Monday, April 13, 2009

Experience Solved

I am in love with my new experience system.

Just to recap, as that was quite a few posts ago, I have started keeping track of experience according to the following principles:

A) 20 X.P. are awarded for every point of damage a character suffers.
B) 10 X.P. are awarded for every point of damage a character causes. This is subject to a few addendums: a magic spell which affects multiple persons gives experience to the caster only for the damage total of the spell; thus, a fireball which delivered 26 h.p. to four creatures would only award 260 x.p. to the caster, and only if one of the four creatures failed its saving throw. If all four creatures succeeded, the fireball would only give 130 x.p. to the caster. Other spells like burning hands, magic stone, magic missile, call lightning and so on work similarly. I am at the moment unsure of how to deal with certain death dealing spells such as telekinesis or cloudkill, which do not have a specific hit point motif. Thankfully, no member of my party has a spell of this level as of yet.
C) All damage caused against the party is totaled, multiplied by 20 and then distributed to those party members who were witnesses and who specifically took some kind of action in the events, even if that action failed to cause damage or the member was unharmed. This is in lieu of at least attempting to take an action, taking a risk, and thereby gaining experience from it.

The principle of this method is that experience is something that is gained more through suffering and failure than through success, and that it is a much more profound experience to endure damage than to inflict it.

The main problem is keeping track, as I am not used to doing more than saying, “take such and such damage” and then forgetting about it. Now I must keep records.

I have now been running this system for two months, for four runnings for my offline party and for my online party. No one has complained about a decrease in experience because of the change in system, nor has anyone suggested that experience has been higher lately.

Here is why I love it. The old system demanded a highly subjective declaration of the value of a creature’s special ability, which was then assigned a flat number based on the creature’s hit dice. It did not matter that the creature never got to use its particular ability before it died, or that the ability was pretty much useless against a party that were all armed with magic weapons or silver weapons or none of which were spellcasters (thus magic resistance is pretty much meaningless). It did not matter that a creature which surprises 4 in 6 was itself surprised, or that a cave bear never hit with both claws and got the opportunity to mawl. Nor did it matter that a dragon got lucky with its breath weapon or that players on this occasion consistently failed their saving throws against ghouls, whose X.P. bonus is rather paltry as they have only 2 hit dice. It was expected that the DM would make another subjective call in this situation and decide what experience to award in light of these instances.

Well, fuck subjectivity. Suddenly I find myself no longer having to be concerned about any special abilities a creature might have. I can even add or subtract special abilities at will, creating subspecies of each type of monster, without having to concern myself with what experience this might award due to the change. If a 20 hit point monster goes down without a fight (usually because I can’t seem to roll above a 4), the party gains 200 X.P. delivered to whoever gets lucky enough to hit first. If, on the other hand, the creature rolls astoundingly well, causing 20 damage to the party before dying, the party gains 1,000 X.P., with 400 of that distributed to everyone.

Combat experience freed from ad hoc formulas. If the creature doesn’t threaten you, you get squat.

The second thing I’ve noticed about this experience system is that the monster doesn’t have to die! If you do 12 damage to a hill giant, which then does 15 damage to you, and you think to yourself, “Fuck this noise, I’m getting out of here,” you still get 420 X.P., just for standing up to the creature for two rounds of combat. Tell me that doesn’t make sense. Tell me it wouldn’t be an eye-opener to stand toe to toe with a giant for the space of two rounds.

Plus the added bonus that the party doesn’t feel as if running away means it gets nothing, encouraging it to fight things out to the bitter end, however that turns out.

At this point I can’t see myself going back to the old way. The new way will definitely require some fine adjusting, as I discover monsters that don’t quite fit the system as well as spells I’ve already mentioned—but I believe I am on the right track. I should have done this years ago.


There's something else that occurs to me, that I meant to add to this post. It concerns magic users.

Typically, I have found that mages at low level run out of spells almost at once, but because of their low hit points they are hesitant to get into combat unless absolutely necessary. This is understandable: they have the same to hit table as thieves and zero-levels (poor) and no hit points. Often a mage will take armor as a spell, which will let them fight for a few rounds, but they typically miss and then fall back. I have always advocated that a low level mage should stock up on daggers and get comfortable standing back and throwing.

However, a side effect of this is that by 4th to 6th level, when it still happens that they will run out of spells, they will refuse still to mix it up--even though by now with a standard 15 constitution (hardly anyone running in my offline campaign has less than a 15 constitution) they have an average of 17 to 23 hit points. In other words, they can take a couple of solid hits with a sword, or a round against a vicious tiger, without dropping below zero. Altogether, I'd have to cause 30 damage in a round (given that death in my system occurs at -10 hp) to actually threaten them.

But they won't fight. "What's the point?" they'll ask. "I'm just getting damaged and I'm going to miss anyway"--since at 4th and 5th they're still on the crummy table. Usually, I'll try to explain to them that if they could kindly accept 20 damage from some monster in some round, that's 20 damage I'm not causing one of the fighters or clerics, thus enabling them to do their jobs. Come on, I tell mages, take a hit for the team.

Still they won't. It is inbred in mages to be cowards.

With this new system, however, if the mage insists on hanging around in the back, they might get some experience for getting a few spells off, but they're not going to get any bonuses for being damaged. This works for me in a mental kind of sense--if you as a person were afraid of being hit with a sword, and you perpetually hid from the possibility, then you would be ignorant of how to take the hit, or that the hit was not as bad as you thought (ie., it didn't kill you). The opposite of ignorance is experience.

So if a mage wants to advance in levels, the mage better be ready to get dirty.


  1. That's an interesting method. I might have to play with the idea in my own games.

    [verification word: kinglyme. Go me!]

  2. You should definitely change your nick to "King Lyme"

  3. Interesting aside here. In the previous combat where I did triple damage for 3 hp, if I had rolled an 8 instead and done 24 damage, Anshelm would have died.

    His hit points starting the battle with the slugs was 6; the total damage would have thus been 16. If Anshelm had been resurrected, the experience of dying would have been worth 320 X.P. to him.

    But if Tiberius had lived, and experienced Anshelm's death, then he would have received 320 X.P. as well (remember point 3 of my system). Normally, this would be divided among the party members, but Anshelm being dead would have given it all to Tiberius. And Tiberius would have become much more experienced on account of having his companion die...again, makes perfect sense to me. Keep in mind that, again, none of this experience requires that the monster be killed. Tiberius would have gained experience from the death of his friend, NOT from the butchery of the monster. Tiberius could have fled and still gained the experience. In fact, he would have a better chance of keeping the experience if he DID flee.

    Damn, I love this system.

  4. That sounds like a great system, and I won’t argue your logic, either. I wonder what my players would think—I think I may need to try it out for my next C&C game (with full credit to your & your fine blog).

    (Verfication word—“nofinglu”: How someone says “no thank you” with a mouth full of marbles.

  5. I'm really liking a lot of the ideas you put forward here, will make sure to check more often. Nice system for experience although I'm now hungry for a similar approach to social and emotional conflict (since I tend to use HP for conflicts across the table I believe that it could also work).


  6. Thank you for all the praise. Please note that the numbers 20 and 10 were pulled literally out of my head, and that they could easily be adjusted to fit your campaign.

  7. xp for causing damage? Hm, sounds interesting. I like the idea as it encourages boldness of actions rather than cowardly slinking. Nice. I'm going to bring this up to the group to see if they'd like to try it out.

  8. I don't care that this was 2 years ago - this is the best idea for D&D mechanics I have ever seen, and for all the reasons you gave. It's a damn shame I haven't found it taken up by anyone else online. I'd like to hear what progress you've made on it, Alexis, since 3 problems immediately reared up in playtesting: 1) XP rewards for successful encounters that didn't devolve into combat 2) How to reward spells like Web and Sleep, and 3) The look on my rogue and wizard's faces when I told them I would not only reward them for stepping in front of the sword, but insist on it. As far as #1, leveling does concern more than just combat ability (primarily combat, perhaps, but not exclusively). For #3, I tack off my usual course and argue for the gamey side - soaking up damage is not part of the mage class and anyone who does is, let's be honest, not playing the mage particularly well.

  9. There is still resource management in the game. If you can Web a bunch of monsters and then the party archers butcher them without taking any hits, the whole group gets a bunch of free XP without reducing their adventuring resources (HP, spells). This means that fight effectively didn't count toward the adventuring day, which means the group gets another encounter before running low on resources.

    If you're asking what special bonus the Web caster gets, and why he would choose Web instead of a damage-dealing spell so he gains XP, I guess that's a tradeoff in spell choice. You pick a "save or lose" spell like Web or Hold Person and it's Easy Mode but low XP gain. If you pick a damaging spell that is less effective, like Flaming Sphere or Melf's Acid Arrow, you are making things harder on yourself but you'll gain more XP.

    As for XP gain from taking damage, I would say you get it only in actually dangerous situations. No hitting each other over the head in town for bonus XP. I'd give it for trap damage in the dungeon though, or damage taken from an avalanche, etc.

    Being paralyzed wouldn't give XP. If you died from a Death Spell, you would get XP as if you'd taken exactly enough damage to kill you (so if you had 5 HP remaining, and die at -10, you would get XP for 15 HP damage).

    As for XP gain from dealing damage, you wouldn't get it from killing chickens in their coops (no 10th level butchers in town). I wouldn't give it for killing a helpless target (such as trapped in a Web or caught sleeping) though I would give it for Surprised opponents you attack.

    I really like this system. Consider it temporarily stolen while I try it out.

  10. As for giving XP for non-combat encounters, no XP is fine. After all, XP in D&D makes you better at killing stuff. Why should talking your way out of a situation make you better at killing stuff?

  11. I came to very similar conclusions a few years ago (wanted to blog about it, but seeing this is kind of intimidating...). It works like a charm for all the reasons you're giving. Works fine with traps, too. Do you still use this system? How did it evolve (if at all)?

  12. Sorry this is so much later than your original post, but I had a question about this system.

    How do you handle X.P. for hirelings. You mentioned how you handle X.P. for the loyal henchmen gained a 5+ levels, but not just random soldiery types the party wants to bring with them.

    I'm making my way through your archives, but haven't found this yet and I'm tooling around with options for my own game as they have a hireling or two.

    My idea currently is that they do not gain X.P. for damage done or received, but take a full share of the bonus X.P., but only receive half of it. My thought is that they're there and experiencing things, but they don't really care about these people they're with.

    But I don't know how I feel about it. Which brings me back to wondering how you handle it.

  13. I have tried it two different ways.

    Originally, I gave the hirelings a quarter share of all the bonus experience, plus their own of course. This works, but as my party is getting to be high level, there are a great many hirelings and it tends to water down the experience.

    Right now I'm trying an experiment where the hireling bonus is kept entirely separate from the players - the players don't share in the hireling damage and the hirelings don't share in the players. This isn't logical, but it seems to play better where experience distribution occurs. But I'm still testing it. I may go back to the first way.

  14. I'd be interested in what conclusion you finally decide on.

    Also, I reread where you talked about henchmen X.P. Do you treat henchmen as extra PCs in terms of X.P. gain with this system, or do you simply give them 1/2 of their leaders still?

    If you still give them 1/2, do you give them full X.P. if they are off adventuring on their own as a secondary adventuring party?

    Sorry again for pestering.

  15. Yes, you have it right. If the henchmen operates without main character, the hench becomes the main character and gets a full share of experience.

  16. Do you also give out experience for non-combat activities (gold collected, great deeds performed, etc)?

    If so, what for>

    If not, how does that work out in a player driven campaign in which the players are not particularly interested in combat, but rather taking over the town mustard trade (as mentioned in

  17. I give experience for booty (not just gold) gained in a situation where the character's lives are threatened; no threat, no experience. The treasure in those cases is it's own reward.

    No, no experience of any kind for bravery, great deeds, etc. Those, too, are their own reward. If it is a truly great deed, then the player obtains good will from the other players and NPCs, influence through status and power, all of which gives OPPORTUNITY for more combat and more acquisition.

  18. Very interesting. The standard 1xp per 1gp value of said booty?

    Would the player that is smuggling mustard into the city gain XP (based on the cargo value) for the activity (i.e. is it dangerous enough)?

  19. Yes, exactly. If the players only wanted to raise mustard, like any other farmer, then it probably wouldn't get dangerous - but the post is about controlling the mustard market, presenting dangers similar to any mafia-based drama. The experience would arise from overcoming those threats and ensuring their authority.

    REMEMBER, I give experience for damage done and damage received. If the players received damage trying to get their mustard into the city, or destroying the carts of someone else, that's experience.

    Oh, and yes, 1 gp = 1 x.p.

  20. Sorry to comment on such an old post, but I figured that this was the most appropriate place to bring this up. I've used this XP system for a few sessions now with satisfactory results - until the most recent one. The elven thief with 19 Dexterity took potshots at a bunch of zombies with a shortbow (2 shots per combat round, in the standard rules), and through this gained enough XP to jump from 2nd to 3rd level in a single session. Meanwhile, the elven fighter, through a combination of high Dexterity and good armor, was all but invulnerable to the zombies' attacks - and, due to poor luck with the dice, had difficulty hitting them as well. This meant that the fighter could neither hit nor be hit, and therefore got peanuts (even with the pooled XP for damage taken by the party, since there was very little of that).

    My main question is, what is the variable that needs to be adjusted? I realize that your combat system is a lot more "granular" than the one I use, so the rate of fire of weapons might differ. Would limiting all weapons to the melee-weapon rate of fire help curb this, or should the precise amounts of XP for dealing/taking damage be adjusted? (The other players were reluctant to get into the fray due to their mostly being 1st-level characters, with limited hit points and - at the time - no magical healing available.)

    Alternatively, should this stand as-is as an example of smart, effective play? After all, when confronted by the literal, lethal living dead, most people would opt to take potshots from a roof rather than wade into their midst swinging a scimitar.

  21. Yes, clearly the rate of fire (and accuracy) for your thief is ridiculously overpowered. As well, if the fighter is going to make himself super-safe with armor, he deserves not to receive experience, for even if he is in combat, he's not actually "risking" anything. If he doesn't hit to boot, then he deserves the little he gets.

    Finally, you're throwing targets at your players and not meaningful threats. If the zombies have no practical response to your 2nd level thief, then your thief has played the situation brilliantly and deserves to be 3rd level. The tactics used there were perfect, yes? Death to the enemy, no risk.

    If you want different results to the experience, then create monsters that can hit the armored turtle and move fast enough to threaten the thief. It isn't the experience system that failed you, it's the poor job you did of bringing a credible threat to the party.


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