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Gaining XP and progressing is viewed as a reward of learning, becoming better in what you do, with greater rewards stemming mainly (though certainly not solely) from achievements in combat, whether these involve backstabbing innocents, casting spells striking down your foes, wielding that broadsword with greater skill and so on and so forth. Thus, gaining a level as an assassin, sorcerer, fighter respectively, reflects your circumstances in using and improving the relevant skills.

What if a character comes in possession of an artifact of great power, that allows him or her to easily vanquish their opponents?

I am not talking about a level 1 character wielding say, a vorpal +8 greatsword that grants haste and improved invisibility because one could argue that it would simply improve their fighting skills. After all the sword would have to be wielded by them and they 'd be exposed to all sorts of dangers, while even a pesky goblin would have a chance taking them down.

What I am interested is the case of wielding essentially a "nuke" weapon. For example, a level 3 wizard gets his hands on an evil artifact that allows casting unlimited Weird. Gaining XP for exterminating a bunch of creatures (or say an entire city) is meaningful (and perhaps wholesome), but in what way does that make the wielder of said artifact a better spellcaster?

While the question is of interest to me regarding mainly Dungeons and Dragons and the 3.5e rules, I do believe it is of a more varied and general interest, so feel free to answer in a broader context if you desire.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "While the question is of interest to me regarding mainly Dungeons and Dragons and the 3.5e rules, I do believe it is of a more varied and general interest, so feel free to answer in a broader context if you desire." – Given that character progression depends entirely on the RPG and edition you're playing, I'm not sure how this question could be answered in a broader sense. Then again, I'm not entirely sure what you're asking... Are you asking, basically, "How does getting XP from the use of abilities granted by an overpowered artifact make narrative sense?" \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Mar 7 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast "Are you asking, basically, "How does getting XP from the use of abilities granted by an overpowered artifact make narrative sense?" Yes, that is a fair way to put it. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 7 at 21:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ "exterminating a bunch of creatures (or say an entire city) is meaningful (and perhaps wholesome)". Wholesome must be the least expected word at this spot that I could think of. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 7 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Can't see how your comment adds to the conversation but why not wholesome for an evil character? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 7 at 21:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MathematicianByMistake this is indeed a tangent, but "wholesome" describes something morally good. Something evil (like mass murder) is definitionally not wholesome. \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    Mar 7 at 21:19

2 Answers 2

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XP awards are for overcoming challenges; if there is no challenge, there should be no XP

As you've noted, experience - as it is described in D&D - generally represents getting better at the things you do by using those skills to overcome challenge. However, it is up to the DM's determination how challenging any given challenge is to overcome and thus how much experience a character should earn for overcoming it. In fact, the 3.5e Dungeon Master's Guide outright states that if a challenge is in fact no challenge at all for a given character or party, then no experience should be awarded:

An encounter that uses up none or almost none of the PC's resources shouldn't result in any XP award at all [...]

A bunch of guards might be a challenge for a level 3 character in a fair fight, but if the circumstances are altered dramatically in the character's favour - say for instance they have an unlimited use magic button that lets them instantly kill any enemies nearby - then they can easily overcome those guards without any real challenge at all. Accordingly, a DM can quite fairly judge that they don't get any XP award for fighting those guards.

In any event, going around and murdering people who can't effectively fight back - whether it's because you're a big adventurer and they're random commoners, or because you're a little adventurer with a hideously overpowered item - doesn't count as actually overcoming a challenge and shouldn't award XP. Despite the popular joke, NPCs in D&D are not just piñatas of XP waiting for a PC to bash them open; the XP they are potentially worth is relative to how powerful you already are and the circumstances in which you encounter them, and that amount can be zero.

XP doesn't make sense anyway

Your bigger problem with XP in general is that even without a hypothetical scenario that completely obviates the challenge a character faces, characters can otherwise overcome challenges in ways that have nothing to do with the abilities that will improve as a result of levelling up. Your 3rd level wizard could conceivably participate in a fight with a bunch of goblins without casting a single spell, spending the entire fight throwing rocks or something. At the end of the fight, assuming their party is successful, they will still earn XP and ultimately become somewhat better at casting spells as a result, despite doing no magic. Ultimately, XP and levelling up are gameplay mechanics which are an abstraction of the very complicated concept of learning and are not necessarily going to make sense in-character.

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You are confusing the fiction of experience points with their gameplay function.

The fiction of experience points is that they represent - well, experience. It's literally in the name. It's also in the first sentence that introduces them, on page 58 of the Player's Handbook:

Experience Points (XP) measure how much your character has learned and how much he or she has grown in personal power.

However, the two sentences that immediately follow that say read as follows:

Your character earns XP by defeating monsters and other opponents. The DM assigns XP to the characters at the end of each adventure based on what they have accomplished.

Notice something interesting? These two sentences mention defeating foes and achieving things, and do not mention having experiences or learning. This is entirely intentional.

If we turn to the Dungeon Master's Guide, we find a slightly longer definition of experience points:

Experience points are a measure of accomplishment. They represent training and learning by doing, and they illustrate the fact that, in fantasy, the more experienced a character is, the more power he or she possesses.

Once again, this describes what experience points represent in the game fiction, rather than how they affect gameplay - and is immediately followed by a long section that explicitly defines a variety of things that player characters may receive experience points for. I won't quote the whole thing here; suffice to say that every activity and example represents accomplishing something, rather than learning something.

This isn't a mistake. The designers knew what they were doing (in this case, at least): Experience points were always a reward to players for engaging with the fun parts of the game, be that fighting monsters, completing quests, coming up with clever solutions to puzzles, or playing with cool magical artefacts.

This is even stated, albeit obliquely, in the "Rewards and Behavior" section that starts of page 50:

Encounters, either individually or strung together, reward certain types of behavior whether you are conscious of it or not... Always be aware of the sorts of actions you're rewarding players for taking. Reward, in this case, doesn't just mean experience points...

Experience points are a reward. They're not the only reward the game offers, but they're one of the big ones, and they definitely influence player behavior.

So yes, using an artefact to do things wouldn't realistically let a character train up their personal skills - but neither would reporting that they've completed a quest. For that matter, it doesn't make any sense that a character who earns experience points by sneaking past a minotaur could put those experience points towards a non-stealthy class. It doesn't matter if it makes sense, though: While experience points represent experience and learning, they are a reward for engaging with the fun parts of the game. Is nuking a city with an artefact fun? That's the question you have to answer.

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