Saturday, January 4, 2020

5E's Biggest Fail: Experience and Advancement. (And a Poll)

Character advancement has been an underlying objective in Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning.  The players maneuver their characters on adventures, they accumulate "experience points", and the characters gain levels and become more powerful.  It's a strong incentive model and a big part of D&D's enduring appeal.  Regardless of the "story" elements present in any individual campaign, character advancement is a default goal that informs the action at the table.  Unfortunately, the experience system is the weakest part of Fifth Edition and my least favorite thing in the new edition.

Traditional D&D awarded experience points primarily for treasure, with a fraction of the experience awarded for defeating monsters.  Depending on the edition, 75% or 80% of the player's experience was gained by recovering treasure.  "Treasure as XP" had profound implications for how players and referees approached old school D&D games.  Dungeon Masters established their campaigns to involve significant exploration, with dungeons, lairs, and hex crawls as popular structures for organizing campaign information and presenting challenges to the players.  (We use the term sandbox play to describe this overall method of presenting a ready-made setting seeded with adventure opportunities; in the video game realm I've seen the term "open world").

The sandbox approach has implications for the players.  Information is their currency to proactively plan their adventures, balancing the perceived risk and reward and making choices regarding which opportunities to pursue.  As players cleared lairs and dungeons, their characters earn experience points by successfully returning to town with treasure.  Treasure is an easy-to-use abstraction for keeping score, since it it's assumed the players explored, overcame traps, used their magic, and outsmarted or defeated monsters through combat or stealth in order to win the day.  Treasure provides transparency that enables player planning.  D&D is a game, after all.

Fast forward to 5E.  I've seen it affectionately called a "nostalgia edition", but the experience system actually hinders the type of game play I described.  By the book, 5E only incentives players to fight and kill monsters, gaining experience solely through combat.  Whereas old school D&D rewarded smart play through exploration and planning, 5E rewards killing everything in sight. Sneaking, stealth, and carefully avoiding fights is actively discouraged by the advancement system.  It is not generally in the player's interest to avoid combats.  Why is "kill them all, let god sort them out" style of gaming the default?

Alternatively, many referees have adopted an arbitrary approach called "milestone experience" (and since I've been running some of the official hardcover adventures in Adventurer's League, I've become a reluctant co-conspirator in the milestone travesty).  Milestone experience is somewhere between a "participation award" for showing up, and outright manipulation - do what I want you to do, little puppets, and I'll give you your cookie.

The reason this topic is important is I'm trying to figure out how I want to move forward with developing homebrew adventures in the land of the 5th.  The lure of returning to proper OSR games is strong.  But 5E is the game system my local players enjoy; they play it at conventions, they own the books, they like the powerful PC's and the unusual races.  There's a crazy number of people that play at the local Adventurer's League nights in the area.  I don't know if my readers are OSR people or 5E people or somewhere in between, but the popularity of "New Dungeons & Dragons" is through the roof.  These are all good reasons to stay the course and figure out how to bend, fold, and mutilate 5E to support a more satisfying play experience.  I honestly don't think of myself as one of those "get off my lawn damn kids" grognard types, clinging to the old ways like a reactionary 1950's apologist, but maybe there is an actual generational thing at work regarding my antipathy towards storytelling and milestones - newer gamers may not mind being told what to do and how to conform to someone else's plan.

I've done some poking around, it doesn't look like any internet brethren have made a good way to replicate treasure as experience points and implemented an old school style sandbox with the 5E; there are some tries.  I believe the vitriol driving this screed is that I'm not terribly interested in rewriting the experience system; the game as written should support the styles of play that made D&D amazing.  Complaining and then claiming to be too lazy to do anything about is not a good look, granted.  I own my turpitude.

Of the 10 or so published adventures, a few of them do present open worlds built on a hex crawl or megadungeon premise.  They expect the players to kill everything in sight.  For instance, Dungeon of the Mad Mage provides just enough experience for a party of four (four!) to advance if they clear the entire level.  Picture a group of "heroes" tromping through the dungeon corridors like The Terminator, blasting monsters from behind.  Suffer not an orc to live.  Wipe them out, all of them.  Exterminate.

Nonetheless, in the next post I'll take a look at the 5E sandbox books (Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and discuss their approaches to XP.  Maybe it's not as bleak as I'm presenting and I need to embrace the ultraviolence.  I've been using an unofficial XP system for my Chult game called "Three Pillars" (from Unearthed Arcana), so I'll talk about how that's been going, too.

In the meantime, I am curious - if you stop by the blog from time to time, do you play 5E or older versions of The Game?  I've posted a poll on the right - let me know!


  1. As I have not ever cracked open a 5th ed book, maybe my question is ridiculous from the start. But, if you use the older editions tables to place treasure for a 5th ed module, and go back to gold for xp, doesn't that work?

  2. Have you considered adopting the 1e training rules for advancing? While there would still be an incentive to kill monsters, there might be entire sessions based solely around trying to find enough cash to get to the next level. It also puts a cap on how high a group can go given a particular location based on the highest level NPC who lives there. This would give incentive to explore the world to find where they can train up to the next level.

  3. Wish the poll had multiple choice. I play both old school (b/x) and 5e.

  4. And... I agree about the xp in 5e. I ended up using milestone when I ran Curse of Strahd awhile back, just because it ended up being a better way for my players than just monster killing.

  5. As someone who's ran a campaign using gold for XP in 5e, I'd advise against using the classic rule of 1 GP = 1 XP. There are two reasons for this: one, the advancement table is deliberately wonky, as WoTC have designed some levels to take a only a session or two, while others take longer (AngryGM has a great breakdown of this, scroll down to the "How much? How Fast? How Far? section here: The other reason is that there's not much to spend money on in default 5e. So scarcity is okay, and maybe even to be desired, otherwise players might not get the point of collecting treasure to begin with.

    I've experimented with different ratios of gold to XP, and there's nothing that really fits well for both low and high levels. Currently thinking that the best way to do it is to simply put a flat XP reward on each treasure item (or coin hoard) recovered, based on the adventure's level. Not as granular as the classic system of course, but easy to implement: just move all the XP awards players would be awarded for a dungeon's monsters over to the treasure.

  6. I had to vote 5th edition in the poll.
    I don't like it, but our GM moved to 5e, I think, to attract new Players... to follow the trends. But it feels the same as when he ran B/X and 3.5/Pathfinder. He uses the 'milestone' XP thing... which... well, I'm not one who ever cares much about mechanical character progression.
    Really, what I think matters, is the mindset of the other people at the table... we've got one guy who is solidly in the 'character build' zone, one guy who barely looks up from his phone, and other 3 of us are barely aware of the rules. We have gone months with very little combat or dice rolling, so that tends to be how the game plays... much more exploration and conversation, less picking fights or chasing after XP.

  7. I added money=xp into my Pathfinder game, and it seems to work fine. A few tweaks that kind of made it possible:

    -i use a silver standard so 1sp=1xp
    -the adventures take place on the edge of civilization. Everything is expensive as fuck and hard to get. (I have been using the standard prices IN GOLD PIECES for many items. Yes, that means most basic equipment is 10x the standard price!!)
    -using the 'slow' xp progression table.
    -Reducing the xp awarded for monsters. I don't think I have cut this down enough though, the party is still advancing really fast.

    Other than my mangling of the economic system which does require a lot of care, aswe constantly stumble over knock-on effects of the changes, this has been pretty easy to manage.

  8. An option we use in ZED goes back to the way Arneson and the Twin Cities gamers used to do things in the early '70's - namely prioritizing magic items as the source for XP. Basically XP for monster kills = their HP and you get only 10% XP for gold but full XP for magic. Not sure how that would work for 5e, but it seems like you might want to consider it.

  9. So far, I like the Dungeon Crawl Classics experience point system. Experience is earned based on the relative danger/difficulty of the encounter survived, be it combat, trap, or puzzle. You needn't necessarily fight the monster, but survive an encounter with it or overcome it some way (as by trickery).

  10. You get the same XP in 5E for overcoming monsters/NPCs by negotiating past them, causing them to flee or surrender, or allying with them.

  11. 5e and I use milestone levelling. As a lot of what my characters are pursuing is personal goals, not treasure (find my lost mother, find out why I became an 'Alloyed' (homebrew Warforged) or rescue my tribe from a false god) it feels more dramatic for me to simply say after a huge finale when they scrape back alive...."and level up next week." Purely logistically it also means levelling always happens between sessions so players have plenty of time to think of what options they want to pursue.

    I did run a game with treasure-as-level called The Gloom which was more of a sandbox.
    That worked well because I simply had players tracking that end of things, and you has to 'get home' to level up, avoiding mid-session levelling.

    I play 5e because it pleases everyone. Your min-max type player can pursue strong options and work on that aspect of their character without the tedious way 3e required a PhD in D&D to be competent. It's easy to run on the fly and their publishing new content all the time - I dig that. I've also played it a hell of a lot more so I find DMing it pretty trivial even if I do occasionally say 'bloodied' or 'minor action'.

  12. Currently I'm playing a sort B/X hack, but I have previously run 3 fifth edition campaigns as the DM, all of them using spent gold for XP, for the same reasons you have explained. I quite like 5e but I totally don't like their adventures, even if there are some good ideas.


  14. I've got a 1e game going and playing. Also played some 0D&D. Wouldn't play 5e; the scars of 4e are too deep and earned. To think I missed 3.0 and 3.5 in their prime, I never would have made it, never had made it.

  15. 5e's support for non-murder-based XP awards might be called half-hearted, but it's definitely there. The DMG describes XP awards for defeating monsters "typically by killing, routing, or capturing them". And, more significantly, there's this passage:

    "You decide whether to award experience to characters for overcoming challenges outside combat. If the adventurers complete a tense negotiation with a baron, forge a trade agreement with a clan of surly dwarves, or successfully navigate the Chasm of Doom, you might decide that they deserve an XP reward. As a starting point, use the rules for building combat encounters in chapter 3 to gauge the difficulty of the challenge. Then award the characters XP as if it had been a combat encounter of the same difficulty, but only if the encounter involved a meaningful risk of failure."

    So, that feels like a GRUDGING inclusion, to me, but it's definitely as legit as milestone XP. The real question, I think, is how the hell you would actually compare those CR-based difficulty tiers to things without CRs. I wouldn't say that's hard to make a ruling on; it's just glaringly unexplained by the text.

  16. 5E "only incentives players to fight and kill monsters, gaining experience solely through combat."?

    That's nowhere in the books.

    Both the DMG and the MM say it's often or usually the case, but that monster XP will be rewarded for defeating them by "typically killing, routing or capturing them".

    MM says it's OK (depending on your play style, I guess) to award monster XP for overcoming them in another way.

    DMG suggests handing out XP for non-combat encounters and "milestones", the starter set adventures already do that.

    Personally, I do play OD&D and other older editions, but I've never once ran a game where I only gave out XP for gold 1:1, because that never made any sense to me.
    Example: A group could uncover millenia-old mysteries, learn of a new alien race and discover space flight exists in their universe without gaining a single XP if you only awarded it for treasure.
    Why would there only be experience in gold? That's (to me) a board game mechanic that has no place in a modern RPG.
    You CAN of course also award XP for treasures and I've done that, too.

    And just because some official adventures and campaigns favour the "kill 'em all" approach doesn't mean 5E is flawed, just the respective adventure. I'm not familiar with those you mentioned, though.

  17. I did gold for XP using old school adventure modules (I used Highfell, but I think most old school modules would work) where the default was that all magical loot was sold to a mages guild, but you could "buy back" stuff from the group by paying the other characters shares so you could get magic items that way. It worked really well, because it introduced a tension between having great gear and levelling quickly. The campaign fizzled for other reasons, but you could already see the incentive causing players to be more creative about avoiding conflict but getting loot, and I put some rival parties in that could get to towers before them that really pushed the players to keep looking for scores to get to them before their rivals, as they knew the loot would level THEM up and make them more effective too.

    I've also run a pretty basic "exploration XP" in Dungeons of the Mad Mage where they got XP for rooms explored and monsters defeated, and the lower down you were the more the rooms were worth. So a quick, cautious run into a deep level could level them up, but it was risk reward because the monsters could also kill them. A bit wonky, but it worked well.

    My next game is going to be a points of light hexcrawl where they get XP for "dealing with" a location. Locations are worth differing amounts depending on the size and complexity, and "Dealing With" is open to player interpretation to a large extent - they define their objectives and then XP is awarded as they make progress towards them. I think it's a bit less clear than the gold version but it promotes a more free-form approach that allows the players to go full heroic if they want to, which I expect they will based on the set up.

    Anyway. I think XP as player agency and incentive is WAY better than XP as GM fiat milestone. And it's not hard to do in 5e if you don't use the prepublished 5e adventures.