Buckle 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$&%ing nutjob GM made a massive spreadsheet, for example, to track every single XP point that might be earned in his adventure so as to micromanage the rate of advancement…
Okay, I get as obsessive any anyone else. Fine. I’m a f$&%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.