How to XP Good

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Banner Patreon 800 x 100Buckle up, kids. This is one of those articles that only exists because I got into a fight. Well, several fights. Thanks to social f$&%ing media and the fact that an entire generation of morons has been told that each and every one of them is special and that their opinions and ideas are just as good as everyone else’s, every time I make a point, I am bombarded with the verbal equivalent of what apes fling at each other to prove their dominance.

Now, I will admit that some of this metaphorical crap was flung because we just don’t have a good, rigorous language in RPGs, but we sure as hell think we do. For a genre of games so steeped in their goddamned alienating jargon, you’d think all the elitist inner circle jerks could at least communicate with each other. But no. We all flings word around thinking we know what they mean and it never occurs to us that no two definitions are alike. For example, I’m apparently the only person who actually knows the origin of the phrase murderhobo and what it was ACTUALLY used for.

But I’m not talking about murderhobos. I’m talking about experience points and leveling up and character advancement and all of that crap. And milestones. Especially milestones. And lazy GMs who don’t understand s$&% about human psychology. But let’s take this one step at a time. Before I get into the big argument, I want to address the latest garbage I heard from an actual f$&%ing professional game designer of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s related, but it’s only a side note. So I’m just going to throw it in here before I get to the good stuff.

Mike Mearls’ Gives More Terrible Advice

So, Mike Shea – AKA Sly Flourish – interviewed Mike Mearls for something. I don’t know what. I don’t follow Shea anymore. It’s some sort of regular video show or podcast or whatever that Shea does. You can check out the video in question. And the interview was not exactly terrible, even though it’s clear that Mearls doesn’t want to play D&D anymore but he has to because I’m pretty sure it’s in his contract. But Mearls did give a lot of terrible advice. And one piece of terrible advice he gave was that, after three years of observing groups playing D&D, he – Mearls – has decided that players aren’t gaining levels fast enough. He said that players should level up at least once a session and ideally EVERY FOUR HOURS. You can go back and listen to the interview if you want the context. Frankly, it doesn’t help.

This is bulls$&%. And I can prove that even the D&D designers – except Mike Mearls – think so. If they wanted you to gain a level every four hours, they would have built that into the game. And they didn’t. First of all, the official, core way of doling out XP is to dole it for defeating monsters by way of killing, routing, or capturing them. That’s on DMG 260. The DMG also tells us how many encounters a party can handle in one adventuring day and how much XP a given encounter should be worth for a party of a given level and so on. Without going into too much detail, excepting 1st and 2nd level, a party should generally face between six and eight encounters in an adventuring day and that it will take roughly two to three such days to gain a level. That means a party will have to get through between twelve and twenty-four encounters to gain a level. You want to tell me they intended for you to pull that s$&% off in four hours? Bulls$&%.

But there’s a more important reason why the characters shouldn’t advance that quickly. And that reason is a matter of pacing and flow. See, the designers thought it was very important to ensure that most characters gained at least one or two interesting new tricks every level. And some characters gain more than that. And some levels are more loaded than others. Spellcasters gain a substantial number of new tricks every second level, for example. The point is when people gain new options in a game – whether it is a video game or a role-playing game or whatever – there is an adjustment period. Especially if the game is multiplayer. Players need to learn how their new abilities work. They need to work out the rules. And they need to see how their abilities fit into the group dynamic. They need to learn all of the other abilities all of the other characters learned. In video games, this usually gets covered with a tutorial followed by a series of lesser challenges that highlight the new ability.

During that adjustment or tutorial period, apart from the initial excitement of trying something new out for the first time, the players are not enjoying their new abilities. The players are vaguely off-balance. They are wrong-footed. They are reassessing what they know about what their character can do. And, in D&D, they are also adjusting their resource management game to account for the new abilities. After the adjustment or tutorial period, there comes a comfort period. A period wherein the players are actually comfortable with their abilities and now they are having fun with them. That’s the fun part.

Oh, and the GM also has to go through a similar adjustment period. The players – as a group – are suddenly capable of a whole bunch of new things. And while the GM might have a textbook understanding of those things, seeing them in play is much different.

Do you see where this is going? If so, congratulations, you’re smarter than the Senior Manager for Design and Development for the Dungeons & Dragons Team. If not, I’m disappointed in you.

Players should spend two sessions at every level. During the first session, they are all shaking out their new abilities and seeing what they can do and what they can do together. After that session, they can reflect on their experiences and talk about their plans. If there was any confusion about any of the abilities, the players and the GM can review the rules. By the next session, they are comfortable with their new abilities. Mostly. Nearly. Depending on how many new things there are.

But I’m going to go a step beyond that. I’m going to say that the D&D design team is actually smarter than Mearls. They understood the crap that I just explained. And I can provide circumstantial evidence for that. If you look closely at the Character Advancement table (PHB 15) and compare it to things like the XP by Challenge Rating table (DMG 275) and the various encounter and adventure design rules (DMG 81-85), you’ll notice that some levels go slower than others. And some go faster. And, roughly speaking, those levels align – more or less – with the levels that include big changes for various classes. It’s almost as if they knew players and GMs need more time to get used to characters after they learn a host of new abilities.

What’s the idea rate of advancement? Well, maybe this will f$&%ing shock you, but it’s the one in the goddamned rules! That’s why they put that one in there! But Mearls doesn’t seem to like the D&D rules much in general. So… there’s that.

Anyway, that’s my digression. But it does lead us to an important point: how do you award XP well? How do you do it right? Well, that’s what we’re going to focus the next few thousand words on.

Advancement is Everything

Character advancement for MOST players – but not ALL, I know there are some bats$&% insane people out there who care a lot less about advancement and they usually give some elitist sneer about how they “only care about the RP” like we’re supposed to be so f$&%ing impressed by their commitment to character acting that they can’t come out of their spotlight long enough to also enjoy an actual GAME now and then…


Character advancement is a remarkably complex issue. Game designers drive themselves absolutely bonkers about it. And that’s because it is wrapped up in so many different parts of the game experience. And when I say “game experience,” I mean it is wrapped up in how the game feels to the players. First of all, it’s tied to the flow of the game. That is, it’s tied to how the characters’ abilities match up with the difficulty of the obstacles they encounter. That’s important because players need a sense of growth over time. But not all of that growth can come from player skill. And player skill is a whole other giant issue we need to discuss some day. So, character advancement allows the players to feel like they are growing like they are rising to meet greater challenges. It creates a sense of progress. At the same time, it also allows them to face greater obstacles – combats, social interactions, traps, exploration challenges, and everything else – over time. That allows the scope and scale of the game to expand and creates a sense that the game is moving toward something and not simply going in circles.

But character advancement is also psychologically important because, as necessary as it is for the pace and flow of the game, it’s also a reward. Because gaining more power feels good and progress feels good, gaining levels feels good. It makes players happy. It makes them excited. In point of fact, it drives them to keep playing. And it’s quantifiable. Unlike a story goal – like rescuing a princess or saving a village – advancement is measurable and mechanical and tangible. That isn’t to say that story goals don’t also feel good. They do. But they feel good differently. For different reasons. And the sense of victory story goals provide are fleeting. They don’t usually leave a permanent mark on the character the way character advancement does.

But that’s not all. You’d think that would be enough. But it isn’t. Character advancement does even more than that. At least, it does when you tie it to the accrual of Experience Points. There’s a reason the accrual of points is such a popular way to handle character advancement. A point-based system does two other psychological things. And those both come from how point-based systems actually work. In a point-based system, as the player performs various tasks or actions or overcomes certain challenges, they accrue points. Points which they can see. And they can also see how far they are from the next character advancement threshold. With me so far? Great.

Now, here’s the two psychological things that result from that setup. First, there’s a direct through-line from the players’ actions and choices through their progress and ultimately to their goals. It tells the players’ that their own advancement – their own growth – is entirely the result of their actions in a very direct, measurable, systematic way. It creates a sense of agency in the game half of the game in much the same way that the through-line from motivations and incitements through choices through consequences to story accomplishments creates a sense of agency in the other half of the game. XP advancement creates a sense of agency in the ‘G’ part in the same way that story goals creates a sense of agency in the ‘RP’ part. And BOTH PARTS are important!

Second, but related, the point-based system allows the game designer – or Game Master – to drive behavior and promote a certain style of play. And to score players based on their play to encourage efficiency and clever play. For example, if I only award XP for killing monsters dead, I’m discouraging the players from sneaking past monsters, routing monsters, negotiating surrenders, or avoiding combats. I’m pushing them to kill absolutely everything they encounter. That’s obvious, right? But what if I give the players more XP for defeating or circumventing monsters without killing them. Kill a goblin, get 100 XP. Rout the goblin and let it run, that’s 125 XP. I’ve changed the whole dynamic of the game, right? What if, after each fight, I rate the players’ performance in combat and give bonus XP based on how efficiently they fought. Or how quickly?

Consider this scenario: a group of goblins accosts the party. The goblins aren’t sure they can win the fight, so they want to parley. The group wants to cross the goblins’ lands. Now, suppose I give more XP for social interaction encounters than I do for combat encounters. How will the group likely handle the encounter? Suppose I give more XP for combat encounters than social interaction encounters? How now? And what if I give equal amounts?

That sort of incentive structure is only possible if there exists a direct, quantifiable, and observable through-line from choices to advancement. And that’s why XP is such a common way to handle advancement.

Are You Ignorant or Lazy?

Given how much of a game’s feel relies on character advancement – and especially how much of how PLAYERS feel about the game – I’m frankly baffled by how few warning labels there are on advancement systems in RPGs. The subject of character advancement is covered in the Dungeon Master’s Guide entirely in the span of one-and-a-half pages. And nothing there mentions anything about how important character advancement is to the feel of the game or player psychology. Instead, it gives this wishy-washy bulls$&% about rewarding players for overcoming foes. But if you want, you reward the players for different things. Or not even bother. You can just make up advancement however you want. It’s fine. Do what you want. Won’t affect a thing.

Considering how other game designers agonize over character advancement, I really wonder if the designers at WotC even WANT to be designers anymore. And frankly, I feel like this is one of those things that most GMs shouldn’t be trusted to tinker with without a lot of warning labels. Which, I guess, is precisely why I’m here writing this article.

See, this here is precisely how I got into my latest social media fight. See, various GMs were talking about using “milestone” advancement and not bothering with XP at all. The confusion, by the way, arose because people had different definitions of “milestone” advancement. I’m going to skip that argument for now. We’ll talk about milestones below.

The GMs I was arguing with were advocating for just ignoring XP altogether. They suggest that a GM should just tell the players when to level up. Not arbitrarily, of course. Well, some GMs were more arbitrary than others. But that’s neither here nor there. Most GMs were advocating for tying level advancement to major story developments. That is, say, if the party finished the goals of the adventure, they gained a level. End of story.

The interesting thing that came out of this argument – apart from me discovering that many online GMs will go to great lengths to remain willfully ignorant and rationalize their laziness – the thing that came out of this argument is that many GMs prefer such Non-Point-Based Advancement and many players absolutely hate when GMs pull that s$%&. Which doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I’ve known that for many, many years. I experimented with that Non-Point-Based crap seventeen years ago and, finally, my players had an intervention and told me to cut it out or they were walking because they liked earning points. And, that was just ONE group. I’ve run REGULAR, ONGOING campaigns for over 70 players at this point in my life. That’s not counting one-shots, conventions, and short-lived games of three months or less. I’ve got a good sample size to draw on whenever I say “this is how players think.” And lots of people weighed in on Twitter and basically split along those lines. GMs hate doing points, players prefer it.

And the reason? Because GMs are lazy f$&%s. Running a game is a lot of work. I’m not denying that. And doing a whole bunch of math to hand out XP isn’t a lot of fun. But tough s&%$. You took the job. Suck it up.

As I noted above, advancement is vitally important to the feel of the game. And, most importantly, to how the players feel about their own growth in the game. It’s at the heart of everything the players feel, mechanically, about their characters and how they interact with the world. It is too f$&%ing important for it to be the thing the GM cuts corners on.

One Twitter follower put it very succinctly. He noted that his players used to demand point-based advancement. And then his players became GMs and started running their own games. And now they all prefer to just hand out levels at their whims.

Lazy. And ignorant.

And I’ve got no respect. Do your f$&%ing job.

And I don’t have time to address the stupid-a$& argument that non-point-based advancement is the only way to reward anything other than combat in D&D. It’s f$&%ing wrong. And stupid. And you give up the ability to drive behavior AWAY from violence by breaking the solid, direct through-line that XP provides. Even DMG 260-261 explains how to do reward whatever you want without throwing out the XP.

How to XP Good

Assuming you have a functioning brain and aren’t still trying to remain willfully ignorant to justify your laziness, you’ve accepted that point-based advancement is the best way to run your game. Fantastic. How do you actually reward XP in D&D? Well, the rules are actually helpful if you read them all. And there are only two pages on them. So check out DMG 260-261. Or don’t bother. I’ll give you the basics.

The DMG notes, first of all, that the basic rule is that you divide the XP value for each monster defeated – killed, routed, captured, etc. – between all of the members of the party that participated in the said encounter. That’s a good start. Fortunately, the DMG doesn’t stop there. After a digression on whether you should give XP to absent characters, it discusses two other USEFUL topics before it mentions just checking XP down the toilet because you’re a lazy dumba$&. First, it discusses non-combat encounters. And it says you CAN reward players for overcoming any encounter that involved a meaningful risk of failure. It says you should decide whether the encounter was easy, medium, or hard and then reward the players as if the had overcome a combat encounter of the same difficulty. Second, it mentions story milestones. It mentions that if the players accomplish a substantial goal during the game, they CAN be rewarded with an amount of XP commensurate with a hard combat encounter. If the players accomplish a minor goal, they CAN earn an amount of XP on par with an easy combat encounter.

You know what? Those are all EXCELLENT rules. I mean, they are so damned good, I wish the game actually called them rules instead of offering them as grudging alternatives. “If you MUST do something more, we SUPPOSE you COULD do something like this. Loser.”

I could stop here. Because, frankly, that’s pretty much the system I use in MOST of my games. I do have one weird game where the progression is really f$&%ed up. But I don’t recommend that. But I’m going to go one step further. I’m actually going to make life a little easier for you. I’m going to give you a rough outline for an XP system that’s slightly easier to cope with.

First, keep in mind that XP should be success-based and goal-based. That is, players should earn their XP for accomplishing things in the game. I don’t want to go into why bulls$&% like “good RP rewards” and “clever idea rewards” are terrible right now. Maybe another time. XP is something the players earn by succeeding at things.

Second, dump the idea of individual monster XP. It doesn’t get you anything. I know I just got done saying how important point-based XP is to provide a direct connection between individual actions and advancement, but there is such a thing as being too granular. When the players win a fight and earn 500 XP, it doesn’t matter that the 500 XP came from 3 orcs (100 XP each) and 8 wolves (50 XP each). Don’t concern yourself with tracking XP on an individual monster basis.

Instead, look at the basic unit of XP as “the encounter.” That is, whenever the players are faced with a challenge or obstacle – a fight, a negotiation, a trap, a river, whatever – rate that in terms of easy, medium, or hard. If the players succeed at overcoming the obstacle, give them XP for a combat encounter of their level for that difficulty. If the players barely scrape by, take a lot of damage, or suffer substantial losses, but still manage to succeed, give them half the XP. If they lose and have to retreat or get captured or have to go another way or they all die, don’t give them any XP. Easy peasy.

Ideally, you should dole out the XP during the game. Seriously. Appoint a player to keep a running tally of the group’s XP. At the end of an encounter, very briefly say “you won, you get 400 XP” or “you barely scraped by, you get half XP, that’s 200” or “you lost, you get no XP.” Be simple, brief, and direct. But make sure they know that their losses cost them XP.

That’s the basic system for encounter XP. It’s easy to keep track of. It’s easy to design around. It rewards the players for their actions. And you can stop there if you want. But let’s say you want to go further. Okay. Let’s talk about Milestones.

A milestone is a particular accomplishment in a story that ISN’T an encounter. If the goal of the adventure is to recover the Gem of MacGuffin from the Cave of Dungeoncrawl, getting the gem is a milestone. In fact, it’s a major milestone. And the players should earn an XP reward for that. I would suggest treating that the same as a medium encounter.

And that’s also enough. Again, I could stop here. You certainly can. But if you want, even more, you can have that too.

For example, a minor milestone is an incremental, non-optional accomplishment. Let’s say the Cave of Dungeoncrawl is hidden and the players have to find it. Locating the cave, then, is a minor milestone. It’s a step that they have to perform along the way toward a significant milestone. But it’s also not a step that can be accomplished in one encounter. If the party gets directions to the Cave of Dungeoncrawl though a single social interaction challenge with a grumpy, retired adventurer and there are no challenges between the town and the cave, that ISN’T a milestone. It’s just the encounter itself. A minor milestone should be worth as much XP as an easy encounter.

An optional milestone is an accomplishment that isn’t required to complete the adventure. You can think of like a sidequest or bonus objective or whatever. If the party hears rumors about an adventurer who died exploring the Cave of Dungeoncrawl and they locate him and bring his body and equipment back to his family, that’s an optional milestone. An optional milestone should be half as much XP as an easy encounter.

What you end up with is either a list of encounters and milestones and an XP value for each. And also a simple system for assessing XP values on the fly when you add a milestone or encounter or whatever. And you reward those as they are earned. Thus, you don’t have to do any hard math. The players see, on an encounter-by-encounter basis how they are progressing, which is important. And you only have to add up a bunch of stuff at the end of the session. Or rather, the players do.

From that basic system, you can make all sorts of tweaks based on what sort of behaviors you want to encourage. That is if you want the granularity and the control. As the system stands, though, it emphasizes “overcome obstacles” and “accomplish goals.” And that works really well for just about any D&D game you can imagine. But if you want to make story rewards and goals more important, you can bump major milestones up to the equivalent of hard encounters and bump minor milestones up to medium encounters. If you like to play around with optional goals and sidequests, make optional milestones worth easy encounters, which might make them equal to minor milestones. And then scatter a bunch of those around. If you don’t like the scoring aspect, remove the “half XP” penalty for not handling the obstacle well.

But you can go even further than that. Suppose you want to build a game centered around looting and pillaging. You can reward XP for looting substantial treasure hauls. When you place treasure in the game, just assign the treasure an XP value. There’s no reason to be super systematic and figure out a GP-to-XP conversion rate. If you want to make a game about exploration and conquest, you can assign an XP value to every hex “cleared” on the map. And, again, you can use the encounter XP values as the basis for your rewards.

Why does it have to be any more complicated than that? Answer? It f$&%ing doesn’t!

How Much? How Fast? How Far?

And now, for like the fourth time, I have to say “I COULD leave it here and you have plenty to work with.” Like so many things, you can take XP and advancement as far as you want to. Honestly, most games really don’t even need more than just “if you kill a monster, you get XP.” Yeah, I know. Murderhobos blargle wargle waaaah! Shut up. I don’t want to hear it.

But it is possible to go too far. For every ignorant and lazy GM who wrecks the game for their players because they can’t be a$&ed to put in some goddamned effort, there’s a crazy obsessive GM who takes things too damned far. And XP-Based Advancement is great a place for an obsessive control-freak to drive himself bonkers.

Imagine if some f$&%ing nutjob GM made a massive spreadsheet, for example, to track every single XP point that might be earned in his adventure so as to micromanage the rate of advancement…

… yes.

… well.

… look.

Okay, I get as obsessive any anyone else. Fine. I’m a f$&%ing control freak. But you don’t have to be. At least not about this. Because, as important as advancement is to the feel of the game and the flow and all that other bulls$&% I mentioned that I can’t remember now, it’s another one of those things that’s more important for its mere existence than it is for its actual implementation. Sort of.

Lots of GMs spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about setting exactly the right rate of advancement and then trying to align the XP with it exactly. And they try to establish firm rules about when to dole out XP and when to level up and all of that other crap. And even though I started this article by yelling at Mearls for encouraging GMs to advance their players too quickly, I have to admit it doesn’t actually matter THAT much. The correct rate of advancement is the one that doesn’t feel wrong to the players. And note that isn’t the same as feeling right to the players. Players suck at knowing what’s good. But they know when something is bad.

If you run a game every week or two and the players gain a level every second session, that’s a pretty good rate. If you run a game every week, you can go as slow as every third or fourth session. If you run games less frequently – say every month – even every second session might be pushing it. But I’m also going to let you in on a secret: players are more forgiving of the rate of advancement if they can see the XP gains. That is: if you had out XP every session and they are gaining a bunch every session, players will be more patient about levels because they can measure their progress. The GMs who tend to get in the most trouble with their players over slow advancement are the ones who hand out XP only at the end of every adventure – which might be every second or third session or whatever – or who dole out arbitrary numbers of XP based solely on plot milestones. If you stick with point-based XP, your players will be more forgiving. But not infinitely forgiving. Remember that too.

Assuming you go with all of my recommendations about encounter XP and milestones and all that crap, you can pretty much follow all of the other guidance in the DMG about encounter building and adventuring days and all that crap and you’ll hit that sweet spot: one level every second or third session. But if you want some more guidance, here’s a flimsy outline to follow.

In one four-to-five hour session, you’ll generally get through five to eight encounters that include combats, obstacles, social interactions, and so on. If you focus on combat encounters, that number will be closer to four or five. If you have a lot of non-combat encounters, that number will be closer to seven or eight. You can assume an average of six. Two or three should be easy. One should be hard. The rest should be medium. Add in one major milestone and one or two minor milestones and you’re about on target for what the DMG calls an “adventuring day.” You’ll actually be a little over budget, but that’s okay. You won’t be off by that much. If you roughly follow that framework, hand out XP after every encounter OR at the end of every session and only allow PCs to level up between sessions, you should hit the sweet spot with very little thought.

Or you can just be a lazy dumba$&, throw out XP, and run a s$&% game. Whatever floats your boat.

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68 thoughts on “How to XP Good

  1. I actually used your Megadungeon XP chart to build out a level 6->7 mini dungeon delve, and used a combination exactly as you described – discoveries that required just a little effort to find I equated to easy encounters, and discoveries hidden behind either difficult checks or specific things the players had to ask about, I rated as medium. I spread out a bunch of those, and then made the critical path a bit less than 70% of the way from 6->7. Finding about half the discoveries/optional stuff, plus milestones, plus critical path, put them at level 7 just in time to face the boss. Skip too many optional things or run away / fail critical obstacles, and they’d have to face the boss right before they got a level up.

    Extremely helpful article, and that chart you already made has made designing level based arcs much easier. Also helps to know roughly how many story/combat beats you need per level, as well as how many optional story beats you can include before you break your pacing.

  2. Thousands of words and not one “anemic”. You’re f!@#$ing up my data for how often your memes appear in the opening posts on the front page of /r/dndnext!

    You should see the results for “pedantic”.

  3. This article should have a link to your “Scenes: the LEGO bricks of adventures” and to the Encounter series. They make the concept of what is an encounter so much easy to grasp, and when you understand what an encounter is, its easier to deal with XP

  4. I agree with a lot of the stuff you’ve said in the past about the reasons why not to award individual XP for “RP” or “cool ideas” and stuff. In fact, I’ve always thought that individual XP undermined the “group effort” nature of D&D. But am I wrong about that? Do you think there’s anything that XP *can* be usefully awarded to individuals for?

  5. One of the better advancement systems I’ve seen is the trainer experience from Pokémon Tabletop United, at least after my group took the obvious patch of keeping players advancing at the same rate. Each level for a trainer is 10 experience points, and there’s advice on how to dole out that trainer experience for various encounters, with notable milestones such as badges counting for 10 experience and therefore an instant level. However, you also gain one point of trainer experience for each new pokémon you capture, filling out the pokédex; I’ve taken to calling it ‘dexperience.

    The genius here is that capturing is more difficult than defeating the wild pokémon you encounter, especially when wild pokémon show up in hordes. (Capture involves weakening but not KOing your target, and spending trainer actions and equipment on the capture attempt. You can’t capture targets you take down, because that would make things too easy.) Each opponent you quickly KO reduces the number of enemy actions being taken against you, but if that was the last specimen of a species you haven’t caught yet, then you’ve chosen to sacrifice that experience point (at least in the moment) for the sake of making the encounter easier on you. In addition, since only new species count towards experience, the DM still has full control over advancement, and any capture experience you pass up in the moment may still be available in future battles, allowing you to catch up.

    This is the ideal example of experience points for me: Concrete, obvious, and a game-within-a-game to play with.

  6. Okay, maybe I’m sold on XP, but how would one implement it into an open world game?

    It’s something I get pissed off at in nearly every video game RPG with leveling and open worlds. The open world closes off into a winding, twisting, but linear pathway. You go from zone 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, because if you go to zone 4 early you get stomped, and if you go to zone 1 late it’s not even worth your time. I call an XP system “Do Not Explore This World: The Mechanic”.

    Some places make sense to be too powerful for me to explore. I shouldn’t explore The Pit of Gratuitous Homicide until at least level 8, sure, whatever. But if that’s literally everywhere, then I no longer have any options about where to go except the ones that are level appropriate. And in D&D, the leveling progression is so fast (PCs get 41% stronger each time they level up iirc, according to CR math) that “level appropriate” is a very narrow target.

    I could reasonably just design one or two sessions in advance and just set all monsters to “level appropriate”. But as soon as the players catch on they’ll stop caring about XP… I think. I know that I stopped giving a rat’s ass about XP in Fallout 3 once I noticed that enemies scaled with my level and that leveling up therefore didn’t accomplish anything. Am I just unusual like that? Will players happily hop onto an obvious treadmill if I put cheese on the dashboard?

    • It is possible to construct a setting where players can choose their level of risk – sort of like in the old megadungeons where deeper levels had tougher monsters worth more XPs and with better treasure, and every time you encountered stairs you had a choice to make.

      Above ground you can do this by assigning different difficulties to different areas. So the safe, patrolled, pastoral villages and farmlands are pretty tame, whereas the real monsters are in the forest or hills or on the frontier, and even more dangerous monsters are in the swamps, deep forests or isolated mountains or other areas beyond the frontier. In other words, the places people instinctively think are more scary, ARE more scary, with correspondingly more XPs and treasure.

      Cities and large towns are a bit different because they are bit enough to have antagonists of higher level. In cities the level of the challenge relates to who you are rubbing shoulders with, and who you are pissing off. As you gain a reputation, the lower level threats learn to stay out of your way, and the higher level threats start to take notice of you.

    • I liked Beoric’s idea of doing it.

      Also, the Dragon Age (computer RPG) system of determining the challenge of a region is pretty neat: A region might have a minimum and a maximum CR – it never gets easier than this. The Region of Recurring Badassery is not safe to enter below level 10, but scales in challenge until level 20, whereas the Light Forest Where You Still Encounter Peasants might start at level 1 and max out at level 3.

      Now it doesn’t automatically scale. It gets fixed to when you enter the region first. So, if you come into the Region of Recurring Badassery at level 12 and get your ass whooped, you can leave, level up to 14 and come back, and reasonably expect to do better.

      There’s of course a complaint that if the players know such things they might enter the regions early and reduce the difficulty. Of course that also reduces the advancement and gained treasure, but it’s a valid choice. You might not be strong enough for regions you enter later…

      Now, in a tabletop RPG this can work the same. But there’s no need to act like these regions are static. You can still introduce additional quests of adapted CR in regions already explored, like when the Bandits of Badassery enter the Town of Wimpiness to abduct the innkeeper’s daughter. Maybe you will track them into the Swamps of Not-So-Challenging Encounters and have a boss battle there, breaking up the assumptions of what happens where because in tabletops you can backtrack over vast stretches of land in two sentences and in a CRPG you need either a fast travel system or you’re in for a long walk. That’s why they usually divide the world into areas of difficulty.

      This system of CR is flexible enough to allow low level players to explore most places. Really dangerous places have gateway encounters that ensure you get a light asswhooping and decide to come back later when you can tackle the place. You don’t suddenly encounter droves of storm giants in the easy areas just because you leveled up (TES IV: Oblivion, I’m looking your way…), and going somewhere else first if you’re in too deep makes also sense. Gateway encounters help to gauge difficulty before you’re in too deep.

      And if the players don’t take the hints, don’t run open-world sandboxes for them… 😉

    • I’d also sprinkle different difficulties in the same area, like pepper and salt. That way, players can risk a more dangerous area and still level a bit by killing the easier ones rather than just running from things, and in easier areas they can still level by hunting the apex predators.

      • Yes, when I set a difficulty range for an area, I figure out the biggest threats/encounters a party in the target range can handle, and the smallest. That actually spans a pretty good range of threats in the edition I play, so you can have a lot of variety in an area.

    • In vanilla WoW it was fairly common for characters to have 2-3 different viable zones for leveling. Each zone basically had enough quests for about 6-10 levels. At the start each of the four races had their own zone with two races sharing sharing a zone. This setup was duplicated for the other faction.s Two of the zones were easy to get back and forth between, via some kind of mass transit system and the isolated zone could be reached with some effort and resisting the urge to not leave the road.

    • Award XP for visiting awesome places. Once the players hear about a place and gather a little info, tell them exactly how much XP visiting that place is worth. Then make getting there at all an adventure.

  7. My XP system (for my previous pathfinder game), was my attempt to balance my laziness and give the players a sense of accomplishment/progression.

    I gave 1 XP for each medium difficulty encounter, 2 XP for every difficult encounter. Occassionally gave 1 XP for overcoming a series of easy encounters or minor traps. I gave 1 XP for completing a task or adventure, or 2 XP for completing a major task or quest. I also gave XP when players did something really brilliant–kind of like inspiration, but a bigger reward for bigger things.

    Sessions typically ranged from 2-6 XP. After each session, in my summary email, I would list each XP received and what they received it for. I would also list their progression to the next level (you earned 4 XP. You are now 12/15 towards level 8).

    I varied the denominator (level progression) so that they spent more time in Pathfinder’s sweet spot of mid-levels. But this could be tweaked however you want.

    At one point, one player was upset that they only earned 2 XP in a session, but his anger was at the other player for fucking around and not accomplishing anything. The only other issue I thought we might have was that the points assigned could be seen as arbitrary. But since the players accepting your decisions as non-arbitrary is the basic contract of the game (and one that if you violate it, will kill your game completely), that’s kind of already baked into the rpg experience.

    • I totally support experience systems without artificial number inflation. D&D’s numbers are silly and obscure matters.

  8. So I retooled the XP numbers recently and simplified them. The Google sheet linked below has all the math and I’ll just explain in words here. The sheet starts with just a copy of the XP chart from the Megadungeon series. And inspired from the “Carrot and Stick” article in the same series throwaway line that Paper Mario used 100 XP for every level, I tried to see if the same can be done in 5e. And it actually can without any meaningful change to how XP works in 5e.

    The first sheet shows the end result. All you have to do is have 100 XP every level and make Easy = 3 XP, Medium = 6 XP, Hard = 9 XP, and Deadly = 12 XP. These numbers are per PC, so they each get 3 XP for an Easy, etc. Boom. Done. It matches Angry’s math from the article. The 2nd sheet in the doc justifies the ratios between the encounters. The number 6 was just a guess and check. One minor correction is a “XP multiplier” for being levels 1-3 to make the accelerated leveling of those levels match up.

    The end results are pretty awesome. 100 XP is easy to keep track of, has easy math, and receiving 6 XP out of 100 is a lot more intuitive to follow your progress than 1100 out of 48,000. It’s also really easy to see that an adventuring day is 36 XP. That’s cool because then you can just say that is 4 Hard encounters. Or 3 Deadly. Or 1 Deadly and 4 Medium. You get the idea. That’s not something I realized in the previous system, but is obvious when you simplify the numbers.

    I’ve looked a lot at the math in D&D 5e and I’ve always been surprised at how it manages to actually be very simple deep down. I get the feeling that they start from simple and then scale the numbers to make them feel “traditional”. A guess, but considering their math in a lot of the areas of the game can be simplified in a similar manner, I don’t think these are accidents. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

    I don’t know if you care, but your articles are the best and have helped this newbie DM a lot. Thanks!

  9. Absolutely perfect timing on this article. I’ve been DMing “Storm King’s Thunder” for some friends which recommends milestone levelings. It absolutely plows through the first 5 levels, getting from level 5 to 6 after a single (large) fight. I delayed giving them level 6 because that was way too quick, but even with the delay in reaching level 6, it’s been three sessions since they leveled and it will be at least another three before they level again if I go by the book. My players haven’t started complaining yet but after the last session I started feeling itchy. The milestone system in Storm King’s Thunder seems so arbitrary and terrible, it is actively punishing the players for completing all the reward quests they were given for saving NPC’s in the last chapter by delaying the attainment of the next level.

    I think I will just assign them an amount of experience equal to half way through the 6th level and start handing out XP from here on out.

    • I had the same problem in SKT. Level 1 to level 6 in the span of two months, then half a year before they hit level 7. I think they had no concept of the travel time they were putting into the game, and assumed DMs would just teleport their players around the map without thinking about it. Then why put the map in there at all? We all ended up very frustrated.

    • One of us decided to GM Storm King’s Thunder for us. I’m not sure she’s very happy with the decision! She had to make actually a lot of calls for herself because the basic design of that adventure seems to have issues…

      Of course I’ve never read it, being a player and all. But you can see when another GM is struggling with the advice a book gives. It was also mentioned once or twice.

      Now, I ran Curse of Strahd for another group, and I wasn’t happy with the “Here’s a level for this quest, half a level for this quest.” approach, though I can see that with the way they structured their TPK-Ville sandbox this was a bloody necessity. Thankfully my players arrived at level 7 in Barovia and had not to be fitted into the silly assumptions the book made, so I simply divided quest rewards into 1,000 / 2,000 / 4,000 XP tiers and leveled them easily to level 10 (and eventually, 11, when they took their sweet time beating Strahd). No complaints there, just a bit of amazement how much faster they leveled than in my homebrews.

      WotC has some lazy-ass advice for GMs in these books because even the module designers can’t be bothered anymore…

    • Currently DMing Storm King’s Thunder.
      I started off with basic Combat XP, and it quickly got ridiculous. They became massively overlevelled, and I worried that if I just increased the number of monsters to keep the challenges engaging, then they’d just gain XP even faster and compound the problem!
      In the end I switched to Quest XP (I no longer call it Milestone XP because my players thought I meant Milestone Levelling and got confused when I then handed them a chunk of XP).
      I went through the book and counted how many significant milestones I could get away with (about 5 per chapter, plus 1 for each notable town in the sandbox chapter), and divided the xp required to reach level 10 (the end of the campaign, as suggested by the book) by the number of milestones I expect them to have completed by the time they get there, accounting for missed sidequests and whatnot.
      Turns out it was roughly 1000xp per milestone, so I rounded it to make it easier for the players to add it to their total, then I arbitrarily doubled it to 2000 because I felt that level 10 wasn’t a high enough end point and also they were already level 7 and only on chapter 3 so I didn’t want the remaining levels feeling too stretched out.
      Now I can adjust the encounters to be appropriately challenging without worrying about the combat xp!
      Plus, I can throw in the occasional bonus xp if I get creative and think up an unplanned sidequest.

      The next campaign I run I’ll do a bit more planning ahead, for example the experience award per milestone might vary depending on the chapter.

  10. The only pointless system I’ve seen and liked is 13th age. This is because their incremental advance system still offers a measure of progress and levels out the power curve to boot rather than being point, point, point, major power jump.

  11. I like this article. I have struggled with the topic of XP.

    First players hated individual rewards, even if some did more during the session than others. Or I applied guidelines from the respective system and ended up being considered arbitrary, like the additional XP rewards for “good roleplaying” or “MVP” or what not.

    After struggling with XP for a while I veered off into leveling up by adventure. This eventually led to complaints, too. Now I know players like to complain, but I also tried to listen and gauge what people would actually prefer.

    I started playing “Shadow of the Demon Lord” with a group and the consensus ended up being “Leveling by adventure sucks.” One player was especially vocal about how much he appreciated XP and that it made him feel good and like he’s progressing. Since SotDL didn’t fit my ticket anyway, I migrated the campaign into 5E happily ever after. I still have to fine-tune my XP handouts and the guidelines from this article might help me resolve a hunch that I could do better about not-combat-encounter-style challenges. But players will also let me know – subtly or not so subtly – how they feel about the general structure of XP rewards.

    Another group started many years ago with Dungeon Crawl Classics and I tried to shoe-horn my encounters and player tasks into its XP-awarding guidelines. First the players have demanded “We all level at the same time.” (and all my groups have liked that idea best ever since) and lived with me gauging the level-ups for a while. Given DCC only has 10 levels level-ups were infrequent. Then, in response to a long string of disagreements about the randomness inherent to the system (which some embrace and some clearly not) we switched to 5e and a mix of combat and other XP, and again a lot of the criticism subsided. I have to say, though, this group was much harder to handle, had much less of an idea of what they actually want compared to the group above, and generally was much more over the place.

    In the end, the reward advice given in many systems is crap – unless your particular group laps it up. I had people find it hilarious that Dungeon World also rewards failure and I had people ruffle their feathers over it. Mouse Guard reward discussions (and a lot of the rest of the game) sat poorly with my players – but there’s plenty of people who seem to think Burning Wheel HQ can do no wrong, I’m just not playing with them.

    In the end, I just hope I match my system to my players and then also my reward system to whatever works for them. XP haven’t fared bad in that regard, but I’m still fine-tuning, and again, this article’s advice might lead a to a better handling of that.

    Thanks for the write-up! I always appreciate the advice given here.

  12. While I appreciate the in-depth coverage of XP, I have a follow-up question; what about when to gain levels once they are earned?

    In a game like DnD where power gains come only in the large chunks of an entire level at once, which also requires a decent chunk of time to resolve the bookkeeping of, it seems like a poor idea for PCs to level up mid-session. Not only does that eat up valuable play time, it completely disrupts the flow of the session on both the RP and G sides. Leveling between sessions is not disruptive, and amplifies the accomplishment of “finishing a session” with the reward of “gaining a level”.

    But if XP is missable (via failure and/or optional XP sources), then supposing a party ends a session just shy of the next level, and gains their level one encounter into next week’s session. Leveling up immediately feels bad because it breaks up flow badly; but waiting until the end of the session seems like it would take away from that session because the PCs are thinking about how they wish they had the benefits of that new level that they’ve earned but can’t have yet. How do you handle those kinds of situations?

    • DMG has options for requiring time and/or money to *train* for the new level *once* you have the XP. Could be what you want?

    • Easy. Only let your players level up when they take a long rest, and tell them in advance that they will be leveling up during the next session and that they need to make all their choices (archetypes, spells, etc.) ahead of time. All they should have to do midsession is increase HP and spell slots.

  13. Any thoughts on how Dungeon World handles it, with XP being handed out for every failed roll? You learn from your mistakes, and as you level up you become less likely to make mistakes doing what you are good at, so the level progression is self balancing to a degree?

    • Fundamentally doesn’t work with D&D. Difficulty is static level to level, as average AC increases at the same rate as to-hit bonuses. Same for spell saves. You generally always have a 65% chance of success, whether you are 1st level or 20th level. Plus, different classes make different amounts of rolls. 5th level dual-wielding fighters make 3 attack rolls per turn while an enchanter makes 0 as their spells require saving throws. Also, it encourages a specific type of behavior as players make choices based on what activity will require them to make the most amount of rolls.

    • I’d say that’s not that good of an idea.
      In D&D, players obtain XP from doing stuff that works, so a high level character knows what works, instead of avoiding what doesn’t. All “learn from your mistakes” scenarios are solved by your character getting in trouble. You don’t need XP to tell you that grappling an ooze is a bad idea.

  14. As always, thanks for the advice. I’ve been handling exp pretty much the way you’ve described, and it’s worked pretty well. Our “experiments” with tinkering failed and were abandoned. Those experiments included:

    1. Peer-based rewards: Each player started the session with three tokens. During play, when a player did something “noteworthy” another player would reward the action with a token. At the end of the session, received tokens translated to experience. This failed because players are horrible at judging who should be rewarded and way, and it often became a “you give me one and I’ll give you one” situation. Also, a lot of times the tokens were awarded not because of game play, but because the player made a good joke. Other times, the tokens were forgotten and never awarded.

    2. Action-based rewards: Used in several other games, each time a player took an action, they received an immediate exp reward. It was small, but it added up. Not only does this require a lot of math, it forces players out of the moment to track the values. Also, some players don’t math well, even when they use a calculator, so I was always forced to audit their results. Depending upon the encounter, some characters blew the curve because they got a lot more actions than others.

    3. We tried tying Inspiration to experience rewards. This was our last ditch effort to keep Inspiration in the game. When it failed, we abandoned Inspiration completely. And trying to tinker with the experience system.

    The only thing this article doesn’t address is how important it is to keep the characters in sync. The rules briefly mention how to deal with absent players, but a real issue with a missing player (other than the player simply not being there!) is that their character misses out on the experience from that session. As they should. This means that character is behind the others when leveling up. In my opinion, having all characters within 1 level of each other is fine. When that point spread opens to more than one level, we start to see balancing issues – some players have more options and abilities than others. Yeah, it’s a penalty for missing sessions, but for the GM, it’s a pain, because when planning encounters, I have to account for all the characters and their respective abilities.

    In my own games, a few times, I’ve been able to help that player catch up a bit with a one-off side mission/adventure/encounter, not held during the normal session — I don’t want players sitting around twiddling their thumbs and stacking their dice. It’s not easy to do this, and a lot of it depends upon opportunities within the overall narrative. Do you (Angry, or other GMs) have thoughts on this? Thanks!

    • Why penalize missing sessions?

      My players try to make every session. I see no reason penalizing those who cannot make it. What does it improve?

      • That’s a reasonable question. My feeling is that if there’s no risk, there should be no reward. I would hate to be a player, miss a week because of Wife Agro (she had something else planned that I had to attend, blah blah blah) and return to find out my character was killed because the dope that ran him decided that a wizard should be front-line infantry. Consequently, if you are not in attendance, your character does not participate in anything other than travel. We come up with a viable story-line as to why the character isn’t there (still passed out from last night’s revelry, etc.) If there’s no participation in the group activity, there’s no experience reward. I don’t know that it’s a penalty, because it could be considered just as a much a penalty to the other players who did attend to have to share their experience with the guy who didn’t.

        How do other GM’s handle player absence? Yes, most players are very good at committing and attending.

        • As someone who’s pretty strongly of the “don’t penalize absences” opinion, here’s my take:

          Yeah, giving someone another player’s character to run when they’re not there is not a good idea. Groups I’ve been in have usually done the thing where the character is present but non-participatory: in-story, they were with the party the whole time, but they didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy (to reflect the player literally not being there). The character is not run in combat, and we agree to postpone doing things that the absent player, and/or their character, is particularly invested in until later if possible.

          The campaigns I’ve played in were primarily of the “several sessions per adventure” type, so there usually wasn’t a plausible reason for someone not to be there for just one of those sessions (we’re stranded on a remote island…and then John isn’t there anymore…and then he is again).

          Anyway, to me it’s obvious that your job, education, family, etc. comes first, and people shouldn’t be made to feel guilty that they missed D&D for that stuff by literally penalizing them in-game. If they didn’t have something important that conflicted, then they would have come to the session…right? If not, then that’s the problem. You shouldn’t have to incentivize your players to just show up — in my experience, not getting to play already sucks enough, in and of itself. Otherwise, a “You’ve been missing a lot lately; is this campaign still fun for you?” type of conversation might be in order.

          I suppose your mileage may vary depending on the nature of the group. I’ve played with friends — which, now that I think about it, may have made it easier to adopt the “of course we share everything among the entire party” view, as opposed to what might be the case if the players are more loosely associated IRL. Maybe?

          • I handle the issue of mid-adventure character absence with gastric distress. A bit crude, but historically accurate…

        • Hmmm… I have varied over the years. Sometimes I take charge of those characters. Sometimes I let other players roll and I keep the stats. Sometimes I pretend that they are simply not there. It depends heavily on the style of the campaign and the maturity of the players.

          One group was rather immature and at least two players tried to act through other players’ characters even if they are SITTING RIGHT THERE. It caused conflict to no end, and pretending that someone is not there when the player is not there helped contain this a lot. Nobody likes to be somebody else’s tool or have their skin risked for somebody else’s gain. I just made sure there were no challenges that were meant for a specific character – like I either would say ” opens the lock for you.” if the thief was not there, for example.

          In another, more recent group I handle the character and let the players roll or make suggestions. It works because they are very cooperative and focus on their own contribution, anyway. I don’t put absent players’ characters at risk by default and monsters are also run by me, so lucky them…

          All of my groups seem to want “level at the same time” so I dropped anything that penalizes by the way of XP distribution. I do have the annoying habit of using the absent players’ characters as a way of voicing opinion or sometimes imitate the player a bit, but luckily there never has been bad blood because of it.

  15. This is a good reason why, contra your earlier advice, it’s actually a pretty good idea for a GM to also be a player, if he can swing it. I think a lot of your disagreements with twits would be dispelled best by just having them *play* a bit. Not just XP, but things like railroad catterwauling, “muh involvement” RP dictators, making GMPC Mary Sues…

    • I play along my friend (so we’re a party of 2) and apparently that’s what’s kept me from doing horrendous stuff like botched XP levelling and the like. I’m glad for it, and I intend on adding my own GMPC to every game I run, so I have a first-hand experience of what I’m doing.

      The only thing that sucks is that I can’t do puzzles D:

  16. I’m glad to see somebody else actually understand that progressing too fast is a bad thing. Overly-fast level advancement is one of my big pet peeves with a lot of games I’ve played in. It takes time to digest and grok new abilities, and if you power yourself up, to fast, you just have no idea how to properly use your new skills. I find every four sessions or so is the ideal number for my home group: One session to experiment with their new toys, two sessions to get good with them and play with the niche abilities, and one session where they put everything they’ve mastered all together to do something spectacular.

    And I 100% agree about getting too granular. As long as you’re awarding points for the right things, and the player know roughly what accomplishments net them X amount of points, it really doesn’t need to be that mathy. I keep it to two levels of reward for each dungeon or area. They get the smaller number of points for defeating a miniboss-level encounter, discovering a secret area or major hidden treasure, completing a sidequest, or achieving an optional objective. And they get about 4x that for beating a boss-level encounter, reaching the end of a dungeon sublevel, or fulfilling the goal of an quest. Why make it any more complicated? The players don’t care how you actually count the beans, they just like watching their progress bar tick up at the end of the session.

    I do think it’s a terrible idea to let anyone level up mid-session, though – it absolutely kills your pacing. Much less of a pain to hold off on level-ups till the party is resting someplace safe.

  17. Our D&D GM here quickly changed our game to story-based level ups, though he told us that he’s really just keeping track of the XP off-screen. It’s been going on for enough years that I’ve gotten used to it, but I definitely agree that it feels good to have a visual representation of progress in a level. However, I don’t see us changing it back any time soon.
    It was actually adopted because one of our players has a somewhat obsessive personality and would constantly ask how much XP we had and constantly talk about how close he was to the next level and how much the next encounter could be worth to get us there. Whenever we got remotely close, he’d just grind the game to a halt as he asked what skills he should plan on taking and what feats he should get and basically would talk about nothing else during the game itself and interrupt folks constantly to ask what THEY should do for their levels and how it would effect him. Once the level ups actually hit, he’d just start the discussion over again about what he should get and then the cycle would just start all over again for the next level. Whenever we talked to him about it, he just told us that he couldn’t help it because that was just the way he was… So our GM solved the problem by taking away the knowledge of our XP. Nowadays, we’ve all grown in our communication skills and he probably wouldn’t be AS bad if we went back to knowing our XP, but it’s been so long that we’re all just used to it and just go with the flow.

    For my own DMing, I’m using the Ironclaw RPG system, where XP is being spent constantly for minor skill upgrades and feats for characters, so I just tell my players outright how much XP they’ve earned at the end of every session. Since it’s usually no more than 2-3 XP, the math is way easier and it’s just generally easier to keep track of it. I do have problems with players forgetting how much XP they have sometimes, but we do our best to just estimate whenever that happens.

    • There have been many discussions about meta-gaming on this blog, and this is one example I find annoying. I have no problem if players want to talk about their level-up options when we’re away from the table. Not that I could stop them, anyway, which is why I prefer that they level up their characters between sessions. I even provide a ProBoards Forum they can use if they don’t normally see each other socially. I ask that if they need to discuss it at the game table, do so during breaks. Please don’t interrupt the “session.”

      I also rule that characters can’t gain benefits from a new level until they can at least get in a long rest.

      Some players have gone so far as to bring two character sheets to a session: current level and next level, with choices already made. Though, the way things work in D&D 5e, it seems the biggest array of choice is for casters and what spells they pick. The players generally try to avoid overlapping non-combat spells and making sure they cover as many damage types as possible.

    • Man I used to change how I ran the game because one person was being obnoxious with a perticular system…Ive learned now how to talk about it. So much easier!

  18. I’m putting down the groundwork on a new campaign, and have been having an internal debate about whether to use milestones or encounter XP. Reading this article helped remind me why I’ve always used encounter XP in the past, and reinforced my inkling to continue to do so in the next adventure, so thanks for that.

    One problem I’ve had is rationalizing non-combat XP in light of the fact most bonuses from progression are tightly linked to a PC’s combat prowess. Why does a Barbarian become tougher (+HP) because the party talked their way or snuck past a hostile group? Why does a Fighter gain Action Surge because the Bard convinced the noble to lend his support to their cause? The best I can come up with is to abstract it out to a broader sense of self-realization that comes from living life as an adventurer, but this doesn’t feel very satisfying because there’s no sense of cause and effect.

    • Dear James,

      I don’t know if I will be able to answer your question (for sure I am not qualified enough), but I will try to suggest a personal idea.

      If you look for a direct cause and effect link, then it may be difficult to rationalize combat XP too: how does a Bard improve his Diplomacy skill by fighting a mindless ooze?

      Instead, you may want to see XP as a general measure of the “life experience” (including knowledge and self-confidence) of the characters. All kinds of challenges can contribute to this experience.

      Then, each character “converts” the gathered experience into a class-specific advancement of stats, through a class-specific training (the Fighter will exercise with his weapon, the Wizard will study and do experiments into his magical lab, and so on).
      If you want, depending on your play stile, you may also require a mandatory training period in-game, between adventures, to do so.

      What do you think?

    • I like what BB is saying here. Consider it as growth as a human being.

      The alternative would be to improve only things that you use or actively train – abandoning the concept of classes and their powers and shifting to a purely skill-based approach. Then you get the cause-and-effect relationship you seek – but you’re no longer playing D&D…

    • This is similar to the reason Multiclassing used to bug me.
      Hit enough things with your sword and you can learn how to cast spells?
      But really, if you zoom in enough you can apply this logic to any character. Why does stabbing things make you better with a bow? Why don’t all skills and abilities track progression separately, like some games do?

      In the end, I just stopped worrying about it because the whole concept of XP is already a massive abstraction anyway, so it’s relatively not a big deal. 🙂

  19. I noted that in the Starter Set, the XP system changes every chapter.
    Then there have been so many alternative levelling systems in Unearthed Arcana and other published material that it’s recently become a running joke at my table every time they mention a new one.
    The latest was from Xanathar’s Guide, where they essentially suggest levelling up every 4 hours until level 5, and every 8 hours after that.
    Then this article came out, as if on cue. Thanks! 🙂

  20. What did you make of the XP/leveling system in Mass Effect 2?

    For anyone who hasn’t played it, places where you can earn XP in the game are basically divided into four categories:

    1. Main plot missions
    2. Character recruitment missions
    3. Loyalty missions (one per character from #2)
    4. Side missions

    #1, #2, and #3 are involved long missions while missions of type 4 are pretty short.

    There are 30 levels total and each level takes 1000 XP. Missions of type 1, 2, and 3 give 1000 XP each while missions of type 4 give 250 XP each. So, basically, you level at the end of each “big” mission and then also every four side missions. Which really seems to put it more in the “milestone” category from my perspective.

  21. I always liked the advancement systems in the Chaosium (Runequest, etc) and Rolemaster systems (yes Rolemaster has many flaws): in Chaosium a character developed the skills used and has the option to pay cash for other skill development. Rolemaster had an XP based system, but extensive awards for all sorts of individual circumstances that put the advancement rate very much in the hands of the player. For my taste, I like the idea of a system where advancement would mostly come in the form of increasing expertise in the most-used skills, but also allowed for levels, or whatever, that reflected the core development of the character and an increased variety of options for further development accruing with experience.

    A question, how do GMs handle permanent character fatalities? I know this was covered in another Angry column, but it’s related to the whole advancement thing, because if a new character comes along with each death, just as good as his peers, that can negatively impact the whole progress-through-survival thing. The (possible) trauma of losing a (nominally) loved character isn’t always enough to discourage some players from treating their characters like tissues. Maybe I can’t fix that attitude, but it doesn’t help group morale when a careless player keeps up with the better players by cycling through an endless array of leveled up new characters. For one thing, he has a lot more chances to tune new characters to be ideally effective for the campaign, unlike the players with a longer survival period. If you start a replacement character with a handicap, how much of one? Many players like this would see it as more than worth it to suicide if a one or two session handicap becomes a huge advantage later on.

    • My favourite method is to bring the new PC in 1-2 levels lower than the lowest level party member. This rewards people who survive stuff (they get to be more powerful), and I find that the XP gain eventually levels things out, as lower level heroes level faster and will catch up…

  22. I don’t think I could agree with you more Angry, I don’t understand why anyone would say they want to run a game and then be too freaking lazy to actually run the damn game. Drives me nuts. Milestone XP drives me nuts; bonus XP for fluffy crap drives me nuts; hell, dms who don’t have a session’s XP figured out, at least within ballpark range, when the damn session starts, drive me nuts. I must admit I’m a dm who LOVES player XP and keeping track of it. If your a dm, how could you not?! I still haven’t even come to terms with the fact that a party of heroes in 5e all advance at the exact same rate. That feels kind of pandering to me, but I guess I like things intricate haha. Personally, I give XP for fighting things; for meeting powerful figures; for finding powerful items and hoards of treasure; for avoiding things or talking to things or even failing things. Bottom line for me is if the characters are trying, and using their skills and learning things about their world, they’re becoming experienced, even if they totally fail. That being said tho, I don’t hand-wave any of it; I sit down, crunch the numbers and figure that stuff out. My PCs can always count on me having their XP ready right at the end of each session; because that’s my dam job. I’m a DM.

    • Very much agree. There are many systems out there that reward individual actions much more than “story” goals. D&D isn’t very good in that sense (at least through 3rd-ed-ish, I check out at around that point) but at least it used to have class-based individual award guidelines in 2nd, anyway. Even when I don’t use the, for example, Rolemaster rules overall, I do like to lift individual elements of the XP award system that grant points for making and failing saving throws, the originality of an action (first spell cast, type of monster slain, etc. x10, but x0.5 or 0.25 for “routine” occurance), relative difficulty (another multiplier, cumulative with the familiarity multiplier, so high level characters slaughtering yet another goblin hoard get essentially no xp) and so on.

      Do you tie in financial costs for leveling at all? Running D&D campaigns, I gradually adopted optional training rules as core elements of the game. Not only does it give the players something to do with their cash (different Angry column), introducing a requirement to find appropriate trainers creates a lot of new plot-hook possibilities that can be fully explored or hand-waved as needed, for each level of each character. IMHO, this is only a “screw job” if characters *must* be very close in levels, but in many game systems, this isn’t the case. If a level advancement in more of a nice-to-have, players can have fun deciding whether to get training, buy a castle / ship, resurrect a buddy, get that sword, etc, without derailing some kind of iron law of level progression per play session. That said, training for a single level is a pretty crude use of funds. Some systems give a lot more flexibility in that area, but in D&D it’s pretty limited (I guess training in proficiencies used to be a thing, but just getting players to care about proficiencies was always a stretch to begin with in 1st/2nd ed.).

  23. After talking to some people (we play Pathfinder), I’ve noticed that mainly everyone plays with milestone XP.
    I think their idea is that, as you’re going to level up when you finish the dungeon, there isn’t much necessity to manually tracking down the XP (I’ve found myself rounding up and filling the last ~5% XP when finishing a story arc).

    But apparently, their main concern is that “people will just massacre goblins”. When asked on “don’t throw goblins”, they as “what’s the use of random encounters then”. Eventually it ends up in a weird middle ground where you want to award XP for doing stuff but don’t want to award XP for doing anything, so GMs just decide to lvl up their players as they go.

    I guess this would be a case of consequences? If the players murder a lot of goblins in one day, then congrats, you’ve wiped the local populace of goblins. Clean a town for 500 xp? Sure, enjoy getting lvl 20 paladins after you. It sounds more like the GMs trying to cover their own asses rather than them trying to handle their party. You wouldn’t let a party massacre a town, no matter the XP system you’re using!

    Hm, so the problem isn’t the XP system, it’s that GMs are just too lazy or stupid to try and cover loopholes. Instead of telling the players “No, you can’t kill eachother to grind XP”, they preffer to just handwave it all off… including the “bonus points for amazing”.

    I’m going to stick with manual XP. It’s a lot more versatile, allows my players to obtain XP if they want to stop saving the world for a day, makes side missions a lot more interesting (not just “you get a fancy sword of fire +2”) and allows me to orientate them towards a certain playstyle (direct combat is 100% exp, creative plays get a 20% bonus, idiocy gets a 20% penalty).

    • Addendum: Even when suggesting “a progression bar towards next level”, they said “why not just go for milestone”. Clearly some GMs haven’t been playing their own games.

      (I wish I could edit my comment)

  24. This article sparked a discussion on the Open Legend forums:

    OL uses basically a milestone system (1xp per major milestone or per session, and each XP is basically equivalent to a level in other games) so I tried to add in this advice as a way a GM could write a reward structure without changing the OL rules. But I still haven’t run OL, and I know Angry would advise to try rules as written first.

    • You can always run with a “progression bar”. That’s the main point Angry tries to bring, players like to see the progression bar to the next level. Granularity is an extra, but can be handwaved.

      Just keep your players stoked on when you’re gonna level up. Problem is that it kinda spoils when the story arc’s gonna end… blame milestone systems 😀

  25. How do you make character advancement feel meaningful in a system that doesn’t have fixed levels? Mine rewards points to increase skills, base abilities and so, each with their own price scale, but there are no levels or abilities locked behind them per se.

    • You could make something like every 5 levels the players get the equivalent of two levels of points. Else, players just feel rewarded by constantly keeping up with the challenge.

      One thing you can consider as a DM is running an encounter that is difficult, then re-running it levels later so the players can compare themselves to their past selves

  26. Very helpful. I’ve recently grown tired of the milestone leveling for the reasons listed herein, and the suggestion to derive XP from encounters rather than monsters is the perfect happy medium I was looking for. Thanks!

  27. You didn’t really explain why milestone leveling is bad and why xp leveling is good.

    That’s not like you.

    I actually adopted milestone levels because my players got sick of xp and requested it, so I don’t follow.

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