by Mike Shea on 26 January 2015
The 5th Edition of D&D has two primary ways to reward experience. The first involves calculating experience rewards for monsters defeated and quests completed and then dividing this up among the PCs.
For a second, simpler method PCs level when they reach a particular milestone such as defeating a particular menace or achieve a large goal. This requires no calculation of experience points but requires that you reward all PCs the same regardless of their efforts or the attendance of the players. For many groups, this isn't a problem. If you're running a group with a rotating set of players, however, such as a casual organized play game, this "milestone" method may not be ideal.
Today we're going to look at a third approach. This approach mixes the best elements of both of the others. In this approach you reward PCs who have attended with a fixed set of experience each session based on the level and rate of progression you expect for the adventures you're running. It requires very little experience calculation and helps ensure that even those PCs who might fall behind won't ever be too far back to be useful.
Let's say you're at episode 4 of the adventure and you expect this episode to take four sessions of play until you reach episode 5. You also expect that the PCs have reached level 4 at the beginning of this episode and should reach level 5 by the time it's over.
For this method of experience rewards we're going to award 1/4 of the experience required to go from level 4 to level 5 over the course of the four sessions. So how much experience is this? Let's build a formula:
The experience required to go from four to five is the difference between the total experience at level 5 (6,500) and level 4 (2,700) or 3,800. In other words, it will take a PC 3,800 experience points to go from level 4 to level 5. Now if we expect this episode to take four sessions, we divide this number by four which comes out to 850 experience per PC per session.
Here's the formula again:
XP Per Session = (Next Level XP - Previous Level XP) / Number of Sessions
Since this same number works for all four sessions, you only have to calculate it out once for each level, milestone, or episode.
This works well four two-hour D&D Encounters style sessions and expects that PCs level after every 8 hours of gameplay. You might divide by 2 instead of 4 if your games run 4 hours instead of 2. You can tweak the math however you want based on how fast you want PCs to level and how long your games typically run.
There's a nice advantage to a system like this. While players who miss sessions will never have as many experience points as those who play all the time, they will still catch up quickly since the amount of experience rewarded each session goes up. If a player is playing a level 3 PC in a level 5 to 6 adventure, which is certainly doable given 5e's flat math system, this PC will level quickly to 4 and likely hit level 5 before the level 5 PC hits level 6. Since the amount of experience it takes to gain levels increases as levels get higher, lower level PCs will find themselves leveling faster than higher level PCs. It's just the way the math works out.
You may read this and still find you're better off simply awarding levels for milestones. That's a fine way to go with a home group where you and your players don't care about tracking individual character progression. Some groups enjoy the disparity between PCs, however, and using a system like this won't set lower level PCs so far back that the players feel like they can't ever catch up. It also works well for casual organized play games in which players will move their characters from game to game. This system won't put a burden on the DM to calculate every point of experience every time they decide to throw a handful of kobolds at the PCs.
Use this style of rewarding experience as another tool. Keep it around and give it a try if milestone experience seems too abstract and full experience rewards take too much work. Above all, use it when it helps bring the fun of the game to you and your group.