Working out how encounters will work when you have only one player at the table is going to take a good deal of calculation and concentrated effort. Earlier this year, I mentioned in an entry there were some rudimentary guidelines for designing solo encounters (for solo players, not solo monsters) and recently, the discussion has turned back to this subject, and it’s time to face it.

What constitutes an experience? What counts as progress toward advancement? Is it like Oblivion, where exercising one’s skills triggers a character’s overall growth, or is it like Dungeons & Dragons with encounter-based rewards being applied evenly to all the participating players? Is experience story- and mission-based, like in Guild Wars and Chrono Cross? Is it truly about experience, or is it about advancement?

We call them experience points because D&D called them experience points. That’s evident in the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, as it is in countless other titles, such as Diablo and World of Warcraft, not to mention Guild Wars. Even casual games use EXP to track character growth, and illogically, the growth of inanimate objects.

Sometimes, when we use the term experience point, what we really mean is more along the lines of “advancement points,” meant to keep you playing the game. It’s like the tickets you get for playing games at Chuck E Cheese, or free tokens you get for losing games at a casino. They want to keep you engaged, so they reward you whether you win the game or not, so you keep putting quarters in the machine.

In Chuck E Cheese and casinos, you’re “advancing” toward a supposed payout. You keep turning quarters into tokens to play games and win prizes at Chuck E Cheese, and you keep putting quarters into machines, bettering against the house. Here’s a hint: the house never loses. Similarly, games that award “experience points” for performing repetitive tasks don’t lose either. They have your money and your time.

Every foray into a game experience is an investment of time and energy. Many will also require you to invest money, as well. Look at Dungeons & Dragons, look at Chuck E Cheese, look at casinos, and look at any number of other video games. Sure, you can see that entertainment is a business, and lots of companies are in the business to make money, but… There are other experiences to be found through gaming.

So, when we look at what kinds of things award experience in a roleplaying game, we also need to look at what went into the action. Sometimes, we invest long hours and enormous amounts of energy to achieve little or nothing. Other times, it seems like we “luck out” and get the big payoff without investing more than one quarter. Sometimes it’s about the skill or the repetition, and sometimes it’s being in the right place.

As a designer, I’m inclined to reward people for trying. Out of all the things mentioned above, I want to reward people for setting a goal and sticking to it, for weighing the risks and the rewards and carefully choosing the best solution that meets their needs, working together with others. Cooperation, careful consideration, and consequences. Creating and meeting these expectations are the goals of my design.