Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 01, 2017
XP in 5E: At best muddled, at worst cheated

If you bought the next World of Warcraft expansion promising you 10 more levels, you would expect a certain quantity of content. If you found out that in fact the expansion had only one zone and the xp given out per quest were artificially boosted to give you 10 levels in a short time, you would feel somewhat cheated. This is a bit the impression I get from the official WotC adventures published for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons: The back of the book promises some level range, for example from 1 to 15 for Princes of the Apocalypse, but the sum of the experience points of the content in the book doesn't get a group from level 1 to 15. The DM needs to pad xp to make players get up in levels faster than described in the rules in order to have the group at the right level for the next dungeon. So somewhere the adventures have less content than promised.

If you want to see it in a less harsh light, at the very least the xp system in published adventures is somewhat muddled. It starts with the fact that 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons does not have a standard group size by design, like 4th edition had. Different adventures and books give different numbers between 3 and 7, with some adventures being designed for let's say 4 players, while others give a level range, like "4 to 5". Princes of the Apocalypse doesn't say anything about the expected number of players. Adventures generally don't adjust the number of monsters to the number of players (although of course a DM can decide to do so, there just aren't any hints in the text what numbers of monsters would be fitting for different group sizes). So if you play a dungeon as written, the more players you have, the less xp each player gets, because encounter xp are divided by player numbers. In Princes of the Apocalypse, in the first 4 dungeons, the overall xp of each dungeon would need to be divided by only 2 players if each player was supposed to get enough xp to earn a level per dungeon as it states in the text. With 4 players you are short by half, with 5 or 6 players it gets even worse. As I wrote in my previous post on the subject, I will give out double xp for most encounters to my group, plus some "quest xp" in order to get the numbers rights.

Of course some people like to play without experience points at all. Instead of calculating xp you can use "milestones", as in "at the end of this dungeon you gain a level". That works reasonably well in a linear campaign. However Princes of the Apocalypse, and many other official WotC adventures, aren't supposed to be linear. The dungeons of PotA are interconnected, and players can wander from one dungeon into an adjacent one, without having reached a point that could reasonably be defined as a milestone point. Even worse, the level progression of the adventure assumes that the players visit each of the 13 dungeons, but the story progression would make it more logical to skip certain dungeons altogether. For my campaign I will need to add story bits that give the group a motivation to visit the dungeons they would normally skip.

In one of the early videos that WotC put on YouTube to show people playing 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, the DM Chris Perkins at one point said: "Make a whatever roll". The "whatever roll" to me represents very much the design philosophy of 5E. 4th edition was a very solid rules system, which was perceived by some as being too rigid. So 5E was designed to be far more flexible, "rulings, not rules", to give especially the DM far more freedom. While that works well in some areas, I still believe that it is important for the social contract of playing a tabletop role-playing game that the areas where the players most care about are governed by rules, not rulings. Players care about their character levels and progression, so the rules about that should be solid. In 5E they aren't. They are at best muddled, and at worst the published adventures just plain cheat with xp. As a DM that doesn't "give me freedom", but rather forces me to fix a mess that WotC left me. And I am not very happy about that.


I was under the impression that the official campaign modules all defaulted to the "milestone" system for leveling and advancement.
Well, at least Princes of the Apocalypse simply doesn't say. It only says that this dungeon is for this level and that dungeon is for that level, but doesn't specify how the players get from one level to the next, or where exactly the milestone is where that happens.
We just leveled when we felt like leveling, and scaled the encounters to fit that. Worked rather well and kept progress consistent, without forcing players to play for exp. (and without having the DM jump through hoops to make exp gain fit)
I honestly think your biggest mistake is running pre-written adventures. They always strike me as incredibly disjointed, lacking in realalistic motivations for characters and they always seem to play fast and loose with everything. I've tried on numerous occasions to run them both in 4e and in pathfinder and I always feel like I end up having to do a considerable amount of work *fixing* them that I should have just spent creating something specifically for my players. I do like to steal their usually high quality art assists however.
Are all the current adventure modules at least this flawed? Presumably you'd done some research and bought something that was supposed to be decently designed. Hard to believe they don't have something out that doesn't require so much tinkering.
@Perkus: The Starter Set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn't require much tinkering and can be played right out of the box. I haven't done the detailed xp calculation for all the other books, but from discussion on forums I know that the xp system doesn't add up in any of them. As Nicholas said, you are supposed to introduce "milestones" and just handwave the whole level progression system in all those official campaign modules. I don't want that.
Why are you playing a version you hate? Just throw away the book and play from your old ones.
And if you do want premade adventures, let me again strongly recommend looking at Pathfinder. D&D 3.5 compatible (though Pathfinder has enough minor improvements that it's sort of 3.75), plenty of reviews, generally high quality, covers a full campaign from start to finish, available in French. It might fit your bill nicely.
@ Tobold,

Are there any "scripted" elements in these modules you talk about, that allow the DM to make judgement calls in terms of how a story-line progresses? When I say "scripted", I'm talking about possibilities or situations that might arise from PC actions or statements, where the scripted element might be hidden from the PC's, but are used to initiate encounters or trigger the next advancement of the story-line. I once played with a DM who was amazing with the way he implemented situations like this, and as a player I never once felt like he was hand-waving or giving out experience needlessly. The way you describe these modules almost sounds as if they've been designed as a ride-on-rails with no kind of parallel depth.
Have you seen the alternative XP system that Wizards recently posted as something to try out?

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