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Wednesday 31 May 2017

Classic Rant: I Might Never Use the D&D XP System Again

Yeah, it sounds like a pretty radical statement, I know. But frankly, it's been coming a long time.

Those of you who bought my first ever RPG, "Forward... to Adventure!" way back when (or recently, I'm still making money from it!) would note that I there made use of a very straightforward xp system where you gained a point for every adventure completed, and went up in level after a progressively increasing number of points.

After several years, and after writing a couple of games that were not D&D-based, I had another opportunity to re-examine the issue with Arrows of Indra. Once again, I could choose to present a different way of handling XP, and make an even more radical statement in what was an OSR game.

I chickened out. I admit it. I had considered doing it, but in the end I decided to just cave and do an xp system that is pretty much the D&D-standard. I thought I was being sufficiently bold by using only an single XP table rather than making one for each class. Or at least, that's what I told myself.

I think I chickened out for a couple of reasons: first, it's the OSR. I was writing a game that was already unusual just for not being western fantasy, for having a strong real-world cultural parallel, for being a bit more "brainy" of a game setting than a lot of the OSR settings, for having a lot of weird names. I figured AoI wouldn't need another hit against it.

Second, as much as I already felt, at the time of writing AoI a few years back, that the XP system of standard D&D was suboptimal for a lot of cases, I wasn't really profoundly opposed to it yet. I mean, I was, at the very same time I was playtesting AoI, running a game of my Albion setting using the LotFP rules which includes the standard XP rules. I had at that time just come off running a forgotten realms campaign, and my Legion of Superheroes campaign which used the D20 system, ALL of which were using the standard XP rules. So even if I had written in different XP rules to Arrows, I wouldn't have exactly been practicing what I preached.

So what changed?

Well, first, the Albion game. We're still playing it. Only now the PCs are averaging around level 10, and while it was always sort of a little absurd that the PCs be looking around desperately for gold pieces in that kind of game in that kind of setting, it becomes increasingly absurd in a game where they're now all knights and lords and whatnot, and trying to scramble for thousands of gp in order to try to slowly work their way up to next level.
Even if the XP system was more turned toward giving xp-for-combat it wouldn't necessarily work well with the high-level Albion/Rose War setting. It has emphasized for me the pointlessness of that whole system.

Second, Dungeon Crawl Classics. They had the guts to drop the standard XP system and instead invent a system of xp-awards for navigating dangerous encounters. Applied liberally, this doesn't even necessarily mean defeating dangerous monsters. It can, if the GM so wishes, be applied to a much wider scope.

(and come on, you can't say this isn't good Old-School play, even without xp-for-gold; plus, somehow for some crazy reason my players still all want to get as many gp as they can lay their hands on)

OK, so that wasn't a tremendous revelation, but playing a lengthy DCC campaign (still ongoing) has served to show me just how much better it is this way. The thing is, the gold/monsters-for-xp setup works well for a number of D&D settings; it works perfectly for a couple, even. But there's going to be a lot of other stuff you can do with the D&D rules, a lot of other settings and campaigns, where having that system would be a hindrance. In a highly politicized campaign, where there's likely to be a lot of intrigue but relatively less combat or treasure-hunting, you can't really work with those rules in an effective way. In a travel-based campaign, you maybe can, but it means the PCs are only ever travelling from one source-of-xp to the next.
In short, in any game where money (or more specifically, the acquisition of treasure through combat) isn't the top priority for the PCs, the XP system runs into trouble. And even in a lot where it is a goal, but not the top goal.

The thing is, money and treasure and magic items is a reward in itself. Killing monsters is too, to a certain extent, in that it leads to treasure and likely to other rewards in-setting.
It's OK to pile on XP as a further reward on top of that, but there's no particular reason it has to be that way. So the thing about using a more generic system of XP reward means that it will work in any situation: It can still work for a campaign that's all about going into the dungeon in search of treasure, and it can work in the campaign which is all about fighting in a war, or protecting the Prince at court, or flying to the outer spheres, or whatever it is you're doing.

That's why in my upcoming Dark Albion: the Rose War book, my "Appendix P" house rules will include an xp system very similar to the one I started with in FtA!; one based on experience being granted by experiences, not treasure. So that if you save the kingdom and fight in several battles and get noticed by the High Pontifex, you aren't going to get less xp than if you'd broken into a bank or raided a merchant caravan. You can liberate your OSR game from any risk of metagaming, of players acting out of type for their character and ending up with money-grubbing knights or monks with vows of poverty scooping up every coin they can lay hands on just because their players know they need that to level up. WHATEVER are the priorities of your game, whatever your characters' experiences are, that's what they'll get experience points for.


(Originally Posted March 4, 2015)


  1. D&D just does mot have a good XP system for most games besides dungeon crawls and delves. It does a good job at that with XP awards for creatures/treasure but doesn't account for other elements of the game.

    I loved Earthdawn's system. Which was Legend Points (XP) for defeating opponents which included getting the LP award if you bypassed them through other means like social mechanics to remove them as an obstacle like bribing guards away. You bypassed the obstacle and have earned the creature's LP award even if you didn't slaughter them. You got LP for gaining magical treasure if you got some named pattern items. You have LP awards for heroic deeds (those awesome moments when...) and roleplaying. Finally you get a LP award for each game session played and a milestone award of a double LP for completing an entire adventure. So the Game Master had lots of ways to reward a group beyond simply killing opponents, gathering loot. In general, every session should have at least the opponent award and session or adventure award with the other ones optional (or only given when significant treasure is found).

    I also like games that give XP for cleverly bypassing or using traps to your advantage.

    Otherwise, I like simplicity, like Savage Worlds is an advancement every 5 Xp, so at 2-3 XP it should be a "level" of sorts every 2 sessions.I like awarding 3-4 XP at Legendary just to keep advancement at a 3 session rate though.

  2. The concept of Experience points is lame and the implementation is worse. I like your version in "Forward... to Adventure!" because of the simplicty.