Level up! 5 ways to deal with XP

Friday evening.

Five eager players sit at your dinner table while you set the scene for a series of adventures you have prepared for them. They come with expectations: enthralling stories, epic battles, terrifying monsters and beautiful damsels in distress for them to rescue.

And XP. Lots of XP.

I’ve found that there are a couple of ways to deal with XP. While most of them involve adding up numbers, there are a few more elegant solutions. Let’s explore and find out why I’ve done away with XP!

1. Award each encounter (aka math from hell)

So this is the original method I learned. The GM of my first D&D games implemented this system meticulously. It involves sitting down with the Monster Manual(s) and adding up the XP reward for each monster defeated. Then throwing in some math to compensate for (often different) character levels. And then awarding a different amount of XP to each character.

Sure, nowadays there are tools and websites that will help you with the calculations and encounter preparation. But is it worth the headache? If you ask me, I will never do this again.

2. Bonus XP for role play

Also something my first GM did, but this time I actually like the principle. Award bonus XP to players who put in an effort to role play (good/best/at all). This motivates your players to (try to) get in character, and I found it could improve the game a lot! Our group had the players nominating other players for bonus XP at the end of the session, which promoted complimenting within the group.

Sadly, I also see two problems. First, when you have one or two great role players or initiative-takers at the table, they will set the standard for your bonus XP. This leaves the quieter or more insecure players feeling left out. I think these are the players that need the extra encouragement!

Secondly, this method can greatly imbalance the game. It can lead to one or more level differences between the characters. Something I personally dislike as a player, and even more as a GM.

I adapted this idea though, using a more fleeting reward which I call Hero Chips. Meanwhile, in D&D 5th edition, Wizards of the Coast cleverly introduced a game mechanic called Inspiration. Here you are awarded an Inspiration d20 for role play, which you can use to essentially re-roll one of your checks. A cool way to reward role play, and without the lasting effects of bonus XP.

3. Missed the session? No XP for you, mister!

The past seems to be filled with punishment for those who did not excel. When you could not make it to the game session, you got no XP. Or if you were late, you got an XP penalty.

Why punish a player who is already bummed about missing a game session? Even when you think you actually -need- to punish a player for not taking your schedule seriously, you are wrong. Talk to him or her about it. Priorities in life change, and everyone should accept that. This includes the player in question when you tell him or her that you are considering looking for a replacement.

4. Dead characters start last

Losing your character sucks. Especially if it wasn’t during one of the epic battles of the adventure. I remember one of my favorite characters failing a Reflex save and getting pushed off a ridge during a struggle in the Underdark. One save failed, one loooong drop into the abyss. “Bummer man! Roll 3d6…”

If you think that’s bad, how about hearing your GM add insult to unjury: “Lowest character level in the group is almost level 11? Alright, you start at level 10.” This mechanic serves no purpose in my opinion. It makes the game less fun.

5. Award standard XP per session

I used this in the previous campaign I ran. I knew I wanted the characters to level up once every 5-6 game sessions, so I handed out XP accordingly. The players would know exactly when they were due for a level up (and had their characters all updated and ready) and I had fewer numbers to keep track of. Whether or not they overcame any challenges during these sessions did not matter, because the story is the thing that mattered.

I will admit, this is not suitable for all groups. Perhaps your players will become lazy, or stop to care about defeating this villain or killing that aboleth. Groups that focus on powerplay will not thrive with this mechanic. I have since moved on.

Forgot about XP

In our current games, we’ve forgot about XP altogether. It just doesn’t matter anymore.

As the story of the campaign evolves, I set milestones for the players to reach. When they reach a milestone, I award them a character level. As a GM I love this! I can think of my campaign as a collection of tiers for the characters, allowing them to gather new power to be able to overcome the next tier of the story. I combine this with fleeting rewards like Inspiration and Hero Chips, so I can reward players for role playing and doing cool stuff without hurting party balance.

Admittedly there is one downside. If the players are not following the story-line with regards to the tiers, they could be stuck at the same level for a while. Try not to forget to adapt the tiers you had in mind to accommodate the progress of the players.

How do you deal with awarding XP and rewarding role play? Please leave me a comment below!

2 thoughts on “Level up! 5 ways to deal with XP

  1. I like the idea of the Pathfinder Society (3.75). To level up you need 3 XP, every session gives 1 XP. But the sessions are also really episodic, so I wonder if this works for a longer ongoing campaign.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      What they do sounds a bit like my suggestion #5, where the Pathfinder Society has set the amount of sessions per level to 3. It’s a fine method, especially when the group works towards a climax every 3 sessions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *