Thursday, September 17, 2015

Eliminating XP

"How many experience points for that encounter?"  
"How much experience do I get for this treasure?"  
"If I seduce the bartender, will that be enough to level up?'  
In my game-mastering experience, some players are so focused on the immediate reward of points that it drives a rift between them and those players who want to enjoy the game.  Over time, juggling exact numbers just proves to be tedious--particularly when a 9th level character is 12-points shy of her next level.  Yeah "just fudge it" could solve that situation--but how can you make sure you have been fudging fairly for everyone?

I like the idea of eliminating experience points all together, shifting "leveling up" to something session- and story-based.  In this post, I will be exploring and expanding on an idea presented almost as a footnote in the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide:
... Advance characters based on how many sessions they play, or when they accomplish significant story goals in the campaign.  In either case, you tell the players when their characters gain a level. ...
A good rate of session-based advancement is to have characters reach 2nd level after the first session of play, 3rd level after another session, and 4th level after two more sessions. Then spend two or three sessions for each subsequent level.  This rate mirrors the standard rate of advancement, assuming sessions are about four hours long. 
Keep in mind, eliminating XP as described here only works for level-based game systems with a common experience track for all characters:  namely Dungeons & Dragons from 3.x onward, and its derivatives (Pathfinder, d20 Modern, etc.).  

Instead of rewarding a character for lucky rolls, you will be rewarding players for plying the game.  While the DMG suggests rewarding either session or story, I see no reason why both couldn't be recognized in the same game.

Session Levels

The bulk of a character's levels will be session levels, earned very closely to the model outlined in the DMG.

While the DMG suggests a 4-hour long session, how your group distinguishes one play session from another is up to you.  A "session" should consist of more than one encounter (combat, social, etc.), and it should advance the campaign in a meaningful way (be that major or minor).  Generally, if a group plays once a week, each weekly game should count as one session; if this group were to play twice as long as normal one week, that game could count as two session.  A group that is easily distracted, however, may take two real-world play-sessions to complete a single "session."

Initially, levels will come easily--one session apart at first, then two, then three, then more.  If looking for a formula:  To gain the next level of experience, a player's character must "survive" (a subjective term I leave for individual GMs to interpret) a number of play sessions at his current level equal to 1/2 that level, rounded up.  For example:  At 1st and 2nd level, a character must survive 1 session each to gain the next level; at 6th level, a character would require 3 sessions before leveling up; and at 19th level, a character must survive 10 (!) additional sessions to gain 20th level.

Through earning 7th level, this follows the guidelines presented in the DMG--then gets significantly harder.  Using this method, it works out to 100 total sessions to reach 20th level. Playing once a week means reaching 20th level in about 2 years--far sooner than any campaign I have ever played--but at a rate which should feel comfortable and satisfying to the players.   This does not seem unreasonable to me.

You could adjust this rate as you see fit.  For a longer game, you could say that a character needs to survive a number of session equal to his current level (190 session); or even equal to the next level to be earned (210 session).  Longer benchmarks like these would be appropriate for groups lucky enough to meet more than once a week.  Whatever you choose, make it 1) consistent across all levels, and 2) easy to remember.

Story Levels

If the campaign has an over-arching story--such as any of the adventures released for 5th edition, one of Pathfinder's adventure paths, or an old-school mega-dungeon--then characters should also earn story levels.  During a major story-line, each character will earn three story levels.
If you are not using a major story arc, you can still offer story levels--instead rewarding them for crossing moments in each character's personal story.  Normally, personal story would be rewarded with inspiration or hero points.  More tips concerning personal story can be found in another post.
Story levels begin with character creation, representing the exposition phase of storytelling:  Who is your character?  Where do they come from?  What have they made of themselves?  How did they get here?  You've taken a lot of time to establish the character's character--so you earn level 1 for free.  Yes, first level counts as a story level.
If you are not using story levels, there are options out there for creating characters at level 0, and then earning 1st level.  I'm not going to post a link, because you will have to find the option that works for you.
After exposition is rising action, represented by early session levels.

Another story level is granted at the point when the characters are forced to take action toward confronting the main conflict of the campaign.  In storytelling, this is sometimes called the crisis moment.  When the players have met the crisis and taken action to resolve it, then all characters have earned their second story level.  This should happen somewhere around 8th to 12th level.

If a character would have gained a level anyway, then award that level first; the story level will be gained after the next session. At this point the session counters toward the characters' next levels re-start.

As the campaign moves from crisis to the next turning point, more session levels are gained.

When the main conflict of a campaign is resolved--that is, when the climax of the story has been confronted and survived--then a third story level is earned by all characters, and all session counters restart.  This can happen any time after 14th level.  As with the crisis, if a character would have gained a level anyway, then the story level is gained after the next session.

Everything after this point is falling action--and may including the process of ascending to immortality.  No more story levels are earned.


  1. Having played in games like this, I can say that while it does take the focus off of the immediate XP reward and the actions that would reward XP. However, I have also seen it backfire where people felt that their progression was stalled and that the game was getting boring because they could not see the build up.
    I have found a better solution which solves the problem of the immediate XP seekers but also prevents the feeling of stagnation. Establish a between session newsletter or some other type communication. In that communication all XP is handed out and should a player feel that something they did was worthy of more XP they can reply and request it. This sets the standard of XP only being awarded between sessions which eliminates the people wanting to do every action and ask what the XP is for it. It has worked well for our groups.

    1. This seems to be a common reaction to the post, to suggest that experiene just not be awared in "real time." However, no matter when I award XP, I have players who will ask how much an encounter is worth--whether or not those points apply yet. "I'll tell you later" is almost always met with "I just want to know!"

    2. In my experience taking a player like that aside and letting them know that they are disrupting the game, and they have gotten what answer they will get either solves the problem or you can invite them to find another game. In the end eliminating the XP is not the solution as it creates problems.

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  3. I have played at tables where this was used. It sucked. I hated not knowing how much closer to the next level I was. I wouldn't mind waiting for a weekly email or something but to never get an idea of the XP I had would suck. Also how would you reward someone who did some really good role play or had some really good idea which solved a problem? That is what bonus XP is for. If you can't give that then it removes one of the rewards for putting in the effort. It is not the only reward but it is one that counts. And once other players see that the extra effort pays off they will try and do better and put in more effort which makes the game more fun. By taking away XP you create more problems than you solve.
    I agree with the other poster. If someone can't get it through their head that they should just wait for the weekly mail, or at least wait till the end of the session, then the table is better off without them. This is not an MMORPG, if they want that kind of instant gratification let them grind out the XP killing pigs in WOW.

    1. Treasure, boons, inspiration, hero points ... there is a large variety of reward options that aren't XP.

  4. What about other non-XP ways of gaining bonuses? For instance if someone uses the rogue skill of backstabbing, increase that. If a wizard casts X spell successfully, give bonuses to hit/ damage, more range etc. If a fighter uses smart tactics, allow them to work more often, and in more diverse situations, or allow it to hit more often because it's what's being used?

  5. An idea I've been toying with, but haven't had a chance to implement in game because our groups other DM is running a game now, is to award reputation points in place of bonus experience. This way people can have instant gratification of reputation points which will affect how the world interacts with them. I have found that awarding bonus xp makes players that don't like to seek extra activities feel left out. I have a player in my group that always wants to keep the group together and do whatever the rest of the group is doing because he really likes the cooperative aspect of dnd; if I award everyone else bonus xp for trying to do something extra he'll feel left out. With the reputation point system he'll be able to maintain his preferred persona is just a member of an adventuring group because his reputation points won't reflect anything about him beyond his membership as part of the party.

    I don't have it fully fleshed out yet, but I'm thinking of having categories for reputation points, like heroism, cunning, compassion, ruthlessness, and maybe one or two more. That way in a social interaction NPCs may want to talk to a specific character if that player has worked to build up compassion points.

  6. I would bet that your player that likes cohesion has to play negotiator at times to keep the different people in the party moving to the same thing. There is no reason that those actions couldn't be worth extra XP as well (or in your use the reputation).
    Where I have a problem is when you have a table of six players and two or three are engaging and acting in character and the rest are only there for the combats. The people who put in the effort to make a whole character and portray that in all aspects of the game deserve more than the people who put in the min effort and tune out or zone out during the parts that are not combat.
    As another poster said, those players would be much better suited playing an MMO than playing a table top. Now if they are honestly putting in the effort to develop the role playing skills and are just shy or something then sure they may not fit in this category, but that shyness should not last that long and eventually they will get comfortable and engage.
    I am sorry if this makes me a RP snob or some other thing such as that but I think that the "lets reward everyone equally" is the same thing as when they give all kids a trophy regardless of how they do. In the end Extra Effort should get Extra Reward.

    1. I see your point, but shouldn't everyone get a trophy? As a DM it's my job to make sure everyone at the table is having fun, not to reward people for having fun the way I think they should. I feel that dnd is so many different things to so many different people and I shouldn't penalize my players for not aligning with some "right" way to play.
      In my group I have a player who loves combat encounters and tends to be pretty quiet for the rest, except to move the story along to the next combat. What this tells me as a DM is that I can use that player to keep the story progressing and that I need to start making RP a part of combat. If that player shines in combat I'm not going to provide less experience to that player and more to those that RP out of combat when both play styles contribute to the game. I mean, who am I to say that social encounter experience should be worth more than combat experience? Some players design their characters to be skill experts and are weaker during combat. Should I give those players less experience during each combat encounter because they contribute less to killing enemies?

    Sean K Reynolds once posted this. The idea is to give all the players a part of their next level at the end of each session. The number of steps you create (3, 4, 5, etc) set the pace for how fast characters level.

    Typically, characters will level every 3 or 4 sessions. You can give "big" rewards by having them double step every once in awhile. When my group played Pathfinder, we favored it over XP because as GMs we always found XP to be too much work of a calculation. Better just to reward players and move on to more fun.