While I’m going to address awarding Experience Points (aka: Exp or XP depending on which rule set you are using) specifically in regards to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (Herein: D&D 5E) I also intend to discuss Exp in general principles as it applies to other similar Role Playing Games (RPG’s).
A lot of new Game Masters (GM’s or ‘Dungeon Masters’ if you’re limited to just D&D) contemplate this age old question and I’m certainly not the first to debate this issue. But I have an opinion.
Let’s say that you’re a lucky D&D 5E GM with a handful of eager players. Everyone not only created a character, but they showed up to play the game! Some of them may have even brought snacks! (Hopefully the snacks were tasty even).
You also followed the sage advice of an experienced GM on Challenge Ratings so none of these new players are traumatized by a character death during their first foray into D&D 5E.
So the session ends and everyone seems to have had fun and they’re talking about getting together to do this again! (Bonus)!
In this instance you need to award your players 300 Exp each. Yes, that’s exactly how much Exp it takes to level a D&D 5E Player Character to second level.
I do not care what the players did or didn’t do on this first session. It doesn’t matter how many or how few critters they actually killed. Give ‘em 300 Exp so that they can get to level 2.
And this is the governing principle behind this decision. In level based games like D&D, level one player characters suck.
Now for brand new players who are just learning about RPG’s, most level 1 characters are simple enough that you can wrap your brain around the new mechanics of this complex game. And that’s a good thing for new players.
However, at Level 1, those characters have little chance to survive the dangerous world that lies outside the safety of whatever walled domain they hail from. And like most level based games, getting to level 2 means that your Hit Points will likely double! Literally doubling a new characters chance for survival. That and level 2 characters get some new talents and capabilities which also increase their ability to survive.
Especially in D&D 5E, this game doesn’t really get interesting for the players until the characters reach level 2.
But what about after the first session? Good question. Glad you asked.
In part, the best way to answer this question (for your specific campaign and group of players) is “What do you want your player to do to earn Exp?”
One non RPG book that I recommend that every GM (and to be honest anyone in a leadership or management position) are the two books SuperFreakonomics and the prequal Freakonomics. (Okay so I actually recommended two books there). If you can only read one of those, pick up the SuperFreakonomics.
But to really strip away everything but the most basic premise of SuperFreakonomics; people do what you incentivize them to do. You’re players will behave in a manner that you as a GM encourage them to do so.
Now lets look at some specific examples.
At it’s core most RPG’s are combat simulators. And Exp is earned based on the difficulty of the creatures defeated.
Go ahead and crack open that Monster Manual and check out one of the monsters. See that number in parenthesis next to the Challenge Rating? That’s the suggested number of Exp that should be awarded for defeating one of those critters.
To be fair, “defeat” usually means “kill” but that’s not the only way to “defeat” an opponent.
Suppose your Player Characters scare the opponents into fleeing from the field of battle? The suggestion is to award half Exp. Sounds good. I’m okay with that suggestion. And this also incentivizes your players to let you employ the reocurring villain trope. (A blasted difficult trope to employ if the Player Characters keep killing everything they come across. Plus if you award half Exp for each reoccurring villain defeat, that villain is worth more to the Player Character advancement over time).
Now imagine that your band of plucky players delves deep into the underworld catacombs of a bustling city and stumble across a group of Yuan-Ti, scraping out a bare bones existence subsisting via nefarious and desperate means to get by!
Obviously, most Player Characters would recognize these neutral evil NPC’s as Exp fodder and slaughter them outright!
What what if the players have no clue that the Yuan-Ti are “Evil(TM)” and just see an oppressed minority. What if the players, remember (and you forgot!) that their patron lord is collecting disaffected peoples from throughout the realm to build a better county? A county where his subjects have greater opportunity for self actualization?
And the Player Characters invite the small clan to re-locate!
Well. The Yuan-Ti are technically “defeated.” The Player Characters encountered this band of thieves and cut throats and ‘neutralized’ them as a threat to the city.
In a case like this I’d recommend awarding half of the total Exp for something like this. (There’s also an argument for awarding full Exp, but I’ll address that later).
Author’s Note: This Yuan-Ti example actually happened in a game that I participated in.
I was involved in an RPG where we would have a combat encounter followed by a formal dinner.
These formal dinners would involve social encounters where side plots and major plot points would be disclosed and discussed with prominent NPC’s (including patrons).
There were a lot of details and time spent on these dinner parties. Invariably, these encounters required quite a bit of note taking as they lay the foundation for future context and future encounters.
And in real life, these social encounters can take up more game time than combat.
So what do you do with these?
If you are a GM who only provides Exp for combat, than these social encounters will become tedious and boring for the players. Players will start screaming things like “Space Bar” or “Skip ahead” or “IDK!” Because if you award Exp only for combat then your players will be incentivized to only do combat.
But, if you as a GM are awarding Exp for the Player Characters navigating social encounter where they “Advance the Plot” then your player become incentivized to value these encounters too.
If you openly award Exp for social encounters, then the players will begin to value these encounters.
I’d recommend that between 25% to 50% of the Exp that you award come from social encounters.
And if you have enough players and time, try a D&D game where you only award Exp for social encounters. You may be amazed at how often these players avoid combat like the plague (unless you’ve studied your Freakonomics).
Ugh. I’ve seen a couple of ‘adapted’ D&D modules that took good first edition modules and ‘adapted’ them for fifth edition.
In short, I think each of these adaptations are awful abominations that inadvertently have been turned into Player Characters slaughter machines.
This has further reinforced my disdain for “Canned Spam” adventures, but I digress. (Is this an insert for another inevitable article? Maybe)?
Worse, these ill designed Canned Spam modules have plot point advancement’s baked into the module so that the fortunate few survivors of these meat grinders will level rarely. And only after several very dangerous encounters.
Remember when I recommended that you get the Characters advanced after that first session? With a good night of adventuring, that’s probably one or two short combats with a bunch of social encounters connecting the two. That and that one battle will be a new experience for the players so you probably only get one fight it for that night. And it’s going to be a close fight that the first level characters are barely able to survive!
Now imagine having to try to slog your way through eight encounters at first level where the characters are dropping on a single hit or two!
That’s just tedious.
If you’re trying to use these canned spam modules, I’d recommend NOT using the suggested advancement scheme. Based on just bad design, the Player Characters need to advance at a very fast rate, just to survive! (Or you as a GM will need to severely “Nerf” these modules).
This becomes a question of “Fast” vs “Slow.”
Most players want fast advancement. Part of the fun in a level based RPG is character advancement. With each new level, the characters receive new talents, abilities, and cool capabilities that they can then take out and unleash on the fantasy world!
So each new level adds shiny new stuff to play with!
However, (especially with a game as imbalanced and broken and D&D 5E) as a GM, when these characters start accumulating new tricks and techniques, it can become difficult to gauge the capabilities and competence of these ‘new’ Player Characters. That makes designing appropriate combat encounters more difficult.
So the temptation (for the GM) is to slow down the advancement of the Player Characters, by awarding less Exp than proscribed by the rules. That way you have more time to experiment with combat encounters to see where the new threshold of challenge exists.
You can do that, (it’s your campaign) but I recommend against it. The temptation for GM’s is to slow down advancement too much. And that gets frustrating for players to live through. A wise player will find a new group with a GM who has greater command of the rules and Player Character capabilities. Or the frustrated players will become GM’s!
Part of down time for players is to check out the Player’s Handbook and Xanathar’s Guide to see what cool advancements await you at the next level! And if the GM is too restrictive in awarding Exp, then players will begin to get anxious and restless. The game will begin to be not fun. Which is the opposite of what you want.
Another principle to bear in mind is that most level based RPG’s scale level advancement so that it takes a lot more Exp to gain levels as you advance in character levels. For example, in D&D 5E, it only takes 300 Exp to get to level 2. Level three takes only 900 Exp (an additional 600) so that’s double the Exp to get to the coveted third level. And it takes 2,700 Exp for that fourth level. In D&D 5E that parabolic increase in required Exp continues all the way through to level 20. And as much as I like to demean D&D 5E, the Exp level suggestions located on the Players Handbook pg 15 has been a good guide for the campaigns that I’ve participated in. Especially if the GM is generous in awarding Exp for defeating foes and comparable social encounter Exp.
Newb Game Masters! Resist that temptation to short your players Exp.
Be generous when awarding Experience Points (Regardless of the game system).
Another complaint that I see from GM’s who are hesitant to award Exp is that they don’t like the fact that the Player Characters are “undefeatable.” It’s important to remember that your job as a GM is not to kill the Player Characters!
You’re job is to host a game that is fun!
This doesn’t mean that Player Characters can’t die or should never die (because that’s a risk that is on the table!). But it’s not a good GM goal (to kill Player Characters).
Side note: If you think killing Player Characters is an admirable goal, then you need to go out and buy HackMaster. No one actually plays HackMaster, because players don’t want a high mortality game, but if that’s your cup of tea, then lean into it, go to HackMaster and good luck finding anyone willing to play that game . . .
Let me also echo the advice of our esteemable founder on this subject as well:
Gary Gygax: “The worthy GM never purposely kills players’ PCs, He presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own.”
But when it comes to Experience Points, don’t be afraid to award these on the high side and revel in the glory and accomplishments of the Player Characters.