Experience Points

I wouldn’t like you all to think that just because my weekly fourth edition campaign has started, and just because I’m up to my armpits in writing adventures and campaign logs, I will stop posting to this blog. My review of the Player’s Handbook 1 is still ongoing, and I have a fair amount to say about individual classes – especially wizard and clerics.

However, I thought it would be a good idea to devote a little time talking about experience points. This is of particular relevanceto those playing in my weekly game, as it might be worth knowing how I calculate and distribute XP.

I already have house rules for awarding experience pointsthat I have been using since the first third edition campaign back in 2000. This system seems to have worked reasonably well for third edition, but fourth edition forces me to consider a different way of doing things. If you don’t want to read the following and just want to find out how I will award XP in 4e then be my guest.

Levels and the World

In third edition one could assume that every creature and NPC in the world was built using the same mechanics as the player characters. From that assumption it was easy to invent demographics for the campaign world. The GM would know how many characters of a certain level there was in the campaign setting. If (as I decided) the country’s high wizard was only thirteenth level, then there couldn’t be many wizards more powerful than that.

In my campaigns up to this point I have always leaned toward a low level party. In Dungeons and Dragons of any edition, high level play has been broken. The PCs gain powers and abilities that seem to exclusively designed to circumvent roleplaying. The sort of games I like to run are generally complex mysteries in which the PCs are significantly less powerful than the foes they face. As the sessions progress the PCs begin to unravel the threads of the mystery/conspiracy/problem that surrounds them; they make powerful allies, quest for an edge against their enemies and finally succeed against insurmountable odds.

On the most part that sort of game isn’t possible at high levels. If a third edition party is sixteenth level, then the GM has to throw such ridiculously over-powered foes at them that the very presence of these foes brings the credibility of the entire campaign setting in to question. Such PCs can also teleport any distance (removing any interesting encounters while travelling), raise the dead with ridiculous ease (taking away any sense of danger) and use any number of divinations to discover secrets and clues without actually bothering to interact with any NPC. It is a completely different sort of game, and one that I am not terribly interested in running.

Fourth edition promises a solution to much of this. I like the idea that raising the dead isn’t so terribly easy if the GM doesn’t want it to be, that teleportation is curtailed and that powerful divinations do not have the teeth they once did. Rituals offers an intriguing mechanic for removing game breaking spells from everyday use. I am grateful that the third edition campaign I have been running since 2000 will be able to go beyond fourteenth level using the rules that do not create stupidly over-powered, campaign-breaking PCs.

What does this have to do with experience points? Well, in third edition I adopted a slow level advancement for the PCs. I wanted them to appreciate each level, and I wanted the chance to run numerous adventures at each level. So after about 140 sessions and eight years we only just have characters reaching fourteenth level. It seems a long time, but no-one’s complained so I guess everyone is reasonably happy with it.

Now, in third edition this made perfect sense. If the high wizard is 13th level then you shouldn’t be able to reach 13th level in just a couple of years of play. Fourth edition turns that on its head. Levels for NPCs are only really there to help GMs balance opponents in a fight. The level system can’t really be used to work out demographics any more. If this is the case, is there really anything holding the PCs back from ascending to levels as the rules suggest – or at least a lot more quickly than I would otherwise have given XP?

Or, even if you don’t agree with that and you think that levels can still be used as a baseline from which to judge the proficiency and achievements of all members of society, then shouldn’t those levels be re-examined? In earlier editions, 20th level was considered the extreme of adventurer advancement. Yes, you could go higher but you needed special rules for that. Unless you were playing a special one-off, levels 21+ were reserved for NPCs. In fourth edition, PCs are expected to advance to 30th level, and it’s levels 31+ that are reserved for NPCs. Should all levels be regraded? Should a 10th level PC in third edition becomes a 15th level PC in fourth edition?

Rate of advancement, and how an extrapolation of that rate affects the campaign world, defines how I award experience points. If the advancement is fast then, logically, there must be more high level characters in the world (aside from the PCs) than there otherwise would be. If there aren’t then who do the PCs fight? But if there are more high level NPCs, doesn’t that change the feel of the world? Iourn has always been a setting for predominantly low-level characters. If I follow the path laid down in Fourth Edition am I in danger of turning it into the Forgotten Realms?

The Current Solution

My current solution is to play it safe. Rather than risk breaking Iourn for the sake of some new rules, I have decided to adjudicate XP and levels pretty much as I always did. No NPChas had their level retroactively regraded. Twentieth level is still the upper level that adventurers could aspire to. PCs beyond that level would be almost unheard of in the history of the world.

I stress that this may not be the right decision. The fourth edition game is built around rapid level progression. On average, it’s 1st to 30th level in seventy five sessions. By keeping my slow advancement, I am declaring that most of my campaigns will take place in the Heroic tier. This rules out paragon paths, powers and monsters that were designed to be used – and look as though they wouldn’t be too game breaking if they were used. I’m looking at the situation with a firmly second and third edition perspective. Perhaps as I run more 4e that opinion will change.

So the house rules I linked to above are largely unchanged. As a result, I’ve decided to keep the third edition’s XPprogression. There’s no sense in recalculating the XP system to fit in with 4e’s experience table, when I already have a perfectly serviceable system. This does actually mean that the number of XP you require for 30th level is less than in the published rules. Third edition characters reached 30th level at 435,000 XP. Fourth edition characters require 1,000,000 XP. Although, third edition PCs still require more XP per level up to about level 23, so I can’t see my players benefiting from this too much.

What I’m going to do in the rest of this post is reiterate some of the fundamentals that underpinned the design of the Iourn setting, and how well those principles fit in fourth edition. I think the biggest difference is fourth edition’s loud proclamation that the PCs are exceptional –  that even at first level they are head and shoulders above mortal men. Well, I don’t think that should be the case. PCs should be vulnerable at first level, they should grow into their role as heroes – not be born with that birthright.

Unfortunately, fourth edition has ramped up the power of first level characters to the degree that they don’t feel normal any more. They feel like heroes from the get-go. How do you get around that? Down-powering first level causes all sort of problems. I could create a Level 0 and start all adventurers at -500 XP, but that doesn’t feel quite right. One of the principles I have followed throughout my GMing career is that first level is not the most common level in society. Your average soldier is not going to be first level, I don’t care what the rules say. And in that is the answer: if Mohammed won’t go to the mountain…


So, having said that you can’t measure NPCs by their levels, let’s do just that. Let’s break down society by level and analyse how many individuals of each level we are likely to find. I’ve done this exercise before on the Iourn site, but that was eight years ago – I think it needs a little updating. This process helps to put the PCs in context, and helps the players realise how important their PC is in the grand scheme of things.

Levels 1-2: Characters of this level are usually very young. These are people just starting on their careers, who view the world through inexperienced eyes and with a common degree of naïvety. Children, apprentices, serfs, young labourers and beginning adventurers will be of these levels. By the time a character has pulled himself out of puberty then he has usually left level two behind. Older characters of levels 1-2 are less common, but not unheard of. Such characters may just take longer to learn their trade (such as wizards), or they might have led a generally sedentary and directionless life. Accepting that most characters of these levels are young, and accepting the high mortality rate for the young in mediaeval society, I think we can see that a large percentage of the population will be of levels 1-2. The figure might be as a high as a third. However, the main reason for an individual not reaching level 3 is that he simply didn’t live that long.

Levels 3-5: Most adventurers who are not killed on their first quest will reach these levels eventually, although a minority will progress any higher. These levels represent the achievement of competence. Characters of these levels are no longer amateurs, and have achieved enough to gain the respect of their peers. They would lack the notoriety of higher level individuals, but they should still be satisfied by their accomplishments. They may be talented individuals who lack the will, the opportunity to progress any further. Career soldiers and your average orc barbarian would be of these levels. Those who pursue a mundane live: farmers, brewers, scribes would seldom be higher than level five. Although anything is possible, of course.

Levels 6-8: This is where we begin to separate the men from the boys. Anyone who reaches sixth level is exceptional. By this time, characters have access to the major signature abilities of their class. In towns and villages, characters such as these would find it impossible to remain anonymous. In large cities they might still be lost. Teachers and mentors are probably drawn from these levels. High priests of parishes, or smaller urban centres will be of these levels.

Levels 9-12: Now things are beginning to get silly. Transcending the heroic for the paragon tier is not for everyone. Adventurers of these levels have a degree of fame (or infamy) that they cannot easily hide. Characters of these levels are head and shoulders above most other people in society. They are warchiefs and respected leaders. They might rise to positions of power within churches or governments. Some may be more visceral and decide to remain on the ‘front line’ becoming the sort of adventurers that even monarchs go to in a crisis.

Levels 13-15: By these levels, characters are of such importance that they probably find themselves within the ruling elite. The powers and abilities of characters of these levels seem god-like to those of the low heroic levels. The governing priests of the smaller religions, famous generals and kings may be of these levels. When an overwhelming force is powerful enough to threaten an entire country, then these are the characters that you would summon.

Levels 16-20: Only a handful of characters would ever reach this degree of proficiency in their chosen field. Race is little advantage to these characters. Determination, opportunity and courage are the commodities that raise characters above the pack – not longevity. The high priests of major religions, the famous barbarian who cleaves his way through an army to rescue his kidnapped wife, the retired wizard who lives in that funny tower on the edge of the village… only the greatest heroes get this far. These are individuals whose responsibility and fame is worldwide, and even beyond.

Levels 21-23: The epic tier is a far-off glittering kingdom to most characters. Less than one in a million will reach this degree of personal power. These are individuals who have transcended the petty concerns of worldly politics – they see a broader, grander picture. They commonly travel to other worlds, and act in mysterious ways putting complicated long term plans into practice. Immortal races who manage to get this far have the advantage over their mortal kin, but by the time one reaches this degree of power death is put another small hurdle to overcome.

Levels 24-30: Perhaps once in a generation will a character enter the upper levels of epic advancement. For an entire adventuring party to do so requires an alignment of forces that beggars comprehension. Characters fated to reach this level will find themselves singled out for the greatest and most incredible adventures of their age – quests that only they have the power, the wit and the experience to achieve. Their whims and their actions an change the world, which is largely the point.

Levels 31+:Conventional advancement is said to end at level 30. Creatures of these levels are gods, or close to it. They wield powers that even make epic characters quake in their boots. Can a mortal go from being a first level pig-poker all the way to the head of their own pantheon, worshipped on a daliybasis by the scum that they used to be? There’s a question.

How I Award XP

I award experience for four things: roleplaying, good ideas, using class abilities and story goals. The amount of XP awarded for the first three is calculated to a vague formula, the amount awarded for story goals is mutable depending on how quickly I want the campaign to advance. Therefore, the first step in working out the extent of the XP available is to decide how quickly I want the characters to gain levels.

The current Cradlelands campaign will last thirty sessions. It is surprisingly well planned. Over the course of those sessions I want the PCs to have the potential to reach level eight; which is 28,000 XP using the third edition progression. As it happens, the average roleplaying + good ideas + class related XP for thirty sessions is about 14,000 XP. If I’m giving away 14,000 XP for those elements over thirty sessions, and I want each PC to have an experience total of 28,000 by the end of the campaign, then I must award 14,000 XP in story goals to each player character. Obviously, this award doesn’t need to be the same for each session, as long as it works out at about 14,000 over all thirty sessions.

Now, the amount doled out for roleplaying, idea and class XP can vary for each PC. There is the potential for players to be a little ahead or a little behind each other. By the end of session thirty some players may have been eighth level for a couple of sessions, some may still be seventh level. Hopefully, no-one will be sixth level. Here is a break down and explanation of the XP awards.

Roleplaying XP

Between sessions when I sit down to work out the roleplaying award, I ask myself the following questions: Did you play your PC in character? Did you use out of game knowledge to gain a game related advantage? How much did you participate in the session? Did you make a valuable contribution to the plot? Did you make the game more enjoyable for the other players? Was the session simply more entertaining because you were in it?

So it’s not strictly a roleplaying award. You don’t have to be a great actor to get some experience points here, although being a great actor would certainly help. I would look to award somewhere between 100 XP and 300 XP to each PC per session – where 100 XP is the player sitting in the corner with his arms folded who only interacts with other players when he rolls a dice, and 300 XP is Kenneth Brannagh playing Hamlet. On average, I would expect the award to be about 200 XP per session.

You only gain Roleplaying XP if you turn up to a session.

Good Ideas XP

A player who works out a crucial piece of the plot, or comes up with a novel and unexpected solution to a problem deserves an award. This idea need not necessarily be voiced in character (that’s what the roleplaying award is for). Each good idea you come up with in a session is worth 50 XP. There’s no limit to the number of good ideas you can have, but I find most player’s average about one good idea per session.

You only gain Good Ideas XP if you turn up for a session.

Class Related

This is a hang-over from second edition, but I believe that if you are going to advance and become better in your class then you really should be using your class abilities. In third edition, I found it more difficult to award class XP, as it was always dependent upon the class you were working towards (which could be anything in the multiclass free-for-all that third edition became). Fourth edition gives me a far easier yardstick to judge class related activity: your powers.

Every time you use a Encounter, Daily or Utility power you get 50 XP. I am the arbiter of how much experience you can get from this per session, and I have an upper ceiling of the amount of experience I am prepared to dole out for this practice. So using the same encounter power sixty times in a session is not likely to get you 3000 XP.

The logic here is that most encounter, daily and utility powers can only be used in specific situations, and if you have managed to get yourself in that specific situation then you are using your class abilities. I suspect that the average XP awarded for this will increase as your characters gain levels and have access to more of these powers. This method formalises what was originally a rather unscientific process. We’ll see how it plays out.

You only gain Class Related XP if you turn up for the session.

Story Goals XP

The bulk of the XP you gain – usually more than half, and an increasing proportion at higher levels – will come from story goals. As I stated above, I look at the big picture of where I want the PCs to be at the end of the campaign, and then work out the story goal XP accordingly. I then distribute that XP among the planned adventures accordingly. There may be slightly more XP available than the maths would suggest, because I assume that you’ll miss some things along the road.

Each adventure is divided into a series of goals. For example, the first goal in the Cradlelands campaign was Reach the Island with Drowning. If you achieve the goal then you get the XP, and the XP is divided between all the members of the party. You don’t get experience for fighting and killing foes. You might decide that the only way to achieve a story goal is through combat, but that’s entirely incidental. Those of you who have played in enough of my games know that there is usually a way to succeed without drawing swords – which is often essential if your enemies are significantly more powerful than you are.

I decide on some story goals when I write the campaign overview, and again when I write the adventures. However, about half the goals in the campaign will be generated from the character backgrounds submitted by the players. If you write in your character background that the love of your character’s life mysterious disappeared, and you have been walking the land for the last seven seasons looking for her (yes: I’m talking about you, Steve) then you can be sure that it’s going to come up in the campaign eventually. And you can rest assured there will be XP to be had from it. As the campaign progresses, well-played characters continue to generate sub-plots and goals. These “quests” are also factored in.

XP awards for story goals are awarded to all players regardless of whether they turned up to the session or not. Sometimes we simply can’t make the game, we all have real lives (well, most of us), and they occasionally get in the way. If I didn’t continue to award story XP to everyone, then some players might be in danger of falling too far behind in terms of levels, and that is fatal in fourth edition.


Fourth edition uses experience points to balance encounters. An average encounter for first level characters should be about 100 XP × The number of PCs. That would be 700 XP  for the Cradlelands campaign. That 700 XP is the budget I use to ‘buy’ monsters from the Monster Manual. All monsters have an experience point value, if I add them up they could come to about 700 XP. If I want to make a hard encounter, I could spend up to 1400 XP but I must be careful that I don’t include any monsters that are greater than sixth level otherwise I face the prospect of wiping you out.

The system for building encounters is robust and extremely easy to use. I fully intend to use it to balance encounters where I expect you to fight. But I won’t use it as a means to calculate experience points. I don’t think that XP should be dependent upon this sort of activity. The new DMG has rules for awarding quest XP, and that is approaching the sort of system I would want to use.

Non-combat encounters (skill challenges) are the same thing. Although, the jury is out on whether I would ever use skill challenges in the game, I certainly wouldn’t award experience points for them.

In Conclusion

You now know how I award XP. I have tried to make the process as transparent as possible. Please appreciate that I’m not running a game that necessarily forces you into combat. Roleplaying and interaction with NPCs is just as likely to net you the desired reward.

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