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Should player characters receive XP for enemies they're in combat with who die to friendly fire?

For example, say an archmage and two berserkers are fighting a party of three. The archmage casts fireball into combat with their friendly two berserkers and ends up killing them. Would the PCs receive XP for those two berserkers, even though they didn't kill them?

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Experience is awarded for winning the encounter, whatever that looks like.

The guidance for experience points in the Dungeon Master's Guide (pg. 260) states:

Each monster has an XP value based on its challenge rating. 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.

This guidance suggests that the party be awarded the experience even if the enemies retreat. If we're giving experience for the enemies running away, we should be giving experience for the enemies accidentally killing themselves. Now, the very next sentence does address NPC assistance:

If the party received substantial assistance from one or more NPCs, count those NPCs as party members when dividing up the XP. (Because the NPCs made the fight easier, individual characters receive fewer XP.)

But this guidance is definitely referring an ally or other third party assisting the party with defeating the enemies, not the enemies falling victim to their own poor decision making.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would count friendly fire as an environmental hazard unless its reoccurring. At some point FF is going to be considered an ally. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    May 20, 2021 at 18:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ " this guidance is definitely referring an ally or other third party assisting the party with defeating the enemies, not the enemies falling victim to their own poor decision making." citation needed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    May 21, 2021 at 11:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu It's an assertion based on my experience reading DM-facing D&D rulebooks. There's nothing to cite (except the rule itself). \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 11:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov then please back-it up. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    May 21, 2021 at 13:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu No thanks. The language of the rule is clear enough to differentiate between the "one or more NPCs" that may be assisting the party, and the "one or more monsters" the party is defeating. There is nothing else to cite because the rule is sufficiently clear as written. \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 13:23
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Technically yes

Based on the rules, yes, any enemy that is part of the encounter is counted to the XP that is awarded, no matter if they are killed, sent away screaming, or snuck around.

Each monster has an XP value based on its challenge rating. 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.DMG p260

A dead monster is a dead monster.

What is in an encounter?

Which brings us to another technicality: what is part of the encounter? Any monster that added to the complication clearly is in the encounter. But monsters that are merely set-dressing are more dubious. Let me prop you an example:

You stand in an arena. Goblins fill the ranks above you and cheer their champion, the Ogre Munchies. As he roars, they cheer even more. The sound becomes ecstatic as he lifts a heavy rock and throws it into the crowd, turning two Goblins into pulp.

Are those two goblins part of the encounter? Well, no. Those two are set dressing, the actual encounter is the Ogre. No XP for the non-encounter monsters that never opposed the players.

If the two Goblins however were down in the arena, they'd be part of the encounter. But even then, granting XP for them should not happen at all times: if the two were put in the team of the players' team, they are not adversaries to overcome, no XP. If they are killed by the script before the whole encounter starts (in the establishing shot so to say), they are set pieces and not actually in the encounter, no XP. But the moment initiative is rolled and the encounter begins, any monster that is part of the encounter and that is killed, counts.

However, the Friendly Fire actually should costs the heroes some XP. Say the two goblins give 100 XP each and the party is 4 people. If they kill them normally, each hero gets 50 XP (=200/4). But instead they die due to Munchies throwing that rock right after the encounter began. He acted as an Ally for the kill of these two goblins, so the party size is 5, resulting in only 40 XP (=200/5) per character, Munchies included... Likewise, as long as some of the (3rd party) Goblins do something against Munchies, the party size that counts for the XP distribution needs to get adjusted. This can really get wonky for 3-party battles like in the arena described. Why? because the DMG says:

If the party received substantial assistance from one or more NPCs, count those NPCs as party members when dividing up the XP. (Because the NPCs made the fight easier, individual characters receive fewer XP.) DMG p.260

Nothing here says, that the NPC needs to be an ally or be friendly, unlike Thomas Markov claims. Killing someone is definitely substantial assistance under the standard English definition of assistance being "the action of helping someone by sharing work". Since nothing in that guideline precludes that the enemy themselves can be an NPC that assists in the killing, the XP are technically to be shared with the NPC's that do friendly fire.

When is something not in an encounter?

Yet, if the enemy dispatches of their own troops to show how evil they are, you, as the GM, might feel justified to exclude them from the encounter. My personal stance (heavily formed by experience campaigns that put the focus on the story and characterplay) is, that as long as they don't have posed any complication for the heroes, I would not award XP for them and class them with the set pieces that are killed in the establishing shot of the encounter. That's even if that happens well after the combat began. But if the players actually fought them, they are an obstacle that was overcome and worth (some) XP.

Let's say the group faces 10 Kobolds, and after the party killed the fifth this happens:

A voice from somewhere a deep, booming voice that shatters confidence and clearly is spoken in capital letters speaks up. There is no emotion in the tonality as if whatever it belongs to has no emotions since the dawn of time.

YOU FAILED.

The next moment, the air around the remaining Kobolds shimmers, rapidly freezing and leaving them trapped in pillars of ice, pieces of art and death.

Whatever icicled the Kobolds was an ally in that instance, as the group had to deal with them moments earlier. So the group needs to share the XP with it, according to the quote above. Booming Voice gets a share of XP for those 5, but not the others dispatched earlier without his help. However, if the group fought only 5 Kobolds and the other 5 just showed up as reinforcements that had yet to act, the additional ones posed no risk or complication. That means they are not part of the encounter. If anyone, the Booming Voice would be the one that gets XP for all 5 of the second batch.

This interpretation (of not rewarding XP for bystanders and set-pieces) is something that I was taught by other GMs and has been used in games since at least the 3.5th edition. (In fact, I have never seen XP granted for kills of Set-Pieces). The approach was possibly heavily influenced by The Dark Eye. Generally, TDE does grant the Experience for plot performance, which might include dispatching enemies, but not for the actual kills, as I had explained here. D&D uses in the main an encounter-based method of Experience. 5E puts the emphasis on solving an encounter, such as dispatching an enemy, disabling a trap, or navigating tricky passagesDMG p261. A group of potential enemies however isn't an encounter, and if they are slain without the player's action, they have not actually (assisted in) solving the problem. Having not done anything, there is nothing that is rewardable. A telltale that was used to explain to me why neve to grant such XP was, that granting XP for any death around PC's would result in someone getting the idea to bring the plague to some city to just level up passively because enemies die around him.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 21, 2021 at 12:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Bit of a Devil's advocate re the 5 + 5 kobolds. Three questions. What was the challenge rating of that encounter when the encounter began? Did the PCs defeat the encounter? Had the kobold encounter resulted in a TPK, would the PCs have been wiped by 5 kobolds or by 10 kobolds? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex M
    May 21, 2021 at 16:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1) if they had fought the 2 groups separately, they would have clearly won. Fighting 10 could have been dicy (action economy is a PITA) 2) They'd defeat the 10 (with assistance of BBEG) and thus that encounter. But with the 5+5 they'd only have one encounter with half of them 3) only by 10 at once (unless they roll bad) \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    May 21, 2021 at 16:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thus was born the wizard who leveled 1-20 by hiding and casting minor illusion to attempt to distract powerful creatures right before they were defeated by other powerful creatures \$\endgroup\$
    – Cireo
    May 21, 2021 at 20:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ ‘I have never seen XP granted for kills of Set-Pieces’ I have seen this done on occasion, and have even done it myself. The only case where I would even consider it though is if the set pieces would have been part of a fight, and some action by the players (possibly prior to them even showing up) made it such that they were no longer a threat. For example, if the players are retreating and resetting traps as they go, I would count any pursuers killed by the traps as XP for the players, even if they had not actively engaged each other in combat yet (the players still dealt with the threat). \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2021 at 21:32
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Yes, but also no

If you want to make this easy on yourself and simple, then the answer is yes, they should. Boom. I just saved you a bunch of work you don't need to do calculating XP given out at the end of an encounter (I either use the milestone system or pre-calcuate XP given, so not giving XP for friendly fire deaths would cramp my style)

If, however, you really want to pursue this, let's consider this scenario: your fighter hits a goblin and take it from full HP to half HP, and then that goblin is accidentally stepped on and killed by the dragon the PC's are fighting at the same time, should the PC's get XP for this? On the one hand, the goblin was killed by FF, so no, they shouldn't get XP, but on the other hand, half that damage was dealt by the Fighter, so shouldn't they get XP for that? Should they get half XP? if your answer to the last question is "yes, they should get half", then you're a braver or more mathematically minded person than I am--I simply don't want to deal with that headache. That being said, if the goblin was killed only by the dragon stepping on it, then I can see the case for not awarding XP.

This is why I love and use the milestone system. It allows me the flexibility as a GM to decide when the PC's have overcome enough adversity to have gained one level, and it means I don't have to calculate XP totals (really annoying in D&D 5e). If, for example, an encounter I intended to be challenging to the PC's turns out to be a cakewalk, I may decide that they don't get a level from it even if I originally intended it to be their next milestone, and I might even spring an extra encounter on them just to justify their next level up, which In my opinion makes the game more fun because the PC's get to feel like the earned a level, rather than me being like:

"well you killed Joe goblin and his gang and it gave you the 7XP you needed to level up, so congratulations! you're level 9 now!"

I can say after the next encounter

"you have defeated the elder dragon Ty'rak and saved the land or Alamondar, and in doing so have attained level 9!"

Always remember that as the GM you have the flexibility to do basically whatever you want--so if you want to not give XP for FF deaths, go ahead! Just always keep in mind how this will effect your players and how they enjoy the game. Maybe you group really like precise XP on all encounters, I don't know. I'm just a guy who like telling stories with his friends.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Jake, FYI, we aren't a traditional forum where ideas and opinions are enough. You can read more about our expectations and guidance for what we're looking for here. Your bit about the milestone system is exactly what we're looking for in an expert subjective answer. However, unless you are challenging the question itself, then it doesn't really answer the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 20, 2021 at 19:08

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