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Don’t Let the XP Grind You Down
Dungeon Editorial
by Chris Youngs

If you watched the news the week before Christmas, you might have seen weather reports about snowstorms in the Pacific Northwest. I know, I know—up here, we tend to freak out over the least amount of the white stuff, but this was pretty genuine… at least for a city that boasts a fleet of only thirty plows. So the office was closed for a few days due to terrible road conditions, and while I sat home and watched the snow pile up, I got to thinking about snow days past.

I brought this up when we got back to the office, and Bart mentioned an all-D&D marathon during a snow week in his youth. What a blast! When they played—stopping only for food and the occasional nap—they didn’t track XP. Their DM would just tell them to level up after a significant period of adventuring had passed. The players didn’t even want to bother tracking XP--that took away from the marathon session. And the DM then didn’t have to track numbers. When he was ready to up the challenges, he had the players take a few minutes to level up their characters. The idea was that when you’re running a D&D marathon, you don’t want to spend precious gaming time calculating XP.

The results from last month’s question are in. As I, ahem, expected, Against the Giants beat the pants off of Tomb of Horrors, 43% to 37%. Thanks to everyone who participated in the poll!

I think this is brilliant! Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a thing against XP. In 4th Edition, it’s easier than ever to calculate and dole out. For most campaigns, it’s an ideal way to track character progress through the levels. Plus, that sense of anticipation as you creep toward your next level is great fun.

For most groups, XP serves as your barometer for advancement—heck, for the entire campaign’s progress! However, that means that for most DMs, on occasion, it can interfere with the story you’re trying to tell. I know there have been times in each of my campaigns, past and present, when my characters have advanced more quickly than I expected, and I’ve needed to tweak encounters on the fly to make them challenging enough. That can be a headache. I’ve likewise had experiences where groups have missed encounters, often due to smart play, so they haven’t advanced as quickly as I thought they would, forcing me to alter encounters in the other direction.

This isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I love that D&D is a flexible enough game that with the right group, you can just alter the XP system to achieve the same ends. Maybe you increase or decrease XP values by 20% for a few weeks until the PCs’ levels are back where you need them. Or maybe you just stop awarding XP for a few sessions until they’ve finished the adventure they’re on and are back on track. (Warning! This approach could be hazardous, and you might find your Mt. Dew spiked with Ex-lax or worse!)

Basically, XP shouldn't be a DM’s enemy. Just be sure to keep your group informed. If you’re going to fudge the numbers or start dictating when characters level (after a set amount of real-world time, or after in-game way points), let your players know and they’ll appreciate you for the heads up…. Or they’ll hate your guts and you’ll find your favorite mini’s decapitated head in your bed one morning. Regardless, the system can handle this quick and easy change.

Heck, I’m sure I’m missing some other easy fixes. Has XP ever limited your game in some way or proved a liability? What’s your story? And how did you fix it? Send us your responses to!

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