Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

By popular reckoning, the original Dungeons & Dragons play style centered on killing monsters and taking their loot. But D&D’s experience rules focused less on killing than folks think. The monster and treasure tables provided as much as three times as many XP for gold as for slaying. Savvy players learned to snatch treasure without a fight. Their characters lived longer that way.

Still, gamers criticized the rule for awarding experience for gold as unrealistic. For example, in the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his campaign 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.” The second-edition designers agreed, because they removed XP-for-gold from D&D.

But D&D co-creator Gary Gygax never aimed for realism. He intended to reward players with XP and levels for doing the things that made D&D fun—for exploring dungeons and for taking risks when surely the Oerth merchant trade promised wealth with no chance of a painful death in some murder pit. D&D’s third-edition designer Monte Cook gets the point. He writes, “I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets players get. Give the players XP for doing a thing and that thing is what they’ll do.”

Over time, D&D players started spinning stories about topics other than that time we killed a troll for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. For this sort of campaign, the classic awards of XP for gold and XP for slaying both fall short. In Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling, I suggest awarding XP for overcoming obstacles, but during D&D’s exploration pillar, the obstacles often miss the point.

If a party finds a secret door to the magic fountain, should they earn less XP than the party that killed the monsters guarding the obvious route? If obstacles bring rewards, then the party who finds the secret misses XP. If discoveries win points, then both groups gain for finding the fountain, and perhaps the observant party gains for finding the secret way.

Discovery is the soul of Monte Cook’s Numenera roleplaying game, so the game awards XP for discoveries rather than for overcoming challenges or killing foes. In D&D, similar awards can spotlight the goal of exploration: discovery.

For investigation and exploration adventures, the obstacles come from a lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make.

To reward explorers for discovery, get a copy of your map and highlight the features to find: magic fountains, hidden shrines, magic items, keys, maps, hidden passages, and clues to the prince’s disappearance. Divide the number of XP characters need to level by the number of discoveries you hope they make before advancing. Then mark each discovery with the point award it brings. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling for a helpful table of points.) If you like precision, adjust the points so bigger discoveries bring bigger rewards. Optionally, you can mark obstacles the group must overcome and include them with the discoveries. Some gamers favor calling D&D’s exploration pillar its discovery pillar instead. This XP method fits that notion perfectly.

Flashing back to 1973, perhaps Gary should have chosen this XP system for his dungeon-crawling game. How would that small change have shaped the way we played?

Related: XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

8 thoughts on “Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

  1. Pingback: Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling | DMDavid

  2. Frederick Coen

    I reward players for *overcoming* foes. When they bribed the pack of dire wolves with meat instead of fighting, they received full XP.

    But, I definitely reward players for discovery and for story checkpoints. In the session where they bribed the giant wolves, they earned 1600XP… and there were no fights. They found a missing dwarven patrol, resupplied a cut-off fort, refortified an ancient watchtower, and simply survived an ambush from a powerful foe.

    Two sessions ago, because Story, magmin were being constantly generated by a cursed lavafont. They received no XP for the constant (4 per hour) battles, but instead received XP for finding and closing the secret door to seal the font. They fought a couple giant spiders later, but earned more XP for finding the “crystallized magic” cavern hidden behind the spiders’ webs and locating the goblins’ hidden exit tunnel so they could escape!

    So I guess, TL;DR = I agree!

  3. Blackrazor

    Yeah, my 5d campaign used experience for doing things. Kill stuff, exp. Kill stuff dramatically or with flair more exp. Cast your spell at a good time – exp. Come up with a cool plan experience- make it work more exp. Role-play well with enthusiasm- exp. Discover something new- experience. Perform a skill you have well – exp.

    So this method was handing out 5s 10s 25s and rare 50s. I explained the added math task to the players ip front and they didn’t mind – I think they appreciated they would be rewarded for playing the game in many ways.

    Experience in these small doses added up quick and was nearly on par with 5e experience though just a tad bit slower.

    BENEFIT- players did a whole bunch of stuff to earn exp, the game world was a chance to literally experience.

    DRAWBACK- lots of addition and erasing. We moved to dry erase for ease of change.

  4. simontmn

    I use XP for discovery, but “Divide the number of XP characters need to level by the number of discoveries you hope they make before advancing. Then mark each discovery with the point award it brings” seems a bit too akin to milestone levelling, so I use the following:

    “XP awards tend to increase over time, as the scale of achievements increase.
    Acquiring significant Treasure is usually worth some XP, as is rescuing prisoners, infiltrating a guarded keep, exploring a cavern network, etc. A typical major session award for non-combat achievements might be 25 XP per PC at level 1, rising to ca 100 XP per PC at level 4.”

    “Low Level (Tier 1) XP awards (per PC)
    Easy Achievement: 10 XP (Challenge 0)
    Minor Achievement: 25 XP (Challenge 1/8)
    Moderate Achievement: 50 XP (Challenge 1/4)
    Major Achievement: 100 XP (Challenge 1/2)
    Very Hard Achievement: 200 XP (Challenge 1)
    Exceptional Achievement: 450 XP (Challenge 2)

    Mid Level (Tier 2) XP awards (per PC)
    Easy 50 XP (Challenge 1/4)
    Minor 100 XP (Challenge 1/2)
    Moderate 200 XP (Challenge 1)
    Major 450 XP (Challenge 2)
    Very Hard 700 XP (Challenge 3)
    Exceptional 1100 XP (Challenge 4)

    High Level (Tier 3) XP awards (per PC)
    Easy 200 XP (Challenge 1)
    Minor 450 XP (Challenge 2)
    Moderate 700 XP (Challenge 3)
    Major 1100 XP (Challenge 4)
    Very Hard 1800 XP (Challenge 5)
    Exceptional 2300 XP (Challenge 6)

    Epic Level (Tier 4) XP awards (per PC)
    Easy 700 XP (Challenge 3)
    Minor 1100 XP (Challenge 4)
    Moderate 1800 XP (Challenge 5)
    Major 2300 XP (Challenge 6)
    Very Hard 2900 XP (Challenge 7)
    Exceptional 5000 XP (Challenge 8)”

    1. Frederick Coen

      I also tend to scale my “noncombat awards” based on party level and challenge. Delivering supplies to the first dwarven tower required heading into unknown territory against an unknown threat, but with a clear (and visible!) target. Delivering supplies to the next location required only following a road and keeping wild animals from eating the food… still a story award (they weren’t *required* to deliver supplies), but much less risk = less reward!

      1. simontmn

        Yup me too – in my system for a typical wilderness I might give 100 XP to each PC for the first tower (a major achievement for Tier 1 PCs, minor at Tier 2), but only 25 XP each for the second & subsequent deliveries. I generally have around 8 PCs and a couple classed NPCs in a party, so 100 XP each would be around 1000 total.

        1. simontmn

          In your example I’d probably also have given some specific XP for the wolves and the ambush, so possibly not too different to your 1600 XP overall – I have deliberately kept XP awards fairly modest in this campaign though, it’s designed to run for years & years. 🙂


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