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Related, but about a PC not participating at all in a combat: Do people get XP for battles they weren't in?

Generally, experience points for a combat encounter are divided equally among the participants.

If a PC does not participate directly in a combat, but significantly contributes to the success of the party in another way, should they count as part of the combat party for the purposes of awarding XP?

For example:

  • A PC scouts out the party that the PC's are planning to attack and relays back essential intelligence that allows the rest of the PC's to win the combat, but then the scout PC goes on another scouting mission or does something else rather than join the actual fight.
  • A PC provides equipment, buffs, money, logistical support, diversionary tactics, or other resources to those who end up participating in the combat, but withdraws before the first round of "combat" begins. For example, a PC turns themselves in to the Town Guard and confesses to an offense. While the Town Guard is occupied in processing the PC into jail, the rest of his party attacks Town Hall.

Are these kinds of PC's actually considered participants in the combat, even though they did not actually swing a weapon, cast an offensive spell, etc.? That is, these are PC's that contributed, but did not specifically have any "combat rounds" where they had opportunities to take combat actions, roll dice, be wounded, etc.

If whether these roles count for XP is dependent on criteria, what differentiates an XP-worthy support role versus a non-XP-worthy support role? Could it, as @NautArch alluded to, involve whether the support PC risks their life or endures a substantial risk of being drawn into a literal round of combat (even though they successfully avoid it)? It would be more plausible, I think, to award XP to a PC who pilots a scout balloon over enemy territory and risks being shot at (even though he ends up not being shot at because the enemy does not see him as a sufficient threat because reasons), than it would be to award it to a PC who stays at home and casts buff spells on those going out.

The real life equivalents of the characters that I'm talking about here are essential elements of any real-life military, militia, or law-enforcement group - they are the drivers, transport pilots, dispatchers, mechanics, radio operators, cargo loaders, intelligence analysts, scouts, code breakers, etc. who enable the literal people on the ground with the weapons to accomplish their job.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your 2nd bullet point is a lot of very different examples. You may get better answers if you separate them into separate questions with regard to specific activities and options your PCs may have with regard to NPC assistance. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 17 '18 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I'm not asking about NPC assistance at all. I'm asking about PC assistance, where one of the PC's fulfills a support role rather than literally taking up arms in a combat scenario. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 17 '18 at 18:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ OH! That clarifies things greatly. So are you asking if split party actions share XP with each other? If so, that may or may not be different than what you actually asked (or at least how I read it) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 17 '18 at 18:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch yes, that's what I meant. It's pretty clear that split party actions that are unrelated do not result in shared XP (e.g. one part of the party searches for a lost library in the northern wastes while another raids an orc camp far to the south that has nothing at all to do with the library). My question is about when the actions are related (common purpose or plan, etc.) (e.g. the diversionary party versus the main force, or the ship's crew versus the Marines below deck ready to storm out onto shore). \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 18 '18 at 18:26
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Per the SRD (pg 258); Emphasis mine

Experience Points

The number of experience points (XP) a monster is worth is based on its challenge rating. Typically, XP is awarded for defeating the monster, although the GM may also award XP for neutralizing the threat posed by the monster in some other manner.

The GM can award XP just for being part of the plan. They do not have to get the same amount, but they should get credit where credit is due.

  • The thief that is a distraction to a group of guards neutralized their threat just by making them be somewhere else.
  • The barbarian across town that blew up a building as a distraction.
  • The bard that bribed the guards days before so they wouldn't put up a fight.

See also: Are there alterantive ways to gain xp?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I think of this more as a heist. There is the architect who conceives the whole thing but doesn't actually do anything during the theft; don't they get a cut? Or the lookout? Or the getaway driver? Just because you didn't swing the sword doesn't mean you didn't help with the fight. What if the character was across town and blew up a building? Wouldn't that be a distraction influencing the fight? Or bribed guards days before so they wouldn't put up a fight? \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Jan 17 '18 at 18:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott that's exactly what I'm talking about. The PC's have a common purpose in winning the fight, and to do this, some of them have boots on the ground at the fight scene while others are doing things to support those with boots on the ground so that they win. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 17 '18 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Seems to me that the real question is if the attacking party would get to share in the XP earned by the decoy party (which should be substantial)... \$\endgroup\$ – CGCampbell Jan 17 '18 at 19:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a side note, the party should get xp for getting past guards even if none of them participated in combat because they found a way to avoid it altogether. \$\endgroup\$ – Shufflepants Jan 18 '18 at 15:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RobertColumbia, in that case, didn't the rogue just neutralize the guards that the party doesn't have to fight? If so, the rogue gets credit for his "kills." \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Jan 18 '18 at 18:31
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Yes

Of course, the DM is ultimately free to decide if, when, and to whom to award XP. Since leveling is the primary progression mechanic in D&D, XP awards are the primary incentive structure of the game. So the DM should award XP for non-combat assists only if that behavior is to be encouraged within the play group.

But always keep in mind - being denied progression for playing "wrong" isn't fun. If players are acting within the spirit of the game (i.e. cooperating, advancing the story/personal goals, etc.), and not trying to derail it, reward them for it.

Anecdotally, I once played with a particularly controlling DM who decided that characters only receive XP for a monster that they personally damage. Meanwhile, he didn't give spellcasters access to damage-dealing spells at level 1. So every spellcaster just cowered with a crossbow, and none of them ever made it to level 2. This all made sense within the fiction of the world he had built and the style of game he wanted to run - but he soon found himself without players. Because being unable to progress isn't fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this, too. I just couldn't find a written rule with this philosophy. So I didn't include it in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Jan 17 '18 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like your perspective on being denied progression. It raises the question of whether and how a PC could be created and progress if they are built around the idea of support rather than actual combat. One could imagine a "vehicles expert" PC who specializes in transporting his comrades into and out of battle, air-dropping supplies (extra potions, arrows, etc.), transporting messages, and scouting. Could such a character advance in level if they are usually out there driving stuff around while his comrades are in the thick of battle? \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 18 '18 at 16:47
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The only guidance for giving out XP appears on page 260 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

When adventurers defeat one or more monsters - typically by killing, routing, or capturing them - they divide the total XP value of the monsters evenly amongst themselves. If the party received substantial assistance from one or more NPCs, count those NPCs as party members when dividing up the XP

The general rule for 5th edition is to use regular English when the rules are not specific as to the meaning of a word.

Defeat... v. ... win a victory over (someone) in a battle or other contest; overcome or beat.

Substantial assistance (as in the tenant for NPCs) is largely subjective and would be entirely subject to the DMs ruling. There is no reason a character would have to fight to gain XP.

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In both your examples, the PC who is not in the actual combat is still participating in the process in an important way, and using his skills towards the party's effectiveness and victory. I would award experience equal to everyone else's to the PC assisting outside of combat in both cases. If, OTOH, the PC shirks his role in the plan and goes shopping or something else, I would not.

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Generally DMs choice

In the end, there is no rule guideline for what to do here - the only rule is that it is up to the DM decide. Whatever you do: be fair, open, and honest with your players about their decisions and how it may impact their characters. Also be aware that managing split parties may be unfun for the party (and possibly you as the DM) not currently active at the table.

Split Parties

If your PCs have split their party so that group A is doing one task while Group B is doing another completely independent of each other, whether or not to share the pool of XP or split between the two encounters and PCs is up to the DM. Some related reading.

Case for Split XP

Each group of PCs (whether singular or plural) is off doing their own thing. Reward each group separately for what they've done. If Group A is fighting off 10 Minotaurs while Group B is fighting 2 Minotaurs, you may decide that Group B deserves more XP.

Case for Pool XP

Both Group A and Group B are working in conjunction for a single goal. Whether or not the encounters are equal doesn't matter - what matters is the final outcome that may not have been achievable without splitting the party.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You make a good point when you mention "but there was no risk for that creature in giving that support". It would be more plausible, I think, to award XP to a PC who pilots a scout balloon over enemy territory and risks being shot at (even though he ends up not being shot at because the enemy does not see him as a sufficient threat because reasons), than it would be to award it to a PC who stays at home and casts buff spells on those going out. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 17 '18 at 18:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's still a big maybe. If you're a PC fighting in a large scale war of mass combat, then by that logic all of the XP generated by kills across the entire battlefield that you weren't directly involved in should be given to everyone involved. Everyone's action on that battlefield had an impact on everyone else. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 17 '18 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RobertColumbia Based on your clarification about pure PC interaction, I've changed my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 17 '18 at 18:52

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