Monday, October 31, 2016

Dungeon Master Techniques: Making Experience Work for You

Hello, and welcome back to Pact of the Tome! Today, I'd like to spend some time talking about the experience point system in Fifth Edition D&D. While the options in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide may work well for some games, for others they leave something to be desired.

This article breaks down the way Fifth Edition awards XP, then suggests an alternative method that Dungeon Masters can customize to their taste. Hopefully, by the end of reading this you'll have a richer understanding of experience in D&D 5E better and have some ideas for making it work better in your game.

Goals of an Experience System
Why have experience points? I see a few reasons:
"Come on... if we take that thing down, think
of how much XP we'll get!"
  • As a player, it's helpful to be able to see your progress as you advance. Knowing you're close to the next level can be really exciting!
  • Earning experience from certain actions gives weight and meaning to the characters' choice. If they gain extra XP from finding a secret door or defeating a powerful monster, they can feel good about their choices that led them to do so.
  • Players are motivated by experience. If they know they'll be able to gain lots of XP by accomplishing story goals, then they're more likely to try and do just that! The desire to gain XP is one factor that keeps players adventuring, as opposed to just sitting around.
Overall, XP is a motivating factor for players that can enhance their enjoyment of the game. While it's tempting to simply award levels as needed, putting some work into the way you handle XP can make a difference in your campaign.

Understanding the Current Options
The most basic way to award XP is described in the Dungeon Master's Guide (pages 260-261). Players gain experience for each monster they defeat based on the Challenge of that monster. For example, defeating two challenge 1 monsters earns the players 400 XP. (In a party with five PCs, each character earns 80 XP.)  The Dungeon Master can also choose to award XP for defeating non-combat encounters. When the players earn enough XP, they gain a level.

The Dungeon Master's Guide offers two optional systems for XP. The first is the milestone system. In this system, when players accomplish a goal or make a discovery, they are awarded XP for an easy or a hard encounter (based on combat XP) depending on the magnitude of the milestone. The DM can optionally grant other rewards upon reaching milestones, such as the benefits of a short rest or regaining a low-level spell slot.

The second optional system does away with XP entirely. Instead, the Dungeon Master awards all the characters a level when they complete a certain number of sessions or accomplish a story goal.

Problems with the Current Options
Unfortunately, I think the options as written are lacking. Here are some of the problems:
  • Out-of-combat XP is ill-defined. The "Noncombat Challenges" section in the Dungeon Master's Guide (p. 261) suggest that the Dungeon Master use the rules for building combat encounters to judge the difficulty of a non-combat encounter with a meaningful risk of failure. This is plausible when the non-combat encounter is a trap where the players take damage, although it may involve some calculations on the DM's part to determine how "deadly" a rockfall trap is compared to a gang of goblins, but how about a social encounter? Negotiating a trade deal simply can't be measured in terms of combat difficulty, and there are no tools for the DM to judge whether such an encounter is "Easy," "Medium," "Hard," or "Deadly" (?).
  • Combat XP is sometimes disproportional to the challenge. According to the official encounter building guidelines, an encounter with a CR 1 Bugbear (200 XP) is just as challenging as an encounter with four CR 1/8 kobolds (25 XP each). The kobolds' numbers give them an XP multiplier for purposes of calculating the fight's difficulty, but not for purposes of awarding XP! So for a fight that is supposed to be the same difficulty, the players only receive half of the XP if there are four monsters than if there is just one. This creates feel-bad moments when deadly "horde" encounters reward pitiful amounts of XP. It also encourages players to seek out single, powerful monsters instead of groups of weaker ones.
  • Milestones can unnecessarily speed up advancement and lack guidance. The milestone award rules seem to allow some guidance to the out-of-combat XP problem. However, they dogpile with combat rewards, meaning that players who defeat a strong enemy to accomplish a story goal essentially get double XP for the battle. In addition, there is little guidance for how often a DM should plan to award milestones, meaning that DMs using this system may find their party advancing faster than they'd like.
  • Session or story-based advancement can feel arbitrary. Because of these issues with the XP system, many DMs choose the alternative rule suggested at the bottom of the section - simply award the players a level when it seems right. This does avoid some of the problems mentioned above and allows the DM total control over advancement, but it also loses the advantages of an XP system in the first place. Players have no way to see how well they are progressing, and if the DM doesn't make the criteria for gaining a level clear, it can feel arbitrary.

Plotting XP Based on Encounter Awards
Let's begin by taking a look at the way XP is distributed based on combat encounters. This seems like the most solid part of the basic system, so perhaps we can extrapolate it to include other kinds of encounters.

For this analysis, I'm considering XP as it is given to a single player, rather than to an entire group. In this case it's simpler to look at what a single character gains from defeating a level-appropriate "easy," "medium," "hard," or "deadly" encounter. We'll also consider how many XP that character needs to advance to the next level, provided that they already have the XP required for the previous level. (For example, a level 3 character needs 2,700 XP to reach level 4. But as a level 3 character, they already have 900 XP, so they only need 1,800 additional XP.)

LevelEasy XPMedium XPHard XPDeadly XPXP to AdvanceEasy Awards to Advance

The last column in our table looks at how many "Easy" encounters a character of a given level needs to advance to the next level. From looking at the values for "Easy," "Medium," "Hard," and "Deadly," we can see that they vary based on a progression (roughly) like this:
Easy: 1x Easy
Medium: 2x Easy
Hard: 3x Easy
Deadly: 4-5x Easy
This table gives us a few pieces of useful information. First, we can see how fast the game expects characters to level up. With only twelve easy encounters (or more realistically, six medium encounters) required to go from level 1 to 2 and 2 to 3, those levels are intended to pass by quickly. Levels 5-9, by contrast, take a much longer time to reach by dealing with the same number of encounters. Once characters hit tenth level, their progression stabilizes, consistently requiring about ten medium encounters to gain a level.

Second, this table gives us an excellent metric for awarding XP. Once we know how much XP the game requires to advance in level, as well as the proportion of that a single award grants, we can design our system so that our characters advance approximately as fast as we want them to. For example, using the multipliers for different levels, we can quickly determine that three "easy," three "medium," and one "hard" XP awards bring our PCs from level one to level two.

Building an XP System for Your Campaign
In earlier editions of the game, treasure was the
primary source of XP - so much so that characters
gained one XP for every GP they found.
Artist: Kieran Yanner
Now that we have this raw data, let's look at how we can use it to make progression work for our game. Because XP is a big incentive for players to take certain actions, we can base the way we award XP for certain actions. Here are some examples of things to grant XP for:
  • Defeating enemies. This is the "by-the-book" application of XP, which rewards the players for taking on combats.
  • Overcoming challenges. This rewards the players for solving problems. If you choose this criterion, you might de-emphasize combat in favor of seeking alternative solutions.
  • Discovery. For campaigns that focus on exploration or intrigue, discovering secrets and lore can be worth encouraging with an XP bonus.
  • Making allies. Any game that asks the PCs to accomplish a goal larger than themselves, such as winning a war or building a nation, might award XP for gaining allies.
  • Accomplishing personal goals. Campaigns with a focus on the player characters and their motivations ought to reward the PCs for seeking out personal objectives.
  • Accomplishing campaign goals. Similarly, games with a focus on the group's story can grant XP for successfully moving the story forward. This often applies to published adventures in particular, as they are likely to assume overarching goals for the players.
  • Taking heroic actions. If your campaign is about heroism, than putting one's self at risk for the greater good might be rewarded with XP. (In a villainous campaign, one could easily award XP for doing the opposite - betrayal, vengeance, and so on.)
  • Recovering treasure. The very first edition of D&D used this as a primary means of awarding XP. Doing so would be appropriate for a "dungeon crawl" campaign or one where the PCs serve as mercenaries or pirates.
  • Character development. If your campaign is structured as a drama where the motives of your PCs are key, then you might consider rewarding them for significant changes in their motives or actions. 
You don't have to reward XP for all of these things! Experience for recovering treasure might be completely inappropriate in a plot-focused game, and XP for heroics wouldn't work well in a game where the players are expected to be morally ambiguous. Figure out what you want to reward and grant XP for it. This also might be worth a discussion with your players - what kind of campaign do they want to play in?

Linking Rewards with Numbers
Now that you've decided what you'd like to award XP for, the next step is to figure out how much XP to grant for each action. Fortunately, we already have a metric for this: the encounter XP table above! Simply figure out whether each accomplishment is worth a small ("easy"), medium, large ("hard"), or extraordinary ("deadly") reward.

You might want to consider scaling your rewards not only by type, but also by magnitude. So making an ally of the village barkeep might be worth a small reward, where successfully treating with the goblin king could be worth a large or extraordinary reward. Although it's not necessary to codify these metrics ahead of time, if your players see that you are consistent they will get a better sense of what they can do to earn XP.

Blending with Combat XP
While few D&D games feature entirely combat encounters, most incorporate combat in some form. If combat encounters are a big enough part of your game that you want to award XP for them, doing so should be possible. The good news is that our system blends seamlessly with combat XP! Because it is based on the XP progression for combat, awards for combat and noncombat encounters should mesh quite easily. Simply use the "normal" method for determining combat XP awards, then grant non-combat XP as necessary. Be aware that if you choose to grant XP milestone style in addition to combat (for example, defeating the main villain of an adventure is worth "combat XP" plus "campaign goal XP"), you may be advancing the party faster than the game expects.

The only change I would recommend here is using the "adjusted" XP value for encounter awards. This means that groups of monsters gain an XP multiplier (DMG p. 82, "Encounter Multipliers"), and in the case of a large party solo monsters' XP is halved (DMG p. 83 "Party Size"). This ensures that characters are compensated fairly for the level of risk they undertake, rather than being shorted on XP because they are fighting a large group of monsters rather than a solo enemy.

Adjusting Pace
One issue I've found in my own campaign, as my players approach level fifteen, is that the game actually advances them in level faster that I'd like. Unlike the other parts of this article, I haven't found a solution I'm totally happy for this downside of the XP system. I ultimately decided to just multiply all XP awarded by 2/3, so that the pace of advancement stays closer to level 5-10.

In general, if you find the pace of the campaign is too fast, have a talk with your players about it and explain your concerns. If they understand what you're doing, they're less likely to complain if you decide to slow down the XP. You're less likely to have this problem if the game is moving too slowly - in my experience, players rarely complain about extra XP awarded!

Example: XP Rewards for Curse of Strahd (minimal spoilers below)
By the way, Curse of Strahd is an awesome adventure! Expect
more about it on this blog in the coming months.
Artist: Rob Rey
I've been using a variant of this system for a while now in my Nentir Vale game (a homebrew campaign that's been going on for nearly four years), but I decided to formalize it for a play through of Curse of Strahd I started recently. Curse of Strahd is unique in that, for a D&D adventure, it de-emphasizes combat. The adventure includes many deadly foes sure to decimate an aggressive party, as well as situations where fighting only makes things worse. Therefore, I decided not to award combat XP at all, instead granting experience points for actions that helped the characters reach their goals in the adventure.

  • Each character earns "easy" XP for defeating a random encounter, overcoming a minor obstacle, or making a minor discovery. A minor obstacle might be a group of monsters that block access to an optional area, a trap that guards a hidden treasure, or a guard that won't let the players into town. A minor discovery includes useful information about the land of Barovia or the weaknesses of their foes.
  • Each character earns "medium" XP for overcoming a significant obstacle, discovering important information, avoiding a deadly conflict, or obtaining significant aid from a NPC. Significant obstacles include monsters that actively threaten the characters, barriers that block passage into an area, and NPCs that seek to defame or spy on the players. Important information might be the identity of a hidden villain or the precise location of a valuable artifact. Players might avoid a deadly conflict by fleeing a powerful monster or misdirecting the attentions of a villain.
  • Each character earns "hard" XP for overcoming a major obstacle, resolving a deadly conflict, or reaching a major goal. Major obstacles include powerful groups of monsters, individuals that pose a threat to the PCs and their goals, and situations deeply unfavorable to the PCs, such as the hostility of a town. Resolving a deadly conflict means more than just avoiding it - the players must take steps to ensure they are not threatened in the same way again. Major goals might include saving an important NPC, turning the fortunes of a village from evil to good, or defeating the featured antagonist of a location.
  • Each character earns "deadly" XP for standing triumphant against deadly odds or reaching a campaign goal. Campaign goals include reaching a key location or event, recovering one of the treasures of Barovia, and defeating Strahd himself.

Experience is an important part of the game that can add a lot to your players' experience. While the by-the-book system has some problems, we can use the encounter awards from the Dungeon Master's Guide to grant XP for anything we want to encourage in our game. I've also given an example of how I apply this system in my Curse of Strahd campaign.

I hope this article was able to add something to your understanding of experience in Fifth Edition, and hopefully to give you some tools to improve XP in your own game. Until next time - I'll see you on Pact of the Tome!

No comments:

Post a Comment