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My group and I are playing the Thunderspire Labryinth adventure for 4th edition, levels 4-6, and our DM added in a lot cool side-quests and random encounters. The only problem is that now we are already level 6 and we're only half-way through the module. Some of the fights are becoming brutal slaughters for the enemy monsters.

Furthermore, the DM is already setting up for the next module, but we may be above the expected level by the time we hit the next module.

What are some techniques for dealing with the excess experience accumulated from side quests and random encounters?

At this point, we are just considering taking less experience than we earn per fight, but who wants to have less experience than they earned?

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The problem is, the H series (or at least, H1 Keep on the Shadowfell) is designed to make players progress through levels at a fairly fixed pace: H1 for levels 1-3, H2 levels 4-6, etc. So adding encounters and unforeseen sidequests can wreck the leveling assumed by the writers. Your DM will have to adjust both the XP you gain in this module and the XP you get in successive H modules. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 12 '10 at 19:02
When in doubt, teach them fear. The DM should give them reason to hesitate and not think things are quite as they appear. For example, that lowly-looking fighter that they're not taking seriously deftly disarms the lead character, drops another character, and mocks them as he escapes. Or that cleric they rescue and offers to heal them and casts Cause Light/Medium Wounds instead.. which triggers the ambush. Of course, he should get away too. Or that thief's dagger was coated with poison. – CaseySoftware Jan 8 '13 at 6:07
Send the monsters on a sidequest. – Cristol.GdM Feb 14 '13 at 4:22
Some reason for the downvote? – Mark Rogers May 7 '14 at 3:22
up vote 21 down vote accepted

There are three ways to approach this:

  • Decrease the overall experience for each encounter (for example, only award 500xp for an encounter that would normally award 1,000xp "by the book").

  • Progressively increase the difficulty of later encounters (add monsters, increase monster challenge rating, or add environmental effects) to account for the higher-level players.

  • Just go with it, and let the players be overpowered.

You are, essentially, adding power to one side of a closed system. If you want to maintain the balance of the original module, you need to either subtract power to account for the addition, or add power to the other side.

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That is how I do it when I follow that path. I find, though, if I'm going to mess with the boxed text monsters, I usually go the other way and just increase the strength of the opponent to match the party. – BBlake Nov 12 '10 at 17:51
Increasing the strength of the opponents in this case would mean the players gain even more experience. If they want to go on to H3, which is planned for characters of levels 7-9, the DM would have to adjust that, too. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 12 '10 at 18:07
+1 to @Adriano's comment: Watch out if you make things tougher AND increase the XP - it will only get more out of balance over time. This will self tune quickly and add more excitement around non-combat interactions to compensate. – F. Randall Farmer Nov 12 '10 at 18:35
@Mark Rogers I mean reduce the actual experience total. So a fight that would have awarded 1000xp instead rewards 500. Reducing the monsters/monster levels will probably just make the adventure feel flat and unchallenging (as the players are already going to be above the challenge appropriate for the encounter as-is). – AceCalhoon Nov 12 '10 at 18:54
There are times when being overpowered can be fun for a brief period, especially when it is "earned". As long as it doesn't go on too long, I would go with #3. If it starts going on too long or people stop having fun, then #2 is a good way to go. Personally, I dislike #1. – TimothyAWiseman Jan 4 '13 at 0:21

Don't use XP. Just level the entire group at appropriate times. It removes a huge amount of busywork from the GM and players to calculate and award XP, avoids this problem entirely, avoids characters leveling at different times, etc. Our gaming group tried it once and never went back - it adds nothing for what it takes.

We've run four full year+ Pathfinder campaigns under this scheme and no one regrets it one bit. We level at the right rate for the game. In some cases (my pirate campaign) that's very slow - the PCs just hit level 7 and the campaign is 2.5 years along. In others we level right at the right pace for the Adventure Path or whatever we're using. No "the guy who missed some sessions is behind," no "but how does a new character catch up in level," no "let's spend an hour doing paperwork every game session."

Some claim that XP serve as a positive motivator GMs can use to shape PC behavior. Well, by default the D&D experience system only rewards mass murder; adding story or roleplaying awards etc. requires a lot of changes anyway. A good GM doesn't need that and can reward desired behavior in-game or can use an alternate currency (we use FATE points grafted onto our Pathfinder, for example).

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If the GM is just giving out XP at the end of a session, then they should have complete control of when you level, unless players want an itemized breakdown of XP, the GM can set the pace. – Covar Nov 13 '10 at 6:46
Right, but then everyone still gets to do math for the same result. Ditch the busywork if you're just setting the levels. – mxyzplk Nov 13 '10 at 15:18
Also realize that some players consider it a bad thing to not use the XP system. Some want that breakdown, and will be upset if you don't provide it. I've had several players like that. Further, itemized breakdowns have a small behavior shaping effect, through positive reinforcement. – aramis Nov 13 '10 at 19:09
For the D&D XP system to positively impact behavior, you'd need to change it so much from its default form you may as well discard it and use better motivators anyway. – mxyzplk Jan 3 '13 at 22:44

If the players are having fun, don't worry about it.

If they players are getting bored, you can change the module or agree with them to just say they cleared it out. Give them treasure and a small amount of XP. Move onto the next game.

If you change the module, do so in a way that makes sense to the fiction. Perhaps the main boss of the labyrinth has heard of the heroes' exploits and calls for help. He enlists aid from his boss, who happens to be a tougher encounter. His boss brings reinforcements, too.

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I have found that this often will balance out over time. When they get to be overpowered, they have an easy go of it for a little while, but they are not getting as much experience per encounter so the increasing curve of monster challenge rating will eventually catch up with the over powered party. If it's not coming back into alignment quickly enough for me, I do also use the suggestions provided by AceCalhoon.

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While it balances out eventually, in the meanwhile the players might be bored by the easy encounters. – Adam Dray Nov 12 '10 at 17:51
That's true, which is why if it goes on too long I alter encounters. I do find, though, that it can be fun to occasionally let them have an easy go for a few encounters and then spring a really hard encounter on them. Not often, but every once in a while. – BBlake Nov 12 '10 at 18:37

The solution that I used that was D&D specific is utilizing a creature that bestows negative levels. I always used the modules as a starting place and added or subtracted as I felt like. At one point I had a party that was heading into a module that could have beaten the main bad guy when they started. So I set a few wraiths on them which quickly set the levels back to rights. The major trick to this is making sure that you apply the damage to everyone equally as nobody likes to feel like they got beaten up on. You should also make sure that you can do enough damage with out doing to much. If you don't need to lose entire levels then it should equal out quite quickly without intervention on your part.

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Oooh. Brutal, but effective. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 14 '10 at 16:58

A quick fix that can help is to drop or remove the XP gain for quests in the published modules. You could use that as a budget towards random encounters and side quest encounters and skill challenges.

Then you can "repay" the players by granting greater monetary rewards for the quests, which balances out the fact that based on the parcel treasure award system, (at least the H series of) published modules grossly under-awards treasure.

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In my opinion, if the characters want to play the module and continue having a good time... beef it up! You can always add more adventure to a good adventure! Just because the original planned encounters are getting easier is no reason to withhold those Experience rewards that, in fact, keep your players coming back for more games in the future!

I definitely don't like level drain or removing experience as a solution to this problem. The idea that I am not earning and keeping every last point of hard-earned experience, along with class, monetary, educational, and prestige gain I deserve, is like slapping me in the face and saying "Well, you're just doing too well... we're going to have to let you go!"

I've had real world jobs do that; no way would I accept it in a fantasy role-playing game!

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Hey, welcome to the site. I got a mod flag on this answer on the grounds that "it's a rant thinly disguised as an answer," which is probably why all the downvotes. You could probably edit this to have less yelling and be more directly on topic and it would be better received. – mxyzplk Jan 3 '13 at 13:34
I think this answer was intended as a comment on sarge_smith's answer. – Mark Rogers Jan 3 '13 at 18:57
I fear it's a bit too long and ranty for a comment as well. It does answer the question in its fourth paragraph... – mxyzplk Jan 3 '13 at 19:39
Post edit, this is much better. It still seems like it's responding to another answer more than it's answering the question, but removing the yelling is much appreciated. Downvote reversed to upvote! – mxyzplk Jan 4 '13 at 22:01
Put the last paragraph first, I think it reads a little better, but I'm not married to it. – Mark Rogers Jan 7 '13 at 22:21

This is a solution I've used for my D&D 3.x campaign but it'd be good for a 4e campaign too IMHO. It doesn't fix the sidequests issue, I encourage you to apply one of the other answers to that specific problem.

I don't give out XP for random encounters (and my players know).

Yes, this is pretty radical. Of course this assumes you want your players to avoid those encounters.

My players used to lose entire sessions fighting casual encounter monsters just for the XP. Other than being a meta problem, it made everything they did free of risks. Why should going to the next town be a problem? If we're unlucky we get free XP with no plot implications.

Now a random encounter is just some unnecessary combat that takes away a lot of gaming time, with no in-game reward. It works.

(And they're still over-leveled because I can't express how badly written CotSQ is.)

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Force them to spend gold and in game time on training. That way they actually have to stop what they are trying to accomplish. Typically tables I've been at require 1,000gp and 1 week per level (IE 9k and 9 weeks to go to level 9)

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