At the end of each session, expedition or mission, everyone who participated gets experience points (XP). The recommended base value is three points, although this number may be changed according to the length of the session and the needs of the campaign. The XP award is adjusted based on how the party fared in that session, and given to each participating player (not divided up between them).
As a rule, there should be two “loss” conditions that can reduce the group XP award by one point each, and three “success” conditions that can increase the award by one point each. In addition, DMs may offer each individual player the opportunity to stake a single XP on a goal of their choosing. The conditions and available goals can and should vary according to the specifics of the campaign; below are YAOSC’s default “fantasy exploration”-oriented XP awards.
– Losing materiel penalizes the award by one point. Small losses should be ignored, especially in the opening moves of an extended campaign, but in general a party that expends significant resources with no return probably hasn’t improved much.
– Losing personnel penalizes the award by one point. NPCs who die in the line of duty do not have to be counted (although there should be social repercussions within the game world for parties who regularly sacrifice their followers), but if any PCs die, the party probably hasn’t improved much. Horror-themed campaigns may set the bar a little higher, only imposing a penalty if two or more PCs die in the same time period.
+ Victory gives a bonus point. If the party has completed a major mission, fully explored a moderate-sized area, recovered a significant treasure, defeated a recurring villain, or slain an especially fearsome beast, they have probably improved, and the DM may reward them with another XP. A victory bonus is based on major party achievements, not necessarily victory in battle or even the defeat of an opponent.
+ Being awesome in play gives a bonus point. Clever plans pulled off smoothly, skillful teamwork that snatch success from the jaws of failure, dramatic and cathartic role-playing, and other bits of play that impress and entertain the DM indicate that the party is improving. Note that lucky dice rolls, or long shots that count on them, do not earn a bonus point: getting lucky with the dice in a tense situation is reward enough. Awesome play on an individual rather than team level should be rewarded with an MVP point; see below.
+ An accomplishment gives a bonus point. If the party reaches some interesting milestone in their adventures, they are probably improving. Mapping a whole dungeon, finding all the special sites hidden in the forest, and other accomplishments that don’t readily fall under the “victory” or “awesome” headings may merit this bonus.
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In addition, each player has the potential to adjust their individual reward: at the start of play, anyone who wishes may choose a goal under one of the rubrics of Acquisition, Challenge, Conquest, Discovery, or Exploration. The goal should be specific to the campaign rather than simply invoking the rubric – so simply choosing “Exploration” is not a valid goal, or even “exploring the jungle,” but “finding the watering-hole where the animals enforce the Law of the Jungle” is.
For good team cohesion, the players may want to discuss their options and choose character goals that don’t conflict with each other. (It’s fine to have everyone select the same goal: that just means everyone will be on the same wavelength for a while.) Achieving your specific goal through play gets your character another bonus XP when awards are made, but carries a risk.
If the character fails to get closer to their goal (or gets further from it!), their individual XP reward is penalized by one point. In effect, making an individual-reward goal is placing a bet of one XP that it can be accomplished. (Note that failure resulting from DM fiat rather than player choices should not be penalized; the player backs their stake with their character’s skill and their own engagement in the game-world and story.)
* Acquisition is getting something material or useful: a great treasure hoard, a legendary magic sword or ring, a castle or tract of land, a formula for a spell, the broomstick of the Witch of the West. If the character ends the session with it in their possession, they get a bonus XP. Remaining empty-handed – or worse, allowing the treasure to be stolen by someone else, or the castle burned and sacked – merits a penalty.
* A Challenge is performing some great feat. Crossing the Mountains of Madness, bringing the world-egg to its hatching-place, and the like. Some “challenges” (e.g. slaying the beast that haunts the moors) may be more accurately represented another way (e.g. as “conquest”), but it’s not a huge deal: “challenge” is intended as a catch-all category for goals that don’t fit neatly elsewhere, but the only reason I made categories at all was to get players thinking about different kinds of goals they could pursue. Failure implies that the character has not learned how to meet the challenge yet, and results in a penalty.
* Conquest is overcoming opponents. This may be through combat (slaying the dragon, taking the head of the bandit king, routing an opposing army) or other means (humiliating the vizier and seeing him driven from the court; convincing the princess to marry a suitor of your choosing instead of your rival’s son). Defeat or stalemate means the character cannot yet overcome their enemies, and results in a penalty.
* Discovery (in contrast to Exploration) is solving a mystery. Understanding a riddle, learning the identity of the Masked Man, finding the source of the corruption in the village, tracking the werewolf to its lair. Penalties are imposed if the players stymie themselves, muddy the waters, or do something so catastrophic that the puzzle is no longer solvable. (Probably no bonus should be given if they stumble into the answer through sheer dumb luck, either; keep in mind that these XP rewards are for good play and are given to show that the character has improved and therefore become better able to meet their goals.)
* Exploration is finding significant new things in the game world. In a megadungeon this might be a matter of getting to the lowest level, mapping most or all of one extensive level, or uncovering a hard-to-find or hard-to-reach location. A penalty may be applied if the character does nothing but retread old ground, or if they cause a pathway that they had planned to explore to become closed to them.
Finally, the group may choose to award one final bonus point to an MVP: if some character saves the party, advances their goals dramatically, or simply manages to entertain everyone with engaging play, the other players may reward them with an extra XP. This is a player-side version of the “awesome” bonus that the DM can award.