Johnn’s recent mention of the Ostrich-GM approach he sometimes takes to the question of how Administrators and Nobles get their character levels (comments, City Government Power Bases – Class and Level) struck a chord. There are really only two answers besides the close-you-eyes-and-hope-it-goes-away approach, and adopting one of them has some interesting implications for the rest of the game. NB: While this post is going to relate primarily to D&D and similar fantasy games, it should be applicable more generally. YMMV when it comes to any specific game system, though.

What do you get experience for?

Experience for NPCs derives from the same sources as for PCs. Essentially, this boils down to three distinct types of experience-earning event: Plot-based experience, Encounter-derived experience, and Metagame-derived experience.

This article will examine both, with a view to both expanding on aspects of Johnn’s post (and his entire series of articles), and to studying the lessons that this perspective provides on rewards in general.

Plot-based experience

Most GMs hand out experience for achieving significant steps forward in the plotline, i.e. for achieving a goal set either by the GM or by the players themselves. The size of the reward typically relates to the immediacy of the goal at the time it was set – small rewards (or no rewards) for short-term goals, moderate rewards for medium-term goals, and substantial rewards for achieving long-term goals and ambitions.

This category of experience excludes anything deriving from experience-earning encounters, but does encompass rewards for roleplaying, for clever skill use, and so on.

These are usually considered rewards for achievement, and that can be a problem, because it fosters a competitive atmosphere between the players and GM, not a collaborative one. Some GMs completely eschew experience rewards for plot-related outcomes for this reason.

XP for decisions and actions, not outcomes

I prefer to think of this class of XP as an award for decisions and actions, not for outcomes, which eliminates the quandary. Does a decision result in the plot advancing, or becoming more interesting or connecting to one or more players more strongly? That is something that should be encouraged, and hence a reward is entirely appropriate.

This has some interesting implications. Rather than rewarding success in achieving a plot point, you are rewarding engagement and participation. A player may in fact make it harder for the group to achieve a plot resolution and earn a reward by looking not at the most expedient path but at the bigger picture and long-term consequences, and persuading the other players to take a more difficult path to resolving the immediate challenge.

Challenge Level: The Trap Analogy

A perpetual question that vexes GMs who hand out experience for this type of behaviour is how much to award. Frequently, the scale is an arbitrary guesstimate. Few of them seem to realise that there is an existing mechanism and precedent for them to follow: Experience for bypassing or neutralising traps is awarded by determining a challenge rating for the trap on the scale employed for combat encounters.

If GMs simply assess each challenge, at the time it is posed, on the same 1-20+ scale used for Encounter Levels, he can immediately identify how much XP the challenge should be worth. As events unfold, subtracting the XP earned from encounters etc along the way leaves a balance to be awarded at the completion of the challenge.

This simple mechanism – with a slight tweak that I will get to in a moment – gives a consistent foundation to the award scale.

Enhancing the concept

I would even suggest going further; measuring time by estimated character levels earned before the challenge is resolved gives a natural fit to the existing scale. For example, in one of my campaigns, a character wants to change his current status (wanted fugitive, known throughout the Land, huge reward for capture) to Nobleman in good standing, with his own estates, because he has identified a political power-base as essential to his longer-term ambitions. My estimate was that this would require a minimum of 15 levels – 5 levels earned while obtaining the tools for creating a seamless new identity, and 10 levels earned while working through political games to achieve the social ranking that he desires. The challenge is therefore a level-15 challenge, and earns rewards as an encounter of EL15.

This approach carries a couple of additional benefits. If the character takes longer to achieve the goals, his character level at the time the award is bestowed means that he automatically gets a smaller reward. If the character discovers a shortcut and gets there more quickly, then he earns a greater reward – which is automatically capped, according to the rules.

In roleplay terms, it encourages the players to set concrete goals, rather than nebulous ambitions – the difference between “triggering a war between X and Y” and “encouraging war”. This gives the GM plot-development material for the campaign and a tool to automatically get a character’s attention with an NPC – simply by having them come from, or represent, X or Y.

A further benefit is that it affords a sense of scale in terms of the combat-oriented encounters that might have to be overcome along the way, simply by adding the character’s level to the Challenge Level set by the GM. If the characters are 9th level at the time they establish a level-6 goal, anything less than or equal to CR15 is balanced. With CR15 as the level of the ultimate roadblock, it is clear that lesser challenges along the way will also have lesser level.

Tweaking the concept

Which brings me to that minor tweak that I mentioned earlier. Because the GM has established a scale based on the difficulty of achieving the goal and the character’s levels at the time, he can adjust the difficulty with changing circumstances in the campaign OR choose to have it become progressively easier to achieve (but worth a smaller reward) or anything in between.

Take the example of achieving political power that I mentioned earlier. So far, the characters have earned about 9 levels while striving to reach the 5-level checkpoint – the ability to establish a bulletproof false identity – and aren’t quite there yet (another 2 levels worth to go, so they are currently at the 3rd-level stage of the challenge). That gives me the choice of either keeping the overall challenge at level 15 (in which case the political phase of the game will be cut short) or of increasing the overall challenge level to be commensurate with the current power levels of the characters. The difference between where the characters are and where they were expected to be when completing the current stage of the goal gives an always-accurate scale to the modifier required. (9+2 to go = 11; 5-2 to go = 3; and 11-3=8, so I can add up to 8 levels to the difficulty of the encounters and the challenges to be overcome in order to achieve the goal).

This is the only mechanism I have ever seen for resolving hard numbers for such an increase.

Reward-matching vs Reward Differentials

Another area to be taken into account is the question of Reward-matching vs Reward differentials, or more accurately, reward differences. Some versions of the D&D game system match xp with the gp value of other rewards, some view the rewards as a global value to be divided into various pools and sources. The latter approach means that the value of any treasure or other reward is subtracted from the total awarded, leaving the xp component of the total.

The difficulty of this approach has always been translating non-economic awards into hard valuations. Once again, however, this equivalence principle can now come to the rescue – assessing a non-financial reward on a 1-to-20+ scale means that an immediate xp equivalent can be determined. That makes the Reward Differential view practical.

For various philosophic reasons, I subscribe to the reward differential approach, as I mentioned in one of my more controversial posts here at Campaign Mastery, “A Different Experience: A Variation on the D&D 3.x Experience Points System” – I’m going to avoid getting side-tracked into why, and save that for a post some other time. But it has always bothered me that there was no way to incorporate all the other types of rewards a character could receive. Finally, this approach has yielded a solution to the problem.

What this means for Administrators and Rulers

Okay, so now we get down to the nitty-gritty. We’ve established that there is a type of XP that gets awarded in some games for decisions and actions that propel the plot forward or that otherwise engage the campaign or achieve an ambition, and assembled a game mechanics system for determining how much those rewards should be.

Administrators and Rulers set goals and ambitions all the time, and actively work to achieve them. That translates immediately into a source of experience for such characters.

Past actions and decisions by NPCs can either be “stuff that just happened to fill in the time/background” or they can be intended to justify or propel the plot forward, arriving at a signpost point (by happenstance) just as the PCs reach a position to be affected by the goal that the NPC was fulfilling at the time. That means that there is a second source of XP for such characters that boosts their awards SOME of the time – and the more that an NPC matters to the plot, the greater the additional awards that the character has received as a result of reaching the point of mattering to the plot.

What has been created here is an interpretation of the XP game mechanics that permits an administrator or ruler to gain experience for doing what they are supposed to be doing. In other words, Assessing an NPC’s past history by means of the Challenge Level system gives a concrete total of XP earned by the character in the course of that history.

Equally, this permits the fabrication of a background to match a desired experience point total.

What has previously been a matter of abstract guesswork has been replaced with a systematic and quantified approach. While not all of the guesswork has been removed from the equation – a GM still has to estimate what Challenge Level is appropriate for various goals and achievements – the questions that are now being asked are finite and specific and not general.

What this means for Adventurers

There are ramifications at all levels of interaction between PCs and NPCs. An NPC whose actions show that he is more capable than his history dictates can be assumed to have hidden elements to that history. An NPC whose abilities appear to be less than those that his history would make available may be someone else’s stooge, or may be taking credit that does not belong to him.

Administrators can possess hit dice, feats, class abilities, wealth, and magical enhancements aimed at furthering their goals, making them a match for the PCs. They are no longer pushovers.

Just as significantly, this system establishes a new class of activity for an Adventurer to pursue – an astute political manoeuvre can earn a PC as much experience as a hard-fought battle that achieves the same ends. This enables new types of adventures, new types of encounters, and new types of campaigns.

What this means for other characters

In fact, any activity practiced by NPCs can be classified according to goals and decisions. From:

  • an Artist choosing how best to depict a battle scene;
  • a farmer deciding how best to manage his planting and harvesting;
  • a bookmaker choosing what odds are best for minimising his risk in any given sporting event;
  • through to the blacksmith choosing what to craft next and the approach he will employ.

The scale of the goal determines what XP it is worth, and the XP accumulated in the course of a character’s history advances the character in level and increases their abilities, enabling them to become more skilled and more capable of setting larger goals.

Expertise correlates directly to past experience.

Game Impact

This system has a profound impact on the game. Effectively, every NPC has class levels. That’s a major alteration over the old-school assumption that most people did not. Adventurers become less defined in as a group by what they CAN do and more defined by what they CHOOSE to do.

The system encourages a number of positive roleplaying aspects – firstly, on the part of the PCs, but more generally on the part of the GM. Every character has a goal, every character has a history, and both of those are appropriate to the character. Those histories and goals will affect how NPCs relate to, and interact with, PCs.

NPCs become rather more capable than they are frequently depicted. If you have class levels, then – in a pinch – you can do as an Adventurer does, and are not completely a helpless victim.

Social hierarchies also develop naturally. Farmers tend to focus on short-term goals – seasonal, annual – and thus earn small amounts of XP. As a result, they are generally low-level characters under this system. Rulers and Administrators make bigger decisions, have more substantial goals, and thus earn more XP, giving them more levels. The abilities that they achieve are going to focus more on their own goals and ambitions than on the sort of mayhem that Adventurers are designed to cope with. So the PCs remain special to the campaign.

Ultimately, the game world becomes more challenging, and more consistent. Opportunities for plot development are opened that weren’t there before. It’s all good stuff. But it comes at a price.

That price is for the game to demand more insistently that a GM does his game prep.

There are shortcuts, of course, in fact the same shortcuts that GMs use all the time; when an NPC is needed, one can be created on the spot and the characters background and history assumed to exist. The GM need only create those elements that are necessary to the plot function of the NPC. Some experience may be needed to correctly assess what character level the NPC will have, but even that can be achieved by choosing an analogue from the Monster Manual which would be an appropriate level if reskinned; the creature’s CR then becomes the basis for an estimate of character level.

And, of course, giving an NPC one or more goals is always best practice, whether the GM is employing this system or not.

Encounter Experience

The second major source of experience for Adventurers is experience earned in encounters. Unlike the experience sources given above, these rewards result from the overcoming of an obstacle, whether that obstacle is a Trap, a magical effect, or a hostile creature. This is XP for outcomes, not decisions and actions.

It is important to note that this is the province of the existing XP game mechanics of D&D and related games; as such there is a lot less that needs to be said regarding it.

Type Of Outcome

The DMG makes it clear that the nature of the outcome is not important, only the achievement of it. It does not matter whether or not the opponent was defeated in battle (or the trap escaped, by extension), or was persuaded to stand aside. Only the relative difficulty (party level vs encounter level, degree of success (half XP if the enemy escapes), and difficulty (measured in terms of expenditure of resources) are significant in determining how much XP to award.

That’s actually very telling, because it means that overcoming any obstacle to the achievement of a goal earns the reward.

What this means for Administrators and Rulers

Rulers and Administrators come up against obstacles all the time. Just as PCs should earn XP for roleplaying and other Plot-based activities, so NPCs should earn XP for overcoming their obstacles, determined using exactly the same criteria.

When one noble manoeuvres another out of their way through politicking, the rival has been neutralised in terms of obstructing the goal. The character level of that rival should then be used as the basis for the experience earned exactly as though the character had been defeated in battle. If the rival escapes with influence and power intact, then it is as though he had escaped the conflict, yielding and fleeing to preserve their life. If the noble was forced to expend significant resources to achieve this result, he gets more XP; if significantly less resources were expended than might have been expected, he gets less.


There is a subsystem within the game mechanics enabling a net EL to be determined when faced with a combination of foes. I use a variant means of doing so – refer to the XP-related article I linked to earlier – but the principle remains the same.

This same system can be used to assess the balance between allies and enemies, between factions and challenges. If a Ruler is 8th level, he had better not be facing more than two challenges of 6th level or greater or he will be overmatched, unequal to the task of achieving his goals – at least not directly. To ensure success, he will either have to isolate the two from each other, or obtain an ally of his own, or persuade one of the two to ally with him. The other can then be securely crushed/overcome.

These need not be rival rulers that we’re talking about. They could be minor social problems, or a thieves’ guild that’s gotten out of hand, or a river that has been poisoned, or any of a hundred other challenges that the Ruler might face. Where two problems connect with each other, they are allied – for example the thieves’ guild with a corrupt police force. Either the problems are separated somehow, or the ruler will have to throw everything he has into overcoming the combination – leaving other problems aside for a while.

Battlefield strategic analysis, under this paradigm, leads to the appropriate political or social strategy. Once the goals have been defined, tactics can be constructed to achieve them.

What this means for Adventurers

Ultimately, it means very little, at least in direct terms. This is what they are already receiving, and that’s the end of it.

Indirectly, however, it can matter a lot, because it means that NPCs earn XP at roughly the same rate that PCs do, just for doing what the NPC is supposed to be doing – practicing their craft, administering their group, Ruling their domain. Their character level will reflect the challenges that they have had to overcome to achieve their current positions. They will not be pushovers or wimps, and will expect to be treated with an appropriate level of respect – and are just as capable of punishing those who do not offer it as any PC would be.

Metagame-derived Experience

Some GMs award extra experience for player activities that support the game – whether that be doing research for the GM, taking notes on behalf of the party during the game, providing miniatures and battlemaps, or whatever. This is an approach that I have advocated in the past, though it should be a small component of the overall experience tally. It is assumed that the benefits to the enjoyment of the game are enough of a reward, but some small encouragement is occasionally necessary.

This is the one source of XP for which there is no equivalent for the NPCs, the one edge that PCs have over the field. Certainly, the GM could reward the NPCs for the tasks that he undertakes in furtherance of his game, but this should never be an option the GM takes up. These are things that the GM should do anyway, and penalizing the PCs in comparison for doing so should not be an acceptable choice. What’s more, there are so Many things that the GM should do that if XP were awarded the NPCs for performing them, it would be quite unbalancing.

The Logical Conclusion

This article has been all about taking one simple assumption – that NPCs are to be treated by the XP system in the same way as PCs – and carrying it through to its logical conclusions. Generalising the meaning behind the existing principles and then identifying the analogous situations for non-adventuring NPCs provides objective frameworks for the awarding of experience to NPCs for activities that:

  • make them better characters to play;
  • make them more interesting characters to interact with;
  • make them worthy objects of respect by the PCs;
  • open up new gaming opportunities; and,
  • enrich your campaign.

You can’t ask for much more than that.

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