Experience Points and the Three Pillars of Adventure (Long)

The_Gneech

Explorer
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 our money 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?

Exploration
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 found 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 :cool:

(Originally posted to Gneech.com.)
 

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Quickleaf

Legend
[MENTION=6779]The_Gneech[/MENTION] I think you've done your homework and thought out a system that works for you :)

With your "XP for treasure" house rule, I suspect rolling it into Lifestyle cost is easier, especially right now as we don't have a clear sense of what normal adventurer wealth is like in 5e.

Personally, I prefer a loose system entirely based around quest XP (and you can determine what the party's quests are thru play, rather than in advance). It addresses the issue of assuming the PCs are principally interested in killing monsters or getting treasure or other things, incorporates the idea of XP for exploration & interaction, and reflects back to the players what they want to accomplish (rather than kill-all-monsters).

Of course, my preferred system works best with active and/or heroic parties, and doesn't work so well with mega-dungeon crawls.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Before considering the Gneech's proposals thoroughly, I'd like to look at the inherent rewards gained for playing through the pillars:

Combat: killing your enemies means you don't die. Fighting them to first blood or begging quarter means they'll generally do what you want them to do.

Exploration: gains you quest progress, treasure, or leads you to the Combat pillar.

Social Interaction: gains you quest progress, allies, or leads you away from the Combat pillar.

Since you must have a (living?) character to play the game, Combat looks like it should be an unpopular pillar. Exploration would be next most unpopular, since it can run you directly into the (rather hard) Combat pillar. Social Interaction looks to be the most inherently rewarding, if we assume that allies can increase your rate of treasure gain, and that avoiding Combat is a good thing.

Given this, awarding XP for only combat makes sense, since the Combat pillar seems to require additional incentive for PCs to pursue it.

Gneech, to be honest, your Exploration proposal looks like a GM headache. Once PCs find out that they can gain XP for discovering new places, they'll be going everywhere you don't want them to go - just to get XPs.

The Social idea looks better, and the best part is the requirement that there be a victory condition. Plus, most players that I've met need some incentive to, well, not kill everything. Instead of considering danger to the characters, I'd recommend looking at the difficulty faced by the characters in their social endeavors.
 

The_Gneech

Explorer
Personally, I prefer a loose system entirely based around quest XP (and you can determine what the party's quests are thru play, rather than in advance). It addresses the issue of assuming the PCs are principally interested in killing monsters or getting treasure or other things, incorporates the idea of XP for exploration & interaction, and reflects back to the players what they want to accomplish (rather than kill-all-monsters).

I thought of that, having the players tell me what it is they wanted to accomplish in a given session and awarding quest XP based on those answers, but given the issues I've had with passivity among my group in the past, I'm a bit worried that it would lead to a lot of deer-in-the-headlights looks. This isn't a group that historically responds well to "player co-creation" techniques, but if given a framework ahead of time, will look for ways to maximize its benefits (thus my desire to codify XP gain techniques in a way that promotes the "type" of campaign I'm aiming for).

-TG :cool:
 

The_Gneech

Explorer
Given this, awarding XP for only combat makes sense, since the Combat pillar seems to require additional incentive for PCs to pursue it.

Gneech, to be honest, your Exploration proposal looks like a GM headache. Once PCs find out that they can gain XP for discovering new places, they'll be going everywhere you don't want them to go - just to get XPs.

The Social idea looks better, and the best part is the requirement that there be a victory condition. Plus, most players that I've met need some incentive to, well, not kill everything. Instead of considering danger to the characters, I'd recommend looking at the difficulty faced by the characters in their social endeavors.

Well, that assumes there are places I don't want them to go. :) But if I'm aiming for the role of an impartial referee rather than aiming at a predesigned plot, I should be fine with whatever they choose. If they go somewhere that's out of their depth just to gain XP, it becomes self-correcting as they either flee for their lives, get eaten by monsters, or somehow manage to win against incredible odds and level up. Really, all of those are acceptable results IMO. The only real risk is they go somewhere that I haven't done enough (or any) prep for, which I can mitigate by having random encounter tables or "emergency backup encounters" in the back of the notebook ready to go for just such an occasion.

In a real-world setting, I certainly agree that combat is probably something most people would avoid, but certainly my experience with RPGs is exactly the opposite: people love to fight, fight, fight! Are there orcs? Killum! Did that guy in the bar look at you crosseyed? PLAYER SMASH! And so forth. I'll leave the sociopolitical reasons for this to folk who'd like to debate such things, my point is just that it's the rare player who needs to be "encouraged" into combat. :) But players who won't leave the safety of town, or never parley with something they can be fairly sure of stabbing to death, those are problems I have run into on a regular basis.

-The Gneech :cool:
 


ashockney

First Post
It doesn't feel right to give experience on monsters alone. I loved it in 1e/2e when players fought over the kill shot and knew each time they used their class abilities it would be worth a little bump. That said, it was accounting craziness. It's easier to break down all those fun little bumps and plan to a 50-250 xp per level for accomplishing a mission or objective.

For example, in HotDQ, each chapter and each encounter would have an xp bump tied to it. This seems to be similar to what they did in the module, with bumps at the end in each rewards section.

For our campaign, we're going a bit faster than average by design, with less time to play and a strong desire to see everything 5e has to offer. It's been fairly easy to put a multiplier on the monster and mission xp to speed things up.

Another related note to experience. Back in the day, we had a pretty strict rule of only getting what you earn - xp, magic, etc. As such, we've been trying that with 5e and it has worked well. You can have players of different levels working effectively together.
 

Orich Starkhart

First Post
my point is just that it's the rare player who needs to be "encouraged" into combat. :) But players who won't leave the safety of town, or never parley with something they can be fairly sure of stabbing to death, those are problems I have run into on a regular basis.

-The Gneech :cool:
That seems contradictory - it's *rare* to need to encourage a player into combat, but also you have run into *on a regular basis* players who won't leave the "safety of town"? (if it's "on a regular basis", it's not "rare")

Those who won't consider parley with something "they can be fairly sure of stabbing to death" is a separate issue, kind of opposed to encouraging a player into combat.
 

The_Gneech

Explorer
I guess it'd be more accurate to say "players who are reluctant to explore" rather than "won't leave the safety of town." My particular group has a tendency to only want to go where a great big arrow says "PLOT HERE!" ... to the point where they've told me I'm stingy with loot because they didn't poke around any parts of the dungeon except where the main villain was (and so missed most of the treasure).

-The Gneech :cool:
 

RufusDaMan

First Post
I usually assign XP values to social encounters depending on their difficulty and importance. Haggling with the baker about the price of bread is a CR 0 encounter, no matter how hard bargain is he driving, talking your way out of getting caught with the guard is more important. Depending on the "crime" and the guard himself, it can vary greatly. I also award XP for difficult and necessary skill challenges, like picking a hard lock etc.

Another thing I do is to give XP for completeing tasks, no matter how. It's a bit videogamey, but I like it. For example, the task is to acquire something from a museum.
- Fighting your way in, killing everyone on the way will award you the XP for completing the task, plus the combat XP for the people killed
- Posing as someone of importance and buying the item will reward the XP for completing the task, plus social XP for bluff checks, and possibly skill challenge XP for disguise
- Sneaking in, and stealing the stuff will reward the XP for completing the task, plus skill challenge XP for stealth checks, picking locks, etc.
 

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