03 Apr

“In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.”

– Octavia Butler

Various topics in the Blog-o-Sphere has me thinking about experience points and their role in gaming.

I stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons before third edition. I’ve skimmed the 3rd Ed. Players’ Handbook a few times, enough to see various familiar terms used in ways foreign to my grognardian mind, but by that time I was deep into GURPS and not looking to dive into a new D&D system.

3rd Edition, and by extension Pathfinder, is still largely a mystery to me. However having jumped back into old school gaming it’s hard not to pick up a few things about it. Most recently I’ve learned about how 3rd Edition shifts the focus of gaining experience points from recovering treasure to killing monsters.

This was a big surprise to me, as it radically changes the nature of the game. Exploration and treasure finding become secondary concerns and diplomacy can be a liability. I recently read accounts of play sessions where the Dungeon Master warned the players that they were missing out on experience points because they negotiated instead of fighting. In one case the DM went so far as to tell them the missed the chance to level up by not killing a group of NPCs.

It makes me wonder why Old School gamers are the ones with the “murder hobo” reputation.

This is anathema to me. It restricts creativity and limits the game. If I wanted that kind of experience I’d play Diablo. I’m an exploration gamer, I want to get to the bottom of the dungeon to see what’s there. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fight, but as much as I like defeating the dragon it’s reaching the depths of his lair and finding the lost artifact that I enjoy most. If I can build alliances with other dungeon dwellers along the way, even better. This means that I find the Old School focus on gaining XP through recovering treasure to be the better way.


Experience through treasure hunting is not without its flaws. This is especially true if you like to run a game that doesn’t drop huge amounts of loot on your players. I remember playing a TSR module back in high school where we found around 5,000 gp worth of treasure in a chest of drawers. This happened in one of the first chambers we entered and after killing a small group of monsters. We laughed and said it was time to head for the tavern. After all, 5,000 gold pieces will buy a lot of ale.

I try to scatter decent treasure hauls through my dungeons, saving the biggest for the deepest locations, but by and large I avoid spreading around too much wealth. When it’s easy to find jewels worth thousands in gold the allure of treasure loses its luster.

This also pushes the Dungeon Master to find ways to burn off all that wealth. Ideally this happens by letting the players set up a domain of their own, but that’s not the goal of every player. In practice it often turns into various tricks to drain the players’ purses. The lowest form of this would be the Adventurers Tax, where the king thinks it’s a good idea to demand a share of gold from a party powerful enough to brave the megadungeon.

This strategy usually ends… poorly.

AD&D’s practice of giving experience for magic items does help with this problem, allowing the DM to reward the players without overdoing monetary rewards. However the laser focus on treasure-for-experience is still a stifling element for game play and world design.

At the risk of speaking OSR-heresy, it makes me understand why some DM’s dispense with XP completely and level characters up after a set number of game sessions.

When I started back into OSR games, it was with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I decided to give out XP strictly by-the-book, but quickly found that the gains were too slow for our tastes. My players didn’t mind starting with fragile first level characters, but it got old staying there. They weren’t alone, I wanted them to tackle bigger challenges, but our game sessions were too short and the awards too small. Add to this my keeping the treasure modest and the focus on exploration and it quickly became apparent that changes needed to be made.

These days I use a subjective award system. I give XP for treasure and killing monsters, but I also give XP for completing “goals”. What constitutes a goal is also not rigidly defined, it’s not about plot points for a greater story so much as rewarding an accomplishment that means something to the character or the world. I am also happy to give XP for successful negotiations or other methods of avoiding combat, in proportion to the risk and creativity of the solution. Sneaking around an Owlbear would be worth less experience than fighting it. Negotiating with a hobgoblin war party could be as good as defeating it.

Wacky hi-jinks that leads a group of trolls into the lair of a hydra, when the players are too low in level to survive a fight with either group? That’ll earn a bonus.

Experience points are rewards that determine what your game is going to focus on. For my games I want to give rewards for the discovery of treasure, not based on its monetary value. I want to reward players for overcoming threats, not simply defeating them in combat. I want to encourage players to flesh out their characters through play and recognize them for completing tasks important to them, not for checking off specific plot points in a story I’ve written.



Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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3 responses to “Experience

  1. Matt

    April 3, 2014 at 10:08 PM

    I’m seeing a lot of misconceptions about how XP works in 3rd Edition D&D expressed in this entry, so I feel obligated to clear those up.

    In 3rd Edition D&D, most of the XP is gained by overcoming challenges. Some of these challenges are monsters and some of these are traps. Traps and monsters receive a Challenge Rating or CR which helps the GM help determine how level appropriate the challenge is (CR roughly corresponds to player level) and how much XP a player will get if they overcome the challenge.

    Disarming a trap or hacking apart a monster is the most obvious way to overcome the challenge. However players can also overcome the CR by sneaking, negotiating, or employing other tactics. Final call on whether a challenge has been successfully overcome is up to the GM, and some GMs like the ones you’re reading about don’t consider a challenge overcome unless the trap is disarmed or the monster is hacked to bits.

    When the challenge was overcome in 3rd Edition D&D, the player would then look at a table to which would inform him how much XP the character(s) should get for facing that high or low of a challenge at the character’s current level. A low level party facing a higher CR threat stood to gain more XP if they successfully overcame it than PCs whose level was more equal with the threats CR score.

    XP in 3rd Edition D&D also recommended that XP could be awarded for non-combat challenges where succeeding or failing really matters (like figuring out an important code), great roleplaying on the player’s part, or for completing story arcs.

    And if all that wasn’t enough, there was also a variant XP award suggested to reward XP per encounter (much like DCC does now), adjusting this reward by the toughness or ease the encounter presented.

    While this system certainly placed more value on challenges than on treasure (3rd Edition and Pathfinder consider wealth and magic to be rewards in their own right) than the earlier editions of D&D did, you didn’t have to place the emphasis on killing monsters. Players could gain lots of XP negotiating their way through a dungeon filled with traps and riddle challenges without ever facing a monster or acquiring fortunes of magic and/or loot at the end.

    • Fractalbat

      April 3, 2014 at 10:39 PM

      Fascinating reading!

      So the issue becomes that of certain DM’s style of play and not something hard coded into the game system. I’m quite pleased to hear this. I’m pleased to see that the style I prefer is an option expressed in the mechanics.

      Do you know if Pathfinder expresses things in the same way?

      Thank you for the clarification.

      • Matt

        April 4, 2014 at 12:56 AM

        Pathfinder leaves more open to the GM’s interpretation and is less detailed than D&D.

        When it comes to monsters, Pathfinder constantly uses the word “defeat” when it comes to gaining XP from monsters. What constitutes a defeat of an enemy is left open for the GM to decide, so you could reward any tactic that leads to the enemy being defeated.

        Overcome traps and obstacles give the PCs experience points based off of their challenge ratings. Story awards are emphasized in the Core book, but rewards for good PC roleplaying are not mentioned.

        In Pathfinder’s GameMastery Guide, Ad Hoc Experience is given as an option if you want to reward players for games that focus more on social interaction and the like where fighting and adventuring fall into the background for a session or three so players don’t feel like they’re being penalized.

        The GameMastery Guide also offers forth the idea of Handwaving XP and just allowing the GM to make a call of how many sessions each character needs to play in before they reach the next level.


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