Fiddling with XP, Part 1: The Past and Present

Improvement over time is such an integral part of role-playing games (in general) that it has become the de facto indicator for RPGness in computer games. And there are plenty of different systems. I’m partial to one in which using a skill or trait in question leads to improvement for that skill or trait in particular, at a rate that starts out high and then plateaus out, like real-world learning or training tends to. I haven’t seen any games that use this specific system, though, outside of my own head.

A lot of games will give you “experience points” (XP, by any of a variety of names) for a generic pool that can then be spent piecemeal to improve various aspects of the character, even including social elements such as contacts and allies. While this is relatively dissociated compared to what I described above, it has the advantage of being convenient, simple, and abstract: players are free to customize their characters as they please without too much fuss and without needing to keep track of whether they managed to support every mechanical choice made with a corresponding choice during play.

D&D and similar class-and-level based systems take the abstraction a step further, and assume that all characters who share a class will improve certain traits in essentially identical ways. Player choice and control are reduced in favor of further simplification and convenience. Once a critical mass of XP has been amassed, a whole array of traits increase together. The trend in D&D itself has been a move back in the direction of customization: proficiencies and later skills, feats, even increasingly flexible “multiclassing” all step away from the one-size-fits-all approach inherent to class-and-level.

The question I want to look at now is not all that stuff, though; it’s the amount of XP involved.

D&D numbers always struck me as inflated-feeling: going from first level to second has long required over a thousand XP, regardless of which edition you use or which class you play. Original D&D required from 1200 (for thieves) up to 2500 (for magic-users and monks) for that initial step. That said, you couldn’t just divide everything by 100 and be done with it: it looks like the smallest XP reward for defeating a monster was a mere five points. What’s more, most XPs were expected to come from treasure on a one-for-one basis, meaning any reduction in the experience table would require the entire economy – from treasure values to the prices of goods and services – to be reworked. While I don’t know how they came up with the numbers they did, I assume that Gygax and Arneson had some sort of internal justification for the choices they made.

But the XP/level curve has fluctuated quite a lot since D&D was first published. Here’s a comparison between OD&D, 3.5, and the newly released 5th Edition “Basic” versions, as well as Pathfinder – first over the first ten levels, then up to twenty.

(Note 1: All values other than those for 5th Edition have been divided by ten for purposes of comparison. The new XP totals are smaller than those for past editions by an order of magnitude. But I assume that progression is NOT supposed to be ten times as fast – which means rewards will be proportionally smaller as well. What I am interested in comparing is not absolute magnitude, but progression.)

(Note 2: The first chart uses the OD&D Fighting-man as a representative progression, and extrapolates the 10th level value by assuming it will double, as seems standard. The second chart does NOT extrapolate further: instead it uses the monk progression from Supplement II, as it has highest number of explicitly-marked levels. So be careful when using the red lines as a point of comparison for the rest of the data; they’re not the same.)

Can you read the numbers? I have a hard time, to be honest.

Once more, with feeling

One thing that jumps out at us is how steep the curve for the new D&D is: it outpaces all of the others for a long time, passed by the OD&D monk at 14th level and by the Pathfinder progression, barely, at 20th. (Contrast this especially with the 3.5 progression, which is practically flat compared to everything else under consideration.) But we can’t really say much based on the curve without knowing how XP rewards will work.

We get a bit of a clue to those in this column by Mike Mearls. Here we see expected combat-based rewards varying depending on the difficulty of the encounter and the party level, but another irregularity is immediately apparent: Mike notes that “As a rule of thumb, the game assumes that characters of a particular level can defeat a total number of creatures with an XP value equal to two hard encounters before needing to take a long rest” [emphasis mine].

Looking at the chart he provides, we see that two hard encounters gives about 300 XP… which is enough to take a character from first to second level! I have to assume that XP from an encounter is supposed to be divided equally between all members of a party, since potentially going from level 1 to 2 on your very first day seems extreme, and would throw a monkey wrench into the learning curve of any beginners; they should be allowed to settle in and get a feel for the mechanics they’re working with before needing to make decisions for the leveling-up process. This leads us to the question of how long a high-level party is expected to take to level up: going from level 19 to 20 requires 50,000 XP, or about 16 level-appropriate “hard encounters.” And of course the question remains: what will XP be rewarded for? I prefer a system, like the old XP-for-gold, that rewards clever play rather than mere combat.

Well, I’m not actually here to judge 5E, not when the full rules haven’t even been released yet and without any experience of how the rules actually work in play. I kind of got caught up in hunting down numbers and making graphs and then speculating about their implications (it’s weirdly satisfying), but what I actually want to talk about – and will, next time – is an alternate approach to XP, to be thrown on the heap with the rest of my private assemblage of quirky potential house rules.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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