I'm running a Pathfinder game from the beginners box, I can't find anywhere that states when to apply the XP earned from encounters.

The Game Master's guide states in Wrapping up a session (p21):

You should calculate the total amount of experience points earned by the PCs and divide it up evenly among them.

Should the XP only be applied at the end of a session? Or immediately? Or at the end of an adventure or campaign?

If the players hit 2000 during an adventure, are there downsides (other than an adjustment to the CR of encounters) to applying the XP and having the characters level up in the middle of a dungeon?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The only real guide in the docs to when to award XP is here; paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/… which just states "Although you can award experience points as soon as a challenge is overcome, this can quickly disrupt the flow of game play. It's easier to simply award experience points at the end of a game session—that way, if a character earns enough XP to gain a level, he won't disrupt the game while he levels up his character. He can instead take the time between game sessions to do that" \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Jul 23 '12 at 13:49

This is really up to you and how you want to handle your logistics. Strictly speaking, they should probably be awarded the XP immediately after successfully handling the encounter. However, look at your players, your play style, and your session flow to make the best choice. Over the years I've seen XP rewards handled the following ways.

Immediately After Encounter

Like I said, this is likely the most "realistic" since XP is the mechanical abstraction of what the characters learned during the encounter. This provides some immediate feedback to the players, and can really help motivate them along the way. For instance, a player will earn experience for surviving a trap, but maybe not as much than if they disarmed it. By awarding XP immediately there is a pretty fantastic feedback that can help demonstrate this, and may help guide them towards more heroic actions. The biggest downside is that this can slow down play. After every encounter the DM will have to do some math and figure out who earned what XP. Additionally, if the players earned enough XP to advance, then they'll want to stop and level up their characters. This can really destroy game pacing unless the players can churn out new levels in less time than your typically bathroom break.

End of Each Session

This is what I saw the most of, when I still played in groups that tracked experience. The end of the game session is a natural break point that allows the DM to look over their notes for the night and tally up the XP rewards. If the players level this allows them to naturally level between sessions, that night before they leave, or the beginning of the next session. In any case, it pushes leveling off to non-play time and minimizes disruption of the game flow. In exceptionally long play sessions, I'm thinking of my 12+ hour sessions from college, you can also do this during natural break points in the game. Say, before taking a meal break or a mini-climax in the story. On the down side, depending on what your players are facing, this means they may end up being one level behind what you expected when they hit a certain encounter. The biggest advantages is that it bypasses the story disruption that can occur when leveling happens.

Pacing Based Rewards

This is what I've been seeing more of lately, and is the way my group has been playing for the past few years. We stopped tracking experience entirely. Most pre-written adventures will give you some rough guidance about what level characters should be as they reach certain sections. For instance, in a level 4-7 adventure there is likely a sidebar at the beginning that says, "Players are expected to be level 5 before entering this area, 6 before entering this area, and 7 before this spot." This provides you the natural story based breakpoints to introduce leveling. To accomplish this, we work on our pacing such that we end a session just before one of those points happens, and announce that it's leveling time. The biggest advantages we've found are these:

  1. Since the players don't have to completely explore and clear the dungeon in order to hit their experience budget, it allows them to slow down and really dive deep into something if it catches their eye.
  2. It makes it a lot easier for us to take a machete to the dungeon crawls and carve out those areas that aren't relevant to the story. Since designers are working against an XP budget to make the levels work, these things are chock full of unimportant encounters and unnecessary rooms. Not tracking experience means these encounters don't have to happen for the math to work out.
  3. Since everyone levels at the same time, we can bulk manage the maintenance of leveling and get it all out of the way at once. Plus you don't have to worry about that one guy who sporadically misses to be 6 levels behind everyone towards the end of the campaign.

My current group, because of work and family, really only gets about 3 hours per week of play time. This also means that leveling 5-6 players can take an entire game session. Which is why it works so well for us to do it this way. When I was younger, and we had multiple sessions per week at 5-12 hours each, then we found the End of Session/Story Break method worked the best. The only time I played with awarding XP immediately after each encounter, and found that it worked well, was when leveling only occurred outside of play. For all practical purposes, this was the exact same as End of Session.


Traditionally you hold the XP award until a moment when it makes sense. Typically that means you finish the dungeon, rescue the princess, return her to the town, suffer (or revel) in the celebration, and at some point later you are in the pub having a few drinks reflecting on what has happened during your adventure. It is at that point you internalize the lessons learned (both negative and positive) while in the dungeon.

As the DM/GM, you can award experience at any point you wish, but every group I've played in has had the tendency to complete a significant story goal before being awarded experience/rewards.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, it makes sense to me that both characters and players should have time to reflect on what's happened, what they've enjoyed and have enough time to make an informed decision on what they want to improve, which feats to add, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – StuperUser Jul 23 '12 at 13:27

Our group has a set of house rules that really seem to make sense. We typically award XP at the end of each session, unless we are in the middle of a combat. If that is the case, then we wait until after the combat is completed before awarding the XP. Players record the XP whenever it is awarded.

However, we also rule that regardless of when XP is awarded, characters cannot level up until they have the opportunity for 8 hours of uninterupted rest (i.e. the same as is required of arcane spellcasters to rememorize spells). If the party is running from combat to combat or their nightly rest is interrupted, they have to wait until another time or rest even longer in order to level their character up.

It makes logical sense and has worked extremely well for us. There are no issues with characters leveling in the middle of a dungeon. A DM should be adjusting up and down as needed as things go to make enemies the equals of the player characters. So the character levels should never really matter, even if they change mid-dungeon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A knife in the heart to read "the characters' level should never really matter". \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 23 '12 at 17:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh, I believe that a DM should not restrict their party based on the modules requirements. I believe, rather, that the DM should scale the module to meet the party. \$\endgroup\$ – BBlake Jul 23 '12 at 18:00

There is no hard and fast rule for this. Some wait until the end of the night/session and tally up all the XP then give it to the players. Others award players XP after each encounter. Still others don't bother with XP and tell the players to level when the plot requires. I tend to use the last one more often than the others so I can keep my players in line with the published adventure I am running. Also, I normally let them know beforehand to prepare their character sheet a week in advance so we are not leveling characters mid-session as I let them level after a full night's rest.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I had forgotten about the full night's rest situation. I did play with a guy who did that. I thought it made sense, and worked well, until we had a silly dungeon crawl that lasted 10 character days and 5 sessions. Thanks to constant interruptions we never got a full night's rest, and thankfully we didn't have any casters. We earned three levels during that slog.... \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Pack Jul 23 '12 at 13:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ScottPack The lesson there is, "Don't sleep in the dungeon." \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 23 '12 at 17:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ You know it's not illegal to leave the dungeon and come back later... while they take for ever to go through when they're filled with challenges, walking through areas you've been in is quite fast. In video games you're scared of respawning, but here if the monsters from below spread out to the top again it makes it easier, as there will be less once you get to the bottom of it. - Except for resetting traps of course... \$\endgroup\$ – Julix Mar 24 '14 at 1:08

In theory, players could gain immediate XP for an encounter and level with 8 hours rest (i.e. not in combat).

In practice, this tends to be really bad for gameplay. It's an overhead nightmare.

Leveling is often not a trivial thing. Just look at the things that can change as a result of a level:

  • Ability Scores
  • New feat(s)
  • New class abilities
  • Hit Points
  • Saves
  • Attack Bonus
  • Total Spells / Power points
  • Spell selection (Sorcerer / Psion)

At the very least, this can involve 20-30 minutes of shuffling through books and updating numbers. But this could easily take longer if players choose to multi-class or start a prestige class, etc.

This is normally only possible if two things are in-place:

  1. Players already know their next level. I know one guy who plans all 20 levels when he starts a character.
  2. Players have done the calculations for that next level (or they have a tool like HeroLab)

If these two things are not in place, the in-game leveling will basically amount to a giant game stoppage which becomes un-fun for some set of players.


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