Choosing an experience point system for a new RPG


I am creating my own tabletop RPG and keep coming back to the question of fairly and easily distributing experience points. I have it narrowed down to two systems that I like, but would like the wisdom (and opinions) of the community. The game involves "skillsets" that are basically mini-classes, like Pyromancy, Covert Ops, and Hacking. You start with two, and as you gain experience you become more powerful with those and add new ones. Every three levels is a rank, and any time you increase your rank (4th, 7th, 10th, etc.) you get to add a new skillset at 1st level. Your character has stats, like Agility and Strength, and each skillset is tied to a stat. You’re able to level-up your stats only by learning a new skillset tied to that stat.

Design goals:

  1. A simplified game that will appeal to new role-players, but which has enough depth for the GM to create long, deep campaigns.
  2. A fun, playable balance between realism and ease-of-use.
  3. I don’t want the GM to be involved in awarding XP, other than rare bonus XP for excellent game play, and nobody should ever have to consult a chart or calculate how much XP an encounter/enemy is worth.
  4. Characters with a balanced number of skillsets: flexibility vs. paperwork.

In my original system, you would earn 1 XP every time you used a skillset in a round, and 1 bonus XP if you failed. Harder combats automatically earn more XP, and you grow in the skillsets you’re actually using, which makes sense to me. In a test game the players also liked that even when they were losing, they were earning more XP. I like that players will have to choose between using their top-level skillset for maximum effect versus a lower-level one they’re trying to build up.

However, players need to track every skillset used every round, and you can take multiple actions in a round. We found that a simple tick mark on your character sheet does it, but it’s paperwork. It also fails where you take an action not covered by a skillset, like riding a bicycle through the middle of a melee: I doubt there will be a Combat Bicycle skillset, so you will make a roll using your stats instead of skillsets, and you don’t earn XP when using a stat.

Method #2 is to make experience more generic and let you "spend" it where you like. You earn 1 XP every round, plus one if you have to make a defensive roll, plus another if you fail that roll. You could then "spend" a little to add a new skillset or a lot to increase your Pyromancy skillset from 6th to 7th level, for example. Players "in the thick of it" will earn more XP, and tougher combats will earn more XP, just like in the original system. You can add interesting bonus rules, like the first player to drop an opponent gets bonus XP, etc. This makes for less paperwork for the player while providing even more flexibility.

However, XP is no longer tied to the skillset from whence it came and I’m worried it feels a bit computer-gamey. Also, method #1 limits the rate at which you learn new skillsets – in method #2 you can buy ALL OF THEM and have a ridiculously well-rounded, not-very-powerful character, which also feels ingenuous. It also removes the choice between your powerful skillset and the weak one you want to improve.

  1. Which system sounds easier to play?
  2. Which system sounds more interesting to play?
  3. Is there a better system I’m not seeing?