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.

23 thoughts on “Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling

  1. R.G. Wood ⚔️💀🏳️‍🌈 (@grislyeye)

    > Don’t bother awarding XP to the group and then dividing by the number of characters… Instead, just award each character points based on the number and difficulty of obstacles.

    I really dig this but didn’t follow this part. Do you mean just award all the characters the same XP instead of dividing it up?

    Reply
  2. Windy DM

    Two quick thoughts:

    1) What about DM’s that have players that are not real good at record keeping? I have seen players that cannot keep track of the gp they earn. XP and math reduce their enjoyment.

    2) I like the entire party being the same level. I have a mature group, but I know things come up. I dislike business trips or college finals causing a player to lag. XP tracking would make this worse. Everyone levels at once, no one is penalized for missing when it is not their fault, and everyone likes it. And, it mostly evens out over the course of a campaign.

    Reply
    1. Michael Brown

      I totally get it with the players who have trouble tracking XP (or gold)!!! One thing I do is write down how much XP I award at the end of each session in my notes, so if there is a question/discrepancy, I can figure it out (I also make a note if anyone is absent from that session). Sounds like your group would benefit more from milestones. I think he wrote this post this for DM’s like me who prefer to use XP rather than milestones, but still acknowledge the way it currently works (as written) isn’t the way is *should* work. I’ve been using a method similar to what he suggests for my current campaign, but I didn’t have the numbers dialed in like he does, so I love it!

      Reply
    2. Tardigrade

      They’re lazy, stupid or playing you. As with children and dogs, you have to train them. Reward good behavior, punish bad behavior. If they forget to record their xp, that’s their problem.

      I find these kinds of players to not be worth the effort. If they cannot keep count of gold, xp and arrows, they do not belong at my table.

      Reply
      1. majorgs15

        While I might not go that far (stupid), depending upon the age of the players, this scares me as a parent and adult. What does it say about our future if our players can’t do simple math? Heck, I have used the “this will encourage them to learn about math, probability, simple statistics, etc.” as a “selling point” to bring new, younger players into the hobby when talking to parents, or school administrators about encouraging games/clubs to take up RPG’s.

        I wouldn’t call it “punishment” to have the players do this, but I agree, they shouldn’t be able to just “push it off” because they are too lazy.

        One other option – Monopoly has a “banker”. Your gaming party could have an “accountant” that keeps track of all this for the players, for some kind of “advantage”. (First dips on the hot pizza? Inspiration automatically? Charisma bonus when dealing with shopkeepers, etc.?). Just a thought.

        Personally, keep their mathematical brains sharp — if it isn’t on their sheet, they don’t have it. Bet they’ll keep track of that XP then! 🙂

        Reply
  3. Geoffrey

    I like some of the ideas, but well, it’s still to modern DND for my style.I actually like the struggle for xp earlier dnd provided.

    Still, I was wondering how to properly give more xp to my players, just gold and xp are a bit low. I think I should give xps according to a similar scheme for every relevant encounter. Which funnily enough is how I started in the 90s. All ideas see circular I guess.

    I’m not sure about the note cards with xp rewards. That basically makes the whole experience very WoW. Which might work or not. It does work in WoW after all.

    I actually was thinking about handing out achievements to my players for specific things. I was thinking this could be used to aid certain playstyles.

    One thing that never worked for me was the giving xp in the end of the session. At this point all of us normally are so bushed we barely can bold it together.

    Reply
  4. Mike Chase

    I’m confused about the first table you made. It looks like you’ve chosen numbers to set the pacing how you want it. Is that intentional, and is it intentional that the levels 3-10 will be more of a slog in terms of # of encounters, but from 11 onwards, the players will jump up pretty quickly?

    By way of example, the PHB says 355,000 to get from Level 19 to 20, and the DMG says 4,900 XP for a medium-difficulty encounter at level 19. Wouldn’t that then be 72.44 medium encounters to get from 19 to 20, not the 6 that’s in your first table?

    Reply
    1. Jacob Blalock

      You’re reading the PHB wrong. 355,000 is the total xp needed to reach Level 20, you should have at least 305,000 xp already to reach Level 20. So it takes at most 50,000 xp to reach Level 20 from Level 19.

      WoTC has stated that the xp progression was tailored to fit ONE session each at Levels 1 & 2. TWO sessions at Level 3. THREE sessions each at Levels 4 through 10. And then TWO sessions each at Levels 11 through 19.

      WoTC intentionally sped up the rate at which characters level above Level 10 in response to their observation that few campaigns make it much past Level 10.

      Reply
  5. Zontoxira

    A question: What exactly constitutes a challenge?

    DMG, and D&D by extension, puts emphasis on combat encounters, suggesting the afore-mentioned categories (pg 82); how one can implement those guidelines on non-combat challenges? just how scary or dangerous an interactive challenge can be? how one can use up their hit point pool and resource for exploration?

    Examples of non-combat challenges that spring out of my mind are: social interactions with NPCs, particularly tough negotiations; traversing the wilderness to locate some castle ruins; puzzles, riddles and investigation mystery cases. While the latter could be argued that most often test the players than their characters, it is generally assumed that these types of encounters are dealt with an ability check. Which brings the following question: What challenge there is if there’s no apparent need to spend one’s resources?

    Of course, we can always create elaborate encounters to challenge the characters and drain their resources, but do we want such a session of constant attrition? Does crossing a river, finding your path in labyrinthine hills, asking information about the local thieves guild, sneaking or talking your way into a smugglers’ den, searching for clues need to be a chore?

    My point is, of all the above examples, none really affects your hit points or expendable resources (of which the majority, unfortunately but quite reasonably, consists of combat abilities). When dealing with non-combat encounters, the real resource being potentially spent is magic and skill-enhancing powers; unless you are quite creative and abstract in your game, you won’t find any use of Second Wind, Rage, Wild Shape, Ki features, Divine Smite etc. out of combat situations.

    Reply
    1. sapphirecrook

      Here’s an interesting answer:
      Why should your combat prowess grow from you talking to people? If your level is 90% Combat, and you can clear non-combat obstacles just fine, why award experience? Why want to level up at all? What benefits exist to the story from being combat stronger if combat isn’t a focus?
      You can bring up the non-combat aspects, but they’re so few and far between that you’re better off playing another game or simply homebrewing a better progression together. Having to gain 10, god-like levels of power just so you can RP a little better is a sign you might not be using the system as intended .
      This is probably why 5e has such little level-stuff going on in the first place.

      Reply
    2. DM_Bill

      “none really affects your hit points or expendable resources…”

      I would suppose that it might matter, too, what your definition of “expendable resources” is. If, like in my campaigns, or some of the modules I’ve ran, that TIME is an expendable resource, then perhaps it would be good to reward players for something like decent time management.

      Even in things like social encounters, where some players yawn at the table when they have to actually engage NPCs in conversation, finding out that key piece of information from an NPC might actually matter. If you didn’t you might have to spend time, either in the game, or real time, to figure out where else to get the information.

      Recently I had my players spend about 20 minutes, real time, discussing what to do with a captured goblin. Not good time management, in real life, or in game, so if the incident called for a granting of xp, but they took 20 minutes to come to the decision, I think this is an incident where xp could have been granted if they had been more timely in retrieving the desired information, even though “real resources being potentially spent” didn’t happen.

      Reply
    3. majorgs15

      I think the focus shouldn’t be on “resources”, but rather the key word “Experience”. Has the challenged caused them to a) learn something new; or b) use existing capabilities (be those skill checks, or just plain cleverness) in a *NEW WAY*. DMDavid had mentioned “getting past a tricky/trapped door” as a possible “challenge”. If the group goes through the same door more than once, is there any NEW EXPERIENCES? If so, then credit them toward level advancement. If not, there’s more playing to happen. If the overland travel between “adventure sites” doesn’t have a “wandering monster encounter” (even those that are NOT combat oriented), that was NOT a challenge. Getting past the “toll troll” on a key bridge, just might be.

      Reply
  6. Jacob Blalock

    David’s # of medium encounters to level up math is significantly off on level 8 and levels 11-19.

    e.g. Level 11 should be 9 or 10 medium encounters (14,000xp/1500xp = 9.375).

    Reply
      1. Jacob Blalock

        I typed that correctly the first 3-4 times, but the page kept glitching out when I pressed the button to submit. Of course, the time I got frustrated and left a typo it actually posted….and now this post has taken me two tries.

        Reply
  7. Nicholas Qualls (@nikoscream)

    Question on the encounter math: I did a chart of medium encounters to level, and it mostly matches with some differences.

    For example on level 8, a medium encounter is 900xp. At 13 encounters, that’s 11,700xp. The total XP of level 8 is 34,000 and level 9 is 48,000, so that’s 14,000 between the two. So wouldn’t that be 16 encounters to get 14,400xp to level up?

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Experience Award Tokens – Melestrua's Musings

  9. Simon Newman

    The book XP numbers are far too big. I’ve gone to typically 20 XP per level, every level. This can be individual or a party tally. If individual, lower level PCs can get a x2 award. If party, either all PCs advance in lockstep, or PCs only advance when they play, but lower level PCs get a bonus auto advance at end of session. For 5e D&D around 7 XP for the average 3-4 hour session works well, so PCs advance slightly quicker than 3 sessions per level. This can be amended for play frequency, and a minor session may get half that (3-4 XP), where a major session gets 10 XP or more. XP to level can also be varied by Tier, but I’ve not found much benefit to this other than to get out of the level 1-2 death zone quickly.

    Reply
    1. Simon Newman

      The basic idea is that the most minor encounter or achievement worthy of XP gets 1 XP. Or it can be for an hour of play. I find that sets a good baseline. Then tougher, bigger, better stuff gets more XP, up to about 5 XP for a really big achievement.

      Reply
  10. EdOWar

    Jonathan Tweet’s Omega World had an interesting XP system. The GM awards XP based on what the PCs did for the session. Hide in a cave all session, no XP. Do normal adventuring stuff, 2000 XP. Do something epic (even if it ends in disaster), 5000 XP. That’s it. No need to judge every encounter and challenge; just rate the session as a whole.

    Reply
  11. Jojodogboy

    The DM assigning XP according to their subjective view of the quality of the play defeats one of the primary purposes of any XP system: incentivizing player behavior.

    XP awards should be clearly defined so players know what they will get for doing something. If you give exploration awards, tell the players, e.g., reaching the top of Shatterhorn Peak – 500xp, seeing the full moon over Slayer’s Bay 300 xp, etc.

    If your purpose is to grind through content, where levels of achievement don’t matter, ignore XP. Do what you want. If quality of play affecting the rate of level advancement gets in the way of reaching the end of a predetermined story arc, don’t use it. This actually removes much of the FUN of D and D imho, but it’s your game.

    One of the goals of the 1e d and d xp charts was to allow low level pcs to ‘catch up’ as the amount needed to advance doubled. This fit the open table play style of the time. If you don’t play that way, don’t use that system.

    Having experimented over the years with a variety of XP systems, I went back to xp for gold. It deincentivizes combat, as the rewards for gold outweigh combat. Given location based adventures it also rewards inventive play and exploration, as achieving treasure without conflict requires you to find it, plan how to get it, and make it out alive.

    In my 5e campaign, I cut btb combat xp in half and gave 1 xp for each 2 gp worth recovered. It worked. The PCs avoided combat and focused more on non-combat solutions.

    I know the argument, ” how does getting gold make you better at casting spells?”. Answer: It doesn’t. It’s a way of keeping score, practically no different then measuring success in any other fashion, such as for finishing an adventure path, per session, or overcoming a particular challenge in game.

    XP for gold is the only way to go for sandbox play.
    The ‘story’ emerges from player choices, and the level of risk and challenge is self selected by the players within the logic of the game fiction. The narratives that have emerged through play, created by DM and PC choices, have been better than most commercially available story arcs.

    I give bonus xp for exploration milestones and occasionally for awesome play, but the simple system works best.

    BTW, I honestly think DMs think too much about the ability of players to keep track of stuff. I have used individual initiative and XP in every version of d and d I have played. Even when my kids were 9 or 10 they could figure it out. I personally prefer to give each player additional responsibilities; marching order, mapper, chronicler, etc.

    (Please pardon typos due to tablet typing while drinking bourbon by the fire)

    Reply

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