Managing and Judging Experience Points

Experience is a touchy thing. One in which each DM has their own system. I know back in my blasphemous days of ignoring any rule that required bookkeeping or math; we completely ignored the XP system. Anybody who played that day and didn’t croak gained a level, which was horrible now that I look back on it. We always started our characters at fifth level, but I don’t think that we played them very long, and never up to super high levels. I believe that I’ve only played one character that was above tenth level, but don’t quote me on that.

XP is a nice method of improving a character slowly. Unlike videogames, where a character gains levels really quickly, in D&D the characters are meant to be played long term. A good character can keep a player entertained for many many years, and the harder it is to build the character up, the more awesome the character becomes. I mean, who out there in computerland hasn’t sat back with fellow geeks and talked about the exploits of a few of their favorite characters? Is it dorky? YES! But it is still fun, and that is why we do it.

From 1st to 5th doesn’t take very long, however when you get up in levels it should take several games, and at super high levels it can take months of dedicated game play to gain a single level. This is offset by the fact that the game must change constantly. A DM has to be on his toes, and it can be very difficult to judge how much to throw at the adventurers that isn’t overly difficult, but isn’t too easy either. We get this through experience ourselves, and the best way to get this experience is by making mistakes until we get a feel for it.

Besides supplying challenging encounters, we must develop a method of rewarding the players. Now I’m not saying that players are greedy cusses always looking out for a cheap way to get a buck, but players are greedy cusses who are always looking out for a cheap way to get a buck. If they find out what you are rewarding for, and what you aren’t, then they will just focus on the almighty XP and toss all of the other stuff right out the window!

It is for this reason that we should keep our system of XP giving as mysterious as possible. While it is easier to just call out the XP gained from encounters once a fight is over, this can unfortunately program the players to think that Combat is the name of the game, and we really don’t want to reward this behavior. Just because a player kills a goblin, doesn’t mean that he automatically gets experience points for it. In fact, he may be docked! If the goblin has some information in his head which the party could had used, then this can be punishing enough, however if the goblin had no chance then the player who did it was just being a bully. This encounter will not only grant no XP, but ruin the PCs reputation as well. Once it gets out that the party is a bunch of mad bloodthirsty clouts, ain’t nobody going to parley with them, and may take their treasure and run if word gets out that the party is coming their way.

But I think that I am getting too far ahead of myself. The deal here is XP and how we judge dishing it out.


We need a way to record what everybody is earning, and it must be fast and accurate at the same time. What I usually do is keep a full sheet of paper next to me at all times. I write down all of the players names, and divide off most of the paper and use that for group XP.

For group XP I write down the number of XP earned per encounter, and I add it all up at the end of the game. Now if someone is late for a session, or made a surprise visit and decides that they want in on the game after you’ve been playing a while, then you need to draw a new section, this will reflect the new Group XP, because he shouldn’t have access to the bank which the others have collected.

Next to the players names, I tend to just record personal XP and number of times that they cast spells or use abilities or what have you. It is also helpful to record all of the hitdice of the monsters that they have defeated. This will be used for rewarding fighters.


Monsters are the #1 source of XP, and the players know it. Keep a sheet of paper close by to add up all of the XP earned from monsters, and don’t give it out until the end of the session, unless somebody is super heroic and can somehow defeat a monster single-handedly with no assist what-so-ever from anybody else. In cases like this it is best to just give them the XP that they had earned immediately.

Like I said above, not all monster encounters should bare fruit. Only grant XP for monsters that actually challenged them. If you think that the combat was too one sided then don’t give them credit for it. XP is supposed to be earned, not just handed out like beads at a parade.


Besides slaying monsters and finding loot, part of the game is discovering where to find the loot. They do this by discovering what their objectives are, and by completing them. Part of our prep should be locating the objectives and assigning an XP value to them. If a party isn’t completing objectives, or not into this aspect of the game, we can use these XP to let them know that they are being rewarded for discovering ways of completing them. Some objectives can be completed by the idea of one player, go ahead and call out the XP to him for figuring out a clue or devising a plan and let him, and the rest of the table, know what he is being rewarded for. If this isn’t a problem, then just jot down the value on a scrap piece of paper.

Objectives should be worth between 100-500 xp. The higher the level the players have, the more objectives that they’ll probably need to complete. Some objectives will be known, while others will be a secret. Say, saving a prisoner from a dungeon can grant big XP, maybe 10,000 for a noble who had gone missing.

Be inventive, and if you think that the party will gain something from it, go ahead and grant this XP immediately.


Players also earn XP on an individual basis for using their skills in an effective manner. Thieves gain XP from using their abilities, and also earn 1 xp per every 2 gold pieces earned. Now this isn’t to say that every time a thief climbs a wall that he gets 100 xp, only if he uses this skill to complete some kind of objective. A thief who picks a pocket just for the gold gets nothing, however if he knows that a guard has a key and he is able to lift the key from him, then he qualifies for the XP bonus.

Wizards get XP for casting spells, learning spells, and creating magical items. Clerics are much the same, with the exception that they get even more XP if the spell that they cast or the ability that they use is beneficial to their faith. This aspect could stand to be further explored, but that will have to be later.

Fighters can be kind of tough, and require a bit more bookwork. They get XP per Hit Die of the creatures that they defeat. For this reason we record all of the hitdice.

Class Action XP should always be kept secret and tallied up at the end of the game.


A good roleplayer should be rewarded. If a player really enjoys his character, he will be more then just an adventurer, but will have dreams and aspirations that are wider then just completing group objectives. If a player has set out some personal objectives, and he achieves them, he should be rewarded.

These kinds of objectives are completely up to the DM to determine their value. The harder something is to obtain, the higher the value should be. If it requires money, perhaps the suggestion for rewarding thieves (1xp per 2 gp) is sufficient?


Only thieves gain XP from money, at least in core rules. Now, the treasure listed in the DMG is all given an XP value, this is for constructing the item, and I also use it for NPCs. If an intelligent monster has magical items, I add the value to the monsters XP value, and it may (on my judgment) cause him to be a higher level then usual. I assume that the badguy was butch enough to acquire the item, thus he should be of a level that could survive the risk of obtaining it. No 0th level brigand will have a +4 Long Sword, he should be of a much higher level, else he is a poser with a dangerous toy, but then we go more into the story aspect of the game.

It is your judgment if you wish to reward XP for treasure, but me personally, I don’t do it. I have been pondering with allowing the players to purchase XP with the gold that they have earned; maybe 5gp to 1XP, but I honestly have never play-tested this theory, and I wouldn’t want to reward anybody for the same thing twice. This money would be spent to get training from a higher leveled, classed NPC, if there is one available.

Money and wealth has its own rewards, at least in my opinion. A rich party can use their money to buy specialty items and social standings, why folks feel this need to turn it into XP is beyond me.


This stuff is completely objective and open to interpretation. Mainly this is used to reward players for working on different areas, or for being a good player socially. If the player has a fantastic role-playing session that accomplishes a goal, give him points! If the party can talk their way out of a problem, rather then deciding it through combat, go ahead and give them all of the points for the enemy, plus a bonus. If the party did something quietly and preserved all of the lives in the place, as well as their own, give them a bonus. But Player points are more then that. It is also about behavior. If everybody at the table is being rude and obnoxious, reward all the persons who is not acting like this. If a player makes you laugh, go ahead and give him a small bonus. If you can think it, then reward it. A comparable bonus point is between 10-1,000xp depending on the situation. These are private points that you can either give out loudly or quietly depending on what you are rewarding. If a rules-lawyer went an entire session without second-guessing your work, grant him 200xp and let him know why he got the bonus, this might help him keep his opinion to himself.


At the end of the session we tally up all of the points earned as a group and divide the number by double the players that you just ran. Thus if you have 4 players, you would divide the total points by 8. This is a bonus for surviving the game, granted if a player died during the adventure he does not get any of this bonus.

At this time you add up the entire group XP and divide it up evenly between the party. Then you add up all of the private awards which you haven’t awarded yet, and add that to the overall score. It is best to just give each player what he or she has earned at the end of the session. I usually have them add their 10% bonus themselves if they qualify for such because of a high ability score someplace.


At low levels we need to be careful not to go crazy with the XP. A character can only gain 1 level per adventure, if you are playing with the core rules then all of the points above this are lost and they don’t gain any XP until they have had a chance to level up their characters. It is up to the DM to decide how level ups are handled, if they are using the training rules, then the players would need to surface and find a teacher to help him or her upgrade their abilities. I know that I only force training when a character gains a new Proficiency, and for non-warriors who improve their THAC0. All other stuff I assume can be learned out on the field, but the only time that I allow leveling up is at the end of the session. I find that this works best as a cool down. Leveling up can take some bookwork and I don’t want that to distract them from the game. This also gives them something to look forward to next game, which my player’s have always been verbally appreciative of. Whatever your system is, make sure that it works for you. If you are a new DM then keep it simple until you got that aspect of the game memorized, and then you can start keeping more detailed notes about rewarding your players.

I am also not above giving out homework at the end of a session. I’ll ask for histories, or something and grant XP for anybody who comes back on the next session with some of the information that I was looking for.

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Zzarchov said...

I give XP for many sources, but make it open. You gain some for killing, more for capturing villains (or routing most minions). You gain XP for travelling and for reaching new locales.

This is offset that levels are only one axis of powers, going after just XP may not make you as powerful as also going for new spells, maneuvers or piety.

More detailed info:

Wickedmurph said...

I think making xp this detailed is a considerable drain on GM time. I've always liked the comparatively simple white wolf system. 1 for participation, 1 for achieving goal, 1 for good role-playing, 1 for the best role-playing. Aaand that's pretty much it. Easy to remember, and not much fiddly record keeping.

I'm doing something very similar in my 4e game, in about 50-100 xp increments.

Brooze the Bear said...

I am a traditionalist when it coems to XP:
Points for mosters killed and the loot equal to gp.

Clerics get XP equal to HP healed.
Thieves get XP equal to the value of he treasure taken if their thieves' skills capture it.

There should be an XP point bonus for making crtical difference in accomplishing goals of the adventure, acts of valor and heroism, finding traps and secret doors, but I haven't fifgured out that part of the XP system yet.

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