Thursday, June 6, 2013


Over the years, the OSR blogosphere has repeatedly burped up the idea of expanded experience awards like a tired cop digesting a rotten burrito. There have been soooo many blog posts about alternate or revised XP awards over the years (no I won’t link, go look for yourself), all inconclusive, but all leading to one conclusion I think.

Give XP for everything. That’s right, you heard me, GMs should be giving experience for freakin’ EVERYTHING worthwhile the PCs do. Fighting, roleplaying, questing, goldgathering, exploring, traveling, surviving, thinking, governing, playing alignment, you name it. If they do it, if it suits the game, they get XP.

The first justification for this admittedly major mental shift is historical. Back in the day, XP came in at a trickle, which was fine when we got together in someone’s basement every Sunday (and sometimes Wednesday) night and didn’t mind grinding our way through the levels. Hell, that was half the fun.

Honestly, who has the time anymore? I mean this both in the mundane sense that work, family, and education utterly robs us of prime gaming time. I also mean it in the larger sense that most of us are in our 30’s or 40’s – how many more times can we get a character to name level before we delve off into that undiscovered country that awaits us all?

The second justification is squeezing all the fun out of the games we love. Sure, starting off a new 0-th level mook with only a first name and a frypan in the Dungeons of Beheadedness is its own kind of fun. But so is turning Mooky into Sir Mooky McMarn, Swordmaster, over the course of his adventures. This ‘zero-to-hero’ bildungsroman narrative is the very heart of fantasy and fantasy gaming, although the waters have been muddied by anti-heroes, gonzo science fantasy, and barbaric tales.

I feel that the OSR (and TSR before it) sometimes focuses on the ‘zero’ part of the story without ever trying to get to the ‘hero’ bit. Compare the HUGE numbers of low level adventures made and still being made with the scant high level adventures kicking around. The same goes for monsters. There was a post a while back (don’t ask me to look for or link ancient and ephemeral posts) that bemoaned the fact that although there were lots of dungeons in the games the OP had played, eponymous dragons were few and far between.

This is exactly why 4e went overboard with ‘kewl powerz’ I think – frustration with the cult of the ‘pathetic ethos’ and exclusion and vilification of power gaming. It is also why, I believe, Flailsnails was invented – to give players a chance to keep the adventurers adventuring and thus gaining experience and power. Both the powerless ‘zero’ and powerful ‘hero’ are equally valid parts of the gaming experience, and I feel just as dissatisfied with constantly being reduced to a ‘zero’ as becoming an instant ‘hero’ not having earned it. That to me is where the fun in D&D gaming lies – the ‘sweet spot’ isn’t the low to median levels as some claim, it is the journey between all levels itself.

Giving XP for a wider range of actions also encourages a wider range of play and allows players to be more than murderhobos. Give a cleric XP for healing and he'll go out of his way to do so to NPCs as well as PCs. Give a thief XP for moving up in the ranks of the Thieves Guild and she'll take an interest in its workings, its people, and any side quests you offer that allow her to fulfill her ambition. Give XP to a fighter for protecting helpless villagers and... well, you get the picture.

The last justification is for GMs to grow. The reason many OSR GMs decry power gaming, I feel, is that they haven’t worked up to it. A GM is omnipotent and omniscient – why else should he or she fear some player characters regardless of what collection of unholy gear they have acquired? A GM who has moved his players through the levels learns how to ramp up the challenges and rewards, and learns how to foil the best laid plans of monks and mystics. A GM who constantly runs low level adventures will quake in his boots when a name level character with a few wonky rings and a glowing sword shows up to the table.

But don’t take my word for it – ask the Old Ones. Although the profit motive was certainly there, why else would old Gygax and Arneson write Expert and Immortal rules if D&D was only meant to be a low level experience? Allowing the possibility of advancing and growing fuller also increases the chances that an evolving game will keep players interested and playing longer and more consistently. Wouldn’t you like to follow in Gygax and Arbeson's footsteps, creating your own worlds that PCs will explore fully and even come to shape instead of dying off after ransacking a few ruins? Don’t you want to lead them on world-shattering adventures and assist them in creating spells instead of constantly and consistently forcing them to loot the nearest cave or be reduced to begging a goblin wizard for cantrips?

So, trust me, give XP for everything. But be ready to up your and your players’ game. Get them past the dungeons and into the dragons for once. And learn to be a true Dungeon Master yourself!


  1. XP for everything in my humble opinion is a flawed concept; XP should be given for only a few specified things, otherwise it isn't really about incentives anymore, and you could just level up the PCs after a session or two, completely arbitrarily.

    If one would like to fasten advancement, just place more treasure in the adventure locations; e.g. use the original treasure tables presented in the rulebooks (yeah, random treasure is, most of the time, produces pretty big treasure troves).

  2. Yves, don't mistake me for a Monty Haul DM. I would ask you to note that I mentioned specifically "everything WORTHWHILE the PCs do" in my description. If it is worthwhile to the DM, to the world or story they are making together, or to the players, then reward it. The examples are given above. As I mentioned, if you want characters to do more than slay or steal, reward more than that. Why wouldn't you reward a cleric for healing, a thief for sneaking, or a swordsman for rescuing someone in distress?

    I have seen the results of amping up treasure, and they aren't pretty. Adventurers turning their noses up at coin of lower value, grinding their way through dungeons, ignoring story and adventure for coin, coin, coin and blood, blood, blood. D&D's promise of fantasy adventure can, in my humble opinion, be more fully realized with widened XP rewards.

    Just my two CP. It's how I'll run the next game I DM, and I'll post back here how it goes. Who knows, it may not work, but I'd like to give it a try.

    Cheers, thanks for responding

  3. The attention paid to coin and blood comes from D&D's assumption that those are the two things that XP is awarded for. If you want your game be about something else, simply replace the award for something entirely different.

    About the problem of rewarding class-based activities Roger wrote on his blog:

  4. Ynas - I just read Roger's post - some valid points in there. Still, if you want to cite D&D's 'assumptions', you'll have to clarify which D&D you mean. OD&D started with blood & treasure, which I admit is fun and a valid way to play in and of itself. By 2e there were awards for roleplaying your class and implementing good plans (most likely cribbed from Palladium's original XP rules). These were also fun and valid, yet are a different way to play that fulfills different needs and holds different assumptions. If you follow my original post assumptions that 1) I haven't got time for the old school grind and 2) behavior fitting the genre should be rewarded, and I'm just casting a wider net.

    Ultimately, if as Roger quotes from Gygax "Good roleplaying is its own reward" then why do we need XP at all?

  5. XP (or some form of clear reward system) is necessary to ultimately evaluate if the players made the right choices, which games are about.

    Sure, a great story can emerge from playing D&D - but you could do the same commenting a chess party, interpreting the pieces as people or regiments and telling a tale about their battles.

    Not having fun whilst playing D&D is only partially the game's fault - who you are playing with is just as equally important, as with any other social activities.

    What I'm trying to say is that games are defined by their transparent system, and that is why you can tell which choice is the most optimal in a certain situation (i.e. which move leads you the closest to victory). RPGs, usually, don't have strict victory conditions, that is the game doesn't tell you when to stop playing. Instead, they provide an advancement mechanic that fulfils the same role as victory conditions: they reassure you tat you made the right choices, hence you gain something.

  6. I ran into an interesting problem while trying to do something like this -- in particular, I was trying to emphasize seeking out and following up on rumors and plot hooks, so I granted XP based not on combat encounters, treasure, or much else -- but "triggering" encounters by being in the right place at the right time, asking the right questions.

    In each case, it worked out really well in the beginning when I offered the players the initial hooks to get them asking questions -- and each time, my players would become indelibly fastened to a single NPC, quest chain, or interpretation of events in an attempt to "grind" whatever XP they thought they could gain from it.

    They were bewildered when scenes connected to one another thematically rather than through a string of combat encounters. Scene after scene started and concluded abruptly when they decided whatever was happening "wasn't part of the plot."

    I wish I could say something conclusive about this approach to roleplaying, but I feel a lot of it has to do with my specific group's murderhobo tendencies.


    1. Last time I DMed I spelled out general things that would net XP then broke it down at the end of the session when I awarded play. I also let them make their case for something they thought deserved a bonus. We came to agreement pretty easily and were satisfied on both sides. I think the overall motivation to award for a wider range of things than gold and blood is valid and allows players to shape what type of play the game supports.

    2. I think I'll probably create an XP rubric as a handout to read & discuss the next time I run an extended campaign.