Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Experience Points in Old School D&D

One of the unusual things in early edition D&D is the myriad of different ways that experience points (XP) are handled, each with their own merit.  Later this week, I will discuss specifically why experience point awards are broken in B/X if you follow it by the book - and how to “fix” it.

OD&D (1974)
Let’s start with OD&D, where the party earns 100 XP for every hit die of opponent slain!  In addition, the characters earn 1 XP for every GP of treasure.  The monster XP may seem incredibly high compared to all the other early edition D&D versions, but I actually like this system.  It’s simple and easy to track!  And it seems to go well with the whole idea of weaker starting PCs – since it allows them to level faster at early levels.

The book also states that XP awards should be adjusted downward (but never raised!) for PCs fighting monsters that are at lower levels than the adventurers.  I don’t like this – see my comments further below.

Sadly, the OD&D Greyhawk supplement came out and referred to that prior method of 100 XP per hit die as “ridiculous” and instead proposed much lower XP awards for monsters, while keeping the treasure XP the same.  This is very similar to Holmes and B/X as well.  (As a side note, XP for Magic items appears to be unique to AD&D amongst these early edition games – but somebody correct me if I’m wrong.)

Holmes (1977)
Holmes uses the standard “1 XP for 1 GP” treasure awards as well as a pretty standard monster XP chart, which includes a modest XP bonus for monsters that have special abilities.  But modest is truly the word.  For example, a 2-hit dice creature is normally worth 20 XP, but a special ability adds 5 XP (total of 25).  That extra 5 XP is not exactly a windfall of XP for encountering a 2-hit dice poisonous spider! 

Similar to OD&D, Holmes points out that XP should be reduced for fighting monsters below your level.  It gives an example that  a 3rd Level Fighting Man who kills an orc should get 1/3 of the XP since an orc is a 1st level monster.  To me, this is dead wrong!  After all, PCs are already “penalized” if they go after low level creatures because it is exponentially more difficult to gain levels as characters get higher in level, and low level encounters already have low XP per the XP charts.  So just based on XP charts and leveling charts alone, there is almost NO incentive for a group of 3rd or 4th level PCs to start picking off orcs and kobolds.  It would take them FOREVER to level.  So there’s no need to add a further penalty.

Also, what happens if a single 3rd level Fighting Man runs into 10 orcs?  The rules are unclear on that.  Again, to me the exponentially higher XP requirements at higher levels, coupled with the structure of the XP charts, is more than ample reason to dis-incentivize PCs from plundering easy levels.

Holmes also has the rule that a PC can only gain one level per adventure regardless of the actual number of XP gained.

B/X (1981)
B/X uses essentially the same type of XP scheme as Holmes basic, but is a little more generous in awarding XP to monsters that have multiple special abilities. 

One thing I really like about B/X  is the paragraph that spells out adjustments that a DM may give.  Some examples include:

·    DM’s may treat unusually tough/difficult monsters as one level higher (I never do this, but now I may start!)
·    DM’s may award partial experience if the PCs “learned” from the encounter without actually defeating it (neat!)
·    DM’s may award more XP to particularly heroic characters, or less XP to “do nothing” PCs (although it clearly states that “guarding the rear” is an important role)

I am very pleased that B/X did away with the silly rule of automatically adjusting XP downward for fighting lower level monsters (see above under Holmes).

Later this week I will discuss an analysis I did on XP awards for B/X that shows some flaws in the system.


  1. Looking forward to your next post. :)

    At them moment I'm playing Lab Lord by the book and my wife, who played D&D 3.5 think the idea is ingenious and explains it to the new players in the game: "It doesn't pay to fight! We must get their riches without fighting."

  2. Thanks Alex. :) I really, really like LL. I agree with you that awarding XP for treasure is a great way to make the players less aggressive and more thoughtful in their approach.

  3. I've never played D&D in real life, but it's always so interesting to me..

    +1 follower

  4. Trey - thanks!

    Taker - appreciate the follow. Thanks! You ought to try it some time if you can find the right group of people to game with. How did you find this blog? Just curious.

  5. Agree with all points. The only thing I would add is that treasure XP acquired by a canny party will likely far outstrip monster XP, making level adjustments and such for defeating monsters more or less a rounding error (and thus ignorable).

  6. Brendan - I agree with you 100%. And this is one of the hallmarks of old school games. My friends and I played Pathfinder for a while last year for a change of pace and it was weird: all the XP comes from defeating monsters and traps! Nothing for treasure. So the emphasis is really on beating up on monsters. It was still fun, but just a lot different.

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