mixed blessing, if the item posed a significant challenge to the character during the session. (I’d generally award the XP bonus at the same rate as Prime Requisites are awarded: +5% for a mild curse, or +10% for a heavier one.) I would probably also award XP for any item the PCs sell or trade, of course, at a rate of 1 XP per gold piece of value generated by the trade. If the item is traded for something like intangible knowledge, then that’s its own reward. 
  • Interactions. This is a big one. Unless you’re playing with a bunch of hardcore murderhobo types, there will be cases where the PCs encounter creatures, NPCs, or NPC groups, only to engage in conversation, barter, or attempted (or successful) recruitment. In many ways, how PCs handle their exchanges with NPCs will have a huge effect on how they experience the game. They can get knowledge, resources, and more through these interactions. 
    • Handling XP: The easy answer is that inter-factional relations are their own reward, but if you wanted to mechanize this, I’d probably total the XP value of all leveled NPCs in the faction and award it the first time the PCs establish peaceful relations with that faction that somehow benefit them. Note that the relations may not be wholly beneficial: being recruited into a cult may establish peaceful relations, but also means you’re in a cult and bound to some deity who may not have your best interests at heart.1 Still, avoiding violence is usually, at least temporarily, a useful achievement and you might feel it deserves a reward—it is at least as useful as (and often more useful than) defeating a faction through combat, anyway. I also would award players a fraction of the XP of a threat if they managed to avoid the threat completely… as long as they know about the threat. (Avoiding a known monster by listening for it in the night is different from avoiding a weird sound because it might be dangerous. It’s also less of an achievement that cleverly avoiding imminent combat with a creature that you properly encounter.) 
  • Survival. One more day of survival could be considered its own reward. However, in settings where one tends to meet vulnerable individuals needing help—something I like to include in my games—I tend to consider it worth rewarding when PCs dedicate some of their energy and resources to keeping others alive. For example, when playtesting Isle of Joy, my players had a strong tendency to “pick up strays” when they could have just wandered off, leaving those vulnerable individuals to fend for themselves. 
    • Handling XP: Generally, one might treat this as its own reward. However, if one wanted to encourage this behavior, then one could award the XP value of the NPCs kept alive on a daily basis as a kind of “survival bonus” to the PCs. One would need to be explicit about this, if one wanted to encourage it, of course, and one would need to watch out for players cynically gaming it. (If your players turn into the Pied Pipers of Hamelin in order to farm XP, make sure that horde of vulnerable children is a pain in their ass, or that some of those “children” are camouflaged monsters. Make them work for those sweet XP.) 
  • Knowledge, Tangible. “Tangible knowledge” can take many forms. Characters finding a spellbook with some legible spells. They might discover a creek with clean, drinkable water, or they might find a map, or the journal of a fellow castaway. They could discover a magical location that could be of use to them later on (such as a pool of blessed water that removes curses), or learn about the existence of one faction from another one, especially after establishing peaceful relations with them. These are all examples of tangible knowledge. Sometimes, this knowledge will be gained through interactions with NPCs, and sometimes it will be embodied in an object. 
    • Handling XP: Generally, tangible knowledge is its own reward. It doesn’t need to be represented in XP, though if the knowledge is embodied in an object and PCs manage to sell or trade it away, I’d award XP based on what they got for it.   
  • Knowledge, Intangible. The last type of “treasure” in a survival setting is intangible knowledge. Generally, this involves bigger questions or secrets about the setting. Maybe it’s the history of the swamp and how it became cursed; perhaps, it’s why a gate to the underworld stands on this spot, or whose grave lies just over that hill, or the forgotten meaning of the inscriptions on those stones over here. Not every setting has an established backstory, but every setting should have some kind of history, including stuff that’s been forgotten and the spars of the past that jut up visibly into the present. For the right group of players, uncovering lost facts about this mysterious past—or even just getting closer to understanding why a certain unusual locale is now the way it is—is an exciting form of treasure.   
    • Handling XP: This kind of stuff is its own reward, and often it’s really a meta-reward: it’s more the players who enjoy this kind of unraveling of a mystery, more than the PCs. As such, it doesn’t need to be reewarded with XP, at least not unless the knowledge is acted upon in some way that’s relevant. (If a PC rediscovers an ancient, forgotten form of magic and becomes a practitioner of it, I’d award that. If a PC glimpses a ghost and realizes part of the problem with a place is that it’s haunted, I’d chalk that up to player enticement.) 

I think the above forms of “treasure” taking more prominent focus is part of why a number of people in early reviews commented that Isle of Joy merges story gaming and old-school adventuring.  Is it heresy? (Maybe, to some.) Do I care? (No, since you can take it or leave it.)

Of course, the XP suggestions are all optional. It’s not like an enterprising GM can’t find ways of strewing treasure about, or—as I did in Isle of Joy—placing it in pretty obvious locales so that groups who want gold can go looking for it. It’s just that if XP is a behavior-reward system, one might want to consider what behaviors one is trying to encourage in players.  You can definitely just award XP according to the rules of OSE—or whatever system you use to run the game—but you should be prepared for some the players either to grumble about their XP awards, or for treasure to drive their decisions about what to do next. The further your setting is away from one where gold and jewels are the be-all and end-all of adventuring, the more you’ll want to at least consider a revised approach to XP.  

Anyway, if an adventure where this kind of stuff matters sounds appealing to you, please check out the Isle of Joy kickstarter. Backers just unlocked another stretch goal and we’re hoping to unlock some more before the campaign ends! 


  1. This happened during playtesting, in fact!

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