XP, or ‘Have I leveled up yet?’

XP, or ‘Have I leveled up yet?’

The traditional way of showing your players’ characters are growing, the awarding of XP in an RPG represents experience gained by combating formidable foes, navigating challenging hazards, solving devious puzzles, or when dealing with those ever-progressive GM’s, from role-playing.  Players rejoice at its earning, enjoy using it to level-up and gain new abilities, and sometimes seek it out with a fervor.

Many systems have different ways of handling Experience Points.  In Monte Cooke’s Numenera, players generally gain 2-4 experience per session.  This is based upon if the GM stepped in to add complications to the narrative, if the players accomplished goals, or if they engaged in the discovery of something interesting or important during the session.  Players can spend their XP during the game session in order to re-roll dice, or at the end of the session they can spend six XP to gain one of four perks needed to advance to the next level.

In classic Dungeons and Dragons, you would earn experience based upon how much loot you were able to bring back to town, gaining one XP for every gold piece you scavenged out in the wilderness or from the ancient ruins and tombs.  Classes would level at different rates, and had different level caps.

When you play Paranoia, players gain Perversity Points which they can spend to ~ERROR <REDACTED>

But in Pathfinder, your later-age Dungeons and Dragons editions (3.0 and forward I do believe), the Star Wars Role-Playing Game, and many more systems, you generally earn experience through defeating monsters who give you a set amount of experience as a reward.  Additional experience is awarded for completing quests, role-playing your character, and whatever else the GM decides you may or may not deserve.  After you accumulate enough of these points over a number of play sessions, you are then able to advance to the next level, gaining new abilities, growing in your attributes, and generally becoming more powerful and of course much much cooler than your friend’s character.

The last campaign I ran, which will hereby be referred to as ‘Rising Dawn’ (because that’s the grandiose name I decided to give it), was played in the Pathfinder system.  We played once a week over on Roll20, with occasional multiple-week breaks in between.  Over the course of approximately two years and about 90 sessions give or take, we brought a starting party of six level one characters, down to a party of three level sixteen characters before the campaign kind of fell apart on many fronts, leaving my longest-running game unfinished.

Though this hasn’t been my only foray into running Pathfinder for my friends, it was certainly the longest game I’d GM’d for, with characters reaching their highest levels that any of the players had ever gone.  Throughout the campaign, I messed around with the rules, the loot, changed the way the main story was going to go at least three times, and gradually progressed to a new way of handing out XP (at least, new to me).

At the end of each session, I spent some time writing up a short session summary (well lets be honest here, there were plenty of times that these summaries weren’t short).  At the end of that summary, I would leave a record of loot gained during the session, and then a log of XP gained by the party as a whole, broken down to show them what earned them what.  This, I reason, lets the players know how close they are to their next level, and shows them that I like to reward them for roleplaying and doing neat things in character.

This…was a terrible idea.  I am a procrastinator by nature, which meant that I would generally put off writing up these summaries until a few days after the session, which meant that I had forgotten about parts of what happened.  Not only that, but it felt to me to be a rather long and arduous task to spend a lot of time writing these things, and breaking down the XP.  Not only that, but I began to find as we hit the higher levels that it was taking much too long for my players to gain their next level.  And so I began to arbitrarily award them XP in order to hasten the process along; usually this came in the form of boosting the rewards they got for completing quests, or extra XP for a monster that they defeated, but sometimes I just threw in items like ‘made me laugh at your pun’ and called it a day.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough.  Eventually, as time got on, I began to make these session write-ups less and less frequently.  Sometimes I’d skip three sessions without a write-up until I got around to feeling like it, and then stuffing some really inadequate words together in the hopes that no one noticed their absence.  After some time…I stopped.  And I had a brilliant idea.  I’d heard of GM’s who did this, but I’d never thought to try it myself.  What if…instead of tracking a group’s XP bit by bit, as mentioned in the rulebook…I simply decide when the party was ready for their next level?  They’ve defeated a few interesting challenges?  We can reward them with a level-up!  They’ve spent the last six sessions at level three?  Yeah, they’ll probably be ready for level four now!

This is revolutionary for me, and I really enjoyed using this method of handing out XP.  In fairness, I only got to use it twice before the campaign fell apart, but I liked it.  This brings me to the main question of my post:  How should I award XP for my upcoming Kingmaker campaign?  The six books in the Adventure Path clearly expect you to follow the standard Pathfinder rules for awarding experience points, as well as having some additional rules about when it is appropriate to award more.  Additionally, each book is designed for the PC’s to start the adventure at one level, and end the book at another.  As the game is focused around exploration of an area, the group is supposed to be awarded XP as they journey through and explore the map as well.

Having never run a Pathfinder Adventure Path before, I’m unfamiliar with how the expectations of the book will jive with the expectations of me and my players.  It obviously expects me to award XP one way, while I’ve enjoyed awarding it another.  It’s certainly possible for me to assign the players their levels based upon what they’ve managed to accomplish in the story– but it may or may not work as well as what the adventure was designed to do.  So ultimately, it comes down to this:  I will be asking my players what method of XP gain they prefer, and a group consensus should help alleviate me of my troubles in choosing.


2 thoughts on “XP, or ‘Have I leveled up yet?’

  1. The newer Adventure Paths tell you, “the party should be level X by the time they reach this section,” which is handy for the level up whenever style of play. But Kingmaker was one of the early ones, and in any case its sandbox-y nature makes it hard to ensure that the players have accomplished much of anything before they wander into certain areas. I’ve read accounts of parties getting to the presumed end of Stolen Land at 1st level.

    The sandbox kinda complicates the Adventure Path XP question in other ways, possibly regardless of what style you use. If the DM supports it, it’s pretty easy for the players to move off into uncharted territory and have adventures that have little or nothing to do with the book. Or some DMs have even insert other published adventures or scenarios into the AP. What happens when the group meanders back to the plotline – do they stomp all over the chapter’s end encounter because they’ve out-leveled it? And what does that mean for the next adventure if they’re starting off at a higher level?


  2. We were ecstatic that you dropped by, Daddy DM!
    I’ll be a recipient of all of the inspiration you’ve offered Matthew, so thank you!
    Even in PFS, the opposite of sandbox, organized play that has pretty hard and fast rules, the best games with the best GMs, use the written stuff as a guide for themselves and a springboard for the fun of the table. What happens when the group runs off the rails? Follow them! Modify accordingly. No scenario survives player engagement, right? The writers aren’t there to yell at you for doing it wrong and if the table thinks you’re doing it right, it’s all golden. Generally that means not too easy and not too tough and that’s something you learn with time and experience.
    I say that it’s golden, but honestly, in our group, the whole XP thing seems . . . negotiable. We seem to be there to play and that appears to be its own reward, really. I confessed to Matthew earlier that I hadn’t even noticed when he altered XP delivery. Leveling is exciting, yes, but until you get there, it’s all just numbers and I’m pretty sure I’m not entirely alone when saying that I couldn’t care less. We’re a bunch of method actors though. So.
    That said, I’ve experimented. I prefer player-facing systems when I GM. When GMing, I’ve experimented with delivering a tiny improvement at every session and it was too much hassle for not enough reward.
    When at first you don’t succeed. Two interesting things I’ve recently found . . . The Freeport scenarios (which they offer in several systems) will add and take away XP of individuals, determined by individual actions. Part of me finds this infinitely cool in a video-game achievement sort of way. But, so much work. The new GUMSHOE game, The King in Yellow, offers group improvement on the roll of a die, which, while fascinating and possibly thematic for a horror system, might be too punishing for some groups. I’d ask mine before trying either variation. Still, I’d honestly expect that they wouldn’t care one way or another.
    That’s our group. Or my perception of our group. Results will vary!


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