For our August 2017 Unearthed Arcana article, Mike Mearls unleashed another house-rule/rules alternative system. While we did not cover the Greyhawk Initiative (we may another time, depends on our content schedule), these new ideas have left some the overall community intrigued, to say the least. Anyways, we were given another set of alternative rules that actually redesign how we give experience points to players, or you can look at it more as of how players are rewarded for experience in-game.
Personally, I am a big advocate for milestone progressions, which is when you have players level up their characters based on their location within the narrative. It’s a common way many D&D groups handle level-up, to avoid players from metagaming about how far they are from their next level up and allow them to focus on the story being told instead. When you decide on the milestone approach, you can easily incorporate the three pillars of play that is discussed in the Player’s Handbook which cover exploration, social interactions, and combat. You can flavor your game with more focus on a pillar depending on the genre, the narrative style, and the player’s preferred playstyle.
I’ll give an example, Team BAJA is a darker narratively driven story with a strong emphasis on combat. My players solve most of their problems by blowing it up, kicking down doors, and exploring. Yes, they still talk with NPCs, but often they speak what’s on their minds and less about the betterment of the situation. I have another group that focuses heavily on exploring areas and dungeons, they concentrate more on solving their problems through conversation and tricks than open combat. But both groups ultimately benefit from the three pillars of play, they just may have a greater propensity for one aspect over another. It’s a style choice, one that a Dungeon Master needs to understand with their playgroup during the course of the game. It becomes easier as you continue to play since ultimately the player’s preferred style will naturally emerge.
Now, on the other spectrum, where you have a structured approach to level-ups, you rely on Experience Points. There are some games I’ve personally played where characters only leveled up if they were in combat only, which ultimately felt like a negative to talk our way out troubles. But there are other approaches where DMs have awarded experience points for social interactions as an encounter. There are few guidelines to help alleviate uncertainty for a DM that goes this route, but I think the latest playtest material should help.
Here’s the link for the Three Pillars of Experience materials (click here).
Gaining Levels & XP distribution
Under this alternate rules system, gaining new levels happens once a character gains a 100 XP each time. No more cumulative experience point values, which makes it easier to track progress for players and DMs. Additionally, instances of gaining an XP reward applies to all members of the party, for example, if defeating a monster rewards 10 XP, the entire party receives the same reward. I like that it removes a lot of math on the DMs part which may help streamline the experience overall. In the event of a large party, including NPCs, the reward values are halved to indicate the ease of safety in large numbers.
This adjustment overall seems to streamline the record keeping for experience points and level thresholds, which honestly is a welcomed idea. I have my own reservations about tracking experience points, but for that video game sort of playstyle, this works better with less upkeep for everyone at the table.
Rewarding through the Three Pillars
So the playtest material broke into rewards for the three pillars of a D&D game: exploration, social interactions, and combat. In a traditional D&D campaign, all three pillars are often used and expressed. For some games, like one-shots or dungeon crawls, there are fewer opportunities for one or more pillars.
Under the Exploration pillar, it became divided by discovery of magical items or treasures and discovery of new locations. Sort of like, if you’ve ever played Skyrim or Fallout and discover a new place, a notification pops up and then you’re rewarded some experience points. A way to mitigate finding or exploring areas that either has little to no significance or finding mundane items comes with the tier system for the XP rewards.
There is one design concern that seemed overlooked, especially for magic items XP rewards. The tiers are separated and defined by retail values of the items, in a ruleset that doesn’t have gold prices for any of the magic items within it. But fear not, it does use the rarity system that’s present. The gold price value is a good indicator when a player finds gems or art objects. While it’s not stated how the tiers work with the character levels, a reliable indicator comes from the Player’s Handbook.
Player’s Handbook, pg. 15
In the first tier (levels 1-4), characters are effectively apprentice adventurers…In the second tier (levels 5-10), characters come into their own…In the third tier (levels 11-16), characters have reached a level of power that sets them high above the ordinary populace…At the fourth tier (levels 17-20), characters achieve the pinnacle of their class features
Using that guideline, a DM can ascertain the appropriate values to reward XP. Additionally, under this ruleset, for both the Exploration and Social Interactions pillar, anytime a character successfully finds a magic item, new location, or succeeds in a social encounter with an NPC, the party is rewarded for their tier along with 10 XP for every tier above them.
An example: A group of adventurers (let’s say 3rd level, so Tier 1) explores the ancient elven city of Myth Drannor (in the Forgotten Realms). Let’s say the party is tasked by the elves from Everska to retrieve whatever relics they find. Perhaps the party finds a hidden dungeon under Myth Drannor, and they even find a lost tomb with a powerful magic weapon (maybe a flametongue). The DM can treat the discovery as a Tier 2 (Importance to a kingdom) for the hidden dungeon and a Tier 2 magic item reward. So out of this adventure already, before creatures, the party will possibly earn 40 XP from this adventure so far. Perhaps before the party coming to Myth Drannor, they were contracted by an elf noble, and the party managed to secure some sort of arrangement, you can classify that as probably a Tier 1 Social Interaction. Through the course of the adventure, the party fights several monsters and deal with numerous traps.
For combat XP rewards, it doesn’t use a tier system but more of a rule of thumb. The party is generally awarded 5 XP for every monster killed, 15 XP if the monster’s challenge rating (CR) is twice their level, and only 2 XP if the CR is half their level.
Let’s use the previous example and draft some sample encounters.
So since we’re dealing with a 3rd-level party, let’s toss in a handful of goblins & hobgoblins. So let’s use 4 Goblins (CR 1/4) and a Hobgoblin Captain (CR 3) at the entrance, if successful, the party earns 13 XP total from this encounter. While it doesn’t specify anything about traps, let’s assume the same ruling and rewards. So a trap designed to be as difficult as CR 3 creature would award another 5 XP. Let’s say the party has to deal with a pair of Ogre Zombies (CR 2), according to this system, it would award a total of 10 XP. The problem here is that traditionally, such an encounter would be classified as a Deadly Encounter according to XP Thresholds found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Now let’s say for the final encounter, there’s a Hobgoblin Warlord (CR 6) with four Goblin subordinates (CR 1/4). If successful, that final encounter rewards 23 XP, with all of the other encounters to a grand total of 51 XP. In other words, upon completion of the entire short adventure through Myth Drannor, the party should have earned 101 XP once they retrieve the magic weapon.
The only danger I see with this streamlined system is when constructing encounters that can outright deadly and not having a gauge to measure difficulty for the party. For example, using that same 3rd-level party (assuming 4 players), if I had redone the entire encounter as eight Hobgoblins (CR 1), normally that sort of encounter has an adjusted value of 4000 XP for the XP Threshold chart. That is BEYOND deadly for this party. BUT under this system, the party would be awarded 16 XP for their troubles. So maybe going over 10 XP is the benchmark? It’s not quite clear and probably needs a lot more troubleshooting. My advice, do some sample mock encounters, building how you desire and figure out what thresholds work best for you when creating encounters. It feels that once you go past 10 XP, the entire ordeal is drastically harder. Which is probably a good threshold to benchmark for yourself.
Adjusting your Campaign with the Three-Pillars Rewards System
The final advice, which is really only a paragraph on the playtest consists of information for changing the reward values based on the how you (the DM) runs your game. If your game is more dungeon crawl oriented then sometimes you’ll have fewer instances of social interactions so you may want to adjust your rewards from those two active pillars. In games that deal with political intrigue, where combat and exploration are seldom, then you will have to change the rewards even more. Honestly, most D&D campaigns address all three pillars, and if your games focus on one or two pillars more so than others, you may consider bumping the rewards for some of them. It also depends on the playstyle of your group, if they are more combat oriented and actually seldom interact with their enemies or foes, then you should definitely consider adjusting the values for combat. If you’re with a group that likes to solve problems by talking with NPCs but still deal with combat and exploration somewhat regularly, then don’t adjust the values. Adjusts with this system definitely requires more of the Dungeon Master’s opinion and judgment than anything else.
I like the idea behind the system, especially since the XP values reset after each level up, so there’s no need to remember arbitrary values for level up thresholds. You can design encounters possibly more accessible with less reliance on some sort of XP budget or threshold to mark degrees of deadliness. Another thing to consider is that you reward players for exploration, something, not all playgroups participate as much as they probably think they do. Exploration is often the weakest of the three pillars, and it’s nice to see some support and reinforcement for it. I know this will definitely help out with some metagaming regarding experience point rewards, it also reinforces the notion that you have to earn your XP rewards and they don’t just fall into your laps as often as it might from the original ruleset.
My final thought: someone from Wizards of the Coast really needs to work on giving gold market values for the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s really frustrating, and I felt like it was a backhanded move to just see gold values for magic items in the Magic Item reward tiers. Probably some leftovers from previous design concepts but still infuriating.
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XP rewards are definitely one of the most difficult aspects for me personally when it comes to running a game. I do enjoy this approach for exploration and items, however its integration with the combat system and 5e’s overall lack of clarity on magic items focus leaves these pillars a bit shaky in terms of implementation. I do enjoy the attempt to flesh out alternatives combat-heavy XP rewards.
I agree. The combat rewards seemed like the weakest and less thought out concept here. I do enjoy the social-intereaction rewards and even the exploration one. The magic item bit was one of the frustrations I had with the system since they never covered market values and therefore was like some antiquated knee-jerk reaction. Definitely needs some more refinement.