This is Our Game: Awarding Experience

Every month our group of contributors circulates a point about running a D&D game, or some other RPG-centric problem to address. We all stew and think about it for a while, then write up a response. At the end of the month we compile our responses for your reading pleasure.

This month’s question is: How do you award experience?

Geek Ken – The nuts and bolts for awarding experience is still through quests and combat for me. Occasionally I might throw something in extra for some fantastic roleplaying. But I pretty much stick to the recommended rewards in the DMG appropriate to the party level.

For a while now I had always capped the night off with the total xp awarded to each player. During the session I’d keep a running total going, including extra xp for everyone if something was especially clever. I don’t like to single out a player for extra xp for great roleplaying or doing something very heroic. I prefer to grant them additional shout outs from the NPCs, boons and favors, or a little additional treasure. I really like keeping the group at an even keel of levels and experience rewards.

I found that for many of my players having that instant reward at the end of the night was something they enjoyed. They all were pretty content to add up their totals and gloat a bit when they reached a new level (or eagerly glance powers and feats they’d take the next level). I do think for some players it adds to a sense of accomplishment as they keep adding to that xp total.

For my current group however I have dropped awarding xp. I still work around a budget and tend to keep a running total for the group, but I do this all behind the scenes. At distinct intervals in the story, I’ll tell them if they leveled up or not. This gives me a little wiggle room if I need to bump up (or drag out) the leveling of the group.

I do think I’ve got a player that would rather have hard numbers. So I tend to give them some indication how they are progressing (ex. say they are about halfway to the next level). That way they get a little feedback on their progression level-wise over the span of a few adventures. So I’ve moved away from awarding xp and have stuck to simply telling them when they level. I can make sure the leveling adheres to proper points in the story (that way they don’t hit a level mid-dungeon crawl). I do however try to keep the number of encounters and quest rewards typical to what they would earn throughout an entire level, I just avoid the details of handing out individual experience.

Deadorcs – I originally awarded experience points “by the book” in order to make the math come out correctly. However, that method really locked me in on how frequently my players could level their characters. It was particularly binding since my group only meets to play about once a month. Two years into the campaign, and my players’ characters are only 7th level.  As a result, I now use XP only as a guideline for building the strength of the various encounters.  When I figure the group has done enough to warrant raising a level, I allow them to do so.  Maybe they do 5 encounters instead of 10 to make it to the next level. It will vary, and it gives me greater control.

I still incorporate quests into the adventure, but their rewards are only tangible (coin, valuables, magic, etc.). Well, except the award for “doing a good deed”, which should be payment enough, right?

DreadGazebo – Like Deadorcs, I too once only awarded XP by the book but really it stopped working for me when I realized that the length between sessions due to everyone’s sporadic schedules at times, was not working well to foster interest in my campaign. Nothing sucks like being level 5 for almost an entire year, right? Well some of my players have been there and done that, so I started handing out bonus XP for role playing, flourish and overcoming some of the more ridiculous puzzles I had put into my game that I thought deserved a bit more of a reward than the standardized XP values. I also started to just fudge XP awards too, if the party winds up getting 375 XP a piece by the book I just bump it to 400 XP or so.

With my most recent game I’ve gone even a step further as to say that whenever I feel like my players should level up, they do. This keeps them from yearning for that next level and I usually do it as a surprise announcement at the end of a session where they’ve  accomplished something major or at least semi-important by saying “ding!” It keeps things moving along as well as feeling more episodic and less like a grind. Everyone wants to fight a Beholder or a Tarrasque or something else really iconic you know? While you could just scale down the monster/encounter levels to work mechanically, battling that giant Red Dragon that can raze an entire city with a single breath… at level 5 just…seems silly to me.

Level ups all around!

Thadeous: I have used a different approach to experience for each campaign I have run. When I kept a campaign blog I used and exp budget and kept things pretty much to the numbers. I used exp to bribe my players into writing summaries of the previous weeks sessions and to do things such as write back story and read the history of the setting. The problem I ran into with experience points and the way they are set up in 4e is trying to match levels with the story. If I wanted the players to be of a certain level when they reached a plot point in the story I would often have to manufacture an encounter or two to make sure it happened. Or if the party decided to find an alternate solution to combat I had to figure out some way to make up the difference. So I started rewarding exp for creative solutions, good role play, and thoughtful uses of skills both in and out of combat. I didn’t use a set amount for each reward I gave characters what they needed to get to where i wanted them to be.

This arbitrary awarding of experience eventually broke down to me just telling the players when they leveled. At first the players missed being able to track their progress and having the ability to estimate when they would gain their next level. Once they figured out that they were gaining levels slightly faster than they were when they were awarded experience they stopped asking for exp.

Now I don’t touch the stuff, if I need to bribe my players I give them gold, items, or other non exp based incentives. I may go back to using exp at some point, but for now the party levels when the story calls for it.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Geek Ken likes games. Sometimes he likes to blog about them too.


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Geek Ken likes games. Sometimes he likes to blog about them too.
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