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It’s going to be a few months before the DMG hits shelves, so until then the only real guidelines we have for experience points are the monster XP values provided in the Basic Rules.

However, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how XP was awarded in earlier editions (and in other “old school” games), and the ramifications thereof. In 1e, you got as much XP from treasure looted as monster kills, if not more– and you had to spend said treasure on “training” once you gained enough XP to level up, or you would stop receiving XP. Thus, if you had killed a horde of orcs without collecting a single copper, you were stuck. Alternatively, if you looted a dragon’s hoard, but never engaged a single monster, you were also stuck (but at least you were stuck and rich).

2e loosened this up, and honestly, I don’t know if I ever played in a game that actually required you to train to level up. We mostly just carried it around in bags of holding and wondered what we were supposed to spend it on. In 3.x and beyond, XP was all about the combat encounters, with a little bit of handwavy stuff about “yeah maybe you can give quest XP too.” 4E did try to expand this a bit with the skill challenge mechanic and a little more emphasis on quests, but it was still pretty much “fight, fight, fight, plus variations.”

On the principle that the actions that get rewarded are the actions that get repeated, that was one of the things that has led RPGs to their recent state of being all about the big set-piece combat encounter, which can be fun (I’ve certainly run my share of them), but is both exhausting and, honestly, monotonous when it becomes the main focus of the game.

5E, at least if you believe the introduction to the PHB, is instead built on the “three pillars of adventure,” which add Exploration and Social Interaction as major foci for the game. Of course, I heartily endorse this– even my most hack-and-slashy barbarian characters want to have someone to talk to or see something amazing from time to time. So how can we incorporate these pillars into the XP mechanic?


Tunnels and Trolls had a very simple formula for this: the first time a party explored a new level of the dungeon, they received 100 XP x the dungeon level. (Thus, 100 XP for first level, 200 XP for second level, etc.) To earn this, you had to actually poke around a bit– you couldn’t just wave your arm down the stairs and suddenly claim 200 XP. This required some judgement when out of the dungeon context, of course. Is the lizardfolk village a “2nd level dungeon,” for instance? But on the whole it was a pretty good model, and worth adopting.

So here’s my proposed rule: for each new “region” explored for the first time, the party will receive XP equal to a single creature encounter at the expected level of that region. A region can be a town hub, a dungeon level, or any point of interest on the map. The point is that it’s someplace new and interesting that the party has never seen before. As usual, this XP is divided among the PCs, with hirelings and the like receiving 1/2 shares.

Using the Lost Mines of Phandelver as an example, that might translate to something like:

  • Cragmaw Hideout (1st level/CR 1): 200 XP
  • Town of Phandalin (1st level/CR 1): 200 XP
  • Redbrand Hideout (2nd level/CR 2): 450 XP
  • Conyberry/Old Owl Well/Wyvern Tor (2nd level/CR 2): 450 XP
  • Thundertree/Cragmaw Castle (3rd level/CR 3): 700 XP
  • Wave Echo Cave (4th level/CR 4): 1,100 XP

This award assumes the characters spent a significant amount of time actually interacting with the denizens or features of a given location and is awarded when they leave it or take their first long rest within the region.

Social Interaction

This is much trickier. Some classes are all about social interaction (lookin’ at you, bards), while others are often better served by avoiding it (rogues), and it’s one of those things where many people feel that the play is its own reward– not to mention that the inspiration mechanic is already tied into it. (What are BIFTs, if not roleplaying hooks?) Furthermore, what constitutes a “social interaction encounter” is often much harder to identify. If the party attacks and captures a band of hobgoblins which they then interrogate, was that a combat encounter or a social interaction encounter? If you count it as both, is that double-dipping XP? (And if so, is that really a problem?)

I think the way I shall handle this is to award XP for social encounters based on the CR of the creature encountered, awarding 1/2 XP if there’s no real danger to the PCs. Again using Phandelver as an example, there are a couple of quests that may send the PCs to question a banshee. Normally banshees are CR 4, but the text specifically says she will not attack the PCs unless they attack her first. Thus, the encounter with the banshee is worth 1/2 the XP of a CR 4 encounter, or 550 XP. (This is skewed upwards a bit from the suggested XP in the module itself, which seems to treat it as a CR 1 encounter.)

If the PCs are in real danger– engaging in a riddle contest with a sphinx who will eat them if they guess wrong, for instance– then they are awarded full XP for the CR of the creature as if they had “defeated” it. (This is, among other things, to keep people from saying “Eh, the sphinx wasn’t worth any XP alive anyway, and riddles are stupid.”)

Not just any chatting up of NPCs counts as a “social encounter,” there has to be some kind of victory condition. In the case of the banshee, “victory” consists of getting her to answer your question. In the case of negotiating with the bugbear king for the release of a prisoner, you have to actually secure the prisoner’s release (and not get killed in the process), etc.

Quest XP, XP for Treasure and Other Oddities

I am still on the fence about these. I am reluctant to engage in “Quest XP” because that puts me back in the position of “pre-scripting the story” that I have been trying to get away from. There are already patrons in the setting who are willing to pay the PCs to accomplish certain things, and there are the XP and treasure awards in place for overcoming the challenges involved, so I’m inclined to let those take care of themselves. If I put a quest XP system in place, that rather feels like I’m giving the players an “assignment,” which is great for something like Ghostbusters but not what I want from D&D.

XP for treasure is a slightly different beast. Advocates of such a system say it promotes clever and interesting play, when sneaking in to steal the rat god’s gemstone eyes is worth more than slaughtering all the wererats and being done with it. It also makes it clear what players are expected to do: Find treasure! Which is down in mysterious dungeons (requiring exploration) and guarded by monsters (requiring combat).

Critics of such a system say it’s nonsensical at best (“I stole a diamond! Now I can swing my sword better.”) and creates perverse incentives at worst (“Why explore dungeons when I can gain a level every month by opening a Rat-On-A-Stick stand at the dungeon entrance?”). I can see what they’re getting at, but everything in D&D is so abstracted anyway that I’m not sure it’s a real problem. Modern OSR games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess get around this by defining “treasure” as “loot removed from a dangerous place,” as opposed from money you earn via crafting or rewards given to you by NPC patrons.

Awarding XP for treasure implies that there’ll be treasure to find. Unfortunately, with the 3.x “magic item economy” officially gone the way of the dodo there’s precious little out there for adventurers to spend their ill-gotten gains on, other than their downtime lifestyle. Granted, this is not an insignificant expense: 2 gp/day for “comfortable” racks up quickly if your characters lounge around for weeks, and any crafting/research you may want to do cranks up the cost. But it also runs the danger of making the game feel like Papers & Paychecks, and I wonder how many groups will actually use it.

Treating an extravagant lifestyle as one method of 1e-style “training,” on the other hand, has a certain appeal… the wizard “trains” by pouring all their treasure into old tomes and reagents, the cleric tithes and supports good works, the fighter works on establishing a keep or going with the rogue to seek out ale and wenches, and the bard lives like a rockstar. It also simplifies accounting: instead of picking a lifestyle and paying the daily cost, you simply roll that into the cost of levelling up and calling it done.

A simple way to handle it might be to require the expenditure of the same amount of gold to level up as the XP required to go up a level: 300 gp to become second level, 900 gp to become third level, etc., but that seems rather high. (300 gp is a lot of money for a 1st level character!) But this could be tweaked. Maybe 1/3 as many gp as XP? Putting that much treasure out there for players to loot in order to level up suggests that they should not also get XP for treasure, however, or will inflate rapidly.

What do you think, gamerati? I’m very curious as to folks’ opinions on this.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2014 02:00 am (UTC)
PHB? I had no idea Dilbert was a RP adventure game :D

Oct. 12th, 2014 03:37 am (UTC)
As for the question of XP for treasure, it's really not something i'm clamoring for, and only alters the rate of advancement that the GM is supposed to be in charge of in the first place. Of more interest is, well, the loot itself, and that's where, from version to version of D&D, I feel like i keep slamming my face into a wall.

Gold, as many a philosopher has spent their career pondering, is worth nothing all by itself, but it's a medium for exchange agreed upon in a kind of mass hallucination called economics. In D&D, at most a page or two out of hundreds and hundreds of pages of content is concerned with day to day living costs. Players spend their money on two things: consumables and magic items which have relevance to all those other hundreds of pages.

The game devs expect a certain amount of churn with consumables. Having potions or scrolls is really useful in a pinch, but too costly to make going to the bag of healing potions the players' first option.

Items, items are great, always useful if it's the right one, but almost never EVER affordable. Thinking back on my gaming experience, the only items I'd have would either be the "roll up a level 5 and get this many gp worth of magical gear" and know i'm getting something i want, is useful, and matches the character concept i'm trying for, and will probably have for the entire campaign. After that it's whatever the GM / module writer salted into the loot tables, and it'd be disappointing to see "meh, a cloak of protection nobody wants, a +1 weapon you already had, and a scroll of something not useful" take up the space where any of the kind of "wishlist" items might have been more well received. Sometimes a Really Awesome Thing will show up and it's great, but that feels like the exception rather than the rule, and was usually a bossfight kind of thing. The opportunity for the players to go and buy or upgrade a *specific* item that they want exists theoretically, but not realistically, and that's really my problem.

Session after session i'd watch GP climb and fall, here's your share of a few gold, here's a few more, here's a pittance from selling the items nobody cares for, and it's most of a campaign over and done with, months or years of real time gone past, by the time i can afford to just bump one weapon from +1 to a +2, or afford a single "bump the important stat" item.

With my alchemist character, i tried looking into the using poisons (big part of the class as written, hardly ever touched it) and other alchemical items that'll all mesh nicely with her throwing bonuses. It was like pouring out my wallet for next to no effect. The poisons go to waste if the shot misses or the save gets made. The other things, alchemist's fire, for instance, are moderately useful but pricey. I guess what I wanted with her was to have her non-campaign time working at alchemy for hire to finance the disposables she'd burn through adventuring, but all that the off-campaign time worked out to was "well, you can buy it half-price" or put differently, "lose your money slower".

I'm not looking for Papers & Paychecks, but just wanted to feel like the act of adventuring wasn't such a net financial loss for the character. The adventure where i tried stocking up my alchemist for pretty much was. I feel kinda like i'm bugging you about the mundane loot on the things we're killing in our 5e campaign right now, but i've got decades of experience on the other shoulder screaming at me at how that "normal, boring" studded leather or chainmail or stack of shortswords are about half a healing potion each, at least, if i'm willing to drag them back up the road for a day to town, AND WOULD'T GIMLET HAVE LIKED TO HAVE HAD ONE OF *THOSE* LAST SESSION!?

I think i've talked myself entirely into the "against" camp. Giving Gold or loot an XP component will only serve to limit the amount of treasure the party gets or can afford to buy, and as discussed that's already prohibitive. I'd be far more in favor of "quest completed / you just did a hard thing, have some bonus xp" for clearing out a tomb, and have that not be hitched to the monetary value of anything we pocketed while in there, or got rewarded with by grateful townfolk.
Oct. 12th, 2014 11:46 am (UTC)
Heh. I wish you'd said some of this stuff re: Yamashi while the game was going, because I spent most of that game flailing around trying to find a point of engagement for everyone. :) She already spends her downtime making her disposables, as part of the bombs she's tossing. Just because they're a "class feature" rather than an item off an equipment list, doesn't change that part. I realize what you're saying is that you'd like more of that, and I will do what I can to oblige. That's why I had Blasty McNasty's cabinet o' reagents there to claim, for instance.

(I noticed that with Blind Maggie, too, that you kept wanting to reclaim the goblins' alchemist fire and such. In that particular case, I was trying to establish it as "something only the bad guys use, because setting rules," plus I found the whole notion of this sweet little tea-brewing hedge witch throwing molotov cocktails kinda strange. ;) But with Yamashi, it was a different story.)

Thing is, PF is so numerically tight and built around "encounter balance" that I always felt like I had to try to cleave to the "wealth guidelines" in order to keep things from spiraling out of control, which meant keeping an eye on what could be carried off and what couldn't. I did try to make sure you got enough, but with Eberron particularly the assumption was that selling magic items you've come across but nobody wants is a major way of earning cash, and if you wanted something, you'd just head to Ye Olde Magic Shop and pick it up. That's baked right in to the 3.x/PF system and the Eberron setting (although I do get what you're saying about having a magic shop does you no good if the prices for choice items are out of your reach).

5E should be a different beast in that regard. First of all, magic items are rarer (so they say, I have yet to see how it actually plays out), and they are generally of the "do something weird" variety more than a simple "x + 1" stat booster. With bounded accuracy, the numbers are nerfed (a +2 item is suddenly huge, and a +3 is amazeballs), but it also means that you'll be having a wider variety of encounters and keeping a tight rein on your gear is not something I particularly want to do any more. So if you can find something amazeballs you want to claim and use, I certainly won't stop you.


-The Gneech
Oct. 12th, 2014 11:47 am (UTC)

I'm curious re: Gimlet and a healing potion... he's a cleric, why not simply cast cure wounds on himself? I always figured spells were more of a "first choice" than potions, since they refresh overnight and have no monetary cost. When he was down on the ground, having a potion wouldn't have helped him. It's the same thing as Blasty McNasty's cabinet: I expressed that "treasure" in terms of your class features because they're always my first go-to, rather than just making a list of extra stuff for you to carry around. It sounds to me like you'd rather have the extra stuff instead, is that it?

That said, there is a place in town to pick up healing potions. They aren't cheap, but they aren't completely out of reasonable grasp either (and there are patrons willing to offer work that will provide cash). But ya gotta go find it. :) Poke around a little, instead of just eating the plot. ;)

in re: mundane items, my real problem with you carrying off all of them is a logistic one: how would you carry three suits of leather armor around? Where would you put four shortswords? I know that CRPGs and the like just have a whole suit of armor take up "an inventory slot," but I prefer to a more naturalistic approach, trying to picture what your character is actually doing within the game world. I've seen enough armor IRL to know that it's not something you just toss onto a coat hanger and sling over your shoulder. ;)

The adventure so far has been a bit light on the treasure, but there has been some the group left behind because it was more or less disguised as scenery: specifically, the crates in the goblin cave, which were full of trade goods they'd collected on previous raids, for which there would have been a reward in town had you brought them back. I tried to point you guys in that direction by mentioning there had obviously been other ambushes.

What treasure there has been that was obviously treasure, you guys just haven't really come across yet (or came across but then didn't claim for one reason or another, such as Klarg's kitbox and King Grol's treasure chest). That's still out there for the claiming, you just have to do something about the bugbears in the way. ;)

...most of which doesn't directly address the XP-for-treasure question, but it's all related, and all worth discussing. :)


Oct. 12th, 2014 05:42 pm (UTC)
Well, at the time in question, Gimlet was about three inches away from dead on the road, and that near-corpse represented 100% of the available magical healing handy. I lucked the hell out rolling a 20 on the death save, but had anybody in the party had a potion, there would have been a "Pour potion down throat, get dwarf back on feet again" one or two turn solution that we just flat didn't have. 50g a pop isn't cheap, but worth having when the chips, or in this case, the healer, was down.

I understand your point on the 'scoop up All The Lootz', but at the same time, your question about how does it all fit is an answered one in the mechanics already. Gimlet's got a 14 str, that turns into 210 lbs of carrying before he's encumbered. I haven't done the math on the equip listed on his sheet, but he's probably got a fair amount of space left. a 13 lb suit of studded leather or two could pack down enough to stuff in a pack or sack, before it became an encumbrance. Not ten of them, certainly, but armor is a whole lot less bulky without a body in it, and those two suits and a shortsword? maybe worth it, for 50g. At low levels, mundane things like a flask of oil, the goblin's alchemist fires, a single healing potion, etc, can make a significant difference, where their impact would be trivial at higher levels. 5e low level characters are a lot more durable than in previous versions, but we're still kinda paranoid, and encounters like the owlbear are a good reason to be so.

I'm not trying to mack on your doling out of treasure, this is something i've noticed from multiple DMs through multiple versions of the game over the years, and seems to be kind of a feature of the system. It just feels like a tease when there's a shop full of shiny, awesome, USEFUL things that you'll never EVER have the cash to afford.

I'm looking forward to the DM guide and a list of magical widgetry in 5e to see what it is and how it works. I liked the idea if not the execution of what they tried to do in 4th, to make a magical item have a lot more personality than just "yawn, another +1 shortsword", I'd like to see how that plays out in this version.
Oct. 12th, 2014 05:43 pm (UTC)

I tend to play with strategy and resources in mind, which is, i guess, why i prefer a grid map and minis over a more storytelly non-map version of the fight. For situations like Blind Maggie vs. the Goblins, yes, those alchemist fire things were nasty, my thinking was that the only good use for such a thing would be to use it back on the nasty creatures that made it. Plus, the notion of using her kenderstaff to field and fling bottles with just seemed amusing.

For Yamashi, Blasty's cabinet was cool to get, one of the bossfighty-specific rewards i mentioned. i guess my point was that had I not spent several hundred gold on poisons that weren't particularly useful and other resources beyond the daily "can toss N bombs per day" that my class gets automatically, all of which amounted to a trivial-to-modest at best contribution after the dust had settled... I'd have still gotten what was in his cabinet, and not been in the red, gold-wise. It just kinda goes back to the 'you'll never afford the shiny pricey thing' treadmill issue.

with regards to eating the plot, we're kinda presented with things in a rush. First we needed to go get Uncle from the nasty people holding him before he's killed and likely eaten, then we're not back in town a day before he's telling us that we're either in it with him and pack your bags and let's go get that high level dungeon at first light or the other folks will clean it out and be gone any minute now. I'd like to spend some time following other plot threads, my character in particular would like to sow more chaos with the redcloaks, but it kinda feels like if we do subplot stuff, the big setpiece of the whole adventure will be empty by the time we get around to it. I realize it doesn't have to be, you can make it however you want, but the urgent "GO! GO DO THE THING NOW OR *CONSEQUENCES*!!!" situations tends to impact the party decisions.

Oct. 12th, 2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
It sounds like what happened w/ Yamashi is basically tied to the 3.x/PF magic item economy, which is sorta indicative of the larger 3.x/PF design philosophy, which can kinda be described thus:

  • 3.x/PF: Nerf everything to heck and make the players spend resources to get it back (e.g., put giant penalties on two-weapon fighting, then require PCs to use feats to get rid of the penalties).

  • 5E: Assume the PCs can do something unless there's a specific thing preventing it, and when PCs spend a resource make a big splash with it (e.g., 5E feats, which bundle two or three 3.x-style feats into one and usually have a stat raise to boot).

The net result of this is that Yamashi's attempts to get around this philosophy just weren't getting sufficient bang for the buck (or kaboom for the GP, as the case may be). Would you say that was an accurate assessment?

In re: "Eating the plot," this is more a group tendency than a specific discussion of this instance, and it's something I've observed before. I do it myself, without realizing it– I've noticed many times in retrospect that Obsidian's goal in any given excursion was "Do the specific thing we came down here for and get the hell out," and I think some of that is a relic of the way gaming has morphed over the years.

But once upon a time, going down into the dungeon was considered its own reward; I miss that, and I'm trying to figure out how to get back to that (and away from riding the plot train). This point is actually very important: I don't want to be forcing your hand or shoving you along, and if you feel like I am, please tell me, because if that happens it means that you (meaning all the players) are on a different page than I am as the GM, and that's going to lead to trouble.

For the current scenario, my first suggestion is, "Don't take Brannar's word for everything." ;) He's all excited about Wave Echo Cave and there is competition for it, certainly (e.g., The Spider), but even that competition has to move resources and such to get things done. Brannar doesn't know the extent of The Spider's operation any more than you guys do, so he's assuming the worst. By all means, feel free to tell Brannar "We'll go to Wave Echo Cave when we're damn good and ready!" ;)

NPCs are speaking only for themselves and are not "the GM wearing a mask"– I'm not trying to set up situations to "punish you" for guessing wrong about whether you had enough time to do any given thing or not. And when Elsa says she's bored and wants to start cleaving things, that's because it's how she feels about it, not because I'm trying to goad you guys into action.

If all else fails, just go metagame and ask me the implications of a decision, and I'll try to answer it as best I can within the framework of what your characters know or could be reasonably assumed to infer.

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