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If the PCs lose a fight but do not die (e.g. imprisoned), do they gain experience points from the battle?

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Only from the monsters they defeated.

You gain experience when you defeat a monster (emphasis mine)

When adventurers defeat one or more monsters - typically by killing, routing, or capturing them - they divide the total XP value of the monsters evenly among themselves.

[Dungeon Master's Guide page 260]

Even if you lose a fight, any monster you defeated during the fight would grant experience. The ones you don't defeat (i.e. the ones who imprisoned the party) would not.

The challenge isn't always just combat

Sometimes other factors provide XP, which will also be awarded if the player's defeat that aspect of the encounter.

Some examples are:

  • Traps and/or hazards that give XP
  • Encounters where "defeating" the monsters involves escaping rather than beating them in combat (or some other challenge)
  • Social encounters that qualify as a sufficient challenge
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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @as.beaulieu Addressed \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron May 11 '18 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ As the DM you are also allowed to award milestones whenever you want. It is completely RAW to award the players with a milestone for the encounter in lieu of experience for defeating monsters. \$\endgroup\$ – Christopher Ouimet May 11 '18 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ For official rules, the accepted answer is absolutely correct. That said, I offer two thoughts: 1)Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want, and 2) Good judgement comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgement. That's my wordy argument for awarding milestone experience (instead of combat experience) if the lost combat was meaningful to the plot. \$\endgroup\$ – JesseM May 11 '18 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Lost battles don't award experience... yet. Surely the PCs will soon break out of their jail cell and get the chance for a rematch against those that beat them? \$\endgroup\$ – Pulsehead May 12 '18 at 13:25
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The DM has quite a bit of freedom in the awarding of experience.

First I'd take care of the obvious:

  • If they subdued or killed any of the opposing group, award experience.

Now, the more subjective awards:

  • How did they end up imprisoned? Did they talk the opposing group out of killing them? It's a bit of a stretch, but if they took any action that resulted in them not-dying then I would give them something. Not a lot, but a token gesture.
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Personally, I would give them experience for any monsters they killed, but not for the fight itself. If they were overpowered and imprisoned it may because they aren’t strong enough for the monsters your throwing at them, and they need more experience to put into leveling up.

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