Awarding Experience in D&D
This isn’t supposed to be an article on which is the correct way, it’s simply a few versions I’ve come up with that you might want to consider. This is about awarding XP’s in d20 Dungeons & Dragons. I haven’t touched on it until now because truthfully I fudged my way through it for years. Back in first edition XPs were pretty static. Everyone got the same amount and some gained levels more quickly than others based off their advancement. Depending on who you played for, a DM back then may have awarded individual XPs for kills instead of party awards to be shared. By the time second edition came around I got into heavy tracking during a time when the various “complete handbooks” had this zany advice that I should be tracking XP’s for every time a wizard cast a spell or a rogue picked a lock. Regardless there seems to be three common conventions of rewarding XPs (and lots of variations on a theme), the one that’s right is the one that suits your group: Casual, By the Book, or Meticulous.
This one is OK, but under the new D&D it can’t be as casual as you’d like without encountering some problems. In the old days casual meant when the DM decided you gained a level, you gained a level, that was it. Either he felt you deserved or earned it or enough time went by that he felt everyone was ready. Another causal way is the DM just awards XP’s on the fly as stuff happens…you tell a good joke, you get XPs, you avoid the pit, you get XPs, you heal the NPC, you get XPs.
Why it works: It saves the DM a lot of number fiddling off-game and calculations that turn the heroic story into a point based exercise. It also awards players for specific actions if it is tracked casually (but the DM’s whim must be trusted…like when the cute chick who sleeps during the game gets more XPs than those who participated…true story).
Why it fails: You can’t really do this if you play in d20 D&D. XP’s are used for plenty of things besides gaining levels. You can make magic items, join organizations, gain feat-like abilities, misread a magical book or the like, all of which needs to be tracked for the system to work.
By the Book
This is pretty much running XPs straight out of the DMG. At its core, at the end of a gaming session, one player turns in the kill sheet and the DM goes through the chart on page 168 and totals awards based off the average level of the party against the CR of encounters they faced that session. He then totals them all up and evenly distributes them among surviving members of the party. When a wizard creates a magical item or a fighter joins a guild or what have you, XPs are tracked by taking them off. This assumes the players know the party is working together to defeat a creature, that just because the fighter killed the demon if his friends were not there to hold off its minions the combat would have gone quite different.
Why it works: The game was designed around this style…it’s simple, fair and fairly quick.
Why it fails: And while I don’t really consider this a failing point, it’s something to consider: unless someone’s making a lot of items and another player just sits there, everyone goes up a level at nearly the exact same time. There’s no individual award; if you play a really great night or you play horrible you still get the same amount
This is how I tracked a single 5-year campaign in my old second edition group. I actually awarded XPs to classes for doing things they were supposed to be doing (which is really not cool). Apparently I was a TSR zombie who trusted most rules with their logo on it instead of realizing it was essentially a bunch of editors and freelancers who never talked to each other. It was silly and a huge waste of time. On the other hand, if worked the right way a house system could go very far in helping to weed out who deserves bonus XPs and who doesn’t. For example, a roleplaying reward for truly playing a great part or accomplishing something in-character through interaction, or having a really great idea that helps save the party or win the day, or by just making the evening fun for everyone. XP penalties should come in for players who just sit there collecting dust, trivialize other’s parts in the game or cause trouble. These XPs should almost always be a percentage of the evening’s reward as a bonus, not a set amount, because saying a bonus of 100 XPs will be rewarded to the best roleplayer sounds great at 1st level but nearly useless at 10th and beyond.
Why it works: Players feel their hard work is rewarded and better players see quicker advancement.
Why it fails: It’s lots of extra DM work, and if they’re not careful you might be accused of favoritism just because a player plays the way you would or you reward a loud character instead of the quiet one just because you hear one more.
Out loud or secret?
Do you reward XPs out loud or do you track them yourself? Do you hand them out secretly but trust the players to track their own advancement or not? These are more considerations. In 22 years I’ve found the best way, no matter how you look at it, is in secret. You track them yourself, and just inform players when they gain a level. By their nature, gamers have strong opinions. You don’t want to sit there week after week telling your friends why one of them is better at the game than another when they clearly won’t all agree. With this responsibility comes a little work. Check your work carefully and make sure you avoid mistakes if at all possible.
When to award?
After each encounter, at the end of an adventure, at the end of a session, or when the party reaches a certain place? Everyone has his or her likes, but the truth is it’s a time-sucker and it’s not heroic fantasy; it should not be done during the game. Therefore it’s probably most fair to award each night after the session closes and everyone’s hanging out. If you do it each encounter or when the party reaches a certain place you’ll wind up stopping the game to do number crunching. If you do it per adventure, you seriously risk awarding thousands of extra XPs to the party that will be lost playing by the book because you can’t gain more than one level per session.
To train or ascend?
Does the character need to find a master and pay or do you just gain the level through practice? I always hated this rule, but I tried to implement it plenty of times in my DM career and you know what, it never worked practically. It’s way too much micro-managing and again it’s completely unheroic unless everyone trains at the exact same time, which would mean there would be a master in every village or way station so everyone could train…that’s just plain silly. They’re called experience points, not “reading some outdated manual listing to some blowhard tell you his opinion on what’s correct” points.
And that’s all she wrote! But wait, you might say…this article doesn’t actually tell you how to award them…the mechanics of it all. Right. All that is in the Dungeon Masters Guide as clear as crystal; go read it!