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.