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Here it was suggested more than once that running away from a too dangerous encounter should add as much experience points as defeating it. This struck me as really odd and made me wonder what exactly experience points are anyways? Are they just a way for the DM to tell the players they're "doing it right", as in playing the game the way the system in place likes to be played?

I looked up experience points in pathfinder, but it just says

"As player characters overcome challenges, they gain experience points. As these points accumulate, PCs advance in level and power."

If the result is an increase of power, then shouldn't training give much more XP than unrelated events? - In video games like Baldur's Gate I never thought about why giving 10 gold to the little girl I just freed from the slavers gave me additional XP on top of an increase in reputation, but now in pen-and-paper I think about things. What does it really stand for?

I could see it being a sense of increased maturity more generally, which in turn indirectly affects everything else. But I haven't been able to find any quotes about what experience points stand for in pathfinder or dungeons and dragons in general.

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They are like M&Ms for Wraiths –  TysoThePirate Jan 10 at 23:25
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I decided to become a level 50 magic user by seeking out and running away from all the powerful monsters I could find and reasonably be able to escape from. ;) –  Michael Jan 11 at 0:58
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But after a few levels that became boring and I invented new challenges for myself... such as taunting powerful monsters with illusions while I hide in invisibility –  Julix Jan 11 at 1:17
    
I have heard of players buying a donkey and killing it for the XP. If I was the GM, that would have to effect their alignment. I hate the thought of doing something in RPG just for the mechanics, but taunting monsters is different because you are practicing skills that might come in handy during an adventure. –  TecBrat Jan 11 at 13:17
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Really, experience points are just a game mechanic, used to incentivize and/or reward certain behaviors

As noted in the passage you quoted, they are meant as rough indicators of the experiences that help a character learn, grow, and improve herself...but any close mapping to how real people learn and grow is tenuous at best.

Would apprenticing with a high level wizard help you master new spells as quickly as shooting orcs with magic missiles day after day? Perhaps, but it wouldn't make for an interesting game incentive.

Some GMs assign XP only (or primarily) for defeating monsters. Others use them to reward clever solutions to problems and/or great roleplaying. In either case, looking too closely reveals that XP are really just a means to incentivize and/or reward certain behaviors.

Pathfinder without XP

As a side note, at least half the Pathfinder (and other 3.x) games I play nowadays don't actually use them; the party just levels up when it fits the story.

In general, I'm a fan of doing away with XP in Pathfinder, but there are downsides to doing so. The main advantages I see of using XP versus simply leveling by GM fiat are:

  • XP provides visability which some players will appreciate (e.g. I've accumulated 4226 of the 5000 XP I need to get to the next level), and
  • Assigning XP values by the book may avoid arguments with players who think they should certainly have levelled up by now.
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Experience points are a way to track a character's progression in class levels.

That's it.

It's not necessarily a measure of how much fighting experience the character has unless that's how the GM chooses to use it. It's not necessarily a measure of how far the story has progressed unless that's how the GM chooses to use it. It's not necessarily an indicator that the character did something useful unless that's how the GM chooses to use it.

In reality, it's a bit of all of the above. Some GMs only award XP according to strict XP tables after characters kill things. Some GMs award XP to characters when the player brings in pizza for the group. Most award it for exactly what your quote says - overcoming challenges.

If you say to yourself "why did my fighter learn Power Attack because we found the secret tome in the library?" you're thinking too hard. It's simply a tool for tracking progression, and it's up to your GM to make sure you advance at an appropriate speed.

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Heavily group and game specific

This is something that is intentionally left vague, because every group has different ways they want to go about it. You’re basically right when you say they’re “a way for the DM to tell the players they're ‘doing it right’” – that’s basically all they really are.

XP is a reward, the most intangible and DM-adjudicated reward. Loot, favors, plot, those all depend on certain events happening, certain characters or objects being present, and so on. Those are things that sometimes the DM may have to give out for consistency’s sake even if the players didn’t really “earn” them, because the events of the story would make no sense if the players didn’t get them. Far more commonly, the players may have “earned” a reward, but those things wouldn’t make sense to appear.

So in comes XP. It’s something totally up to the DM. Most agree that killing monsters should give XP, and there are rules for how much XP a given creature is worth that, if followed, will generate a leveling rate that the system’s designers felt was appropriate. Pathfinder even has alternate XP tables for fast or slow leveling, if you want alternate rates. But you could just as easily decide to make things “super fast” or “super slow” by giving more or less XP. You can decide that certain methods of killing don’t count, certain methods of not-killing do count, and so on, and that will affect both the level-up rate and the sorts of behaviors that you encourage the players to do.

All of this works best when the players both understand and agree on the things that will and won’t get them XP. A DM who is seen as being “stingy” with XP may, with many groups, cause some resentment. At extremes, it may cause considerable dissatisfaction with the game (“jeez, we have been playing for like a year and we still haven’t leveled up even once!” – plenty of games go very smoothly with such a slow rate because players are aware of and on board with that, but since most games are faster many players will be surprised and unhappy with it if it isn’t communicated ahead of time).

So just talk to your players. If you tell them they’ll get the same XP for running away as they would for killing, they’ll be much more likely to use tactical retreats – which can free you up to use more dangerous monsters and trust the players to use sound judgement, but also could lead to overly-timid players unless you have a strong plot-related reason for them to get past the monsters. If you tell them they only get the XP if they get past the encounter, but they don’t necessarily have to kill it, they may invest heavily in stealth or forms of travel that allow them to skip enemies – this can be clever and interesting, and improve the game, or it can mean the players rarely actually interact with enemies and that can be boring. If you tell them they have to kill things to get XP, expect them to go hunting for things to kill, to default to violence as the solution to all problems, and so forth.

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Like hit points, experience points don't really have one single well-defined meaning.

Experience is a reward system and pacing mechanic.

  • Normal adventure stuff (fighting monsters or facing other kinds of challenges that get a CR assigned to them, like traps) gives XP to provide a sense of progression and encourage players to keep doing it.

  • Some groups use ad-hoc XP awards to reward certain additional activities. Sometimes that's clever strategy, sometimes it's heroic action, sometimes it's "good roleplaying" through in-character dialogue, sometimes it's straight-up outside-the-game stuff like hosting the session. In D&D, this is often seen as a way for the GM to tailor the game to the group's specific preferences without having to hack the actual rules much; this technique can be successful up to a point, but note that just attaching XP to something doesn't create a full-fledged reward cycle.

    PF SRD offers a semi-formal version of this in the form of "Story Awards" for climactic moments and major accomplishments:

    Story Awards: Feel free to award Story Awards when players conclude a major storyline or make an important accomplishment. These awards should be worth double the amount of experience points for a CR equal to the APL. Particularly long or difficult story arcs might award even more, at your discretion as GM.

  • D&D has a rather mixed history of using XP penalties to limit, discourage, or straight-up punish certain behaviors as well. D&D3.5 tried to use XP penalties to discourage multiclassing, for instance. AD&D 2nd Edition made you lose XP for changing alignment.

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Experience points are a way to reward players for some behaviours (i.e. whatever the DM thinks is good behaviour) and can also be used to punish bad behaviours (by withholding a reward or reducing experience points directly). They also give a way to advance the game in discrete steps (levels) while still giving players a noticeable advancement every session.

The flavour, as I've understood it, is that it represents how much a character has 'learned'. Since it would be over-complicated to track many different types of experience (say, for every skill, every type of weapon, and every school of magic) outside of a computer game, all these types of experience are rolled into one. Some systems manage to have experience separately for different abilities, but usually this only works because either there are only a handful of abilities to keep track of or each level only requires a small number of experience points (single digits) as opposed to many thousand.

If the DM wants the players to roleplay, he may offer roleplaying experience to players who do so. If he wants a simple hack-and-slash dungeoncrawl, he'll award experience for dungeoncrawling behaviour - finding treasure and killing monsters. If he wants a campaign that focuses on political intrigue and spying, that's what he'll award experience points for. This is a simple but powerful way to direct players. In original D&D, experience was primarily awarded for finding treasure, and also killing monsters, so that was what the rulebooks said to give experience for.

Players like experience points because they know that they usually are there to stay (except for character death, and some spells or special abilities of foes) and so after every session where a character has gained experience points, they fell that they've advanced or improved somehow. Also, leveling up is a nice feeling, and experience points basically say "You're closer to leveling up again! Feel good!" This is part of why many systems require large amounts of experience points to level up, and also reward a lot of experience at a time - +100 experience feels better than +1 experience, even if they're both 1% of the way to next level. More granular experience also lets you give smaller rewards, but since systems like that tend to give at least multiples of 10 each time, it doesn't end up being an advantage during play.

Overall, they're a mechanic that steers your players and keeps them focused on whatever you want them to, since they want the experience and you are their source. If you suddenly were to only award experience for cutting down trees, and the players knew that, then they'd probably all stop chasing monsters and searching for treasure, and become lumberjacks.

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