Zombie Murder Mystery

The Equality of Experience

Written by Nicholas - Published on February 8, 2010

The distribution of experience for play is almost as important as the play itself. It has a huge impact on the group dynamic, both in and out of game. I don’t think I need to tell you how important it is how a character’s power stacks up against both his allies and his enemies. Even with something so important, a good chuck of it is outside the strict rules. Things like roleplay and social experience is largely in the DM’s hands. So how do you distribute it?


This is the more modern way to distribute experience points; it is favored by 4e and more recent games. Characters level at the same xp total and each receive an equal cut of combat, skill challenges and such. Although it is not explicit in 4e rules, but it seems like individual awards to specific characters are frowned on. Even characters whose players are not present for the session are assumed to keep up.

This is very convenient for bookkeeping and planning. You don’t need to take into account a level gap when planning encounters. Only one player in the group needs to keep track of the xp total instead of all of them keeping track of their own. It also doesn’t punish players who have to miss an occasional session.


The more old school way. In the older editions of D&D different classes leveled up at different experience totals, so there was no point in making sure everyone got the same experience total. Even if everyone in the party had 5,500 xp they would still be different levels.

The advantage is this method frees you up to give out individual rewards. A particular player advanced the plot or had a great bit of roleplaying and you can give them an XP reward. You can also reward the players who make out of game contributions like writing an adventure log or an in-character journal. You can also choose if you want to give xp to absent players. On the one hand it rewards the players who are committed to the game, but can discourage players who might want to jump back in. Besides, we all have other obligations sometimes.

It can be more of a pain for the DM. Planning combat is tricky if you have a big diversity of level. You want baddies that your lower levels have a chance of hurting but your high levels won’t trample over. Ideally you would be encouraging your players to bring their best to the game to earn xp, but you may end up just breeding resentment within the group.

Test Based

Although difficult to implement in D&D, some other games side-step the entire experience distribution system. Games like Call of Cthulhu and Burning Wheel advance entirely by increasing skills through use. Logically it makes sense, the more you pick locks the better you will get at it. It is individual award system but a strictly objective one.

When planning for games like this it is mostly impossible to suit things to the group, you just make things you think are right and let it go how they may. Overall this is the most realistic method but it can lead to test grubbing. Players can try to force skills where they don’t belong or manipulate circumstances for the test they need.

How do you distribute experience to your group?

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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20 Responses to “The Equality of Experience”

Zombie Murder Mystery
  1. Swordgleam Says:

    I’m all about leveling by fiat, but then, I don’t have too much G in my RPGs. It bypasses a lot of the problems with xp of any kind – awarding it for roleplay vs combat, sneaking around or negotiating with enemies vs fighting them, etc.

    It also has the advantage that players can level up at dramatic moments, instead of randomly after knocking off a group of kobolds. I once told a player, “The party is about to level, and we both know you’re facing your personal nemesis this session. Prepare a leveled-up sheet, and switch to that halfway through the combat.” It worked great, the player got his shining moment, and then everyone else levelled up at the end of the session.

    When it comes to using xp, it really depends on the sort of game. For a more oldschool, more G in your RPG, I prefer individual – gives it a sense of friendly competition.

  2. Tzorec Says:

    Great article. Thanks. I agree, experience is complicated! I use a double system – monster and trap XP and everything else XP (social interaction role playing, story development, a player doing something brilliant, trying something new, etc.). Monster XP is essentially synchronized being divided roughly equally between players while the other XP gets is more individual and doled out for players doing other stuff. I find the other stuff XP encourages players to role play more and actively participate in every aspect of the game not just in combat. This system means players all love combat (all get XP) but also enjoy immersing themselves in the story (and hopefully pick up even more XP).

  3. Esspkay Says:

    I actually don’t give out XP. Ever. I don’t want it to be the focus of the game and I don’t want that extra bit to calculate. I level characters where appropriate, designing arcs that will take them through a certain amount and level (I use the term loosely) challenges and then I tell everyone they’ve levelled. For example, at the end of last year my PCs spent a lot of time battling pirates on the high seas. They levelled when they got back to land and the characters had a few months in-game to recuperate. During this time they studied, practiced and honed their skills. Overall, I think it works quite well and the players seem to dig it, focussing on the story more than the XP rewards.

  4. Mike(aka kaeosdad) Says:

    It depends on the type of game you are running. Cinematic fast paced adventuring, as well as epic dramatic storytelling works best for leveling by fiat.

    test based is great, but the if going that route the dm needs to ensure that there are opportunities for all players to contribute to the end goal of the test. this way all pcs can earn a reward without feeling either cheated or useless. sort of like running skill challenges.

    If you run a game featuring a rotating cast of heroes/almost heroes, where players come and go and the game is about exploration and bold adventuring over drama, the rewarding individually works well, so long as the individuals who made it to the game got rewarded evenly.

    by far the worst method I think is to reward experience points individually on a case by case basis.

  5. Bookbuster Says:

    I’m using a modified version of the Synchronized method in my 4e game. PCs all get the same XP from encounters, and all level up at the same time. However, during the game I hand out tokens for good RP and out-of-the-box thinking. Each token is good either for one re-roll, and can be traded around the table. Unused tokens at the end of a session are handed back in for 100xp.

    The first person in the party to reach the amount of XP required for the new level triggers a level-up for everyone else in the party, and everyone starts the new level with the same amount of XP. The first player, though, receives the “GM’s Favour” divine boon as a reward, which grants a small bonus over the next level.

    I’m a new GM and they’re all new players, but it’s working pretty well so far. The tokens are quite prized.

  6. Nicholas Says:

    @Bookbuster: Wow, I really like that idea that the first one to reach the level triggers it for everyone but gets a special bonus. I think I’m going to run that system by my players.

  7. gull2112 Says:

    We gave up tracking xp somewhere in our 3.5 days. Now, I just need to make sure the party is of an appropriate level to face the encounters. I usually level them up at a dramatic beginning or end of an encounter.

    My switch to a non xp based method was predicated on simple questions, first and foremost, which way was more fun, which way was easiest, and which way prevented meta game thinking.

    The answer was obvious, I level my party up when it is appropriate to the story. As we say on Obsidian Portal “the story is the game.”

  8. mmKALLL Says:

    I myself prefer the invidual way. I also use it to ‘punish’ a player if he/she calls just as I’m preparing the game or so that “I cannot attend today’s session.” Of course, I will give that player the same amount of exp as the others if this is known beforehand.

    My players also like to sometimes split up or go solo. The invidual way makes these parts more realistic(although I end up by giving less exp for solo play so a player wont over-level).

  9. Steve Says:

    I give two tiered XP. Tier one is the XP for the session — this is evenly divided between the characters based on the challenges faced that session. Only players who show up get this.

    Tier two is given out individually to players. I note down whenever the player adds something to the game beyond the norm: It can be great roleplaying, figuring something out, coming up with a brilliant strategy for the party to use in combat, a great one-liner … pretty much anything. So long as it adds to the story, or the enjoyment of the group.

    While it’s possible for the tier two points to be very uneven, I find this rarely happens — the players pick up on it quickly, and if you reward what you want to see at the table, the game is more enjoyable for everybody.

  10. Jenny Snyder Says:

    @Bookbuster that’s actually pretty brilliant, and I have these fantasy coins I’ve been dying to find a way to use.

    Generally, I have a little spreadsheet that details what an encounter budget should be, and then I aim for 1.5 that for the actual encounters, guesstimate at how many skill challenges there were, and then somewhere in there go “ta da, you have leveled!” I agree, it’s awesomest either right before a big fight, or right after as a reward for defeating the boss.

    But since everyone levels up at once, none of us really track actual XP points. It’s become far less of a method for measuring a player’s experience, and far more a budgeting tool for designing encounters.

  11. gull2112 Says:

    I agree with you Jenny, experience points are a mechanic that should be handled out of sight. Having players keep track of experience points encourages meta-game thinking.

  12. Nicholas Says:

    I wrote this one because it is something I’ve been thinking about for my own game. Well, you guys have been very helpful! I’m going to be adopting Bookbusters xp system, now I just have to wonder if I should keep the totals secret until they level. Hmm…

  13. Steve Says:

    @gull2112 – While out of sight can be a good thing, it’s usually not a good idea to pretend that the players don’t know what gets them experience points and what does not. They do. Meta-gaming (“I must be close to a new level — let’s kill something!”) becomes less well informed, not absent.

    Like it or not, if you are using a reward system in your game, the players will act accordingly. Whether or not they will get an in-game award (XP) will influence their actions. It’s the nature of reward systems.

    If you want to get rid of this influence, do not do XP out of sight — get rid of it. Tell your players “we are not doing XP in this game. I will tell you when you level up.”

    If you want to alter the influence, tell them how you’re influencing it: “I want this game to be silly. The character who is silliest in game (without disrupting it) will get a 10% XP bonus each session.”

    The behaviour you see amongst your players will often be heavily influenced by how the game rewards them for playing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in their face or not.

    I would argue that if you’re making any in-house alterations to the way XP is distributed or using it as a tool to influence player behaviour, the mechanism should be visible so they understand exactly how it is being handed out and what their GM is rewarding.

  14. TheWhite Says:

    I like Bookbuster’s idea of giving out even XP with tokens for other epicness. I tend to give even XP for combat otherwise (in the combat heavy games that we tend to play) everone just goes for damage dealers. Last 4e game that we tried had 3 players playing strikers, 1 defender and 1 controller (me). The defender died and re-rolled another striker, so the count is now 4 strikers and my bard. Early on it was OK but by the time I hit level 3 everyone else was level 4 since they just did more damage so got more kills. By the time I hit level 4… we all died because of a distinct lack of ability to do anything other than charge ‘n’ smash.

    Basically, the more combat centric the game is the more important it is to have equal combat XP (or some equivalent system), the more RP elements and non-combat challenges you have the less you need to do this.

  15. Tzorec Says:

    I agree. Meta-game thinking is not automatically bad. DnD, like every other game, has rules and one of the challenges facing players (and DMs alike) is how to be use those rules to win (for players) or make the game great fun (for DMs and players). I also allows DMs ‘hooks’ to get players interested in things they might otherwise ignore. For example if role playing gather information is rewarded for the player’s ingenuity and determination with either XP or say the location of some treasure it encourages players to become more active in the story part of the game.

  16. LordVreeg Says:

    Christmas, Nicholas…this query is actually a fundamental building block of game design. Hell of a topic.
    The type, duration, scope and amount of roleplaying in the game are all tremendously affected by how experience is given out. As was mentioned, progress and growth are reinforcers.

    I went skill based years ago mainly because of this. Your example in ‘test-based’ is similar to mine; “any game where a character gets better at picking locks by killing people is not a game for me.”

    And everything is a skill, so everything is a test. Hit points are a skill, and can only gain experience by combat or by literally being hit. All the social skills are, as well. So all the EXP rewards are in the same mechanic, including social.

    The reason I went this way, however, hearkens back to the original question…what type of game was I creating (for myself and them)? I play long campaigns, so internal consistency is important. Levelling by Fiat or based on plot also infers that the GM can do it any time, regardless of player action or non-action. The thrill of real Accomplishment is completely watered down due to this. “Drink Roleplay Lite”.
    This comes down to how the players perceive their actions affecting their success.
    The longevity factor also comes into play when players find their characters getting better based on what they end up doing and based on where the game takes them. I saw a mage becomeing more of a healer-priest, based on the death of the group healer at one point, as well as an assassin pretending to be a priest becoming half-way competent int he priest role. This only happens in a game with organic development and the proper reward structure.

    Another issue is the cooperative level of the group. I tend toward an old-school feel, with adventuring groups sometimes not all working together. mmKALLL mentions this, and I have many of the same symptoms often in the game.

    I also need to point out that the definition of Metagaming is defined as, ” metagaming is the use of out-of-character knowledge in an in-character situation. A character played by a metagamer does not act in a way that reflects the character’s in-game experiences and back-story.” Metagaming and Roleplaying are mutually exclusive.
    Now, it’s a game and has rules, and anything with rules will have some metagaming.

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  18. Mortuorum Says:

    I unapologetically give out individual XP. However, everyone who shows up gets an equal share. I calculate experience more-or-less based on the 4th Edition rules; players get XP for combat encounters, skill challanges and good roleplay. To expand on the topic of roleplay, I don’t give out awards for individual roleplay; the whole party shares the award. In my experience, this discourages “mugging for the camera” and — more importantly — peer pressure has proven far more successful at encouraging full party partiicipation than the carrot of individual awards.

    Once the first character reaches a new level, everyone who is two levels below that immediately gets enough experience to advance to the next level. That way, there is never more than a one-level gap between the highest- and lowest-level character. Recetly, I have started giving out “catch-up experience” to other characters whose players participate regularly, but have fallen behind… I’m still working on the formula, but something in the neighborhood of one-quarter to one-third of the experience needed to reach the new “par level” seems about right.

    I stat encounters based on the highest-level character. My players are much better at the tactical game than they are at strategizing or roleplaying, so the higher difficulty is not usually a problem.

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