Tag Archives: experience points

Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling

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
1 25 50 75 6
2 50 100 150 6
3 75 150 225 12
4 125 250 375 15
5 250 500 750 15
6 300 600 900 15
7 350 750 1100 15
8 450 900 1400 13
9 550 1100 1600 15
10 600 1200 1900 18
11 800 1600 2400 6
12 1000 2000 3000 7
13 1100 2200 3400 6
14 1250 2500 3800 7
15 1400 2800 4300 7
16 1600 3200 4800 6
17 2000 3900 5900 7
18 2100 4200 6300 6
19 2400 4900 8500 6

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
1 0 2
2 12 4
3 36 6
4 225 10
5 260 20
6 560 24
7 920 30
8 1360 36
9 1920 44
10 2560 48
11 3400 64
12 4000 80
13 4800 88
14 5600 100
15 6600 112
16 7800 128
17 9000 156
18 10600 168
19 12200 196

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. That topic must wait.

XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

When Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 1974, players rated experience points (XP) as one of the game’s most irresistible features. Now, all of D&D’s official adventures ignore the experience point system, and the official Adventurers League campaign has dropped XP. See XP started as one of D&D’s breakthrough ideas. Now the designers don’t see the point.

In the place of experience, the official adventures and the league substitute what folks commonly call milestone advancement—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.261) calls this method story-based advancement.

“I have no quarrel with you sir, but I need the XP.”

Dungeon masters typically favor milestone advancement because it spares them the chore of planning and calculating XP awards. Instead, milestones give DMs lazy and total control over when characters advance.

While DMs dislike accounting for XP, adventure writers hate fitting XP in their designs. Organized play campaigns typically required designers to write their adventures around combat encounters that net a specific number of XP. Some authors met their XP quotas by adding bandit encounters until ambushed by thugs became a cliché of awkward design. Adventure paths pose an even bigger challenge. “Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace,” writes D&D head Mike Mearls. “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” Designers who wanted fewer fights could add XP awards for accomplishing story goals, but these awards lead to the same outcome as just telling players to level up. Just telling players to take a level skips the math and planning.

Experience points come weighed with another negative: Everyone agrees that the XP system commonly used for D&D’s last 30 years is terrible. Those three decades began when D&D’s second edition stopped awarding experience for winning gold, leaving the notion that characters only gained XP for killing monsters. That has never been strictly true, but players, organized play, and designers most often treated XP-for-slaying as the rule.

D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat. Awarding XP just for monster slaying rewards just one of those pillars. This twisted incentive shapes play. For example, players in the third-edition Living Greyhawk campaign understood that their experience came from killing monsters, so many players felt resigned to solving every problem with violence. You might be able to succeed through stealth or diplomacy, but only battle guaranteed XP. “I once had a player tell me they were 40 XP short, so they wanted to go kill a few bears,” writes SwampRob. We’ve all known that player.

Erin Adams writes, “As a story-focused player, I’m not a huge fan of XP because it seems to skew the focus towards combat. I enjoy letting the DM decide when it’s time to level up because it often feels like a reward. Leveling after a tough social combat feels just as satisfying as leveling after a boss fight.”

When the Adventurers League stopped counting XP, the administrators cited a desire to support the roleplaying and exploration pillars.

DMs and adventure designers tend to dislike XP because milestones offer an easier route to the same bottom line. But computer games prove how compelling XP feel to players. With every battlefield victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards keeps gamers hooked. We all love stacking wins and watching our scores rise.

Fifth-edition D&D includes an excellent XP system that allows players to gain points for overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Characters can gain levels without grinding through combat. But the system still requires some bookkeeping. Do XP feel compelling enough to tabletop players to merit the math? Many players say yes.

Players like how winning XP gives a sense of progress. Nicholas Qualls writes “I enjoy the wrap up at the end of the game to see how well we did, and actually seeing a quantifiable measurement of progress.” Players enjoy anticipating the next level.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm describes the positive feedback loop that experience points create. “Growing in power feels good. Making progress with your character feels good. Making progress in the game feels good. Winning feels good. And connecting the extrinsic rewards with the intrinsic good feelings makes everything feel even better.” Some players like to beat monsters, some like to achieve progress in the game, some like to gain power, and some like watching their score zoom higher. Most of us enjoy a mix. Experience points connects all those good feelings into a loop where one joy leads to another. “Everyone gets something out of it. And therefore everyone can celebrate together even if their motives are different.”

XP Gives players a measure of control, which encourages players to take risks that make the game more fun and exciting. Peter James Mann writes, “I find that XP makes everyone at the table gamble for higher rewards, and that end game tally can really be a nail-biter. Unfortunately, milestone advancement has felt a little anticlimactic over time.”

Tom Henderson writes, “It makes me feel like I am actively involved with leveling my character as opposed to having a GM decide when I get to advance.”

XP makes an especially good fit for more open campaigns where characters wander without an overriding narrative shaped by a hardcover or a DM’s plan.

In more story-driven campaigns, where hooks and clues lead players through an adventure, and where the DM adds achievement XP awards, the players’ control over their advancement looks more like an illusion. Nate Finch writes, “The GM always just chooses when you level up. It’s just less work if you don’t have to bean count.”

The players who preferred milestones all touted the freedom from bookkeeping. Instead of feeling distracted by the game of seeking XP, they felt focused on story and character.

Milestone advancement works best when players know what achievement will earn their next level. Adam N. Dobson writes, “My group unanimously prefer milestones. The goals are made clear and they pursue them without feeling that they have to kill everything. Milestones are more inventive, immersed, and versatile.”

“If a DM uses [milestones],” Graham Ward writes, “I like to have some information on what those are. Even the illusion of an objective measure makes a difference for me. I hate when DMs decide on the fly.”

Next: Doing experience points right and the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of giving XP for gold.

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

When Dave Arneson ran a session of his Blackmoor dungeon for his Dungeons & Dragons co-creator, Gary Gygax’s biggest impression came from two innovations: (1) the dungeon expedition and (2) how characters improved with experience. In Playing at the World, author Jon Peterson describes reactions to the revolutionary game and shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. I shared their fervor. In my junior high cafeteria, when I overheard some kids talking about a strange game where you could kill an orc, gain experience points, and get better at fighting, that single notion hooked me.

Early in Dave’s Blackmoor campaign, characters earned one experience point for each hit point of the monsters they killed. Players rarely saw the details. Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls, “We didn’t track our experience points as is done now. Dave simply told us when we had transitioned from one level to another.” Dave liked to shield players from his game’s numbers, partly for mystery, partly so he could change rules whenever he thought of something better.

His method for awarding experience certainly evolved. In a 1978 interview, Dave Arneson recalled awarding experience for characters who used skills associated with their class. “Each player increases in 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.”

While realistic, awarding experience points (XP) for different activities could have split groups to work their separate professions. If characters 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 practice. “While it is more ‘realistic’ for clerics to study holy writings, pray, chant, practice self-discipline, etc. to gain experience, it would not make a playable game,” Gary wrote in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Magic users should be deciphering old scrolls, searching tomes, experimenting alchemically, and so forth, while thieves should spend their off-hours honing their skills, casing various buildings, watching potential victims, and carefully planning their next job. All very realistic, but conducive to boredom.”

In the pursuit of realism, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) took study so seriously 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?”

Gary saw dungeon expeditions as the second compelling innovation in Dave’s game. To succeed, the budding D&D game needed a way to lure every character into the dungeon, and then to reward their risk taking. Players loved seeing their characters gain power, so Gary motivated them to explore dungeons by stocking the underworld with treasure and by awarding characters experience for winning gold. The rogue might want wealth, and the paladin might want to smite monsters and to give to the church, but they could both win experience in the dungeon. Plus, the hunt for treasure resonated with players. Gary wrote, “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more that the lure of riches?”

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.

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 game so much fun.

Once treasure led characters to the dungeon, Gary harnessed the system to tempt players to higher risks. In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To draw characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: Low-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave newer characters a boost and so made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made monsters that drained characters of levels a bit less punishing.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system.

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 specific experience awards. Players liked to say the D&D only awarded XP for killing things, but that has never been true. While second edition stopped granting experience for gold, “a character can earn experience points for successfully completing an adventure or achieving a goal the DM has set.” But neither dungeon masters nor published adventures tended to follow the advice. Everyone, professionals included, tended to ignore improvised awards for experience in favor of the set numbers printed for each monster.

In the countless video games that adopted experience points, the mechanic proved its psychological draw. With every battlefield victory, gamers saw their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. Electronic games brought advantages to an XP system. The computer freed players from working the math, and CPUs patiently served an endless stream of foes to characters who needed to grind their way to the next level. Still, grinding hardly sounds fun.

When second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, D&D superficially became more of a game of killing than ever. Except D&D matured anyway. Adventures started spinning stories deeper than that one time we killed a minotaur for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. And that worked so long as when players joined a game, they joined an unspoken pact to find reason for their character to accompany the other characters in following the plot.

In the newer, story-driven play style, some players stopped seeing the point of counting experience. Those players included current D&D head, Mike Mearls. “Tracking experience points and using them to award levels makes a lot of sense in open-ended games, where the players can go where they wish, tackle the specific challenges that appeal to them, and create their own goals as a campaign progresses. In this type of game, when the players decide to assault the lair of a blue dragon, their primary goal is most often the treasure and XP they’ll gain for defeating it,” Mike wrote.

“In a more story-driven campaign, however, that lair assault could have a more complex purpose. Defeating the dragon removes a threat to the realm and creates a key event in the campaign’s story arc. In this type of campaign, treasure and XP take second place in the characters’ goals, behind the dragon’s importance in the narrative. The reward lies in making the kingdom safe and completing the mission, not necessarily in collecting loot. Leveling up might feel like the best way to mark that campaign milestone, even if the XP earned by slaying the dragon doesn’t quite cover it.”

In addition to faulting XP for failing to serve narrative campaigns, D&D’s designers disliked the bookkeeping behind XP. Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the designers behind D&D’s 3rd and 4th editions wrote, “We think that XP systems are better left to computer games.

Even today, players still mischaracterize D&D as a game that only awards experience for slaying, mainly because every monster lists an XP number, while diplomatic and other challenges lack them.

Meanwhile, the game’s designers abandoned experience points in favor of milestones—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. Mearls wrote, “In the past, we’ve always defaulted to using experience point rewards for everything. However, for narrative-driven adventures like adventure paths, that approach can prove troublesome. Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace. Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot. Otherwise, if characters don’t level up at the expected rate, subsequent chapters in an adventure path become too difficult or too easy.”

When Mike complains about jamming in combat encounters, he reinforces the canard that the D&D rules only allow XP for killing monsters. Even a long-time designer never considers other XP awards. To be fair, story awards that help characters meet the level requirements of an adventure yield the same result as a DM announcing that everyone gains a level. Milestones lose the math, but they also lose the hook of small XP rewards for successes, seeing progress, and then earning levels.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures lack enough monster-slaying XP to keep characters on pace with the adventure’s target levels. The designers could have added XP awards for other accomplishments, but they show little interest in supporting XP. This disinterest posed a problem for those of us who ran the hardcover adventures for the Adventurers League through the first 7 seasons. The league used experience then, and if the characters had only earned XP for slaying, they would never reach the levels targeted by the adventure. I may have violated the letter of League rules by awarding extra XP for overcoming non-combat challenges. I may be good, but I’m not completely lawful. Don’t tell the administrators.

Now, the League follows the D&D designers by dropping XP in favor of granting players the option to advance after an adventure, chapter, or other milestone.

Next: XP versus milestone advancement—at least we can all agree that awarding XP just for combat is terrible.

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

If you are a dungeon master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought dungeon masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, dungeon masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the dungeon master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons.

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an non-player character might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the character’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tallying experience points. Players keep track of the gold they win. Why not have a player keep track of experience points too? After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Numbering monsters. I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Compared to players attacking “this” and “that” monster, the numbers avoid confusion and speed play. Tracking damage becomes easier. See Number Your Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map. Usually, I hand one player a stack of numbered markers and let them tag the monsters.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the DM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. When a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe their moment. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the dungeon master. It belongs to everyone at the table. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less

If you are a game master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought game masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (Hint: Don’t do that.) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the GM’s attention. A GM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features as you describe them.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an NPC might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the NPC’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tracking conditions. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons loyalists can benefit from letting one player mark figures suffering from conditions such as bloodied, dazed and so on. If the player consistently remembers when conditions lift, then they keep better track than I ever could.

Tallying experience points. I haven’t recruited a player to keep track of experience rewards yet, but I should have started last night. After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the GM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage, yet that data never vaulted us into first place.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. This player can keep track in plain sight: in dry erase on a white board or the edge of the battle map. If that proves impractical, then when a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe the kill. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the game master. It belongs to everyone at the table.

What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide advises dungeon masters, “You can hand out as much or as little treasure as you want.” The new Dungeons & Dragons game offers DMs the freedom to create a gritty, low-magic campaign without any “intrinsic bonuses” that fix the math. It allows legendary campaigns where parties fly like superheroes and challenge the gods. All good, but most of us want a campaign that feels like D&D. Most will seek a middle path.

lossy-page1-399px-Dokumentation,_utställningen_'Silver_och_smycken_till_vardag_och_fest'_år_2006_-_Hallwylska_museet_-_85820.tifFor this baseline, the DMG lists random treasure hoards and suggests how many hoards to award through a tier of adventure.

Obviously, you can award treasure without rolling a random hoard. I suspect most DMs prefer to imagine their own treasure parcels and to award them as they see fit. In this post, I unpack the random hoards and find the middle path behind the random tables. If you skip the hoards, but aim to match the typical treasure awards, this post provides the targets that the DMG lacks.

Q: How many treasure hoards will the PCs win?

The DMG offers this guideline: “Over the course of a typical campaign, a party finds treasure hoards amounting to seven rolls on the Challenge 0-4 table, eighteen tolls on the Challenge 5-10 table, twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table, and eight rolls on the Challenge 17+ table.” (p.133)

Q: How many encounters must a PC complete to level?

At levels 1 and 2, PCs will typically complete 6 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

At level 3, PCs will typically complete 12 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

From level 4 to 9, PCs will typically complete 15 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

From level 10 to 19, PCs will typically complete 10 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

In any case, each hard encounter counts for about 1½ medium encounters. In actual play, the numbers will vary. For instance, many DMs award experience for non-combat challenges.

Throughout all tiers of play, PCs will collect 1 treasure hoard per 5 medium encounters. If you typically finish 5 encounters per play session, players get 1 hoard per session.

Q: How much gold will PCs gain over their career?

The following table shows the wealth a party will gain over their career, to be divided among the PCs. The hoard values come from averages calculated at blog of holding and Dreams in the Lich House. The value of a hoard at a tier tends to be 10 times the value of the prior tier. This fits with D&D’s tradition of steep increases in treasure. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.” All treasure values are in gold pieces.

Level Hoards at level Encounters
at level
Hoard value Gold at level Cumulative gold at start
1 1 6 376 376 0
2 1 6 376 376 376
3 2 12 376 752 751
4 3 15 376 1,128 1,504
5 3 15 4,545 13,635 2,632
6 3 15 4,545 13,635 16,267
7 3 15 4,545 13,635 29,902
8 3 15 4,545 13,635 43,537
9 3 15 4,545 13,635 57,172
10 3 17 4,545 13,635 70,807
11 2 10 36,200 72,400 84,442
12 2 10 36,200 72,400 156,842
13 2 10 36,200 72,400 229,242
14 2 10 36,200 72,400 301,642
15 2 10 36,200 72,400 374,042
16 2 10 36,200 72,400 446,442
17 2 10 336,025 672,050 518,842
18 2 10 336,025 672,050 1,190,892
19 2 10 336,025 672,050 1,862,942
20 2 336,025 672,050 2,534,992
Wealth at end of career: 3,207,042

Unlike Third- and fourth-edition, this edition offers no obvious outlet for the PCs’ wealth at higher levels. Earlier editions empowered PCs to buy magic items. PCs spent their gold on equipment that enhanced their power. The DMGs showed the wealth that PCs required to beat the monsters. Too much gold meant that PCs romped through dungeons, dropping monsters like pinatas; too little meant total-party kills. The new game sets no such requirements.

Q: How many magic items will each PC gain?

This table shows the magic items each member of a party of 4 will gain when they
score the typical number of treasure hoards. To keep pace, parties with more than 4
PCs will need to gain magic items from other sources such as more hoards, fallen enemies,
or a magic item market.

Level Consumable items Permanent items
1 1 common 1st uncommon
2 1 common
3 1 common
4 1 common
5 1 common 2nd uncommon or a 1st rare
6 1 uncommon
7 1 uncommon
8 1 uncommon 1st rare or 2nd uncommon
9 1 uncommon
10 1 uncommon
11 1 rare 2nd rare or a 1st very rare
12 1 rare
13 1 rare
14 1 rare 1st very rare or a 2nd rare
15 1 rare
16 1 very rare
17 1 very rare 1st legendary
18 1 very rare
19 1 very rare
20 1 legendary

Update: Andy Pearlman presents an exhaustive analysis of the treasure tables in this post on Magic and the Math of 5E. He concludes that PCs will claim about 5 items over the course of their career rather than the 6 listed in my table. Also, his analysis shows that +3 and other legendary items start trickling into the PCs’ hands at level 11.

This table only shows the magic PCs gain in a typical game, not the magic they require. In earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, higher-level characters required magic items that increased accuracy, which is a character’s chance of hitting. Without these accuracy enhancements, a PC could hardly hit, only flail away, hoping for a natural 20. In fifth edition, PCs can hit without magical accuracy bonuses, so they do not require magic just to play. Obviously, magic items still make PCs more powerful, but at any level, a PC without magic can contribute.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? Three principles of granting gold

Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

The original Dungeons & Dragons game awarded characters an experience point for each gold piece they claimed from the dungeon. See “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.” This provided a simple method of awarding non-combat experience and motivating players to loot dungeons—the activity that made the game fun. The success of awarding XP for gold rested on three premises of the early D&D game.

  • Adventures always occur within the dungeon or wilderness.
  • Players choose the difficulty of the challenges they dared to face.
  • Characters will find ways to spend their riches.

By the time second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, none of these premises remained true.

Premise: Adventures stick to the dungeon. When D&D adventure expanded beyond the dungeon into civilization, players felt tempted to treat towns and cities as massive gold and experience farms. Why bother facing terrors and traps underground when the local townsfolk offer sources of wealth, and the XP it brings? For more, see “Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

This problem invites an easy solution: By the 1981 Basic Set, characters needed to recover gold from a dungeon or similar adventuring location to gain experience for it.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a recent game with an old-school XP-for-gold system, lists many sources of gold that do not count for XP.

The following may gain the characters wealth, but they do not count for XP purposes:

    • Coins looted from bodies outside of adventure locations
    • Rewards
    • Selling equipment stripped from foes
    • Selling magical items that have been used by a PC or retainer
    • Tax income
    • Theft of wealth from mundane merchants, rulers, and citizens
    • Trade, commerce, and other business activity (including selling of mundane items stripped from foes)

If you want XP, you must earn it.

Premise: Players set the challenge. In most modern D&D campaigns, dungeon masters devise adventures that will challenge their players without proving too difficult. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes pages of budgets and formulas aimed providing just enough challenge.

In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

This system gives players a choice that they lack now, and it added a element of strategy.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To lure characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: First-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave new players a boost, and made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made level draining a bit less punishing.

Premise: Players have meaningful ways to spend their riches.

Before 2E, most of the experience players gained came from gold. For example, in the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook (p. 45), Tom Moldvay wrote that characters could expect to gain 3/4 or more of their XP from treasure. With experience requirements roughly doubling at each level, players needed tons—as in thousands of pounds—of gold to advance. In an evaluation of the basic-expert rules set, Blackrazor calculates that to advance from 8th to 9th level, a party of characters must claim 40 tons of gold.

In a real world, such a bounty would cause runaway inflation and threaten an economic collapse. Luckily, PCs typically leave these bounties unspent, keeping a tally on the character sheet instead. No DM makes the party round up the 80 Bags of Holding needed to carry 40 tons of loot.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge #254Of all the versions of D&D, these basic-expert rules present a worst case, but every edition serves up enough gold to fill Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools.

In Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, players could spend their riches in an end game. In Blackmoor, player characters served as leaders and champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. PCs explored dungeons to gain wealth that could enable them to raise armies, build fleets, and erect strongholds.

Gary had designed the Chainmail miniature rules that Dave used, so a progression from green adventurer to battlefield champion to baron seemed natural to both men. The original D&D game includes prices for castle structures and ships, along with costs for the men at arms and sailors needed to build a kingdom. The game served up riches, but the wealth led PCs out of the dungeon and onto the miniature battlefield.

This scheme suffered one problem: Almost no one went on to the stronghold-building, army-raising part of the game. That sort of play made sense to miniature players like Dave and Gary, but the game’s new players had no experience with sand tables and lead figures. The price lists for barbicans and medium horsemen puzzled us. Even the miniature grognards kept going back to the dungeon. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit.

So D&D characters gained riches fit for kings, but they kept returning to the dungeons for another score.

Next: D&D stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains.

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.