Bonus XP

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MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture
Bonus XP

D&D, Pathfinder and similar rulesets all have a system whereby your characters grow in power by accumulating enough experience to level up. The game is also designed so that challenges the DM places in front of you to overcome are balanced for your level by taking pains to ensure each character's wealth is roughly on par with their level.

But sometimes, an award of additional XP seems warranted. Maybe successfully completing an adventure or even a chapter of it doesn't have any kind of wealth award attached to it, but the characters definitely "learned something," and a mechanical recognition of their endeavors is appropriate. Each XP awarded in this way further reinforces the idea that the game is not all about combat. Even side quests might net the PCs additional XP, and it could also be possible that completing an objective in a particularly efficient or heroic way is worth bonus XP above and beyond what was already slated; killing a necromancer before he can animate the corpses of his victims precludes the possibility of also fighting zombies or skeletons, for example, but arriving in time to defeat the villain before he kills those people to begin with FEELS better, even if the fight turned out exactly the same way.

There are some problems with bonus XP, though. If you don't keep up with the wealth by levl guidelines, obviously you are going to run into an issue at some point down the road. Around 4th or 5th level, for example, PCs are expected to have one or more magic weapons in their collective arsenal; without it, incorporeal creatures or really anything with damage reduction will be several magnitudes more difficult to overcome. And eventually, even if the party's cleric can cast raise dead, he or she can't afford to without 5,000gp worth of material components. It would suck to lose a character through no fault of your own but only because the DM is a cheapskate.

Also, there is some dispute about whether it is appropriate for the various characters in the party to be of different levels. The rules are pretty good about allowing folks to catch up, sort of, but it can be kind of a drag for individual PCs to always be lagging behind. And it is also true that maybe some characters, either by virtue of their abilities or the way they are played, are more likely to find themselves in situations where they can rise above the pack and enjoy their time in the spotlight. Again, this isn't anyone's fault but the DM's for not allowing other folks the chance to soak up some of that precious extra XP. On this latter point, I am of the opinion that if the DM is mindful of this phenomenon at least the possibility of other characters catching up will come up over time.

What are everyone's thoughts on this? In a beer and pretzels, kick-in-the-door kind of campaign where people just bulldoze through dungeons to kill monsters and take their stuff, this doeen't come up much. But it seems like campaigns with a lot of dialogue, character development and side quests are more prone to what might eventually be unbalanced and disruptive.

Fixxxer
Fixxxer's picture

I think bonus XP is falls very much under the purview of the individual DM, and I think that's how it should be. Codifying bonus XP not only cheapens the experience, but robs the DM for using that XP as an actual above and beyond reward. At a certain level, though, bonus XP probably does become somewhat smaller of a reward than the players might like, but that's also in keeping with the PCs being in the same general power level. And every little bit helps. Take recent events in the Ancestral Burdens campaign. Alannah went off on her own to deliver news of a cataclysmic event faster than the party could otherwise travel. This allowed the DM to introduce a new PC to the mix, but it also allowed for Alannah to have some in-character interactions (via PM) that apparently netted her a small amount of bonus XP, which just put her over the line for a level increase. That, to me, seems like the definition of a reward for good roleplaying.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

There was no bonus XP in that instance. Either I made a mathematical error, or you did. Alannah got the same XP award as everyone else; it's just that she was close to the line.

I DID fudge things a little bit, in the sense that I stretched things out until I could count the whole Morville subplot as an EL/CR 10 encounter, and award a lump sum of XP based on it. And I chose to cut off the subplot where I did because I was trying to make it work out so that Darker could get that level he wanted.

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Darker

Darker very much appreciates it.

I see bonus RP as a reward for individual risk or compensation for sticking with a character's personality despite metagaming tendencies to do otherwise. Choices that you as a player know are bad, but you are going to do them anyway because even though its likely to hurt the character, it's what the character would do. Like slapping Burke like a the little bitch that he is and not getting a werewolf cure because of it.

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

I think XP per action is generally a bad thing - bonus XP often is applied based on the GM's preferences which isn't necessarily fair. For example, a GM might reward players for 'staying on script'. If you have XP at all, it should be based on completing adventures, not fighting monsters. If you ever get to the point where you're thinking 'maybe I should murder a half-dozen orcs so I can level-up' the system isn't working as intended.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

There's a legitimate place for XP awards based on the GM's preferences, though. In general I try to keep those awards small and infrequent, so that they are really just a pat on the back when a character does something especially clever or entertaining, or something that makes sense in character even though it's clearly disadvantageous out of character.

But people play D&D for lots of reasons, and one of those reasons is that it provides opportunities for them to make their friends laugh, and for themselves to bask in the glow of that adulation. I think that's a reasonable thing to want from a gaming group, and although I try not to go overboard with it, it's a motive that I try to satisfy.

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MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

In the Storyteller system games like [i]Vampire[/i] and [i]Werewolf[/i] are based on, XP works a little differently. You "level up" by spending XP on different attributes on your character sheet. Everyone gets 1 automatically every session, and from there the bonuses generally follow along the lines of +1 for completing a chapter or story, +1 for doing something really heroic or which otherwise adds to everyone's enjoyment of the game, +1 for the best roleplaying of the session (which is something everyone needs to confer about at the end of the session), and +1 for demonstrating a specific lesson each player's character learned.

There's a lot of wiggle room with most of this. I incorporated the idea for bonus XP based on roleplaying into a D&D game one time. Each session, every player around the table was responsible for observing the PC to his or her left. At the end of each session, you would get 100 XP per level per star or hash mark or whatever that your auditor gave you. Players were encouraged to use their best judgment about when to award a point. Sometimes it was purely motivated by people doing spectacular things in-game, like a really glorious critical hit that saved the day or achieving something that everyone thought was basically impossible, but that player rolled for it anyway. Some players focused more on out-of-character stuff, just generally being a good player and a good teammate in what is ultimately a social, cooperative game.

It didn't ultimately work, and by that I mean its effects were largely inconsequential because a negligible amount of bonus XP was being awarded each session. Most players were uncomfortable with "grading" each other. In a Play by Post format, there isn't as much occupying the DM's attention every moment of play, because there are no "sessions." So for 2EE I just quantify all of that myself. If I think someone does something particularly noteworthy, whether it is true to their character or just really enhances everyone else's experience with the game, he or she is entitled to a bonus.

Beyond that, re: DDMW's observation. I agree that an emphasis should be placed on accomplishing objectives over killing monsters and taking their stuff. Nothing against a game like that, I just have no interest in running one. But whereas you consider that to be a weakness of bonus XP, it's actually why I use it: to reinforce the relevance of going out of your way to save kids in a burning building during a fight on the street with the villain, even if it is potentially deadly for the hero in question or it means the bad guy gets away. That feels like what the game is supposed to be about, but there are definitely problems with designing the whole campaign that way. For one thing, wealth by level would basically go out the window and you would need to eyeball it every few weeks to make sure everyone is still where they're supposed to be, which is something I already do because random encounters also skew the treasure results slightly (in that every combat encounter has the chance of producing no treasure, particularly when fighting against non-intelligent creatures who have no interest in gathering loot; so the more combat encounters you have, particularly involving flora and fauna in the game world as random encounters often do, the odds of falling behind in terms of gear start to escalate).

"Men are the only animals that devote themselves, day in and day out, to making one another unhappy. It is an art like any other. Its virtuosi are called altruists." - H.L. Mencken

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

The wealth by level rules have their own problems - things like martial characters need very expensive weapons relative to their level and casters can frequently duplicate items so aren’t impacted as much. Some of the numbers are also just wrong.

D&D has a 'Christmas Tree Problem' where characters are stacking as many items as they can for maximum effectiveness. There are solutions to that which improve the game and also avoid other problems. Ideally there comes a point where characters have gold but can't spend it on another +1 to personal power, so instead invest it in refurbishing an inn it keep or something.

I do think the game is better when people are in it for everyone, but I'm not sure that XP is the way to do it. There's some psychology behind my position - when you pay someone for something, even if it is something they enjoy, they'll stop doing it if you stop paying them. An unexpected reward is nice, but it can turn into something negative pretty quickly. Real life - you can have players ignoring combat and doing a Mexican Hat Dance for that extra 250 XP.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

DDMW: if DM awarding XP for players to ignore combat altogether in order to do a Mexican Hat Dance, the problem is not with the player or the use of bonus XP. At that point, the problem is that the DM is glaringly incompetent.

I also am skeptical of your assertion that martial characters NEED more expensive gear than spellcasters, or that spellcasters are automatically the beneficiaries of their ability to substitute a spell for an item.

On the first point: the principle is always that it is better to get a bunch of less-powerful items than to sink your money into a single mega-powerful item. It is better to have a +1 weapon and a +2 Str item than to have a +2 weapon, for example, because you get the same attack/damage benefit for 2,000 gp less money (and you can also carry more weight, break down doors more easily, grapple more effectively, etc.). For a spellcaster, the same calculus applies. My wish list for Dalvar is different than my wish list for a martial character of about the same level as him, but it costs about the same thing. The fact that he has opted not to claim a few specific items in the 2EE campaign speaks much more to the fact that he is a particular kind of wizard and doesn't need those items than it does to anything else.

On the second point, Dalvar is a poor example. But in practice one of the most effective ways to play spellcasters is really to focus on buffing the martial characters in the party. Outside of some very specific instances where the party is faced with a horde of fragile but dangerous opponents, haste is a much better use of a 3rd-level spell slot than fireball, just for example.

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Talanall
Talanall's picture

To speak more specifically on the topic of awarding XP for completing goals instead of fighting monsters: there is ZERO reason to argue that D&D suffers from a problem where you have to fight monsters to get XP.

An encounter certainly can be based on combat with monsters or NPCs. But if the player characters avoid combat through cleverness or diplomacy instead, the DM is obliged to award XP. They overcame the challenge. If the DM insists that the only way an adversary is worth XP is as a corpse, that's on him.

I can say similar things about encounters that have to do with wilderness survival, or trap-springing, or even gathering information from NPCs or convincing them to do stuff. There's nothing whatsoever to prevent the DM from building encounters based on these sorts of challenge and awarding XP for overcoming them. I do it all the time, and there is nothing extraordinary about it. There are guidelines in the 3.X rules for how you go about this task. It's just that a lot of DMs are either insufficiently imaginative or too lazy to do it.

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deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Being a DM is a lot of work, and for most DMs, XP accounting isn't their favorite task. I've talked to a lot of people that just don't have a head for numbers. They have problems figuring out how to calculate Encounter Level (EL) and they have trouble with XP if the party isn't all at the same level. 'Bad at Math' may not be the BEST EXCUSE for disliking XP, but it's certainly a COMMON ONE.

I was in a gaming group at one point where we were exploring a dungeon. We determined that one passage was a dead-end with no exits, but it did include a midden heap. As experienced players we all had no doubt that inside lurked an Otyugh. But why fight it? Unless it had some useful treasure? My character (a wizard) used [i]detect magic[/i] to determine that there was a magical aura. Even better, it was small. One [i]mage hand[/i] later and we had the item and there was nothing stopping us from getting on with the mission. But the OTHER PLAYERS decided that we needed to fight it 'for the XP'. I wasn't happy with the decision because we didn't know what else we would have found in the dungeon and it was a waste of resources. Honestly, I don't know if we would have gotten XP for 'defeating' the challenge if we didn't face it directly. The guidelines are vague enough that killing something is the best way to be SURE you'll get XP.

For me, it's a simple matter of preference. I don't care if you slaughter millions of orcs; I don't care if you carefully avoid fighting any of them using stealth, guile and diplomacy. I do care about you completing adventures, and pacing those adventures is important as well. The group I play with face-to-face have all agreed that we prefer 'level up when the GM decides it's appropriate' and we enjoy playing the characters as they are. We don't level up very often - probably every 6 or 7 sessions, maybe less. We've completed 9 'chapters' per the campaign log, but most of those were 2-3 sessions at least, and we're 3rd level. I'm sure that slow advancement isn't for everyone, but it definitely works for us. Leveling isn't a motivation at all - instead we have to come up with things we want to accomplish and work to make it successful. No training montages - if we're not up to the task with the abilities we already have then that's on us.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

I suffer from the shortcoming "bad at throwing basketballs through hoops." If I decide to play a version of the game that does not rely on throwing a basketball through a hoop, and I work out something that is fun and enjoyable for myself and my friends, I harm no one. And we can call it basketball among ourselves, if we like.

But we're no longer playing basketball, and we should not be surprised if someone who finds us playing our made-up game looks confused when we say that it is basketball. Nor will we find it easy to play our version of the game in an organized tournament with players who are used to the traditional version. In all likelihood, they will insist that we conform to the commonly-accepted rules or be ejected from play.

D&D is like this. What most people do at home is like playground ball, where house rules basically correspond to pronouncements like "no blood, no foul," or the court may not be perfectly regulation-sized and the backboard may just be a half-sheet of plywood. But it is close enough that if you go and play or DM at an RPGA event, you are not lost.

And just so we're clear, I do not derive any particular enjoyment from XP accounting, or from checking the GP value of a character's gear. It's still a fundamental part of playing my position, though. Calculating CR/EL and working from there to figure out XP/GP awards still is a chore for me. But I took care that I learned how to do it correctly when I was learning how to be a DM, and found that most of the time you really just have to consult a table in the DMG to have the bulk of the work done for you. Even if you do have to take on some of the heavy lifting, though, it all works according to a pattern that is not terribly difficult to grok. So it's a little tedious, but not hard. The majority of the people I have encountered who found it difficult to do routine stuff turned out not to have read the pertinent sections of the rules very carefully.

So I think it's entirely reasonable for me to take the position that if you don't like to look up stuff in the DMG, then D&D 3.x/Pathfinder probably is not the game for you, at least as a DM.

Perhaps I'm an oddity, though; I also read instruction manuals and do routine maintenance.

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deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

I'm sure you're an oddity, but aren't we all?

It is true that I'm not actually playing D&D with my friends. It does have a resemblance and it is an RPG, but that covers a lot of ground. I'm not particularly interested in organized play (I've done it, but I didn't enjoy it).

Dropping XP implies a lot of other changes to the game including item creation. I can understand why not everyone would be interested in making those kinds of changes. For us, even when it was 3.x minus XP, it was a net boon, but we've been working a long time to make something we enjoy. XP is definitely something that we don't miss at all.

If you're using XP, it can be good to provide bonus XP for a variety of things. Just be wary that you aren't providing it in a biased way. Giving girls extra XP because they are girls is probably not fair and doesn't help. Giving extra XP for bringing snacks to share might be. But too much bonus XP and you will have characters of different levels - and it is quite possible that will cause more problems for the games than any question of fairness in the way XP is awarded.

MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

Characters leveling up at different rates is a sort-of tangential but very much still relevant topic to this discussion. In the past I've only encountered it a handful of times where it was really disruptive and then only because I was playing fast and loose with the rules for various reasons (mostly ignorance about what I thought the intention of the game designers was when they wrote them).

I think there are a handful of stopgap measures if one or more of the PCs pulls too far ahead of the party; specifically, that the share everyone receives from each XP award will be worth relatively more to lower level PCS than it will be to those who are further ahead. But if there isn't much daylight between one character and the next, these advantages diminish in effectiveness. Then again, if someone only has a few hundred XP more than you, how bad could that really be?

I think just about everyone in 2EE has a different XP total right now. It turns out that they are all the same level, but that could definitely change in the future. I agree that it requires a lot of eyeballing, but all of the other considerations that come with leveling up; treasure, wonky encounter level charts, etc; do too.

"Men are the only animals that devote themselves, day in and day out, to making one another unhappy. It is an art like any other. Its virtuosi are called altruists." - H.L. Mencken

Talanall
Talanall's picture

It seldom persists as an issue for all that long, because of the XP awarding practices that you just touched on. Just in Ancestral Burdens, I have watched it work on Alannah vs. Chuul, for example. When I finished awarding XP for the last encounters directly involving werewolves, back in May 2013, they were separated by 392 XP. That gap has closed to 185 XP over the course of only two encounters. They both are now 7th level, so that means the gap won't close any more until and unless there is an XP award that makes Chuul gain a level but not Alannah. At that point, she'll close the gap again.

I'll give a really extreme example, just for giggles, and then follow up with a more realistic one.

The largest gap that the core rules support is a party with a single 17th-level character amid a group of 1st-level characters; all members of such a party would be eligible to gain XP from a EL/CR 10 encounter. Assuming a standard party of four members, the 17th-level character would gain 106 XP, and the others would gain 2,700 XP, immediately raising them to 2nd level. A second such encounter would raise the low-level members to 3rd level. Another would be sufficient to hit 4th, leaving all the lowbies at 8,100 XP each. The 17th-level character would meanwhile have gained 318 XP, and would therefore still need 16,682 XP to get to 18th level.

Presuming that the DM continues to throw out the most powerful encounters that the XP charts on DMG page 38 shows tabulations for at each level, the lowbies will gain a level every time they have an encounter until they reach 7th level, at which time they'll hit a small bump getting to 8th (they'll need two encounters there). I don't really feel that it's necessary for me to track how many levels the 17th-level PC would gain; suffice it to say that the level gap closes very quickly.

In a more reasonable example, the 6th-level members of the party in Ancestral Burdens gain XP anywhere from 14.% to 28% faster than the 7th-level members for the same encounter, assuming I keep the EL in a range from 5 to 12, which is what we might consider "level-appropriate" for that group of PCs.

So even though there is currently a 5,362 XP gap between Chuul and Georgie, that can be expected to shrink rapidly. If I were of a mind to throw reasonably challenging EL 8 encounters at the party until Georgie hits 7th level, he'll gain 4,626 XP. Chuul will only gain 4,050 XP in that same time period. The gap closes by 576 XP, or 10.7%, which is pretty substantial, so that the gap is only 4,786 XP, and Georgie will then be on the same level as Chuul for about four more EL 8 encounters (so they both gain 1800 XP). Then Chuul tips over to 8th level, and for 11 more EL 8 encounters Georgie earns 108 XP more than Chuul, closing the gap to 3,598 XP.

Obviously, the rate of closure varies a little bit depending on what encounters I use; I'm not REALLY going to hammer the party with EL 8 encounters until the gap closes. There would be more variety.

And since it's a PbP game, I seriously doubt that we'll ever see the gap close enough so that Chuul and Georgie are on such an equal footing as Chuul and Alannah. There'll always be a pretty high chance that Chuul and Georgie will level up at different times.

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