Experience Points were one of the greatest innovations in the original role-playing game by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Not only could characters have adventures, but they could improve and get more powerful as a result of their experience.
As originally published, the rules were clear — each gold piece value earned was worth 1 XP, and each monster defeated was worth a set amount of XP based on the level of its challenge. In version three the XP-for-treasure was removed, but the XP-per-monster remains even now in fifth edition.
As a GM, I like to encourage a style of play which doesn’t revolve around just killing monsters. This means I want to reward players for overcoming challenges in multiple ways — successfully negotiating a bargain, uncovering information they need, converting a hostile monster into an ally, etc.
This is fine. The DMG does suggest awarding XP for this sort of thing as well. The trouble is, it doesn’t have any sort of guidance on how much to award. Monsters are nice and easy to calculate, but how do you calculate the value of negotiating for a vital clue?
Also, the experience system as published is fiddly. 25, 50, 100, 200 works okay, then we’re into 450, 700, 1100, 1800… “So you have two Allosaurs [CR2, 450XP] and an Ankylosaur [CR3, 700XP] for a total of, …er, 900 plus 700 equals 1600XP. Now divide that by the number of characters present.” It turns into an exercise in mental arithmetic and bookkeeping. And then it turns out that what was a interesting encounter doesn’t actually earn the party as much as I hoped.
For example, a interesting fight against 6 Dretches and 5 Manes earned 6×50+5×25 = 300+125 = 425 XP. There were 6 PCs, one half PC (incorporeal) and an NPC, giving a total divisor of 7, or 61 XP each (30 for the NPC and Sergi).
By encounter challenge, we have 11 monsters against 8 characters, for a x2.5 difficulty rating (11-14 = x3, more than 5 PCs takes it one challenge level down to 7-10 = x2.5), which gives a challenge XP of 1062.5 XP. This is a medium encounter, but they earn a pittance for it.
Enter Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm, in particular his post Angry’s Guide to Experience. In it he gives eloquent arguments for keeping XP awards, but dropping the calculations and basing everything off the level of challenge. This makes fights, discoveries, negotiations, etc, all on a par. As he puts it:
“An encounter is worth an award. Doesn’t matter how hard or easy the encounter is or how many monsters were involved. One encounter equals one XP award. That’s it. You don’t have to do any more than that.”
How much XP to award? He suggests using the combat difficulty table on p82 of the DMG, looking up the line with the average party level, and awarding all characters the number you see there. He uses the Medium encounter value, with half for an easier encounter and double for the adventure goal. For example (back to Scott):
“Okay, let’s see. You defeated or drove off the Zhentarim mercenaries in the inn. That’s 50 XP each. Then, you evaded the Zhent patrols in the streets of Baldur’s Gate. 50 more XP each. And you brought your quarry, Stedd, safely to your camp on the edge of town. That’s 25 XP each. Each of you gained 150 XP..”
He then admits:
“…this whole “dole out XP at the end of the session” thing is pretty loaded. That’s why I do it. Usually. Unless I forget.
“And that’s part of the trouble. As a GM, handing out XP isn’t nearly as rewarding. I mean … I don’t REALLY need it. And I don’t like doing too much math when I’ve just got done running game…”
Note the bit “Unless I forget”. I was finding a similar problem. I’ve been using this system and it does seem to give rather more predictable progress for the characters. But I still found myself totalling the encounters after the session and sending them a message letting them know what they earned, which again misses out on the feedback.
Using Experience tokens
To try to address this I’ve developed counters so that I can actually hand out the XP award immediately, and the players can see their XP mounting up through the session. Instant feedback. Print out on glossy card, cut them out and stick two of the same back to back.
- When the party overcome a minor challenge, give them a Bronze token.
- When they overcome a standard challenge, give them a Silver token.
- And when they complete an adventure goal, give them a Gold token.
- I’ve also added Platinum tokens for a major adventure climax.
You can cut the tokens in half to indicate a half award for a challenge bypassed rather than completed.
At the end of the session, you (or they) just need to total up the tokens they’ve earned and multiply by the XP for each award level to find their overall award.
For example, in my last session, there has been a bit of a change of personnel, and they’ve leveled up a bit. We now have five level 4 characters, one level 5, and still have Sergi as an incorporeal character who is currently earning half XP. In the session they successfully negotiated for a potion of time travel, used this to complete the Averoigne section of Castle Amber and move on to Etienne’s tomb, and bypassed a sleeping young blue dragon guardian by casting silence on it so they could tiptoe past.
They received a silver award for the negotiation, a gold award for completing a major goal, and half a silver award for bypassing the blue dragon. With an average party level of 4, looking up p82 of the DMG gives us 250XP for a Medium challenge, so a silver is worth 250XP, a gold is worth 500XP and a bronze would be worth 125XP. 250+500+125 gives a total of 875XP per character.
Much simpler to work with both in planning and at the table, and they could see the awards piling up.
I have published the tokens on DriveThruRPG on a pay-what-you-want basis – i.e. free unless you want to give me a tip, along with a summarised version of the instructions above. Please drop by and help yourself! And if you like them, drop me a line here, via Twitter @Melestrua or on my Melestrua Facebook page or my Facebook blog, Melestrua’s Musings.
Update 1-Feb: I wrote this post on 26th January, but decided to wait until the tokens were available before publishing. Since this is only my second publication, I had to wait for it to be approved, which finally happened yesterday afternoon. While I was waiting, DM David put out the following blog post which makes several very similar points: Using Experience Points to Make D&D More Compelling. I was not aware this was coming, but think these tokens work very well with his points as well.