I am admittedly new to the world of XP points. I didn’t even play Dungeons and Dragons for the first time until a few months ago when my friends, like so many others, decided we needed to learn how to play after watching Stranger Things. D&D is fun; you get to hang out with your friends and battle goblins. It’s like “choose your own adventure” books but gets to be considered a social activity.
I learned a lot in our D&D sessions. I should never choose a character who is aligned with lawful good. I have a tendency to torture goblins when they won’t do what I want (but I mean, come on, what’s a few burned feet between friends.) I learned that no matter what cave entrance you choose, someone will shoot at you. And I learned that if you don’t level up fast enough, soon a single goblin will be able to kill you.
What do all these deep and meaningful revelations mean, other than I should never be sent on an information-gathering mission in hostile territory? They give meaning to the way that we structure stories.
Dungeons and Dragons is basically freeform storytelling. You start at the beginning with a goal. You encounter things to obstruct or distract from your goal and other characters who will help or hurt you. Through this discovery of new information, your goals can change, either through creating side quests (I mean, we couldn’t let those goblins steal the cart with our hostage hidden in the back) or by changing your perspective on what the end goal should be.
Living in a character and pushing them through a story with other characters that aren’t just in your head, fighting you on what you should do next or questioning your motives, is an amazing experience for an author.
Each character starts out with attributes, things that they are good at that the other characters aren’t, and you have to learn to use each others strengths to push forward. One girl was really good at negotiation, one guy had all the gold, I was good with a longbow, etc. And we could manage that way, living off each other’s strengths, for a while. But the goblins and other monsters kept getting stronger, and we couldn’t just rely on each other’s strengths any longer. But there was no magic elixir to suddenly make my character super strong and athletic. I had to make it through the battle alive to gain points to be stronger in the next battle. Which is exactly what we do to our characters in books.
Let’s put it in the context of Harry Potter (overdone, I know, but it’s a useful point of reference). If the Harry Potter who met Voldemort in the great hall at the end of the series met poor, stuttering Professor Quirrell at the Mirror of Erised, he would have easily stunned Quirrell, gotten the stone, and gotten out. Conversely, if tiny Harry barely out of the cupboard met a Dementor, he would be soulless, and the series would be over. Either way you flip it, there is no more story to be told.
Growing a character doesn’t happen instantly (of course, there are exceptions. Cliché again, but Bella suddenly became the strongest vampire in town), it happens slowly. They go through something scary, hard, or dangerous, and they come out on the other side with more experience, better equipped to meet the next crisis.
They learn a new spell, learn a new skill, or could even meet a new ally. Anyway you spin it, they come out of the battle more ready to meet the big boss waiting at the end. So, we have to test our characters. Giving them obstacles, trials, triumphs, and defeats. Growing them carefully as humans and as heroes. So that when the final goblins come, they will have the XP to defend themselves and win the day. Maybe they’ll be so changed at the end we’ll barely recognize the goblin torturer we met at the start. But the journey creates us, bit by bit, point by point, till we reach the end.