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OSR How Do You Award XP?

Retreater

Legend
I'm coming off a "milestone-only" XP philosophy to playtest an OSR adventure, which has XP awards as a staple of the system (even down to classes needing more or less XP to go up in level based on their perceived power level).

I ran a typical 2 hour session last night, and we wrapped up before the first combat of the evening. The night was spent with roleplaying, exploration, mystery investigation, etc., just not collecting gold and killing monsters.

So how would you give XP for this session? I'd hate to give them nothing for their characters, especially when even the quickest advancing character at the table will need 10+ sessions to get to level 2 based on our current rate.
 

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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
A decent system is equate the challenges they overcame to monsters, when use those monsters' XP values.

So for example, was the exploration worth a kobold? Then grant kobold XP. Was the social interaction worth a hill giant? Then grant hill giant XP.

It won't be an exact system; it can't be. But doing it that way will at least give you XP values that won't look arbitrary (even though they are completely arbitrary).

3.x did something similar by assigning encounter challenge ratings that granted XP the same as a monster challenge rating. I find it a useful way to gauge different situations for XP purposes.
 
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Today we just do milestone. You gain a level when the DM says you gain a level. The party is always equal level. Levels are always awarded at the end of a session. Hit dice rolls are then witnessed, and players are expected to do their leveling decisions before the next session. Holding up play to level your character is always considered bad form. The DM is spending a couple hours on prep every week. You can do it once every month or so.

When we did old school XP, we awarded XP at the end of every session. Frankly, it's way too easy to forget XP if you don't do it this way. Bonus XP awards were awarded immediately. With few exceptions, we still did not allow leveling to take place during a session. At the end of the session, anyone who had reached the next level could roll their hit die and was then expected to make their leveling decisions and update their character sheet before the next session.

As far as determining how much XP to give out as a DM, I'd just do some napkin math to peg where I wanted the PCs to be and how quickly I wanted them to be there there. There would be ~25 encounters in the adventure plus some random ones or boss encounters that should count double or triple, and the fighter or magic-user needs to go from 3rd level to 6th level at the end which is XX,000 XP they have to earn. XX,000 / 30 = XP per encounter. Often I'd give a big XP bonus at the end of an adventure to get them part way into the next level, and the players always seemed to love that. I'd always key off where I wanted the level of the fighter or magic-user because those are the two classes where level matters the most. If there were no single-class fighters or MUs in the party, then I imagined that there was one and estimated the amount of XP from there. A mage/thief and a fighter with the same XP have very different power levels, but at the time the game insisted that they didn't so who was I to argue?

You'll note that I didn't look at the XP in each encounter at all. I hated doing that math for every encounter, partially because I tend to ad hoc the combats so I tried to avoid it. At first players felt cheated by that so I did the encounter math and then gave a big XP bonus to put them where I wanted them for the next adventure anyways. As time went on the players seemed to care less and less, I think because they could tell I was giving out pretty fair XP or that I just wasn't tracking it tightly. I know some players want to feel like there's a strict accounting for every point of XP, but I'm just not willing to do that as a DM. It just doesn't matter that much. They're like points in "Whose Line is it Anyway?" They're made up and don't really mean anything.

In 3e I went much more by-the-book because the magic item creation made me feel like I had to, but I didn't DM 3e that much and when I did I just ran modules by the encounters listed in published adventures. Looking back I really didn't enjoy DMing 3e very much. Too much work to get to the parts of the game I liked (creating monsters, encounters, items, set pieces, NPCs, etc.).
 

What do the rules say for the system you are using?

In general I would do something like what @Ath-kethin said. But it's also that I would in general be doing from a quest perspective. Set a quest XP and then give them that XP when they achieve the quest/goal, regardless of what they kill.
 

Retreater

Legend
Yeah. I would use milestone if given the opportunity, but cannot since we're doing a playtest and I want it more accurate than whatever I feel like.

The actual rules give nothing unless it's for killing/defeating/avoiding monsters and collecting treasure. By the book, they get nothing for the session, but I hate to do that.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Award XP for the type of play you want to incentivize, particularly as it pertains to the campaign's theme or setting.

I almost never do milestone XP or story-based XP because I don't like running games with pre-determined plots. What I will tend to do is either award XP for killing monsters or turning certain monsters/NPCs friendly. This rewards engaging with the combat and social interaction pillars. Then I put all treasure behind exploration challenges to incentivize engagement with that pillar.

For some games, particularly games that will focus on dungeon delving with some downtime (including the Training downtime activity), then I will have it be where you pay for XP with gold 1:1.
 

Iry

Hero
Milestone. That's not a helpful answer in your situation, but I have too many unpleasant memories of XP being divided based on who kills what and how much treasure you find. It's practically low-end PTSD these days.
 

When I run OSR games, in that situation they would get zero XP.

But, If players are doing a lot of role-playing, exploration, and investigation, then in my experience, a lot of this effort often results in players gathering information that may lead to finding greater treasures next time.

One of the tenets of old school play is that rewards are objective and are a measure of effectiveness. Sometimes you delve into the dungeon and come back with nothing more than some broken spear shafts. It could have been due to bad luck, or making a bad choice in where to explore, or some other event that pops up in play.

A lot of this falls on the hands of the players. Doing things like identifying potential treasure hoards, staying on task, avoiding distractions and unnecessary encounters are all player choices that can lead to more success. I've been in groups that had a goal but then decided on the fly to do something else... usually, in such a situation, the rewards are poor.

But this assumes an open-ended dungeon/wilderness exploration format. Where the act of exploration is the focus of the game.
 

For OSR play, I'd probably throw 50-100 XP at each PC for a two-hour session with zero combat, treasure acquisition, or other activities that would net XP by the book. Slower level progression is a big part of evoking old school play, but I also don't want to tell people "no, no XP for you," especially if it was a session that had some quality play in it.
 

Yeah. I would use milestone if given the opportunity, but cannot since we're doing a playtest and I want it more accurate than whatever I feel like.

The actual rules give nothing unless it's for killing/defeating/avoiding monsters and collecting treasure. By the book, they get nothing for the session, but I hate to do that.
Hmm.

On the one hand, there's something to be said for the psychological effect of intermittent reinforcement you get from the pure old school "xp for treasure and lesser xp for killing/tricking/defeating stuff" approach. Some sessions you get a nice score and some you don't. The ones where you don't are disappointing, but sharpen the players' hunger for the next score.

On the other hand, I can understand the frustration if they actually DID overcome some challenges, but didn't find any treasures or defeat any opponents, and thus aren't getting rewarded for what they did accomplish.

Given what you've expressed, and that limited two hour session timeframe you're playing in (especially since I'm guessing that you're not playing multiple times a week), I think it's probably worth coming up with some mystery/exploration xp awards. TBF, these are reasonably old-school; IIRC as early as 2nd Ed AD&D they were discussed as an official option, and certainly many non-D&D games had xp awards for other things too.

How about this? Why don't you total up the full XP in the adventure as-written for treasure and combat, and cut some chunk of the treasure out, reserving that XP for problem-solving awards. Divide that pool by as many awards as feels appropriate or likely, and then give those out when they accomplish a significant task (solving a mystery, getting an ally on their side by good roleplaying, finding a hidden back entrance into the dungeon, etc.). So, say it's a 1st level module with enough treasure and combat xp available to get 6 PCs to 2nd level, based on an xp required of 2,000 (standard Fighter in 1E or Basic). So 12,0000 total xp. Most of that will be treasure; usually 2/3 or more given AD&D or Basic having low xp awards for monsters. Say there's 2,000 xp available from monsters, 10,000 for treasure. If you cut the treasure in half, you can take the pool of 5,000 xp and make that the "other achievements" xp. Divide it by, say, 20, and on twenty occasions you can give a 250 xp prize to the group for getting something done. Some achievements might also be worth double awards.

These numbers are obviously rough estimates, but you can use whatever's there and divide appropriately. I think by taking the xp from the treasure, you largely retain the integrity of the playtest.

I remember reading an AngryGM article where he talked about doing these kind of standardized awards (he was writing in a 5th ed context and talked about making each award equal to a monster of CR equal to the PCs' level), and about a fun psychological trick of embodying them in white chips or marbles which he'd toss into a cup or chalice on the table at the time of the award. The players would get a rush of reward feelings whenever they heard that token hit the cup. :) I'm looking forward to trying that one out some time when I can play in person again.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Hmm.

On the one hand, there's something to be said for the psychological effect of intermittent reinforcement you get from the pure old school "xp for treasure and lesser xp for killing/tricking/defeating stuff" approach. Some sessions you get a nice score and some you don't. The ones where you don't are disappointing, but sharpen the players' hunger for the next score.
This is true in my experience. I'm watching this play out in real time with a West Marches campaign in which I am a player. Most of the players are used to "milestone XP" and now find themselves to be more motivated during play time to Get Stuff Done. They cover way more content per session than they ever did before and are having a blast. They frequently comment on how much they like standard XP and can't figure out why they never used it as DMs or players.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A few thoughts:

One thing to avoid (and you're already finding this out, just one session in!) is to be tempted to give out xp after every session. Why? Because of exactly what you've already hit: you feel pressured to give out xp for a session in which one could argue few if any xp were actually earned.

Instead, I'll keep notes on xp for monsters killed (I don't do xp-for-gp) and other significant events e.g. if a Thief overcomes a particularly difficult trap; and I'll give 'em out every few sessions when I think of it*. When I do give them out, however, I'll read out what they're for and who gets what for each encounter or event - and often the players will catch me as having missed something (I'm the first to admit my note-taking can be atrocious!) - such that each player ends up with a string of numbers to add up.

* - the exception is if I know someone's close to bumping I'll give out xp every in-game morning, for the previous adventuring day.

Characters get xp individually. Thus, if characters A, B and E took part in an encounter while C and D were elsewhere or asleep, then only A, B and E would get any xp for it. Obviously, this and other factors mean characters will bump at different times and at different rates leading to in-party level disparity being almost inevitable.

The PCs only get xp after a night's rest (or a long rest, in 5e terms).

At the end of each adventure I also give out what we call a 'dungeon bonus'. The theory behind this is that it in a small way makes up for the xp they'd have otherwise got from treasure; I rationalize it as being a cumulation of all the little bits of xp earned by simple day-to-day exploration, info gathering, and risk-taking during the adventure that otherwise wouldn't ever get recorded (your initial session sounds like it'd fall into this bucket). There's a very (very!) loosey-goosey formula I use for this but it usually comes down to a simple 'eye test' on my part: if the adventure already had gobs of xp the bonus is likely to be smaller than if an equally-risky adventure didn't provide much for xp, for example.
 

rogueattorney

Adventurer
I'd award no xp.

In "xp for gp" style play, advancement tends to go in fits and starts. It can go at a crawl until you hit a big score, and then "bam!"

I don't mind it as DM because it tends to keep the players "on task."
 

Retreater

Legend
I guess it's not essential to award after every session, but I would like to do that to show them how the system rewards risk and playstyle. For the past 9-ish months we've been playing 5e with a milestone system, so it's a very different expectation of play.
 

I'm coming off a "milestone-only" XP philosophy to playtest an OSR adventure, which has XP awards as a staple of the system (even down to classes needing more or less XP to go up in level based on their perceived power level).
And that variation in xp requirements by class effectively pegs the edition as 2nd or earlier. You need to have an appreciation for how the game was intended to be played at that time. It's not just a matter of plugging or unplugging one xp award system for another as if they ARE interchangeable. 1E and 2E gave out xp for two things - killing things, and successfully getting gold and other treasure back home securely. Why? Because the game was supposed to be like Conan the Barbarian who would... KILL things and end up with piles of gold which he then would gleefully but recklessly spend on ale and whores. And then go look for more things to kill. These were not game rule systems intended to tell complicated stories with drama, pathos, and emotional complexity. These were systems intended to "tell stories" of a continued cycle of gleeful, righteous slaughter and then wasting all your cash in celebration. Whatever you give out rewards for, you naturally prompt players to do more of.

If you were to stick faithfully to the xp award formulas for those "OSR" editions then PC's mostly should advance just as fast as they would in 3E, and probably just as fast as they would in 5E using milestones. If sticking to the old school reward formulae while seeking to get old school gameplay does NOT result in similarly steady gains in level, you're almost certainly doing it wrong somewhere. If you're going to use an "OSR" adventure but expect NON-OSR gameplay then you should be handing out xp rewards for the things you want to encourage from the players and their PC's. If what you want from players/PC's ISN'T just murder and looting then give xp for the things you DO want them to do.

And regardless of what xp award system you use - but ESPECIALLY if it's an OSR set of rules - then you should be adjusting that system and the resulting awards to what YOU want them to be as DM, not simply what "The Rules" say.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I guess it's not essential to award after every session, but I would like to do that to show them how the system rewards risk and playstyle. For the past 9-ish months we've been playing 5e with a milestone system, so it's a very different expectation of play.
I award it after every instance of it being earned and, unless level advancement is tied to downtime, they can level up on the spot if they have enough XP.
 

Remember, XP is (and has always been) a measure of what the characters learn from their experiences. It is not (and has never been) a reward for the players at the table.

If the characters are never in any danger during the session - if they never had to dodge a single sword thrust - then their combat ability has not improved in any way whatsoever.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Remember, XP is (and has always been) a measure of what the characters learn from their experiences. It is not (and has never been) a reward for the players at the table.

If the characters are never in any danger during the session - if they never had to dodge a single sword thrust - then their combat ability has not improved in any way whatsoever.
Agreed, but remember xp and levels represent more than just combat ability. They might not have had to dodge any sword thrusts but they might have still had to find a way across a dangerously-flooded river, get through the Bog of Bogginess without finding any quicksand the hard way, and get into the ruins without alerting any local wildlife and also without bringing any loose rocks down on their own heads.

There's potentially some xp in any of those things.
 


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