Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Tao of XP

I don't always agree with Alexis over at the Tao of D&D, but he's smart, he does his homework, and he's often got a bad attitude. That's a combination that makes for very fun reading. Recently Alexis wrote a couple of very good posts on the subject of experience points for defeating monsters. I totally see what he's trying to achieve, but I happen to disagree with his goal of making monster XP more exactingly reflect the threat posed by the opposition.
100 X.P. per hit die is fine, until you consider that there are a lot of special attacks and defenses, differing levels of damage and so on that make that system unworkable. You’ve got to balance your X.P. by the use of breath weapons and magic resistance—and this has always created a problem for me.
That '100xp per HD' thing is a reference to the original for OD&D, taken from page 18 of Men & Magic. No doubt more people are familiar with the replacement system introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk and later adapted for both the Basic and Advanced lines. This later system gives a each monster a base flat amount for the creature's Hit Dice, bonuses for special abilities, and an additional amount per each hit point. A goblin is worth 5xp plus 1 point per each hp it has, for example.

One big advantages of the later system that a troll with the minimum 9 hit points is worth less Xp than one with the max 51hp. The other is that it addresses all of Alexis's concerns about creatures with many special powers end up being rated more than a monster of the same level who is nothing more than a pile of hit dice with a target painted on it. Personally, I reject both concerns and the entire Greyhawk system in favor of the 100xp per hit die rule, for three reasons.

First, and most importantly, 100xp per hit die is brain dead easy. I can do all the math in my head for parties of 6 characters or less and with a jot or two on some paper I can handle more. Also I can hand out monster XP as the session progresses without delaying the game with chart look-ups and such. And by the end of many runs I'm tired and my ability to do harder math becomes somewhat impaired. I hate doing a bunch of calculations at the end of the session, when my cognitive skills have waned.

Secondly, I like the additional monster XPs at low level. Most PCs are less than 25 dead orcs away from level two. Under the Greyhawk system those same PCs each need to kill 166 one hit die menaces. This change allows me to be a stingy bastard with the initial treasure if I want to. Or more importantly, it allows me to distribute the loot unevenly. If the bugbear twins have most of the treasure on dungeon level one but the PCs never get around to their lair, they still have a reasonable shot at making level 2. Or if the big gem is hidden someplace they never look, their hopes for a relatively quick trip to second level aren't completely dashed.

Finally, I would argue that the inherent unfairness of this method rewards smart players. This is where I think Alexis and I most obviously part ways. His method seems to be attempting to achieve one of those "realistic simulation" thingies. I'm running a game about beating up monsters and stealing their treasure. I know lots of players out there absolutely abhor metagaming like this:

Player 1: Let me get this straight. Plusses to hit dice always round up to the next level, so a gnoll and a hobgoblin are both worth 200 xp apiece, right?
DM: Correct.
Player 2 (flipping through pages): It says here both have the same treasure type.
DM: ...
Player 1: So we earn the same XP for kills and they got the same treasure, but the gnolls on average have 3.5 more hit points each. Forget the gnolls, let's go fight the hobgoblins!

But by my lights that's an example of smart player thinking and I want to reward that sort of thing. Of course this specific example may not work out the way the PCs hope, as in my campaign hobgoblins are much more likely to post guards, set traps outside their lair, fall back to defensive positions and such. But that's one of the hazards of making decisions based only on theoretical precepts and not actual on-the-ground intelligence.

Alexis has another concern about the Greyhawk XP system: big gronks are overrated. A giant with 8 hit dice and two ogres with 4 hit dice are not equivalent encounters. In many circumstances the ogres are more dangerous because they can make more attacks, are harder to backstab and the party can completely gang up on the giant. Alexis's proposed solution is to give gigantic monsters a lot more hit points. I'm not so sure about that. My gut tells me more attacks or higher damage or both would work better. Or leaving the system as is and letting the players 'metagame', picking on lone giants or dinosaurs because it's smart play.


  1. It's clever in character too, I think. It would make sense for intelligent adventurers to decide to go after hobgoblins, who they know to be weaker than gnolls but likely to have similar treasure hoards. Or for them to decide to gang up on a single giant rather than a band of ogres - because it's always better to concentrate on one foe rather than fight several.

    So it's not just a metagame thing.

  2. I'm gonna try this out in my game, too. You sold me, Jeff.

  3. I have got to admit, I just do not worry about experience points. In the last full on campaign I ran, it was rare for the subject to be brought up. It was enough for the players to know that they were gaining experience points and at some point character sheets would be updated.

    If I feel like calculating exact values I use the detailed method, otherwise I just award what seem like appropriate amounts. One of the advantages of experience running the game, I suppose.

  4. Anonymous11:42 AM

    I also like how Gamma World (1st edition) hands out xp for monsters:

    You get 1 xp per hp of the monsters killed.

    That's it!

    It's very simple, very stingy, and encourages players to run away, hide, and be sneaky. Think about it: a 20 HD badass mutant centipede the size of a T-rex will give the entire party an average of 70 xp. If there are 5 people in the party, that means a WHOPPING 14 xp each. Ummm....

    "Let's go steal some treasure, which is 1 xp for 1 gp."

  5. It's the uniformity of the OD&D xp system which I enjoy, and one of the last things I worry about in D&D is balance or misconceived notions of "fairness". It is what it is, 100 xp per HD, and I hand it out to the survivors at the end of each encounter.

    It rewards low level characters, who have a very high mortality rate to begin with. It also makes the players consider the risk/reward aspects of encounters since they downright crawl through experience levels once they hit 6th or 7th level and up.

  6. ligedog1:41 PM

    I may have to start doing this I find it pretty irritating to add up experience based on hp (per AD&D). I pretty much fudge it all these days. Also I like Shams idea of giving combat experience after every encounter.

  7. Wow, I haven't thought this much about math and things since ... well, since I was trying to crunch numbers for a 3.5 campaign.

    Going back to Alexis's original example, the 25 gnoll warparty would be worth 5000 XP. (25 * 2HD * 100). That is a lot of XP, even before the treasure, but I like it. Given that the average level of the party was 5th, 1000XP per party member (IIRC, there were 5) seems like a very good reward for facing a horde.

    It also accurately reflects that 2 Ogres at 4HD are probably going to be as problematic as an 8HD giant, and that would, as you point out, direct the players to look for the loners - and in the case where they have to face the two ogres, they'll get rewarded better than what they would get under later XP rewards (using OSRIC, figuring an ogre has an average of 17hp, 95+17 = 112XP for each ogre. Blah)

    Sometimes the simplest solution does get you to where you want to go. :)

  8. Why not just give 10,000 X.P. per combat (monsters + treasure) and have done with it?

  9. Alexis, I fail to see how your 10,000 xp per session proposal helps achieve my goals. I did run an AD&D campaign a few years back where all who survived the adventure were automatically advanced a level. That seemed to serve the needs of that particular campaign, but does not get me where I want to go with my present game.

  10. Jeff, I happened to read this same post and had almost the same reaction: "It ain't a simulation, and it don't happen in a vacuum; these are pulpy heroes involved in messy tactical combat." Not to mention, which, actually, hasn't been mentioned, the root of 100xp/lvl is the DUNGEON---everything gets tougher as you go down, in a perfectly contextually logical manner.

    The irony is, when I ran a game last weekend I put off giving out xp until I could "calculate it". Durh. Old habits... I hadn't thought about it quite that way, either, but you're dead on about it giving lower-level characters a chance to go up in level, given the usual paucity of treasure until you hit those higher HD beasties.

  11. Anonymous7:38 PM

    Woot! 100XP per hit die But what about special ailities? I was thinking of giving out 100XP per hit die for each special ability/or spell level able to cast. Checking my B/X monster sections seems to show "fairly" close correlation. Just asking cuz that the plan of my next campaign is Holmes+Meepo's Holmes Companion+ADD 1E MM (and xp not listed therein). Is that way off base? Is that how i so quickly became the king of Valusia?

    -King "Kill them all then take their loot" Kull

  12. Anonymous7:40 PM

    Sorry, that's HIGHEST spell level able to cast (per above).

  13. That sounds completely reasonable, but I go with straight HD myself.

  14. While this could be a very good system, the problem that I have always seen with this type of XP is that it doesn't leave much room for "ad-hoc" XP. If one desires to part from the rules as much as to differentiate the XP awarded from the XP suggested, why not create "story awards" or "objective awards" to get that extra control over XP? This way, it directly rewards intelligent play through rewards directly oriented to intelligent players. Instead of rewarding metagaming, which is questionable one way or another, or even rewarding "smart characters" who may or may not have metagaming players behind them, simply reward intelligent play (and not the characters or the players).

    This has always been my solution to a greater level of control over XP and treasure. Want to provide low treasure, but high XP? Fabricate an intricate storyline with critical objectives, reward XP from the solutions to noncombat encounters, but limit treasure to normal monsters, of which there are few in the overall adventure. Low XP but high treasure? Create a dungeon-delve of minion-level monsters with lots of treasure, but without any significant bonuses to XP.

    In my experience, its usually easier to add to the rules with house rules than attempt to modify the rules to suit your needs.