D&D General Experience Points & Leveling: A Brief Primer on XP in the 1e DMG, and Why It Still Matters

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In 5e, we have various forms of leveling- both the "traditional" way (kill stuff!) as well as variants (such as milestone). Every now and then, you will hear people refer to the "old" way of getting XP- you know, "Life was so much better when you could just loot your XP! gold was man XP, man. GOLD WAS XP!"

But I think it helps to go back and look at how genuinely weird the actual written rules for leveling were in AD&D (1e). Not just a little weird ... really, seriously, weird. So weird that many people didn't use all the rules, and, honestly, probably don't even remember most of them. It wasn't quite as simple as just kill stuff and/or take stuff.

(For those of you following from home, this is DMG 84-86; given just how many complications Gygax throws in there, I will be eliding a few things, like the special bonus award of 1,000 XP for dying, because life is too short, and then you die, and then you get 1,000 XP. And I'm not going to discuss Bard training because, you know, Bards)

1. Calculating the XP Value for Monsters.
"You do not talk to me like that!! I work too hard to deal with this stuff!! I work too hard!! I’m a Division Manager in charge of 49 people!! I drive a Dodge Stratus!!" -Your DM, ruefully.

As much fun as we like to make of ye olde fashioned hobo-murderin', killin' stuff (through combat) has always been deeply baked into D&D. It is hardly surprising that the first part of the section on experience in 1e begins with ... wait for it ... defeating monsters. What might be somewhat surprising is just how discretionary it all is! To start with, Gygax stresses that the difficulty of the monsters alin should affect the reward of XP, and then provides the exact rule to use. It's pithy and simple to understand!
If the average hit dice or level is 10 times greater than the average level or hit dice, there must be an adjustment of at least halving or doubling the experience point (x.p.) award as the circumstances dictate, except if the lesser group is approximately 20 times more numerous than the greater value group.

See! Simple. Notably, Gygax also instructs the DM to award (subjectively) XP for outwitting monsters and overcoming traps or tricks, if it leads to treasure. In addition, there is a table (because this is the 1e DMG, and it has more tables than an IKEA Warehouse) that shows you how to calculate the base XP for killing/defeating a monster based on the monster's hit dice, hit points, special abilities, and super-duper special abilities.

Finally, there is one more kinda important note (well, more than one, but I'm trying to simplify this)- if you get killed during the combat, you get zero. And if you have henchmen with you (fairly common back then) they get a half share ... and then you divide those previous XP amongst the surviving party members.


2. Calculating the XP Value for Lootin'.
"Give me the food and let me grow / Let the Roots Man take the gold" - Groot, grootfully.

So here's where we get to the fun part that people remember- XP for stuff! The rule that OSR dreams are made of. The rules here are basically what everyone remembers- you get 1 XP for each GP (including value of jewelry, gems, etc.). Notably, there is an explicit instruction to reduce the amount of XP gained from looting "{i}f the guardian(s) was relatively weaker[.]" The example given of a 10th level MUS taking 1,000gp from 10 kobolds instructs that a DM should reduce the award by 20-fold .... clearly, Gygax was not taking into account the dread Tucker's Kobolds!

Unlike defeating monsters and traps, which are (supposedly?) awarded XP on the spot, the award for treasure required an additional step. The assumption was of a dungeon crawl, so the DM was instructed that the treasure must be taken out of the dungeon and "turned into a transportable medium or stored in the player's stronghold to be counter for experience points." It is unclear how this applied to treasure that was tithed (Paladins for example) or otherwise given away- but the element of full control and use is present.

In addition, there is an addition way to get XP- magic items had their own XP values, and these were separate from the XP you would get if you sold them; to use an example, a chime of opening that you looted and kept would get you 3,500 XP, whereas if you immediately sold it, you would net the 20,000 XP from the GP sale value. There is, in fact, one more way ... but I'm just going to quote the sentence with my own emphasis. "All items (including magic) or creatures sold for gold pieces prior to the awarding of experience points for an adventure must be considered as treasure taken, and the gold pieces received for the sale add to the total treasure taken." I am so not going to touch that with the 10' pole.

Finally, there is a useful note regarding realism and XP- Gygax acknowledges that it would probably make a lot more sense for (to use one example) Magic Users to get better by reading ancient scrolls, experimenting with alchemy, and so on, but that would be insanely boring. So .... nope.


3. The Insanely Complicated Rules for Level Advancement.
"Life is not a fairytale; if you lose your shoe at midnight, you're drunk." Me, inebriatedly.

Now, there are those who say that the old ways didn't reward roleplaying. Ah, but that's not true! Because they did in terms of judgin'. You know those old DMs ... always judging. So here's the deal - imagine you're in the middle of your dungeon quest, and you (the Thief) just got to 1,251 XP to get to level 2. Awesome, right? Level 2, more hit points, and a slightly more marginal chance to succeed at basic thief skills (but not really).

How about (record skip) NO! Because you have to train to gain a level. Which means a few things- first, that you don't get to earn any more XP until you have trained and gained the level. That's right, you're stuck. Anything you kill, anything you loot, anything you loot- it doesn't help you advance. If you hit that mark in the middle of the dungeon, you're stuck. If you overshoot the mark divvying up the treasure, well, too bad.

Next- how well did you roleplay? Did you play your character well? Your class? Your alignment? Because the DM has to rate your roleplaying from 1 (Excellent) to 4 (Poor) (and if there were multiple adventures, you get multiple ratings ... but let's ignore that for now). Your rating is the number of weeks you have to train. Still with me?

Then we use a simple formula- (Your current level) x 1,500 x (The number of weeks) = Total cost to train.

So, for example, if you're a 5th level fighter, and your DM determined your roleplaying was "Fair" (3), then to get to sixth level you would have to spend 22,500 gp and 3 weeks. But that's assuming you could find a higher-level character to mentor you! If you cannot, then you have to have a RP performance of 2 or better and spend twice as much time and money. And, of course, the training must be uninterrupted or the character loses everything- all benefits and all gold.


4. Putting the Rules Together, and why Many (Most?) Tables Didn't.
"Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes." - Garry Hoy, unfortunately.

Many of the elements that people both love and loathe about the older rules are present within these XP rules; first, and most obviously, they can be needlessly complicated and involve large amounts of DM discretion. The idea of a DM "rating" a player's roleplaying most likely does not strike many playing today as a sound idea, and has unfortunate echoes of DM policing of Paladin's alignment and oath.

Conceptually, though, the rules are sound and promote a fun game in that style. The players are rewarded for "defeating" (either killing, tricking, or avoiding) the "guardians" (monsters or traps) of treasure, and get the XP for both defeating the guardian and for successfully carrying out the treasure for their own use. Because the emphasis is on the treasure, it is entirely possible for parties to avoid combat through skilled play- which is also great! In addition, while the discretionary modifiers for difficulty seem overly complicated (because of the Gygaxian prose), it just reflects the common-sense idea that players should be seeking out adequate challenges- not "farming" XP by beating up on the local kobolds.

The training rules, while annoying, served two useful purposes- first, it stopped the accumulation of XP. This is a weird thing to think about, but this helped slow down rapid advancement; you were forced to either stop what you were doing, or (and this was more common) not get the "full share" of the XP that you gained when divvying up the treasure because you exceeded the amount you needed. In addition, it was a useful sop for GP and downtime- especially at lower levels, you had to maintain enough money to advance, and it provided a useful reason for significant downtime between adventures.

That said, the rules were complex and many people did not apply them in whole or in part; the wording of the rules suggests that XP for monsters is awarded on a per-combat basis, while XP for treasure is only awarded at the end of the adventure. While this makes sense (especially if you have the XP value for the monsters handy, and treasure is divvied up at the end of the adventure), it could be difficult to do on the fly. Constant discretionary adjustments were difficult. And as I stated before, it is difficult to imagine DMs "policing" your RPing as a factor in the cost and length of your training. While I am sure that there are those that will pipe up in the comments, IME you rarely saw DMs apply all the rules, as written, for XP and leveling.


5. Cool story bro. So what does all of this have to do with 5e?
“I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one." - Mr. Nobody, adverbially.

In addition to the usual (we all tend to forget just how weird some of the old rules could be), I think that there is some interesting bits that we can carry forth from the old XP rules.

That's right, we should still be able to sell creatures for money, and gain experience. Um.... wait. No, that's not it. That is most definitely not the lesson.

Instead, it's a much more basic one- hate them, love them, or both, the OD&D/1e rules were not "designed" in the same way that more modern systems have been designed; many of the rules grew organically to fill a need. The reason why there are so many custom and bespoke (and sometimes incompatible) sub-systems in OD&D and AD&D is that these sub-systems were created as needed in response to specific situations as they arose. Even the bizarre exceptions to the rules likely arose out of specific situations (such as, for example, the repeated discretionary choices about reducing or enlarging XP awards if the challenge is too little or too great).

The XP award system, and leveling, in 1e was specific to that game; D&D, for better or worse, has always been a game about progression, about going from zero-to-hero; part of the great appeal of the game, the reason it scratches that certain itch, is because your character changes and becomes more powerful. As such, the way D&D incentivizes the players is probably one of the most fundamental aspects of the game- how does your character progress. In 1e, these incentives are clear and arose from the context of the dungeon crawl- you defeat the guardians (monsters, traps) and you get the treasure (GP, gems, jewelry, magic) and take it to the surface. Rinse, repeat, gaining in power so you can defeat more powerful guardians and get better treasure. There is a nearly-perfect synergy between what the main focus of the game was when the DMG was released, and how the reward system functioned.

Which is why I think that, at times, too little attention gets paid to this fundamental aspect of the game in 5e. The game is used in so many different ways now, by many different groups; one of the most important questions to ask, when playing, is what is the incentive?

Anyway, that's the dive for today. Have at it! :)
 

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Voadam

Legend
I used the training rules, but it led to some worldbuilding to fit that which felt less old school sandbox naturalism. The town of Nulb was a rough place so adding an assassin's guild which met the needs of two PC assassins in my campaign was fairly natural, but I happened to introduce a cleric of Ehlonna NPC for the drow ranger to gain some training from when he sought out a trainer.

It was something I was pretty happy to abandon around second edition, I preferred not to have multiple training mentors be a campaign requirement for hard won advancement.
 

Actually, the reason for the training rules, IMHO, has to do with troupe play (doesn't everything!). Imagine you were doing delves with a 5th level party. All of a sudden an ogre bashes in the skull of your doughty fighter dude. Maybe he didn't have great stats, maybe you really want to play a cleric, maybe you just don't have the 20,000 gp it would take to get him raised. So, you roll up a new dude, Jr the Cleric!

Well, if you go by the rules, then the next delve starts and Jr, a 1st level cleric, trundles around near the back of the party, keeping his head down, casting a CLW or Bless every so often. Maybe he even bravely skull bashes some minor enemy with his mace! Pretty soon the PCs slag a group of 5 ogres. These guys are worth (roughly) 300XP each, and this should be a 1:1 XP grant, as they are roughly equal to the party. So, 300XP, but wait! The ogres had treasure! I'm not going to try to derive the average treasure for 5 ogres, but suffice it to say that this is going to be a bunch. If the party is even marginally lucky they could get 10,000 GP worth. Our cleric is going to get 2000XP from this! BAM! he's second level.

So, training puts a bit of a roadblock on this. Lets say our brave cleric of Thor didn't really do a whole bunch of studly Thor stuff (he'd have been turned to hash if he had). So the GM can give him a '3' for RP, and all of a sudden he's not just racing ahead by a level every single time the party dives into the dungeon. This also encourages having henchmen, as they will get some of the XP which might otherwise be soaked (IE in this case Jr is going to stop getting XP at 1,501 XP, so he will lose something like 800XP). If he'd hired a spear chucker to come along, he could have got the same XP himself, but his henchdude would have also got 300 and some XP too. Pretty soon that spear chucker will be a studly level 2 spear chucker (fighter).

This may also encourage running a bigger 'stable' of PCs. Once Jr has topped out and gone out of circulation for 3 weeks, the player is probably going to role up another dude, or maybe he'll just run Spear Chucker as a lesser PC for a session or two; "Hey Chucky, why don't you go follow that wizard around and help him until I finish my prayers?"
 


Another effect of the training rules, and I think a major one for Gary, was to soak PCs gold. It takes a HUGE amount of gold to advance! BEST CASE you spend 1,500gp x level per levell So by the time you are level 3, you will have spent 1,500 + 3,000 + 4,500 = 9,000 GP! This is actually far more GP than you are likely to get from the number of monsters which would yield the XP and treasure XP to get to this level (you would, as a cleric need 6,000 XP for third level, so probably 5000 GP, roughly). This is BEST CASE. So, in practice, GP is the main gate on level advancement for PCs, and at least 50% of the time (and if the GM is not nice and gives ratings of 1 most of the tim it will be a lot more) you would be adventuring only for gold and tossing the XP.

This is a major reason people probably ditched the whole training rule. You can mitigate it somewhat by having higher level PCs train lower level ones (presumably a lot of the resulting cash will end up in their wallets, though it isn't stated what the expenses are). The costs are just way too high. IIRC we found that a cost of about 1/5th or less of the 1500, so maybe 300 GP, was the right 'per level gain' value. This still soaked most of the PC's money, but it allowed them to mostly adventure for actual XP gain.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Don't forget the rules for losing XP if you tried to double-level jump because the DM ran your group through the wringer before you got back to town.

Or those classes who didn't get to go to the next level because there wasn't an open position for them to take (Druid & Monk, Assassin too if I recall), or had to take the boss into the back alley and beat him down to take his position...
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Another effect of the training rules, and I think a major one for Gary, was to soak PCs gold. It takes a HUGE amount of gold to advance! BEST CASE you spend 1,500gp x level per levell So by the time you are level 3, you will have spent 1,500 + 3,000 + 4,500 = 9,000 GP! This is actually far more GP than you are likely to get from the number of monsters which would yield the XP and treasure XP to get to this level (you would, as a cleric need 6,000 XP for third level, so probably 5000 GP, roughly). This is BEST CASE. So, in practice, GP is the main gate on level advancement for PCs, and at least 50% of the time (and if the GM is not nice and gives ratings of 1 most of the tim it will be a lot more) you would be adventuring only for gold and tossing the XP.

This is a major reason people probably ditched the whole training rule. You can mitigate it somewhat by having higher level PCs train lower level ones (presumably a lot of the resulting cash will end up in their wallets, though it isn't stated what the expenses are). The costs are just way too high. IIRC we found that a cost of about 1/5th or less of the 1500, so maybe 300 GP, was the right 'per level gain' value. This still soaked most of the PC's money, but it allowed them to mostly adventure for actual XP gain.
Interesting. This would certainly seem to make the 10% bonus XP for having a 15+ in your prime requisite pretty worthless, as all it would really accomplish is insuring you hit the point where you’ve gotten enough XP to level up but not enough gold to train for it sooner.

It also makes a lot of sense that people would drop XP for defeating monsters in this context, because if you need more gold to pay for training than the amount of gold it takes to level up from gold XP alone, monster XP would never be relevant. Except, I guess, to give to your hirelings.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Another effect of the training rules, and I think a major one for Gary, was to soak PCs gold.
I was going to mention that. One thing I hear people complain about in 5E is "piles of useless gold," since there's not much under the basic rules to spend it on, unless you use use the rules for pricing magic items by rarity. AD&D made gold a prerequisite for leveling, furthering the "XP for GP" transparency.
 

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