Ideas For Handling Experience Points

In a recent newsletter, I mused about using gold pieces from treasure as experience points. My inbox exploded. Dozens of you wrote in. Some of you were upset. I mean, ALL CAPS UPSET. And some of you were over the moon and loved the idea.

First off, thank you so much for reading this newsletter! Your emails show you care. And I really appreciate you because we are both trying to be better game masters so we and our friends have more fun at every game.

I received a few great ideas and pieces of feedback on the concept of GP = XP, and about XP in general.

Experience points are core to RPGs. Our games use such points and metrics as core methods for character improvement.

XP are like a medium of exchange between player actions and character advancement.

As such, we are all on a spectrum of philosophy about how XP should be earned and spent.

What you believe XP should be about might differ from what your neighbour believes.


A Key Learning From What You Said

Today I’d like to share with you a select few bits from the email avalanche.

I hope you find your fellow GMs’ ideas and notions thought-provoking, maybe worth trying out, and at the least, an interesting perspective.

Even if you have no intention of changing your XP system, and want to move on to another topic, there’s a key learning opportunity for you here….

A common thread in many of the emails is one special idea: XP is a game mechanic that affects our behaviour.

I re-read several of your emails through this lens once I became conscious of it.

And I agree. It’s amazing how one little mechanic a carrot might affect our campaigns.

It’s therefore worth a deeper look so we have a good perspective on how this mechanic affects our fun at the table.

* * *

XP Is All About The Character

From MM

I abandoned that D&D GP=XP mechanic in the 80s. A much better approach to earning XP is all about the character.

  • Did the character meet a personal or professional goal? Yes = XP.
  • Did the character do something or solve a problem in a fashion that is unique to that character? Yes = XP.
  • Did the player make decisions consistent with the character’s personality/background/skills/virtues/flaws/etc? Yes = XP.
  • Did the character use a skill roll to solve a puzzle/get out of a bind/etc, instead of backstabbing someone, swinging his sword, or blasting the problem with a fireball? Yes = XP.
  • Did the character overcome a fear/phobia to  solve a problem/help a friend? Yes = XP.
  • Did the character do something that was outside of his class/profession/race/and so on, that helped the party as a whole or someone else attain one of their goals? Yes = XP.
  • Did the character do something contrary to his own interests to help another in a worthy or necessary way? Yes = XP.

Did the character do any of these things in a big or heroic way (save the whole party from certain destruction, kill a boss via a particularly innovative approach, nearly died to warn a town of impending disaster, etc)? Yes = mucho XP.

The halfling thief stands over the body of his fallen comrade a paladin that’s always giving him a hard time about his chosen line of work and fends off an orc attack until the other party members can rescue them both so the paladin can deliver a sacred artifact to his temple (which was one of that character’s life goals).

The thief could have easily saved his own skin, and perhaps the paladin’s delivery of the sacred item means the Thieves Guild in that town has less influence.

But for the halfling, his comrade’s life is more important than those other considerations.

That’s what XP should be given for. Not an endless tally of hit points and gold pieces.

With that HP & GP based approach, the thief would likely be much better served to grab the artifact, hightail it outta there, sell it at the next town, and pocket the GP and the XP, and who cares about that paladin anyway.

That system encourages non-heroic actions on the part of players, regardless of the character’s natural proclivities.

In fact, using the HP&GP=XP system, if the paladin was standing over the thief in the same circumstance, the paladin’s player is certainly aware he is acting against the best interests of his character, except for the hammer of lawful good gods that might fall upon him if the paladin grabs the loot and lets the thief die.

In my view, the entire superstructure of D&D’s XP accumulation involved a lot of tedious bookkeeping and did not give a character much of a reward for heroism nor the player much of a reward for good roleplaying.

Perhaps that system was good for judging the relative accomplishment of goals between two or more parties going through the same module in a competition at a con, but for everyday RPG, no way.


The Memory Tally System

From BM

Allo Johnn,

One of the best XP systems I have ever used was what I called the memory tally system. It is an idea I got from somewhere in the mid 90s and changed it up to fit my group.

Basically I have a total number of XP for each session.

Then at the beginning of the next session I have each player recount what they remember from the last session.

For each thing they bring up they get one tally point (sometimes up to 3 tally points if it was something extra special).

After everyone is done I total up all the tally points then divide that into the total XP. I take that number and multiply it to each individual character tally and that total is the XP each character gets.

I would also do a summary session every few weeks to cover what we have done and they would get bonus XP for that. I would add missing things and allow others to interject if something was missed when recounting what happened each session.

I also really like the HARP (High Adventure Role Playing by ICE) way of doing XP. It is based on a goal system based on how difficult it was to reach each goal.

There are two types of goals: personal and group goals.

In my more recent years I’ve used a combination of the above XP systems.


Spend It To Gain It

From BB

I’ve also seen XP for money spent. That adds an even more mercenary angle and encourages carousing.

Session Based Advancement

From Mark of the Pixie

It occurs that you could just have advancement on track with sessions.  The 2, 3, 4, 5 sessions per level table you are working back from could just be your advancement schedule.

XP goes away completely.

This removes meta-game-motivations (levelling up) from the characters’ motivations.

They will still want treasure (in character motivation), but you don’t have to tally it up for XP. They just have it and spend or save or use as they like. I have been doing it for years and it works pretty well for our group.


Make It Fun To Spend

From JP


GP for XP you ask?


Just do it!

I’ve played D&D for nearly 40 years and recently went back to gp for xp and you know what? I realised that was what had been missing from my campaigns and it never should have been taken out.

For all the reasons you mentioned it’s a good idea. To me it became the difference between roll vs role.

I have fond memories of sneaking out some of the loot from a ridiculously over-powered dungeon while avoiding almost all combat, doing Mission Impossible style heists where the guards never even knew we were there, running a brilliant con scam on the docks of Greyhawk, and simply spending time honing our pick-pocket skills on the streets rolling on random treasure tables.

Hugely fun, and very rewarding because we used gp for xp. Before I changed back, this emphasis on smart play was missing because when only monsters = xp, then fights have to happen – lots of them. But missing was the reward for a well executed snatch-and-grab plan.

I know we have milestones now (which I detest!) where the DM says, “Well, I think you guys have suffered enough, here have a level for your troubles.”

But to me, that’s not D&D. That’s just some roll-playing game where you show up and at the end of some pre-allotted time you go up a level.

Along with gp for xp, I have made sure my PCs have something to spend their loot on. In one campaign the PCs have an old keep to manage, in another they just bought a tavern.

Typically, a lot of games I’ve seen wait too long to open up this aspect of play. But I’ve found you can never introduce it too early.

As soon as the PCs have something they want to protect the character investment level of everyone at the table goes up a notch or two. Wait til someone crunches the numbers on how much gold you can make with investing in a ship… braving (pirating?) the high seas and sailing to dark jungles full of lost treasures!

Recently I’ve also been thinking of reintroducing the concept of PC training costs, tithes, donations, magic study costs, kickbacks to the guild master etc, as another way of siphoning off gold so the need for it never goes away.

So, yeah. Gp for xp, just do it!


Goal XP

From RT

Good morning Johnn!

Decided to put my two cents in on your GP=>XP question.

I have played this way in D&D mostly, but also in other systems. Honestly, it went badly overall. The worst incident involved one bag of holding, one crafty thief, and one (apparently) hard of hearing dragon. Poof! System broken.

Some potential pitfalls….

As time passes players easily turn to the dark side and are soon stealing everything of value. Fights are purposely avoided…spells, traits, feats, abilities, even role-playing morphs into “loot acquisition mode.”

Major, plot driving conflicts can be easily avoided.

This sort of concept can now be seen in the crafting systems of most online MMORPGs. My games went from adventurous storytelling, wrought with danger to farming.

It took me years to abandon that tradition. But in the end I believe it has made me grow as a GM. The systems I play now, or the methods I use for risk/reward, are goal oriented. This forces me to set key objectives for the sessions, chapters, and campaign. I then assign appropriate XP rewards.

I use a system similar to yours actually. I determine the general pace of advancement by figuring out reasonable benchmarks of progression and use that information as a guide to how much XP is awarded per Chapter, which is usually 3-5 sessions. (Most RPGs I play these days don’t have a level progression and focus more on Skill, Trait, and Advantage acquisition.)

Here’s an example of Rewards structure in my current WFRP campaign.

Rewards For Completing Chapter 4 (of 10)

Explore the Reaper’s Bounty (key Chapter location) = 5 XP

Find the well and secret passage (Mutant side quest) = 25 XP

Find Lorinoc (Elf side quest NPC) = 10XP

Deal peacefully with Father Johannes (ill-tempered key NPC) = 10 XP

Befriend Nils (Fr. Johannes apprentice, key NPC, possible side quest) = 15 XP

Defeat the Mutants (side-quest NPCs/possible allies) = 5 XP

Deal peacefully with the Mutants = 25 XP

Flee the Reaper’s Bounty, leaving all (NPCs) to their fates (avoid combat with Beastmen during encounter) = 10 XP

Flee the Bounty but attend to the other folks fighting alongside them = 20 XP

Defend the Reaper’s Bounty = 25 XP

Kill the Bestigor (Beastmen) leader = 20 XP

Befriend the Wood Elves (side quest involving “Lorinoc” NPC) = 5 XP

Explore the Crusade’s encampment (Chapter objective) = 10 XP

For each NPC they talked with = 2 XP

For each rumour gained = 2 XP

Fighting the Zombies (Crusader’s Camp, one of combat opportunities in Chapter) = 5 XP

Fighting the Ghouls (Crusader’s Camp) = 10 XP

Aid in Karl’s defence (figure at center of Crusade, key Campaign NPC) = 50 XP

Become enamoured with Karl (Karl’s secretly a mutant that can “geas” players… dangerous) = 25 XP

Also, I give out extra XP for good/great role-playing or exceptional planning per session. Sometimes I’ll give some XP towards the advancement of a specific skill, or trait, for great creative use of said skill.


Social Levels + Downtime

From TT


I’ve been running D&D games for nearly 30 years now. About a year ago I switched one of my two D&D 5e groups to a gold/xp system. It’s nice to have two groups running on the different systems to have them to compare.

One thing I did was expand the social interactions and social standings. I used the cost of living as a baseline to create kind of a social level system for difficulties and rewards, similar to the selling magic items table from the DMG.

Combine that with the Unearthed Arcana extended downtime activities and I have a nice system for non-combat interactions, with about 15 different basic actions. It’s been a great system to play with and has had very few things I’ve had to work around.

One thing that became immediately clear, was players weren’t willing to have their characters do things that were not profitable. This added a layer of realism to the game that even they didn’t see coming. It’s made it much more enjoyable (and frequently much funnier… such as ignoring a goblin horde… because it’s simply not worth the effort).

It’s also reduced the tendency to search, horde, and involve high-powered magic items.

Even using the baseline availability/value of items in the rulebook, players are more interested in trading those items in for their value in gold.

Note, “value in gold” translates to “value of training” rather than cold hard gold bars or gems.

Rather than exchanging gold for XP, I use the XP as the value in gold for a trainer to provide the training. So that magical sword might not exchange for a horde of gold, but the trainer might take it in training.

This keeps the actual economy of the game legitimate (since if you sold the magic items, you’d literally break the local economy of most areas).

For rewards, I adjust the loot for encounters by the XP of the encounter. I also have a non-lethal reward for any encounter and give a 50% value in gold based rewards for social victories and a 25% reward for escape.

This is good for plundering missions to steal from the enemy or negotiate with them but not fight. These are easily provided via a piece of art, gem, or other items.

Bounties are great ways to provide the gold after missions such as 50g per Orc ear, etc.


Change Murder Hobo Behaviour

From DS

I like the idea of story experience over pure gold experience. This will make the characters want to accomplish campaign goals rather than being a murder hobo.  If they talk the monster out of attacking the town, then they have defeated it and should be awarded full experience points for doing so.

Rewarding experience points for just the monsters and the gold encourages the murder hobo habit.

Awarding experience points for defeating traps, negotiating with a monster, for accomplishing personal goals, or for accomplishing campaign goals makes it much sweeter for the PCs to go along with the game and do what you, the DM, would like them to do. Not railroading, but following the general plan of the game you set up.

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