An Easy and Fair way to handle XP

Author: DHBoggs /

Here is a quick post to tide you over till I get back from vacation.  Upcoming we are going to look at the age of ID in Blackmoor, the oddities in Garbage Pits of Despair, and continue our dive into the Supp II monster lists among other things. :)

Calculating XP is certainly an issue in D&D.  While the methods of adding up treasure, and/or monsters killed and/or specials works, it does require significant bookeeping, and hardly anybody likes doing that.

Popular alternatives have included counting number of adventures or setting milestones or simply handwaiving the whole thing.  I'm not going to go through the downsides of these alternatives, except to say they are subjective, unfair, and kinda suck.

Fear Not! There is a way to avoid all the bookeeping and still hand out XP objectively and fairly and it has to do with the law of averages.  

What I'm proposing here is something like the gaming equivalent accounting for machine hours, meaning the play equivalent of the time that a machine spends in active operation and the associated "cost" of that time.

So many D&D games have been played for so many years now that we have a fairly good idea of how much play time it takes for level y to get x number of points, on average. 

There is a thread on Enworld that discusses this in length.  Here is the link:

There is also this very useful quote by Gary Gygax from The Strategic Review Vol II, No. 2, April 1976, p. 23:

"It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level." 

Therefore, knowing that across the average OD&D/Classic/AD&D campaign, the average player of an X level fighter will accumulate the XP to reach the next level after Y amount of play time, WE CAN SIMPLY USE THE AMOUNT OF PLAY TIME AS THE GOAL, and skip all the bean counting of XP.

The natural and best way to measure this, I think, is in hours. In fact, in the real world, that's exactly how we often measure experience. For example, going back to machines, we talk about how many operator hours a person has on a machine as a gauge of their experience.

In short we assign a certain amount of character XP for each hour that a player spends playing the game.

One benefit of measuring play hours that immediately springs to mind, is incentivising your players to come to games!

A natural objection a DM might have is not wanting to award the same amount for players who spend all game session shopping in town, verses the session where they kill a dragon, but that misses the point.  Since the system is an average of all play, it absolutely doesn't matter what the players did during any given hour of play.  It all averages out.  It's the long term average of play over time.

The only other objection I can think of is that counting time played instead of actual XP might seem to disincentivize players from carrying out specifically XP related activities. That might actually be a good thing though since XP related activities usually means monster massacres for XP or railroady dangling XP carrots. 

Charging ahead then, if we look at the poll on the Enworld thread I mentioned above, the biggest chunk of votes went to 15hrs worth of gaming between levels (although if the last two options of the poll were combined (20 hours or 25+ hours) they would be equal)

I'm going to assume (yeah that word) the conceptual model is something like going from 4th to 5th level or maybe 5th to sixth, because everyone seems to agree (cf Gygax quote) that lower levels go fast and high levels go slow and that 4-6 is smack in the middle for most campaigns.

So with all that in mind - and of course, the usual rules of level up only one level at a time and excess xp earned vanish after leveling -looking at the three classes in Men & Magic, to go from 5th to 6th level takes 16,000 xp for a fighter, 15,000xp for a Wizard, and 13,000xp for Clerics. So 14,666 points on average - lets call that 15,000 to make it easy.

Going back to the poll, if we divide that by 15 hours we get 1000. So obviously I'm picking these as middle of the road numbers that divide well and we could look at some of the other figures but this seemed a good place to start.

Anyway, if players were awarded 1000xp per real time hour of gameplay, they would go from 5th to 6th level in 15 hours. Higher levels would take much longer, lower levels much faster.

For Players who don't show up, I'm thinking if their character participates in the adventure anyway, they would be treated like a hireling and receive half XP.

In looking a little deeper, I notice that Gygax in his quote specifically says 50 to 75 "games", not sessions, however that might be defined. By "games", I think it is safe to assume he means get-togethers at table. In other words, 50 to 75 evenings of play, for example.

If we take the high number there, and not the low number, the formula becomes

300,000/75 = 4000 per game. And if we assume a typical game lasts 4 hours, then we are right back at the 1000 XP per hour figure.

Of course we can tweak our numbers all over the place, for example by averaging Gygax game numbers and making the game session longer:

300,000/63 =4762

4762/5hr "game" = 952

In the end, I'm getting pretty comfortable with the 1000 XP per hour figure. It seems "about right" from several different angles and it is an easy figure to use.

Now, awarding 1000 xp for every hour will mean that low level characters will advance quite quickly at first - much as they do in 5e, while higher levels will get progressively slower.  I personally think this is a good thing, but I can see how some DM's may want at least to slow down the lower levels to a more traditional pace.  That can be accomplished quite easily by simply cutting the XP award in half to 500 point per hour played for "veteran" tier characters - meaning levels 1-3 for fighters, 1-5 for M-us and 1-6 for Clerics.  Hero tier characters and above can then be bumped to the 1000p figure.  However you want to handle it is fine as long as it is consistent.

Next, it is important to specify the time period at which XP awards are given to the players. I mean exactly when do you hand out the reward.

I think the likely options would be:

a) at or after the close of the game when everyone leaves the table


b) when the party has a safe place to rest


c) only when the party has left they adventure and returned to their base (town presumably)

All of these would work, and I think it is up to the DM.  They don't need to be mutually exclusive either, but can be done as to what is most convenient at the time for everyone.

Finally, it is worth noting that I've been using this method for a few years now and have been extremely happy with it.  The players seem to like it just fine and it is sooo much easier to keep track of.  Give it a try.


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