CaSE #20 : How XP is Handled.

The Challenge Rating (CR) system of D&D v.3.5 has good mechanics behind it, particularly how it awards Experience Points (XP).  Unless you decide to award enhanced XP for a scaled-up monster, or bonus XP for role-playing or heroic actions, it’s probably best to stick with what the sourcebooks suggest.  A future CaSE post will look at how frequently characters “should” level up, and how a DM might help that along.  Right now we’ll talk about how XP, in a group sense, will be handled as your campaign gets started.

Here’s a typical D&D situation among my friends.  Say we have ten players participating in a DM’s campaign :

  • Two players will attend the weekly game like clockwork, perhaps missing one session every two months.
  • Four other players will attend half of the sessions.
  • Three other players will show up for one session every three months.
  • One player will be in the adventure twice a year.

I bet you see where this is going.  Ten players started the campaign with Level 1 characters.  After six months, what Level are the characters in this party ?  The answer largely depends on how XP was awarded by the DM.

If XP was awarded to players actually in attendance and who participated in the session (Individual XP) then the characters have stratified all over the place.  There will be two high-level characters whose players were always there…a scattering of mid- to low-level characters…and the character last used on New Years and Labour Day by the rarely-attending player, a character which is still a lowly Level 1 character and completely outclassed by the antagonists the group now faces.

As our group does not want to exclude anyone (as campaigns are most often run in a ‘drop-in’ fashion) it has happened that our characters were all Level 10-12, and a friend joined in who dusted off his Level 5 character, the one he last played nearly a year ago !

In another campaign, our DM tried to be fair and set up a rule whereby every character in the party, in attendance or not, received the same amount of experience (Group XP).  Effectively we had a “party level”.  While this worked to keep everyone on-par and made it more inclusive to infrequent players, it really did not provide much incentive to attend every game session.

Our friend, who would drop in thrice-yearly to play, would ask the group’s current level, advance his character sheet stats by four (or five or six…) levels, and then join in.  He wasn’t doing it as a cheat.  It just worked out that when he was able to attend, his character reaped immediate, un-earned benefits.  Now his character was also Level 12 – same as those characters whose players had grinded along every week and earned XP the hard way.

Knowing your story, your players and their likely attendance, and the duration you intend for your campaign, you should decide at the start how you intend to award XP to individual characters and how you intend to manage the progression of the group as a whole :

  • Awarding XP individually (with bonus XP for creature kills, heroic efforts, playing in-character, at your option) is the fairest system for those players who have put in the effort.  But players who seldom attend will see their characters fall dangerously behind the curve.
  • Awarding group XP keeps the group even; but unfairly rewards players who rarely play and diminishes the accomplishments of regular, dedicated players.

Ideally you will have a group of players who will each play a roughly equal number of your campaign session, and so either individual or group XP is suitable at your option.

When you have a drop-in system or a wide range of attendance, difficulty follows.

As a third option, you may set a rule that states that characters cannot fall {x} Levels behind the highest-level character in the party.  This strikes a middle ground which keeps infrequent players’ characters disadvantaged for their lack of game time, but does not prohibit them from continuing with the party against progressively more difficult foes.

This “minimum level” third option might also apply to new characters joining the party – either characters run by new players joining your campaign, or new characters that replace a player’s dead or retired character.




About d20horizons

D&D player.
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One Response to CaSE #20 : How XP is Handled.

  1. EG says:

    Congratulations on hitting 200!

    I’d like to add to this, if I may. Recalling the situation of the player who only showed up a few times a year, only to see his character had passed two to five levels in his absence… I would not allow that as a DM again. In addition to cheapening the efforts of the other players, it also completely wasted that player’s rare chance at participation because he spent the entire session leveling up his character! If this happened again I would probably offer the player an NPC to run.

    When I think about running another campaign I find myself considering two options. The first is the one you seem to support, whereby no player may fall more than two levels below the current leader. The most important reason for this rule was that it meant no player character could fall below the level of another character’s follower, which could be all kinds of embarrassing. The failing of this option is the same I have with all PCs starting at high level: where is their missing back story? A high level character will necessarily have had an impact on the realm, and their sudden appearance would be akin to seeing Godzilla standing in a plowed field that is bereft of footprints. Very deep footprints, none of them.

    A little more complicated was another system I used where any character more than a level behind the current experience leader would receive an experience multiplier, beyond what the DMG usually prescribes. This enabled players to catch up quickly without being devoid of history, and ensured that no one could catch the leader without regular attendance. It also created a bit of a competitive atmosphere, which I enjoyed seeing. Players who joined late in a campaign still needed to be advanced to a certain extent, but those were rare, and I was willing to work out a fitting back story with them.

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