The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold

When Dave Arneson ran a session of his Blackmoor dungeon for Gary Gygax, two innovations impressed Gary the most: “The idea of measured progression (experience points) and the addition of games taking place in a dungeon maze.” (See The Dragon issue 7.) For just about everyone captivated by D&D, those two elements would stand out. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players.

Fantasy Games Unlimited Wargaming magazine number 4D&D co-creator Dave Arneson explained how he awarded experience in the Blackmoor game that led to D&D. “Each player increase in the ability in a given area by engaging in an activity in that area. For a fighter this meant by killing opponents (normal types of monster), their ability to strike an opponent and avoid the latter’s blows was increased.” (See Wargaming issue 4.)

By awarded experience for practice, Arneson simulated our world. As Gary Gygax turned the Blackmoor play style into a game, he made experience points (XP) into an incentive to chase gold. When Merric Blackman commented that the XP system promoted the gaining of treasure above all else, Gary agreed, “Indeed, wealth was featured—most realistically if one considers human motivations. If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more that the lure of riches?

In the original game, characters earned much more experience for gold than for monster slaying. This rewarded players for engaging in exactly the dungeon exploration that made the original game so much fun.

Suppose Gary had opted for a more natural simulation. If PCs gained, say, spellcasting ability through endless hours of practice and study, players would face choosing between the fun of exploring dungeons and the drudgery of practicing to increase ability. Sure, in a role-playing game, practice becomes a bookkeeping activity, but it remains dull.

In the pursuit of realism, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) took study so far that the authors argue that magic users shouldn’t leave their labs at all. “What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon?” The game says that magical effects are often too difficult to permit any “Magick User” the luxury going down into a dungeon. For more, see “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offered another benefit: it created a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new PC in the original game, potentially with 1 hit point, you had little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game, you were better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning led to gold, you got experience.

The XP-for-gold system struck players everywhere as unrealistic. In the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his game, “[Experience] points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” In 1989, with the second edition, D&D would follow suit. The game would never award XP for gold again.

Without XP for gold, only killing monsters earned concrete experience awards. Of course, DMs can reward players for completing quests and overcoming challenges, but print adventures rarely do. If your adventure plays like a published example, then PCs only win experience in battle.

When second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, D&D superficially became more of a game of killing than ever—except people played differently. Adventures spun stories. When players joined a game, they joined an unspoken pact to follow the plot threads that the DM offered. The original game required no unspoken pact. To succeed, players just followed the money and the experience it bought. The classic play style offered a lot of freedom, but only one goal. Then, every PC chased treasure; now, PCs adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure.

Next: The 3 elements that made XP-for-gold work in D&D that are now out of the game.

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16 Responses to The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold

  1. Orcus Stupidicus says:

    I never liked the XP for gold concept. It always struck me as a redundant mechanic that cut both ways. A DM from my youth decided to award XP to individual PCs based on the number of monsters a PC killed. Over time, the party decided that loot ought to be apportioned based on the amount of productive work an individual PC provided to the party’s efforts. Lower level characters were less useful and so received a smaller share of the loot, thereby earning fewer XP. It made progression for starting magic users and thieves incredibly slow and frustrating.

    Flash forward 30 years and I find myself wanting to incorporate XP for gold into my 5e campaign. The silent pact spoken of, no longer exists. Players tend to play their PCs as Chaotic Neutral opportunists, irrespective of the alignment listed on their sheets. Finding a source of motivation that appeals to 5 or more players is difficult when running a campaign based on a predetermined story arc. As much as I would prefer to run a sandbox game, the center of the world mentality of the younger generation isn’t tempered by any need to form and maintain a group, and so necessitates the use a of story line.

  2. grampy_bone says:

    The problem with 2nd Edition was the idiots who decided to make the XP for gold rule optional left the XP tables and monster XP awards unchanged. The result was leveling that was supposed to be supplemented with non-combat XP suddenly became 1/3 to 1/4 as fast as before, resulting in 2e’s infamous glacial advancement. I recall playing 2e games for weeks or even months without gaining levels. It was absurd.

    The assumption was you were supposed to make up the deficit with quest awards but the books were so vague about how to actually figure out ad-hoc XP that most DMs didn’t bother with it. That and D&D was handed down as a sort of “oral tradition,” where DMs learned from their previous group and never really bothered to read the books. There were a lot of house rules that people didn’t even realize *were* house rules and just general ignorance of how the game was meant to function.

    Then there was the attitude that anything that somehow increased the player’s strength levels was somehow bad. I joined a game and when I suggested using the XP for gold rule if they weren’t going to give quest XP, and was accused of being a “Monty Haul Hack and Slash Power Gamer.” Said campaign also handed out zero magic items and heavily nerfed all player characters. Not fun.

    I remember the howling protests by old grognards when the 3e rules came out and the XP system had been revised to actually allow players to level once in awhile. “Too much XP! Too Fast! Too many magic items! Argle blargle blarg!” The 3e CR system was so flexible you could give awards for all combat, some combat and quests, or nothing but quest awards and roleplaying XP. Just assign everything a CR and boom you’re done. There were even helpful rules for awarding adhoc XP, just do Level x 50 or Level x 100. Simple.

    But it required *gasp* math and *swoon* a chart so it had to go for 4e. Once again we were back to arbitrary, nonsensical XP tables with no rhyme or reason. No clues on how to hand out non-combat XP other that the retarded Skill challenge system that just plain sucked. 5e looks even worse with its completely wonky, illogical XP table where it actually takes more XP for lower levels than for higher levels.

    The argument is that DMs who don’t like the system can just not use it, but this is a complete cop out. If you don’t give DMs the tools, they won’t use them. The XP system is so fundamental to the game, that should at least work out of the box. The players shouldn’t have to pay $150 for books with broken core rules. This is the lesson they should have learned from 2e. Making everything back into “house rules and oral traditions,” asking players to fix the game themselves, is not a solution.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Grampy_bone,
      I love your look back on XP in 2E and 3E. In the 2E era, I was playing other RPGs, so I missed all this. Great perspective. Thanks! In my mind, a DM’s ability to change or ignore rules doesn’t excuse poor or broken rules. Well said.


  3. Groody says:

    I found that the best way to deal with XP is to actually ignore them. Just let everyone level every four or so play sessions, at suitable points in the story. This way there is no artificial incentive to slaughter monsters or to collect gold or for anything else. The players can act to overcome the obstacles as they like to achieve their objectives, through stealth, brute force, diplomacy or whatever else works. You save yourself the bookkeeping and can focus on telling the story or figuring out what the NPCs are up to.

    If you have players of different levels, let smaller levels level in between on occasion. If your campaign has no story line, you still can eyeball how much they got done, and allow them to level after four or so sessions.

    At least for me, after playing for about 35 years this works best for D&D variants, and the players like it, too. I did not get to play 1e, starting with AD&D, then 3rd (where we adopted this approach halfway through), Pathfinder, skipping 4th which appeared to mechanical, and recently switched to 5e. We started out originally with “Das Schwarze Auge”, an early German rip-off on D&D, and played also Midgard, Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Paranoia, Rolemaster/MERS, Elric! and Warhammer.

    • Don Holt says:

      I second this position, and I also have run for about 35 years. (Unless I can get the computer to automatically track it for me.)

    • DM David says:

      Hi Groody,
      In most modern games, calculating XP adds little except bookkeeping, so I agree. Most DMs might as well just let players level after a certain number of sessions. With a story-driven play style, players’ decisions have little if any impact on the amount of experience they gain, so why bother? Back in the early days, when daring players could seek more difficult areas in the dungeon and reap more XP, players could weigh risks against XP rewards.


    • ARG! Handing out XP and leveling everyone together… That’s fine for some groups. But some players are very competitive – and XP offers one more way to measure success. If everyone gets the same, then why bother taking risks?

      If levels are something the DM just gives away when he feels like it, well, it removes an opportunity to engage the players. Want to see your players try creative things? XP can be the carrot you need. And if one player levels before the rest, it just encourages the others to follow his example.

      Another incentive – players who don’t show up to sessions get no XP. This encourages players to show up. Stop awarding XP and a major incentive to show up regularly is gone. Ever hear this before? “Just play my character for me, okay?”

      XP. There is a reason.

      • owerowe says:

        Currently running an evil alignment based campaign for a pair of guys, and they are such a pair in real life indeed.

        Long story short, when they met an objective they couldn’t just hack and slash their way completely through, due to having dived headlong into a cave with 6 kobolds, I let them escape by way of paying a “ransom” and then one went right back into the cave sneaking and the other went to farm XP like it was World of Warcraft and he was farming boars to get strong enough to kill the kobolds.

        Thats why in extreme XP solely for stabbing monsters is stupid. It heavily encourages murder hoboism as both means and end.

      • owerowe says:

        I run an evil campaign for two people, and man they are a pair in real life as in playing D&D.

        Long story short, they ran headlong into 6 kobolds even after they tripped a scythe trap. I gave them the XP for getting the trap off, and they’re practically already level 2 (which is stupid, leveling is so fast in 5e, again a broken system), one went down and they got an out with a 30 gold ransom, so after they left the one that got sniped off went right back into the same damn kobold cave while the other split off to go kill random encounters in the forest for XP to level up so he’d be more powerful to kill the kobolds, a-la world of warcraft boar spam slaying style.

        That’s why it should take a long time to level up, and/or reward for killing stuff shouldn’t be nearly as high as it is; it just encourages murder hoboism as both means and end to the game.

      • Ricky says:

        I made a very simple system for myself. You need as much new xp as the next level requires. Going for level 5, you need 5 xp. It’s rewarded based on several things. Your character does not get it if you show up. If the group gets an adventure and does a decent amount of RP, they get 1. If they go and fight a single easy encounter, nothing. If they fight a difficult encounter they get 1. If they fight a few easy encounters in a single long rest they get 1. Basically, if they push themselves or their characters at all they get 1.

        I also offer little solo things, if a player wants it. Does the rogue want to sneak out at night and rob people. Sure, we can do that. Reward is based on risk.

        I don’t believe a level 10 fighter just wading through kobolds will actually learn much from it. That’s muscle memory for him. On the otherhand, that same fighter combating a mindflayer, or a dragon, or something to challenge him will learn and develop.

  4. Johnn Four says:

    I enjoyed this article. I would prefer to do level-ups every 4 sessions too, but my players want the XP per encounter. I am starting another campaign with a different group of players and have been thinking of XP for GP, so I look forward to the next part in the series.

    One thing I like about GPXP is it is one economy to manage. When creating an adventure, I only have to budget and allocate one pool of points. Those points get turned into XP and wealth at the same time for easy campaign balancing.

  5. JB says:

    There are three great reasons for using GP to determine XP:

    – It provides a common motivation for all players to act in a cooperative manner.
    – It encourages players to seek avenues besides simple combat as a means to accomplish objective goals (expending resources in combat is actually counter-productive to treasure-seeking, or at least requires a risk-v-reward assessment).
    – It effectively models the “adventurer” as a treasure seeker, where the most successful (and thus most powerful/effective) characters are the ones that can demonstrate their prowess in objective fashion (i.e. if you’re good at your job, you’ll have lots of wealth).

    Having said this, I will say there came a point in my youth, after playing running a LOT of AD&D 1E over 5-6 years, that we started exploring other avenues of adventure (“story lines”) outside of treasure acquisition. This might have been partly due to our non-wargaming backgrounds (we weren’t interested in fielding armies against each other), or our love of fantasy novels, or just general “burnout.” Regardless, I can see how other groups might have experienced the same disenchantment with gold for XP after years of long-term play and welcomed (or encouraged) the kind of thinking that led to 2nd edition.

    These days, however, I find there are other indie-type fantasy games that do the “story thing” better. Leave my D&D gaming about grubby treasure hunters.
    : )

    • DM David says:

      Well put. I can see why has so many readers (including me). Thanks for spreading the word about my humble efforts!


      • steelcaress says:

        Warhammer FRP and PC games like Gothic and Baldur’s Gate really shifted my thoughts on XP. Warhammer offered a static set of XP for major goals (like completing the adventure, or a chunk if it) and minor goals (like subduing an enemy that stands in the way of finishing the adventure). The computer games offered more XP for completing quests than killing things. That made me think about XP and how it was doled out, and I ended up using a base number for XP multiplied by their level, giving me complete control over how fast the characters levelled. I gave bonuses for tougher monsters.

        That said, you and the other posters make a compelling case for awarding experience points for loot. It makes sense if it figures into how fast you level. It never sat well with me originally, because I don’t learn anything by simply drawing a paycheck.

  6. Dan says:

    IIRC, the XP for gold system was depreciated in AD&D First Edition. XP awards were not published in the original Monster Manual due to the book bridging the transition between OD&D and 1E. I and my fellow players used MM1 with the OD&D rules. The original Dungeon Master’s Guide had the abbreviated monster listing towards the back with XP awards for defeating them.

  7. Arnaud Gomes says:

    If memory serves, AD&D2 kept awarding XP for treasure, but only to rogues (or was that only thieves?) In my case, this led to a party with a level 4 or 5 thief and a level 1 wizatd while everyone else was finally getting to level 2. So the thief effectively became the group’s best fighter, slowing advancement for the real fighters even more.

    Did anybody say “broken”?

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