Even though experience points have fallen from the favor of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, XP brings advantages proven by countless video games. XP show players steady progress to the reward of their next level. Players feel a sense of control over their advancement. With every victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. (See XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas and XP Versus Milestone Advancement.)
As I run Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, I’m using the story-based awards set in the text because adapting for experience points seems like too much work for any potential benefits. Still, in a more open campaign, I would opt for XP.
I suspect D&D fans undervalue the XP system. Dungeon masters tend to be more vocal in D&D circles, but we gain no rewards from experience points, so we just see a chore. As for players, seasoned D&D fans feel far too canny to fall for cheap psychological tricks. (Also, we never stay up playing a video game for just one more level, and we never become distracted by social media.)
For DMs who want the advantages of XP, fifth-edition D&D features a mostly-excellent system. Too bad the terrible part of the system—the XP awards for individual monsters—gets all the attention. Ignore those XP scores for two reasons:
The monster XP values hardly relate to the difficulty of the encounter. Most of encounter difficulty stems from the relative numbers of monsters and characters. Also, some monsters like banshees and shadows hit harder than their XP value suggests, others like spell casters rarely survive long enough to merit their XP.
Monster XP values steer players toward fighting, even when they might prefer to overcome obstacles with ingenuity and roleplaying.
As my dear Nana used to say about monster XP calculations, “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”
Instead of using the monster values, rate every obstacle, even combative monsters, as non-combat challenges as described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Each challenge gets a difficulty rating of easy, medium, hard, and deadly—call that nearly impossible. If you run a campaign where players have enough freedom to seek greater challenges, higher difficulty scores match higher risks with bigger rewards. Otherwise, you may as well rate every challenge as medium. Uniform ratings free you from judging difficulties and the points even out over the course of the campaign.
By this system, look for places in the adventure where the players’ goals meet an obstacle. The obstacle could be a monster, but also a puzzling door into the treasure room, a disagreeable queen who might offer help, or an ogre with a key. The players can set their own goals with help from the adventure’s hooks, secrets, and clues.
Whenever the players overcome an obstacle on route to their goal, they earn experience for the achievement. Some solutions might pass an obstacle, but leave problems for later. Think of times when the characters sneak past a monster that remains to block their escape. In these situations, you can grant half the XP award for half a resolution.
For investigation and exploration goals, the obstacle comes from the lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make that bring them closer to their goal.
Don’t bother awarding XP to the group and then dividing by the number of characters. Such math only makes sense if you count XP scores by monster, and monster XP scores assume a bogus precision that D&D can’t offer. Instead, just award each character points based on the number and difficulty of obstacles. And in most campaigns, count every obstacle as medium difficulty.
To determine how much experience to award to each character, the following table shows current party levels and the XP awards for easy, medium, and hard obstacles. Nearly impossible challenges earn as much as two medium challenges.
|Current Level||Easy XP Award||Medium XP Award||Hard XP Award||Medium XP Awards to Advance|
If the party mixes characters of mixed levels, award experience points based on the higher-level characters in the party. This helps the lower-level characters catch up. Few players will complain about advancing too quickly.
Sometimes characters need extra experience to keep pace with, say, a hardcover adventure. You can award bonus experience for bigger, story achievements. If you plan on such awards, then when the players set the goal, I suggest writing the quest and award on a note card and giving it to the players. This makes the award feel like a prize for an achievement rather than an arbitrary bonus. The value of XP comes from how the points feel to players. Such bonus XP awards correspond to the milestones described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
In games where wandering monsters encourage characters to act with urgency, you might skip awarding XP for overcoming these foes. Wandering monsters serve to penalize players for dillydallying, so adding an XP reward just mixes the message. In the original D&D game, wandering monsters usually lacked treasure and the XP award that gold brought, so they worked as a similar consequence for loitering.
My XP table shows the number of medium-difficulty XP awards required to gain a level. This helps DMs see how quickly characters will level and helps plan the pace of a campaign. For faster or slower advancement, you can adjust the XP awards listed.
Players commonly fault XP for adding math and bookkeeping. Many close relatives of D&D adopt smaller XP numbers as a quick route to simpler math. For example, in the second edition of Pathfinder, gaining each level takes 1000 XP. But such uniform numbers might cost a system a key advantage: D&D’s steep, level-by-level rise in XP awards speeds the advance of lower-level characters who join higher-level parties. That helps new characters and players who miss sessions catch up to their companions. Characters never fall far behind their group. Pathfinder works to capture a similar advantage by granting party members behind in level double XP.
Still, an XP system that counts obstacles rather than monsters could grant 1 point for an easy, 1st-level obstacle rather than 25. From there, every XP award would be 1/25th of its current D&D value. This table shows XP values divided by 25.
|Level||Experience Points||Medium XP Award|
The smaller numbers have some appeal, but they hardly merit a house rule that confuses players by replacing the standard XP advancement table.
Some DMs suffer from players who ask for XP awards throughout a game session. While this reveals the addictive boost XP can deliver, it also brings the worst aspects of XP, the bookkeeping and distraction.
Never award XP until the end of a game session. But avoid delaying the awards until next time, because you want the accomplishments to feel fresh and the rewards immediate. Review of the characters’ successes while you cite the XP awards each earns, and then the total award for the session.
Recounting the achievements and awards makes the most of the cheap, I mean, powerful psychological boost brought by XP. Players hear they did well and feel good about their accomplishments. Plus, the account helps everyone understand and remember the session. This pays off during the next session.
Related: How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.
Postscript: My last post promised the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of gold, but this post has run long enough. See XP for discovery.