The method of awarding xp that I described is the “in-game” award of points. But there’s also a more standard, “between sessions” method.
And no, it has nothing to do with killing monsters.
I know, that’s weird for a lot of people. That’s the core way you get xp in a lot of games: you defeat things in battle. But not in Numenera. I’m a firm believer that you award players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. They’re the little reward pellets they get for pushing the button… oh wait, no, that’s rats in a lab. Oh well, same principle. Give them xp for doing a thing, and that thing is what they’ll do.
In Numenera, that thing is: discovery.
This can be the discovery of something your character can use: an artifact. It can also just be the discovery of some new numenera procedure, device (something too big to be “equipment”) or even knowledge. Lastly, depending on the outlook of the GM and the kind of campaign the group wants to play, it could be something as abstract as a truth. This could be an ethical idea such as “what goes around comes around,” or it might be something like, “everyone has their price.” Typically, discovery is going to earn PCs about half their experience points.
Players decide how they want to use the xp they earn. There are short, medium, and long-term uses. The short-term, immediate use for an xp is that you can use 1 xp to immediately reroll any die on the table (even one someone else rolls). This is pretty straightforward.
Medium-term uses are a bit more costly (but not much) and are usually story-based. A player can spend xp, for example, while climbing through the mountains and say that these mountains are just like those found in the region where she grew up. In those mountains, she is skilled in climbing. This helps her at that time, and any time she might return, but it’s not as though she’s skilled in climb everywhere. This might cost, say, 2 xp. Alternatively, another character, with a bunch of numenera components, might spend xp to cobble together a device that allows him to breathe underwater, because he wants to explore a submerged complex. This gives him that ability for a considerable length of time but probably not permanently. Again, the story and the logic of what’s going on dictate the parameters.
Long-term uses of xp are more costly still, and permanently affect a character. For 4 xp, you can gain training in a skill, increase your stat pools, improve your ability to use effort, and so on. When you do this four times, you gain a level (which in and of itself has some advantages).
But levels in Numenera aren’t like those in many other level-based games. They mainly exist as benchmarks for character story arcs. (I’ll talk more about that in a later article.) For now, though, it’s worth noting that starting (thus, 1st level) characters are already quite competent, and there are only six levels. There is a power curve, but it is only steep enough to keep things interesting. Character improvement can continue past level 6, but the level rating doesn’t increase past that point. In other words, gaining levels is cool and fun, but it’s not the only path to success (or power). If you spent all your points only on short and medium-term uses of xp, you would be different, but not “behind” someone that spent their points on long-term uses.
The general idea, though, is that most characters will spend half their xp on long-term advancement and the rest on short and medium-term uses (which I think of as “gameplay” or “at the table” uses, because you use them during the session, not in between sessions). This means, of course, that some groups might choose to have in-game xp earnings usable only for gameplay uses, and discovery points, awarded between sessions usable only for long-term character advancement. This would be particularly useful for groups that are used to a more traditional type of heavily level-dependent game who will likely undervalue using xp for other things. I wouldn’t do it that way–it feels a bit too rigid for my tastes–but it’s easily done.
Ultimately, the idea is to make experience points–for both players and GMs–tools with which to shape the story and the characters, and not just a bookkeeping hassle.