Empty Calories in My XP Budget

If you’ve read the House Rules section of my blog, you know I don’t put much stock in XP. I don’t use it, and I rarely care for it. I like advancing characters based on story milestones and when “feels” right. Of course, you can’t just have the “Experience” section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide tell a DM to advance a player, “when it feels right.” You have to provide some more solid guidelines, as well. That’s why we have experience points.

And experience points give the Dungeon Master something. It lets him or her create an XP budget that measures the difficult of an encounter. This gauge is helpful for a starting Dungeon Master. It tells him or her whether the players will be crushed beneath the heel of the monsters, or cut the Achilles from it.

If you’ve DMed a few games of D&D for the same group, you know a party’s strengths and weaknesses. Fairly quickly, a DM can judge the difficulty of an encounter without counting up XP. You expect about five creatures in an encounter for a five PC party, and you can swap two monsters for one elite, or three monsters for a couple higher level monsters, and so on. Determining encounter difficulty becomes an intuitive process, one catered to your group.

That’s why I say minions shouldn’t be worth XP. Neither should hazards or traps. In fact, while we’re at it, monsters shouldn’t be worth XP either. Now, I’m not condoning the complete demise of XP (even if that’s what I do in my own game). Instead, I’m suggesting a new way for determining experience. Award XP based on the encounter’s actual difficulty.

“But isn’t the encounter’s difficulty already proportional to the experience amount?” you ask. Nope. And that’s because there are many variables in an encounter. Like dice. Turns out there’s a lot of luck involved when you’re rolling dice for everything you do. (Yeah, yeah, law of averages and all. Whatever.) Also turns out that terrain and other complications in an encounter affect the difficulty as well, and they’re not necessarily worth XP in the traditional way. A lot depends on the group. An encounter full of low hit point monsters like lurkers and artillery might be easier for a group with extra strikers than a group with a couple defenders. A lot of traps only get off one attack and then become obsolete. Those probably shouldn’t be worth the equivalent amount of experience of a standard monster.

And then there’s minions. If you haven’t read Chris Sims’s article on minions, I heartily recommend it. Minions are indeed spice, and they are the empty calories in my XP budget. Four monsters is rarely equivalent to a standard monster. Of course, there are situations—especially if you lack a controller or multi-attacker—where minions can really complicate an encounter, especially if you use like 10.

So ditch the normal experience allotment. Or calculate experience and then allow yourself to adjust it plus or minus 20 percent based on the circumstances that arise in an encounter. You could even poll your players and ask them to rate the encounter’s difficult on a scale of 1 to 5.

Just don’t let on that 5 means they get more XP. 🙂


6 thoughts on “Empty Calories in My XP Budget

  1. You’ve already won me over with your lackadaisical attitude toward XP. 2 session and you level – at least at heroic. How can you get a non-RPG player interested in D&D if they have to play for months to raise a level? “You got to play this awesome game. It only takes 3 years for you to reach epic level if you play 6 hours a week.” How is that supposed to grow the hobby?

  2. I disagree on many points you have written there.

    I also do give Levels based on progress rather than monster XP, but still I think the claim to advance by designed XP and thus difficulty of an encounter. Of course you have to figure additional difficulties because of terrain favoring the enemies in. There is a bit of experience asked here. When I design an encounter though I go by XP and it usually works pretty well.

    I would especially oppose giving no XP for minions – just last week in one of my sessions we had a room filled with only minions (12 of them), which almost killed the party. So there is a real danger here and that should be awarded.

    I don’t factor in dice-luck because players can have it and I can have it and it will even each other out in the long run. No need to really put an effort in that. And it makes the whole thing pretty hard to actually pinpoint: Is the encounter running good or bad because of dice luck or is it the tactics? And sorry, I surely will not award more XP for a really bad tactical decision which makes an encounter really hard for the PCs or on the other hand a good decision which makes it easy. And luck cna play a big role here too. Two examples:

    We had a really good run two weeks ago, ebating a level 20 encounter with a level 16 group without breaking a sweat. We were a bit lucky: Our wizard managed to dominate a powerful opponent and that opponent did not break free for half the encounter. That really made things easy, but our tactics in this encounter were also nothing short of brilliant. We didn’t realize that though. (We are not really geniuses. A few months before that we managed to combine three encounter into one which killed the party of course) Now, the encounter was, when looking at it, easy, but now we should be rewarded less for that?

    On the other hand one of my groups in which I DM nearly killed itself over repeated mistakes with a set of monsters which could immobilize half the melee fighters in the group most of the time and thus could attack without much of a problem. There would have been ways to deal with that (with simply delaying / readying actions at the right moment or using the environment to the groups advantage), but the group decided repeatedly literally to get blasted.
    I admit, the solution was not rub-in-your-face obvious, but it was pretty obvious. Actually the group could still have withdrawn!
    Now, when looking at that encounter it seemed hard, but actually it was hard because of repeated mistakes and there’s no way I am going to award extra XP for that.

    Now I could judge on if I think the group has been brilliant or not, or of it was the dice, but that can be really hard to determine, so I would, when designing encounters still advice to stick roughly (not necessarily to the exact point) to the XP value of monsters and of course use some common sense when desinging encounters. IMO it works pretty well.

    1. I’m all for getting rid of xp alltogether and just having a party level up according to DM/PC preference and some kind of worthy achievement, whatever that might be. Our group for instance favours a “level up” every module, whether that’s two sessions or five. Works for us!

  3. I’ll be sticking with the XP system, but I recognize that it’s not very precise. My players trust me, but if I ever didn’t move them up a level because it didn’t feel right to me (or, more likely in my case, just forgot) I’d be burning some of the trust I’ve earned from them.

    Anyway, I’d like to remind everyone that the rules already recommend an ad hoc way of compensating for the swing of the dice and other factors in combat: milestones. If events combine to make a fight harder, make it count for two milestones, or more. If it was easier, make it not count as a milestone. Now, this can also burn some trust, as players might assume that they should always get a milestone after two encounters, but it’s really more discretionary than XP. Point this out to your players at the start of the game, err on the side of more milestones (since they might very well end the day with unspent AP and magic item uses anyway), pass out more items that key off of milestones, and make the most of this system of reward.

  4. I told my players from the beginning of our current campaign that the encounters would be worth enough XP to level every 3 sessions. This has worked great and I’ve had some wiggle room with what I can do in the encounters without them asking at the end of each night: “What is my XP now? How much was that monster worth? Did I get extra XP for my amazing roleplaying?” etc…

    This worked out really well for our group too because we started with 3 new players. These 3 have been able to learn their characters without gaining new powers and numbers changing every time we meet.

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