XP Systems #3: An Implementation for D&D 5e

This post is going to cover the implementation of the system I discussed previously in my home campaign. It will be a bit different from the previous two posts in this series. Instead of defining a problem and trying to solve it abstractly, I’m going to walk through what I created and talk through the logic behind the decisions I made. In theory, I could defer most of this work to session zero, but I’d prefer not to do that, so that I can have some time just to focus on the decisions I’m making without distraction. Realistically, the XP progression stuff is probably something I have to prepare before the campaign anyway.

Group Goals

Before I dive into group goals, I want to talk a bit about the campaign. It’s going to be an exploration-focused campaign, and we need to accommodate players who can’t attend every week. Other than the idea of having an exploration-focused game, it’s not a West Marches campaign. We’ll be handling exploration as a hex crawl, and I expect to be doing quite a bit of improvising at the table (hence the need for an XP system that doesn’t require a lot of prep). I bring this up now because exploration is one of the three pillars of play that Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition defines.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides several ideas for goals you can use when creating adventures. I looked over these for ideas, but I didn’t find them very helpful. They were too specific for my needs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful. Group goals should be tailored to the type of game you’re running. Another thing I considered when creating my group goals were the three questions from Dungeon World: Did we learn something new and important about the world? Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy? Did we loot a memorable treasure? I did end up using tweaked versions of these in my goals since they are something that has worked well for my group in the past.

Broadly speaking, there are two things I wanted my group goals to accomplish. I wanted them to touch on all three pillars of play, and I wanted them to be a mix of specific and general goals. A specific goal is a goal that requires the game to be in a certain state to be completable. For example, if you have a goal such as “Kill the dragon”, then it’s going to be pretty difficult (effectively impossible) to complete if there’s no dragon around. That’s not just specific; it’s too specific. General goals are ones that reinforce the campaign’s themes while putting minimal burden on the game to be in a certain state. I ended up with an even mix of both specific and general goals, though I tried to keep my specific goals from being too specific.

I wanted to a mix of specific and general goals because it’s a difficulty slider the players can impose on themselves. If they stick to the general goals, those should be easily doable, but that might make for a boring game. If they pick only specific goals, then the story they need to tell to make those all happen should be more interesting, but there’s a chance they might not complete those goals and consequently receive less XP for the session. That’s the theory, anyway. I’ll need to see how these play out over the course of a campaign to see whether that’s the case in practice.

These are the eight group goals that I plan to use. The first four are specific goals while the last four are general goals.

  • Find an awesome treasure
  • Defeat a nortorious monster
  • Foil a villainous scheme
  • Liberate something or someone from an enemy
  • Push further into the frontier
  • Learn something new about the world
  • Demonstrate your mettle
  • Forge a new relationship

When creating these goals, I tried to keep them short and evocative. To be honest, if I hadn’t looked them up when writing this post, I couldn’t tell you the specific wording of the quesitons from Dungeon World. These better reflect how my group has tended to answer them, though I admit the wording on “Defeat a notorious monster” is meant as a reference to Final Fantasy XI.

Most of these should be pretty obvious, but I found it tricky to come up with good goals for the social interaction pillar of play. The problem is that it’s very easy to come up with specific goals for that: gain the trust of an ally, change the disposition of someone, and so on. At the same time, I felt something like “Make a new enemy” was too general. The players’ characters don’t typically have trouble making enemies, so that’s not something that should need much encouragement. After initially phrasing it as “Forge a new friendship”, I revised it to “Forge a new relationship” based on feedback from one of my players. XP Progression

XP Progression

Thanks to some design decisions behind the XP progression in D&D 5e, it took some trial and error to come up with a progression that I liked. I have a few goals that don’t quite align with each other: lower levels should follow the progression suggested in the Dungeon Master’s Guide; higher levels should take longer than lower levels; and all of this should use the standard XP progression, so that it all just works in D&D Beyond.

The problem I encountered with 5th edition’s design is that the designers wanted to get more people into higher level play, and there is even a dip in the amount of XP required to go from 11th to 12th level compared to from 9th to 10th level. Apparently, the designers found via player surveys that many people were losing momentum around that point, so they made 11th level faster to get people into higher level play. That’s understandable, but I don’t actually want high level characters to be common in my campaign setting. I ended up using several different progressions based on the tiers described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (Local Heroes, Heroes of the Realm, Masters of the Realm, and Masters of the World).

Before I detail the different tiers, I need to discuss which level to use when calculating XP awards. If you’re lucky, everyone will be the same level, and that’s all you need to consider. Given the structure I outlined earlier, the cast of players’ characters is going to grow and change over the course of the campaign, so mixed-level parties are going to happen. There are several approaches, but these are the three I consider most reasonable: receiving XP based on adverage party level, receiving XP based on the maximum party level, and receiving XP based on one’s individual level. Of these, I think only the last two are worth using.

Tying XP to average party level punishes higher level characters for bringing lower level ones along with them. Awarding XP based on the highest level of the party provides a way to catch up lower level characters while awarding it individually based on each character’s level has an element of fairness to it. I haven’t decided which to use in my game, but I am leaning towards the last one: based on individual character level. The differing advancement rates of each tier should provide a slight catch up mechanism.

The tiers themselves break down into the following blocks, granting the indicated amount of XP per goal completed. I chose to fix the amount of XP at the Masters tiers instead of scaling it to emphasize the slowdown in progression. In real time, going from 11th to 20th level should take about twice as long as going from 1st to 10th level. What I hope to see if the original set of players’ characters retire to run things while new characters go out to make the discoveries.

  • Local Heroes (levels 1–4): level × 75 XP
  • Heroes of the Realm (levels 5–10)
    • 5th level: 580 XP
    • 6th level: 685 XP
    • 7th level: 825 XP
    • 8th level: 1,035 XP
    • 9th level: 1,160 XP
    • 10th level: 1,500 XP
  • Masters of the Realm (levels 11–16): 1,250 XP
  • Masters of the World (levels 17–20): 1,000 XP

Using The System in Practice

When awarding XP itself, I follow the system pretty much as discussed. Completing at least one individual goal awards XP appropriate for your level while completing both awards (the same) XP and a point of inspiration for the start of the next session. Each group goal completed awards XP appropriate for your level. As I noted above, this could mean awarding different XP to each player in a mixed-level group. That could get confusing, so I’m planning on tracking the number of goals completed per person and then awarding a total amount of XP all at once for each player. It reminds me a little of the way XP was handled in the 3rd edition of D&D, but I’m hoping it works a little more smoothly.

It goes without saying that this requires some testing, but we’ll have to do it live and make adjustments in the campaign as we go. I expect it should be obvious pretty quickly whether my approach for mixed levels is problematic. I don’t anticipate too any issues with the XP progression itself, since it’s calibrated to advance at a certain number of sessions per level, and we’ve been using a system like that in some form for a while (in Dungeon World, Pathfinder, and Open Legend).