I’ve talked a number of times about the experience tables. Looking over those posts, I think I gave the impression that experience comes solely from defeating monsters. Clearly, that is the most obvious source of experience, but it is not the sole source.

Where Does Experience Come from?

As I said, the obvious source of experience is from defeating monsters. But even that statement isn’t completely clear cut. What constitutes “defeating” a monster? Do you have to kill it? What if you cast a spell on it to cause it to: fall asleep, become paralyzed, become charmed and let the party pass by unharmed? What if the party detects the monster (without it detecting them) and simply bypasses it? What if the party encounters the monster and then runs away before anyone on either side is killed? By bypassing or running away, the party defeats the threat the monster posed. Even this basic idea that experience comes from defeating a monster can create quite a grey area.

To make matters worse, what happens if you encounter the same group of creatures a second time? If you gain experience from defeating (but not killing) monsters, it is possible to encounter them latter (say you cast a sleep spell on them to get past them on the way in and now they are awake again). Should you get more experience from the same creatures?

Treasure

In early D&D, characters also gained experience for treasure they returned with. If the goal of the adventure is to seek out treasure, then it could be argued that the amount of treasure gained is the best measure of success. Therefore, experience for treasure makes a great deal of sense. However, I’m one that feels that treasure is its own reward. In addition, seeking treasure isn’t necessarily the main concern. At early levels it may be the driving force behind adventuring. But at higher levels, although treasure is always nice it is simply a bonus to the actual goal of solving a mystery, defeating a foe, saving a town, etc.

When experience is given for treasure, the amount of experience is based on the number of gold pieces worth of treasure successfully hauled to town. Items need not be sold and converted to gold, merely tallied.

Traps

It can be argued that a trap is simply an obstacle, but isn’t that what many monsters are? Defeating a trap is just as important as defeating a monster. If you fail at either, you will probably end up dead. Defeating a trap (opposed to simply surviving the trap’s effects) is clearly worthy of some experience.

Puzzles

Characters will often run into puzzles that must be solved. Failing to solve the puzzle may not have the dire consequences of failing to defeat a trap. More often than not a puzzle takes the form of a barrier of some sort and failure simply means that the barrier has not been breached. Success may be a reward in itself. However, solving a puzzle is usually quite an accomplishment and a little bonus experience helps mark the event.

Skill Challenges

4e introduced something called Skill Challenges. Essentially, it is a series of skill checks. Each check may involve a different skill and each check may be performed by a different character. A certain number of successes must be made before a set number of failures, in order to successfully complete the challenge. The various skill checks are made in conjunction with role-playing the associated events and may last but a few minutes or stretch over days (or longer). When handled properly, and with a group interested in role-playing, these can be quite entertaining.

The drawback is that a great deal of time is spent in activities other than fighting. If experience were to only come from combat, that means that an entire evening could be spent without gaining any experience.

Experience For Role-Playing

Take that last statement to the extreme. What happens if your group loves to role-play? You could spend endless game sessions doing nothing but role-playing, with only an occassional encounter thrown in. If experience is only gained through combat, it would take years for characters to gain a level.

Obviously, that will have the effect of discouraging role-playing in favor of other activities that will allow the characters to level more quickly. Awarding experience for role-playing is a simple way to circumvent that problem.

Quests

Anyone who has played an MMO is familiar with quests:

  • Kill a bunch of monsters and bring me their ears.
  • Collect a bunch of material components for a local wizard.
  • Find out who is raiding the travelling merchant caravans.
  • Track the raiders to their lair and kill their leader.

Characters are already discovering adventure hooks in various ways. Those clues send them off on some adventure where they gain experience in the process (from defeating monsters, etc). What are those adventure hooks if not quests? Not only do characters get the experience they gain from the adventure, they get bonus experience from completing each quest.

Everyone enjoys turning in a quest and receiving a little recognition for what they have done. You could actually track this recognition by giving out “Fame Points” for each quest the characters complete. Fame points would indicate how famous each character is. This fame may be useful in dealing with local lords, or receiving a discount on goods, or whatever else you can come up with.

Who Gets Experience?

Often times, there will be NPCs travelling with a party. They may be guides, porters, lantern bearers, hirelings, henchmen, merchants travelling with the party, or other NPC adventurers. When the party is attacked in the middle of the night, everyone’s life is at risk and everyone is expected to raise a sword. Who gets experience and who doesn’t?

On occasion, the party will get split up. What happens if one group has an encounter but the other one doesn’t; do they still split the experience (and the loot)? Taken to the extreme, what happens if one character somehow has an isolated encounter and single-handedly defeats the creature? Do the others share in the experience?

Dividing Up Experience

The most common method of divvying up experience is that everyone gets an equal share. It’s certainly the easiest.

You will often hear it said that higher level characters do more in a fight and require more experience to go up a level. Therefore, higher level characters should get more experience.

However, others will argue the exact reverse. If a party, consisting of 4th level and 8th level characters, battled a group of 6th level monsters, the 4th level characters would find it to be a challenge and learn from the encounter while the 8th level characters would find the encounter to be inconsequential and learn nothing from it. Beyond that, players with lower level characters (relative to other party members) don’t get to have as much fun as those with higher level characters. It’s unfair to also give them less experience.

One way I’ve seen this handled is that experience is split evenly but then each character receives a bonus of 10% for each level that the monster’s level is above their own, or a 10% per level penalty if the monsters are below their level (In the example above, the 4th level characters would receive a 20% bonus while the 8th level characters would receive a 20% penalty)

One convincing argument I’ve heard for this method is that it helps to reduce the disparity of levels. The game runs more smoothly, and everyone seems to have more fun, when everyone is the same level (or at least nearly so). Giving lower level characters more experience helps them level faster in relation to their higher level comrades, allowing the low level ones a chance to catch up.

This is, however, partially handled by the experience table itself. At each higher level, it takes progressively more experience to gain the next level. The amount of experience one character needs to go up a level may only be enough for a higher level character to gain half a level.

The 4e Approach

In 4e, it is suggested that every member of the party receives an equal share of the experience no matter what. This is even extended to regular members of the party who aren’t able to attend the current gaming session. This is a strange idea, but this method does have its supporters. The benefit is that every member of the party levels at the same time (whether they were present at the game or not). This avoids the situation where some party members eventually outdistance other members by several levels.

Many new DMs take this approach a step further and ignore experience altogether. Instead, the DM tells her players when to level up. Some do this after every ten encounters. Others have their players level up whenever they feel it is appropriate to the “story” they are trying to tell.

I don’t like either of these approaches for a number of reasons. First off, the purpose of the game is for the players to pit their characters against various challenges, not to tell a story. Any story that develops should happen entirely on its own. Secondly, it doesn’t make any sense for a character to sit at the bar for a week while the others go off risking their lives and still gain the same amount of experience as everyone else. Thirdly, it distances the player from the character. If the character gains experience even when the player isn’t running the character then what is the player needed for? Lastly, and most importantly, it cheapens the whole experience. When a character gains a level, by fighting monsters and solving puzzles, it is an accomplishment. When the character is simply given a level it trivializes the effort normally required to gain a level.

When Do You Hand Out Experience

Some DMs hand out experience at the end of every encounter and any other time experience is earned. Others wait till the characters return to town or even the end of the evening. If experience is given for treasure, it is usually given upon reaching a town.