Obtaining and Awarding Roleplaying and Non-Combat Experience Part 1: A Guide for DMS

"D&D is all about combat. The experience point system encourages the kill-everything-you-meet approach." How many times have you as a DM heard this complaint, or how many times have you uttered it yourself? And it is a grievance with merit—after all, the rules for awarding non-combat XPs are sketchy at best, encouraging the view of the game as intentionally hack-and-slash. To this end, I would like to present for your gaming enjoyment a system that standardizes and categories situations in which non-combat XPs can be awarded. This article comes in two installments; the first part is for DMs and the second part is for players. Let me begin by presenting the table which sums up most of these situations and which serves as the lynchpin for both articles:

Non-Combat Experience Table

Action Nominal Satisfactory Substantial Outstanding
Defeat enemy in combat --- --- CR ---
Defeat enemy w/o combat --- --- CR ---
Survive trap --- --- 2/3 X CR ---
Defeat trap --- --- CR ---
Good idea unsuccessfully implemented by other 25 X lvl 50 X lvl --- ---
Good idea successfully implemented by other --- 50 X lvl 75 X lvl ---
Good idea successfully implemented by self --- --- 75 X lvl 100 X lvl
Successfully implementing another's good idea 25 X lvl 50 X lvl --- ---
Good Roleplaying 25 X lvl 50 X lvl 75 X lvl 100 x lvl
Accomplishing a goal 25 X lvl 50 X lvl 75 X lvl 100 X lvl
Using a class ability successfully outside combat 25 X lvl 50 X lvl --- ---
Using a skill successfully outside combat 2 X rank 2 X rank 5 X rank 10 X rank 15 X rank
Contributing to game outside session 25 X lvl 50 X lvl 75 X lvl 100 X lvl
Ad Hoc 25 X lvl 50 X lvl 75 X lvl 100 X lvl

Actions and Results

The table is divided up into actions and their results. Results are further categorized by success: nominal, satisfactory, substantial, and outstanding. A nominal success is just that—an action that, while successful, produces a slight useful results, either in terms of game mechanics or in terms of adding fun to the game. An example might be using one's jump skill to ford a small stream which the other characters are wading, thereby avoiding getting wet. If the character has some slight but real reason to avoid getting wet, this is a nominal success. A satisfactory success is a result where there is a small tangible benefit. In the above example, if the character used his jump skill to ford the stream and avoid getting wet, thereby protecting certain papers or documents valuable only to the character, that would be a satisfactory success. A substantial success is when the result produces a moderate to large tangible benefit. If the character jumped the stream and avoided ruining spell books or documents important to the entire group, that would be a substantial success. An outstanding success is an accomplishment that produces an unexpectedly large, even amazing benefit. If the above character precariously jumped over a particularly large stream to avoid ruining an item vital to the quest to save the princess or the kingdom, that would be an outstanding success. It is true that DM's discretion plays a large role in determining the degree of success of an action, but the above categories go a long way towards guiding his or her decision. It is further necessary to note that success does not only encompass the "crunchy," numbers part of the game; if the action adds to the over-all experience, either by encouraging immersion in the game or by simply increasing the fun for all (in an in-character way), it is also a success.

Multiplying by Levels

The remaining question concerning the chart is according to whose level do you multiply? It can't be the character's level, or otherwise disparities in levels of party members will continue; the third edition experience system rightly seeks to make all members of the party the same level eventually, and this system does the same. Therefore, if the character gaining the XP is the highest level member of the party, the number in the above chart must be multiplied by the level of the lowest character in the party. If the character is the lowest level member, the number must be multiplied according to the level of the highest party member, and if the character gaining the XPs is neither highest nor lowest in terms of level, the number must be multiplied by a middling level. For example, in a party consisting of one 4th level character, two 5th level characters, and one 6th level character, any award the 6th level character gets from the above chart will be calculated by multiplying a number from the success category by 4, the level of the lowest party member. The 4th level character will multiply his number by 6, and the 5th level characters will multiply theirs by 5. In a more disparate party, calculate the s of members of middling levels by multiplying according to the level of the closest to the mean, rounding up for members below the mean and rounding down for members above the mean. For example, in a party of one 4th, one 5th, one 6th, and one 7th level character, the 5th level character would calculate awards by multiplying by 6, and the 6th level character would multiply by 5. The highest and lowest members of the party would still (and always) calculate their rewards by multiplying by the lowest and highest levels respectively and as stated above. It's really not as complex as it seems, and use will show it to be very intuitive. Or if you are still intimidated, just multiply the number from the chart by the mean level of the party (it won't close the disparity in levels so quickly, but it will be easier).

Types of Actions

All that remains is to discuss the various types of actions.

Defeat enemy in combat: This is the traditional combat encounter, the bread and butter of the game. It appears on the chart simply for sake of completeness, and should be calculated using the chart from the core books.

Defeat enemy without combat: An enemy need not always be defeated through battle. Tricking an enemy, befriending it, talking to it, intimidating it, or avoiding it (not fleeing from it) are all ways to defeat an enemy without combat.

Survive Trap: This type of action means setting off a trap, surviving it, and getting past it; it means taking the damage from a trap or incurring an ill effect from it but still bypassing it. If the trap is reusable, and characters set it off but do not make it past the trap, they get no XPs.

Defeat Trap: This means bypassing a trap without taking damage or incurring an ill effect from it, either through disarming it or through some other creative means.

Good idea unsuccessfully or successfully implemented by other: This type of action refers to the situation where a PC is the "brains behind the operation," where she comes up with a useful idea but for whatever reason does not implement it herself, either because she is unable to or because she chooses not to for other reasons. Good ideas are too myriad to be individually described. The only stipulation is that they cannot be ideas concerning "traditional combat" or implemented therein; the DM should remember that the XP reward for combat and ideas pertaining to it is already covered by the core XP chart.

Good idea unsuccessfully or successfully implemented by self: This is similar to the action above, but the PC also takes upon herself the potential risk of implementing the idea, thereby garnering a larger award.

Good Roleplaying: Aye, here's the rub. This is a very controversial thing, and each DM certainly has his own idea of what constitutes good roleplaying. There are, however, some basic principles that comprise good roleplaying. The player ought to remain in character when speaking as the character; if the character is not a "talker," his actions must remain consistent (characters that are "talkers" arguably have more opportunities to be rewarded for this category). Good roleplaying does not necessarily involve interaction with other PCs or NPCs, either: a player could get an XP award for this category for responding to damage or the death of a loved one with a moving soliloquy. Although it may sound like an evasion, it is difficult to further explain this category beyond resorting to a definition similar to Justice Potter Stewart's characterization of pornography: a competent DM will know good roleplaying when he sees it. A final note: one thing good roleplaying is not is a successful bluff, diplomacy, or intimidate check unaccompanied by more than a marginal speech; these latter successes are covered by "using a skill successfully," below.

Accomplishing a Goal: This is to be awarded when the PC accomplishes a task that is in some way instrumental to the quest or to the character.

Using a class ability or skill successfully outside combat: This is fairly self-explanatory but must be awarded with caution. Generally abilities like laying on of hands, or healing or buff spells do not warrant an award, and anything that is directly related to the PCs' success in combat is also not to be rewarded. In using skills, the rank to be multiplied by the number in the chart is the rank of the character using the skill.

Contributing to game outside session: It is particularly important that the DM use discretion when rewarding for this category, but generally it refers to something which relates to the PC that the player does outside the session for the good of the game. For example, the player could write an extended speech, write a detailed background for the character, produce art, write a poem, detail his castle, detail a part of the world that is relevant to the character, or numerous other things.

Ad hoc: This category covers anything experience worthy that does not fall under one of the other rubrics. It is to be noted here (and perhaps should go without saying) that things which increase the fun of players but which are not game related, such as joking, bantering, and bringing food, do not warrant any experience.

Hopefully this piece helps bring clarity to the murky depths of the non-combat experience conundrum. It is obviously not a hard, fast science, but it is useful nonetheless. In our next installment, we will discuss ways that players can maximize their non-combat experience point rewards.

Read the second article in this series.