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I've been running Curse of Strahd for about 25 sessions now. The party just encountered Strahd in combat for the first time on top of Yester Hill. It was an intense fight where only two out of six PCs remained standing (the rest were stabilized) by the time they were able to stop the ritual.

I had Strahd riding Beucephalus watching the fight from above until the party started attacking the statue and druids. At that point, Strahd started flinging down spells and really messed up the party. The PCs caught on that they needed to stop the druids, so they generally ignored Strahd and didn't engage him. During the last turn when Strahd was about to leave because the druids were all killed, the druid in the party decided to move his moonbeam on Strahd and his nightmare, causing them some damage, although Strahd's was absorbed by the Heart of Sorrow.

Right after that sequence, Strahd left the scene and the battle was over.

My players love XP, so at the beginning of our campaign, they asked that I use that for leveling, as opposed to milestones. So I've come up with a pretty solid XP system that they've enjoyed. Strahd throws a little bit of a wrench in that system though. His XP worth is 13,000. That is a lot.

My question is: do the players gain the full XP for Strahd since he technically retreated? I'm torn about this though because if Strahd really wanted to, he could have easily finished them off - only two PCs were up at the end, both under 10 HP.

According to the book, Strahd doesn't want to kill off the PCs early, which is why I stayed his hand. So this was more of Strahd being disappointed in the ritual being thwarted and being somewhat impressed the party survived the ambush.

I'm also a bit concerned that if I do give them the full 13,000 XP, that I will need to do this for every encounter with Strahd that they survive.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Might want to spoiler protect some of this as appropriate. (I'm not worried about it for myself as a reader, but others might.) \$\endgroup\$ – Novak May 20 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ How do you handle combats now when the enemy (or the PCs) run? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 20 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ My PCs are the ultimate murder hobos. Every fight they've encountered they kill every, single, person. No one who has even attempted to run away has escaped. And my PCs haven't backed down from a single encounter... even when I thought they should. So I haven't really had to decide what to do with XP when either side retreats. \$\endgroup\$ – One Eye May 20 at 19:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it a "retreat" if it is actually a "well, I'm not in the mood to kill them off today, so its off to terrorize some peasants." \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Richardson May 20 at 20:06
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No xp for Strahd. They did not defeat him.

But you might increase xp for the druids given the adverse environment.

The DMG explains when to award experience points on page 260, emphasis mine:

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.

The goal of the ritual is to

Awaken Wintersplinter so that it goes to destroy the Wizard of Wines Winery

This is the druids' goal. The PC's should get full xp from all of the druids and berserkers, whether they were slain, captured, or ran away, for by interrupting the ritual, the PC's have defeated them and their goal.

However, the completion of the ritual and destruction of its target is not Strahd's goal. Had Strahd wanted to achieve this end, he could have done so long ago; he could easily do so still. The PC's have done nothing to frustrate his plans, and should get no xp for defeating him.

In fact, this dust-up with the players is part of Strahd's plans. He wants to learn their abilities and assess their power. If they are too easy for him to beat in battle, he will be disappointed. If they actually challenge him, he will find them far more interesting. Whether he withdraws from the fight or not, he has gotten what he wanted from it. In no way have they frustrated his goals or defeated him.

From time to time, strangers from faraway lands are brought to his domain, to play the vampire’s game of cat-and-mouse. Strahd savors these moments, for though these strangers offer him no lands to conquer, they aren’t so easily destroyed and therefore provide a welcome diversion.

As a DM in this situation, you should respond as narrowly as possible to the players' questions:

Player 1: "Why didn't we get any xp for beating Strahd?"

DM: "You get xp only for defeating opponents."

Player 1: "But we did defeat him - he had to flee."

DM: shrugs

Player 2: "Are you saying he chose to withdraw? Or that he wanted us to win?"

DM: "I'm saying you did not defeat him."

Player 1: "This is like Vallaki all over again - what does Strahd really want?"

One of the grand themes of Curse of Strahd is that Strahd has very complicated, intricate plans that involve the PCs, but they don't know what those plans are. They spend most of the module trying to figure out why he brought them here and what he wants from them, when it is obvious that he could simply kill them if he wanted. Denying them xp when he strategically retreats emphasizes the theme that they really don't know what is going on.

Update: One Eye (the OP) states in their self-answer that "the encounter was significantly harder because of Strahd" but agrees that they did not defeat him. The DMG covers this in the section on "Modifying Encounter Difficulty":

An encounter can be made easier or harder based on the choice of location and the situation. Increase the difficulty of the encounter by one step (from easy to medium, for example) if the characters have a drawback that their enemies don’t...Situational drawbacks include the following:...The characters are taking damage every round from some environmental effect or magical source, and the enemy isn’t.

In the battle as described in the OP, Strahd is not actually an enemy the PC's are trying to defeat ("The PCs caught on that they needed to stop the druids, so they generally ignored Strahd and didn't engage him"). Rather, he exists as an environmental effect that is making their encounter with druids and berzerkers more difficult, because he is damaging the PC's but not their enemies. Although the DMG does not specifically say that an encounter designed to be more difficult merits more xp, it seems reasonable that rewarding PC's with more xp because of an environmental effect is akin to rewarding them with more xp by adding monsters to the encounter, so some sort of bonus may be appropriate if not RAW. However, this bonus should not be tied to Strahd's xp value, because, again, the party did not defeat him. Rather, it should increase the xp they obtained from the druids and berserkers, the actual enemies in the encounter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is well reasoned and consistent with the rules as written. Consider though that XP is supposed to be a measure of the PC's experience. If you wanted to go with a more rules as intended approach, you could argue that losing to Strahd still provided the characters with experience--after all, we learn more from failure than success. Also, the ultimate goal of the game is to have fun if the OP's PCs find it more enjoyable to receive experience for encounters with Strahd, then the OP should consider giving them XP (albeit in a non-gamebreaking way like giving them the full 13k each time) \$\endgroup\$ – Jake Fuller May 20 at 20:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JakeFuller We may indeed learn more from failure than from success - but interestingly, RAW xp have nothing to do with our own success or failure, but instead are entirely based on our ability to cause others to fail! Certainly there are many forms of awarding XP, and I would encourage DM's to find the one that best fits their group. An approach based on rewarding PCs for what they learn, however, sounds like milestone awards, which OP specifically wanted to avoid. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt May 20 at 22:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree. They did defeat him in that particular battle. No, they didn't stop him from his long term goal, but that's the case in any battle where the bad guy lives to fight another day: they can always continue their longterm plans. It seems the problem here is that the XP amount is designed for a permanent defeat, which is not what occurred here, and so the XP should be adjusted appropriately. That's what I would expect if this was not a pre-built module: the DM would have assigned XP to defeating the enemy in that particular battle. \$\endgroup\$ – trlkly May 21 at 2:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @trlkly (1/2) The OP specifically states that an undamaged Strahd was about to leave the next round anyway; then the PC's happened to score damage on him with moonbeam before he left. That doesn't sound to me like they defeated him. In general, driving an enemy from the field is defeating them, because most combat encounters exist as no more than obstacles to the PC's and forcing the monster to flee is removing that obstacle; their narrative goal is to frustrate the party and they have no long term plans. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt May 21 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @trlkly (2/2) But if the goal of a monster is to, say, delay the party while something happens offscreen, they can be successful in that goal if the combat takes long enough, and when they eventually withdraw, the PC's have not defeated them. Similarly in this case, Strahd choosing to participate in the battle and then choosing to leave, none of the PC actions have frustrated any of Strahd's plans. Thus no xp from Strahd, full xp from the druids who failed in their effort to complete the ritual. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt May 21 at 15:48
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Yes, I think you should give the players XP--they fought a hard battle and survived it. That being said, the should absolutely not gain the full amount of XP for Strahd. I would give them somewhere between 1/8 to 1/2 XP depending on how much they generally engaged Strahd. They should gain some XP for every encounter, but recall that as the GM you have the ability to determine how much for each individual encounter. If your PC's want a scientific method, you could say they gain XP proportional to how much damage they deal to him (be careful here though--this may encourage metagame thinking and doesn't represent the whole picture of how tough an encounter is).

Quite a while back I played in a campaign where the PCs fought the main boss several times. Each time, the main boss would use more of his abilities, making each successive encounter harder. In the campaign, the idea is that the MB was trying to make the players powerful so he could lure them to his side, so it made sense. We got XP at the end of each encounter with. I believe the DM simply made multiple version of the MB at different levels and when we "killed" him (i.e. dealt the number of HP on his stat sheet) is the point that he'd decide he'd challenged us enough to help us grow. (kind of similar to defeating a boss in a video game only to be met with a cutscene). Obviously this isn't a parallel case, but you could apply the concept here.

You could still go the other way with this and not give them XP. That's entirely within the rules of the game and your privileges as GM, and it would make things simpler and easier for you, but it could also make your PC's frustrated that they're not gaining XP proportional to the effort their characters are putting in to survive.

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    \$\begingroup\$ My concern isn't "How much did they do to Strahd?" but "How much did Strahd do to them?" I think 1/8th exp is far to low for having survived an attack from a really old vampire that was just hurling spells at them turn after turn. \$\endgroup\$ – RevanantBacon May 20 at 18:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you support why you believe this should work? Referencing games you've played and or seen where this has been done and then talking about how it went in terms of positives and negatives will turn this entire a good, expert-reasoned answer. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 20 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JakeFuller Basing exp earned exclusively on how much HP damage is dealt to an enemy before they run away seems like a very poor method gauging how much exp should be earned. Exp is earned for defeating the encounter, no matter what form that defeat comes in, be it total slaughter, scaring the enemy away, or diplomacy. \$\endgroup\$ – RevanantBacon May 20 at 19:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd probably aim for something like 1/4 XP (about 3300) for surviving Strahd's onslaught. But in general I'd aim to miss high rather than low. I'd rather the PCs get a level a little sooner than the players walk away feeling like they got their butts kicked for a pittance of a reward. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym May 20 at 20:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I very much support this answer. It gets to the heart of why XP is rewarded: rewarding experience for fighting. The exact formula isn't great, but the author says as much, and suggests being far less precise. I would 100% find it unfair for the GM to create a battle with a big bad but not reward the players anything for surviving it. I would expect that, if this wasn't a prebuilt, the GM would have come up with an appropriate amount of XP for the encounter--maybe even a certain amount of damage or amount of time they needed to survive to win the engagement. Temporary defeat is still defeat. \$\endgroup\$ – trlkly May 21 at 2:59
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So after giving this much thought, I think there are three options:

  1. Award the PCs Strahd's full 13,000 XP
  2. Award the PCs none of Strahd's XP
  3. Award the PCs some portion of Strahd's XP

Although the rules in the DMG would indicate that option 1 is the route to go, I don't think this makes sense. The PCs didn't defeat Strahd per se. If Strahd wanted to finish off the PCs he easily could have. The only thing the PCs did accomplish is they ruined the ritual, which caused Strahd to lose interest and leave. If we did choose this option though, each PC would receive 3,133 XP.

What about option 2? While I agree thematically with one of the other answers that the PCs should be awarded no XP for having a combat encounter with Strahd, mechanically it doesn't hold up. The encounter was significantly harder because of Strahd and to not reward them as such seems unfair. If Strahd was removed from the encounter, this would have been pretty straightforward and I don't believe anyone would have been downed. If we did choose this option though, each PC would receive 958 XP.

Look at that enormous difference: 2,175 XP!

So do we split the difference and choose option number 3? This seems to the fairest way to go since the party didn't defeat Strahd but they did survive an encounter with him.

The question among you seems to be how would you even go about that? Well, I have an idea.

My party is six level 5 characters. According to DMG p. 82, this encounter was deadly, even using raw, not adjusted, XP. However, if I subtracted Strahd's XP from this total, the encounter would drop down to hard.

I think that's the rub. Awarding XP for this encounter and for it deemed to be only hard is what's a bit of a joke. The sorcerer in the party went down four times and every else went unconscious once, except one of the barbarians. As noted in the question, when the dust settled, only two PCs were up and the rest were bleeding out. This was 100% a deadly encounter and I think they should be rewarded for surviving it.

My idea for bridging the gap here is this: award the deadly XP threshold for their character level per character. This would boost the XP granted from 958 to 1,100. Not a huge difference, but it at least recognizes that the encounter was more difficult than hard.

I think I might actually integrate this into my XP system. If the party has a combat encounter where granting XP isn't straight forward, I'll add up all of the XP from sources they'd definitely receive and make a note of the encounter difficulty based on the raw XP. Then I'll add the XP from the sources that I'm not so sure if the party should receive or not. If the "extra" XP boosts the encounter to another difficulty, use that XP threshold; otherwise, stick to the XP from the sources they deserve.

Here's this method listed as steps:

  1. Add up XP from definite sources
  2. Compare this raw XP against table in DMG p. 82 and note encounter difficulty
  3. Add up XP from questionable sources
  4. Add together the two sources of XP
  5. Compare this raw XP against table in DMG p. 82 and note encounter difficulty
  6. If the encounter difficulty is the same regardless, use the XP from step 2; otherwise, use the XP threshold associated with the encounter difficulty from step 5
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    \$\begingroup\$ Answers aren't really for discussion. If you'd like to discuss a possible solution with users on the stack, hop on into our very own Role-playing Games Chat and we'd love to! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 21 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Edited my answer to not sound like a discussion jump off. \$\endgroup\$ – One Eye May 21 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't really understand your answer - you seem to be combining recommendations and creating an option. That's really a new question if you'd like us to have input on that system. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 21 at 15:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ How is this any different than other answers? Plenty of answers reference other answers. Answering your own questioned is allowed, no? \$\endgroup\$ – One Eye May 21 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is, but this doesn't feel like an answer. Maybe I'm not looking at it appropriately - but also if this is system you haven't actually used, you shouldn't be talking about it yet. It's an untested idea and we try to not answer with idea generation. This would be a supported answer if you have used this or seen it used and comment on how it went. But generating an idea and posting it aren't what we're looking for in answers. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 21 at 15:22

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