My number one pet peeve is playing through several hours of a game with friends and then finding out at the end that no experience points, or very few experience points, were earned.
This happens most often because a dungeon master doesn’t know how to give experience points and only gives out XP for combat. (This also creates the problem DMs complain about where your players become murder hobos. If your players believe that it’s more valuable to murder people for 10xp a pop than to interact with them, it’s probably your fault as a DM.)
In D&D 5e, there has even been an Unearthed Arcana which discusses how there are three pillars to D&D and how each should be rewarded. It doesn’t really dictate how the experience should be given to players, but it’s important to ensure that they understand, even implicitly, that there is value to choosing options which aren’t just fighting.
Pillar 1: Combat
Combat. As already discussed, everyone knows that combat is rewarded. This pillar is fairly straightforward: when enemies are defeated and the players are victorious, add up the XP from the enemies and divide it among the allies (including NPCs, even if you don’t level them up).
A particular note for combat: REWARD NON-VIOLENT OPTIONS. If the players work together to find a non-violent solution, they should be rewarded. For example, if a group of players seeks to free a maiden from a hill giant and talks him into freeing her, then the hill giant has been defeated, just not violently. In the case where this showed up in a game, the hill giant was just very dumb and needed to be persuaded.
A note on this, though: if players bribe a couple of guards to look the other way as they enter a noble’s party, they don’t get the XP for all the guards they would have fought if they were discovered, they get the XP for the two guards they “defeated” through persuasion and bribery. You want to balance out what is actually going on with what you’re rewarding. Again, if you only focus on rewarding combat XP as a DM, you’re implicitly telling your players to murder those two guards before heading into the party.
Pillar 2: Exploration
The second pillar to note is exploration. Rewarding the players for exploration means that they are getting XP for finding important locations, finding interesting solutions, meeting important characters, and getting through important story moments.
I break my campaigns into Acts and then into Adventures; both are ways to describe major story beats which ought to be rewarded for the players. Besides the exploration of the story itself, characters should be rewarded for decisions like:
- Finding a new settlement or site of importance
- Finding a secret passage or unlocking a locked door with a lock pick
- Solving a riddle or puzzle
- Discovering a method to ease or avoid combat (such as raising the drawbridge to keep guard reinforcements from coming or gaining a magic sword which the dark lord will receive more damage from).
I use the tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide on pages 82 and 84 to figure out how much my players are rewarded.
Pillar 3: Role Play
Every session should involve role play (literally the RP of RPG). Chances are, players will lean into this regardless. There are definitely sessions I have run where there is no combat; should I not give my players any XP for not fighting to move the story along? NO!
To me, as a player, not being rewarded for role play in a session where the DM hasn’t added combat means that it was a lost session. My character, and I, are going completely unrewarded for the last 3–4 hours of play time.
I’ve used several methods for this, but, at minimum, a character should get their level x100. I usually use the “adventuring day” amount for standard RP.
One of the things I started doing since reading the Dragon Age ttrpg guide is to have characters create goals for themselves as play goes on: a beginning goal (easy to achieve), a middle goal (hard to achieve), and an end goal (hardest to achieve) which sets out where their character might be even after the end of the campaign. As they achieve this, I give the character who accomplished their personal goal XP equal to the challenge in addition to any combat which might have occured.
I also give bonus XP for two players (when I play with a group of 4 or more) who role play the best during that particular session.
“But, Won’t My Players Level Up Quickly?”
If you want to, as a DM, not reward players for anything other than combat, you should stack your game with combat. For anyone who doesn’t want a game which is not simply wave after wave of enemies, you should think about how the pillars are a part of your game and how to reward your players for taking part in your game.
According to the DMG (page 261), if players were playing a game in which there is NO XP and they are rewarded by leveling up strictly from the amount of sessions they take part in, players will go from level 1 to 2 after one session, from 2 to 3 after one session, from 3 to 4 after two sessions, and from there they will level up after every two or three sessions.
This means you’re level 3 after two sessions.
This means you’re level 4 after four sessions.
This means you’re level 11 by the time you’ve gone through eighteen or twenty-five sessions.
This means you should be level 20 in fifty-two sessions.
Nothing makes me feel like the DM is not rewarding me than falling behind this curve in character progression.
However, I do limit the amount of XP I award each 3–4 hour session, regardless of the levels of RP or amount of combat. I take the Adventuring Day XP table on DMG 84 and double the amount. This means that players will definitely progress if they reach maximum XP, but it also means that characters aren’t going to zoom through faster than I am prepared.
If you want to see more detail, including tables, on how to better reward your players for playing the pillars, check out more of my work on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild.