Use experience points to motivate

Use experience points to motivate

Many games use experience points, and if you game master such a game, you might wonder when the best time is to handout XP – before, during, or after? I’ve done all three, and there are pros and cons to each approach. Here are a few tips.

Character wants

Characters live for experience points. They want to improve and increase their odds of surviving, beat their opponents, win their struggles, and get the loot. Characters also want to learn, as everyone does, what works and what doesn’t. They need feedback. A delay in feedback, as in real life, creates a disconnect between the action, its results, and the reward. This slows learning down.

My current system of XP is to hand it out after each battle, skill check, trap, or puzzle during the game. I try to squeeze these in immediately, while the numbers are still flying around, before another encounter starts. This method doesn’t impair roleplaying or immersion, and gives characters short term feedback.

I’ve also noticed handing XP out after encounters tends to get the energy and excitement flowing again if an encounter was tense, stressful, or fatiguing.

For roleplaying encounters and story-based XP, I hand these out during sessions too, but I wait for the correct moment. A good roleplaying scene gets damaged if you throw XP numbers out there. It forces players to break character as they confirm, “Was that 100 XP Johnn just said?” or chatter about how close they are to leveling up.

This means one or more encounters could play through before a natural, numbers-friendly time occurs where I can toss out roleplaying or story experience point rewards.

As far as the PCs are concerned, life experience gained through interaction and experiencing things is more subtle than swinging a sword and knowing instantly if you should duck in return.

Player wants

Among their many motivations, all players want reward. Even if they don’t want their character to advance quickly in experience (I’ve always liked to stay in the low to mid levels without advancing fast – gotta live in your character’s shoes for awhile before hitting the Big Time) they are always pleased with reward, which sometimes will be experience.

The players I’ve met prefer to level up their characters between sessions. This gives them time to think about their options. It also lets them show up to the game with character already modified and set to go.

So, I advise against giving experience points out just before sessions. I’ve done this, but it’s not optimal. Recently, I got behind on game admin, and gave out XP at session start, and a couple PCs leveled up. The players were gracious about it, but it made them rush to make character updates.

Game master wants

What do I want as GM? I want as little math as possible. Math isn’t bad, and XP math is simple, but it’s one more To Do and another potential point of error.

I also want to be organised. I don’t want to backtrack through monster entries or encounter write-ups to remember all the factors that went into an experience award calculation.

I also want my players to have fun and to feel rewarded. I want to give them feedback about intangible aspects of the game, and I sometimes use experience points to indicate whether something was handled optimally, just ok, or poorly.

After years of handing out XP at different times, including before, during, and after, I’ve found it easiest to hand XP out during sessions. Best case, as mentioned, is right after an encounter if it’s not intrusive.

I’ve also found that group-based experience points is easiest. I used to give out XP bonuses or calculate XP based on actions-per-PC and given each character an individual XP award. This took time, was trickier to organize, and sometimes hurt player feelings.

Nowadays, everybody gets equal XP. If an individual generated XP by his actions, I add the XP to the pool and divide it equally amongst the party.

This method makes calculations easier. It also makes record-keeping easier as everybody will have the same XP awards. Players often help balance each other’s XP accounting because of this, so that’s one less admin task for me.

It also increases teamwork. People are emotional – especially in a gaming environment where there might often be serious stakes. Some players might take an XP award, exclusion, or omission the wrong way and get upset. Equally distributed XP prevents ruffled feathers, and if your group doesn’t mind this method, I highly recommend it.

The problem of mid-session experience points = mid-session level up

If you hand out experience points during sessions, then you’re going to have PCs who level up during sessions. We already discussed how many players prefer to take their PCs home and ponder their options before committing to levelling the PCs. So, there’s a potential issue here.

My answer is to keep a current gauge on how close characters are to their next level, and to use delays when the PCs are close to going up a level.

Do this with quick notes made at the end of each session. Get experience totals from the PCs. Then note the XP characters need to make the next level (calculating the difference ahead of time gives you a faster measure during games).

If the PCs are close, here are my tactics:

  • At end of sessions: warn players their characters will likely level up next session and to prepare their choices ahead of time. When the characters level up mid-session, the players will already know what to update.
  • Between sessions: send out XP reminders when you send out your game confirmation notices, session logs, or general chatter.
  • In-game: delay XP awards for one or more encounters if you know a break is coming up. Then you can break, hand out XP, and the players can level up while the game is paused.
  • In-game: if the session end is near, I’ll also delay XP awards by an encounter or two so the game ends with a level-up.

Between session periods also allow players to make changes to their PCs’ powers and abilities. It’s a house rule we’ve had for years and my players love it.

The spirit of the rule is to allow players to change things they are unhappy with about their PCs. The restriction is to not cause continuity or consistency issues with the story told so far. My group doesn’t abuse this, and most changes are based on players’ concepts for their characters and not power-gaming. Your mileage will vary.

The great thing about this rule is hasty decisions made during mid-session level ups can be corrected after the game. This reduces the stress of making such character choices during games, and speeds up the mid-session levelling process a lot.

Tracking experience points during sessions

If you hand out XP during games you need to track awards carefully. Players will usually pay attention and track things well, but there’s always a time when the group needs to do a quick audit to confirm what XP has been handed out.

I track experience point awards by making bullet point notes in my session logs. I’ll note the XP awarded and the reason. All PCs get the same award, so I only record the per-PC amount, not a total for the group.

This is fast and simple, and record keeping takes almost zero time for me. Here’s a copy and paste of a snippet of last session’s log notes:

Guards - 114 XP
Fire ball trap - 20 XP
Archers - 75 XP
Villagers - 100 XP
Good tactics - 100 XP
Fomorian - 210 XP

The Tactics award near the bottom was given because the group displayed great teamwork in that encounter, and I wanted to recognize them for that.


My advice is to try handing out XP during sessions as the group earns them, when it isn’t distracting. Keep good roleplaying or storytelling going and wait for a numbers moment to catch up on experience awards. This keeps maintenance and admin to the minimum, and gives players recognition more frequently during games. They were going to get the XP anyway, but multiple awards keeps spirits up and energy levels higher.

When do you hand out experience points for your games?

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