Awarding non-combat encounters with XP consistently for the party level - A homebrew review
A frustration I have had for a long time is how D&D claims that there are three pillars to the game, Combat, Exploration, & Social Encounters, but then only actually awards the players with XP using one of these, combat. In terms of awarding XP for the other two pillars, the only guidance it gives is this very brief set of 3-4 "paragraphs" in the DMG (I say paragraphs, but they are little more than a couple of sentences each):
You decide whether to award experience to characters for overcoming challenges outside combat. If the adventurers complete a tense negotiation with a baron, forge a trade agreement with a clan of surly dwarves, or successfully navigate the Chasm of Doom, you might decide that they deserve an XP reward.
As a starting point, use the rules for building combat encounters in chapter 3 to gauge the difficulty of the challenge. Then award the characters XP as if it had been a combat encounter of the same difficulty, but only if the encounter involved a meaningful risk of failure.
You can also award XP when characters complete significant milestones. When preparing your adventure, designate certain events or challenges as milestones, as with the following examples:
- Accomplishing one in a series of goals necessary to complete the adventure.
- Discovering a hidden location or piece of information relevant to the adventure.
- Reaching an important destination.
When awarding XP, treat a major milestone as a hard encounter and a minor milestone as an easy encounter. [...]
This obviously leaves an awful lot of "balancing" XP awards for non-combat encounters up to the DM, which results in many DMs just not bothering (in part due to not having the time). The end result is that many players find non-combat encounters "boring" as they don't lead to them getting the cool new abilites that they want their characters to get. This is something as a DM I found difficult to take in, as D&D is a much more well rounded game when we can use all three of the pillars in our toolbox to tell a collective story (while also giving the players who are "feature focused" something to get them invested in the non-combat encounters).
As a result of this, I homebrewed a system for creating and rewarding non-combat encounters in a consistent manner. While I have playtested this in two of my own campaigns, I want to get analysis from the experts in our community on how balanced this setup for non-combat encounter design is.
The XP table for non-combat encounters
To that end, I produced an XP scale for non-combat encounters to enable me to consistently run and reward them in the same way I balance combat encounters. This table is the end result:
|Player Level \
Using this at the table to create an encounter
When I was designing non-combat encounters, I would set a DC for those encounters based on what I thought the hardest single check in that encounter would be. For Social Encounters, this was taken from the perspective of a completely uninvolved and unknown third party, of the appropriate level, attempting the task with no positive or negative biases either way.
For example, think of a situation where a party is trying to convince a king not to kill a traitor to his realm. This would be classed as an "impossible" task for someone coming into this situation cold with no relationships to the king. It may, however be a social encounter a party may find themselves in. So the DC for this particular encounter would be 30. Now the party may have some advantages here (for example they have previously performed some services for the kingdom) which pre-dispose the king to listen to their request, or indeed grant it. These types of advantages don't affect the DC of the encounter, rather they are the reward for previous graft in obtaining that level of respect in advance of the social encounter.
Alternatively, consider the party is in a dungeon and they are searching for a hidden passage (which happens to exist in this case) that allows the party to skip a significant portion of a dungeon with a DC 15 perception check. This could easily be a "Medium" level exploration encounter (the party have "skipped" a number of smaller combat encounters by their good exploration). However, the creator of this particular dungeon was a "nasty person", and they laid a trap in this secret passage that is DC 23 to find and DC 25 to disarm if you don't happen to know the secret incantation to deactivate it easily. In this case, the DC for the exploration encounter is set by the trap DC, not the hidden door DC. If they find and disarm the trap they get the DC 25 XP, if however they don't disarm the trap but they do find the hidden door, they get the DC 15 XP (they did find the door after all). This also nicely allows me to incorporate some "levels of failure" into a non-combat encounter in a natural way.
It also allows me to prepare different rewards for different ways of approaching an encounter. Fighting the bugbears to free the prisoners gets you a combat XP reward, negotiating with them or bypassing them by using the secret entrance would get a different XP reward (it may be lower, but at the same time it conserves party resources).
Using this table to award XP is easy enough, you assign your non-combat encounter a DC (on the usual scale of 5 - 30), and read off the relevant XP level from this table for the difficulty of the encounter. If you want a more fine grained scale (as I did) with individual XP levels for each DC number (for example DC 16 encounters would give a different XP amount to DC 15 encounters), you simply interpolate between the levels (for DCs between 1 & 5 you interpolate between DC 0 (with 0XP) and DC 5).
Once you have your XP for the encounter, you divide the XP between all the characters present for the encounter (knowing when to let the "face" do the talking is just as much of a contribution to a social encounter as them doing the actual talking).
The Backend Mechanics
The way this table was created was to set a "CR Offset" to apply to the non-combat encounters to scale them to the XP reward for combat encounters. This offset works on a sliding scale, starting at -3 for a DC 5 encounter, and incrementing by 1 every time the DC is a multiple of 5. Once you compute this, you arrive at the following table (the minimum XP column is more complicated to set, so I'm not going to get into that here):
|DC||CR Offset||Minimum XP|
But, you ask, how do we use this information to translate to the table. Read on dear reader.
First off, the DMG gives us some advice on creating combat encounters:
There are four categories of encounter difficulty.
Easy. An easy encounter doesn’t tax the characters’ resources or put them in serious peril. They might lose a few hit points, but victory is pretty much guaranteed.
Medium. A medium encounter usually has one or two scary moments for the players, but the characters should emerge victorious with no casualties. One or more of them might need to use healing resources.
Hard. A hard encounter could go badly for the adventurers. Weaker characters might get taken out of the fight, and there’s a slim chance that one or more characters might die.
Deadly. A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat.
Our XP table uses these categories for our non-combat encounters, but adds two more to allow for the fact that non-combat encounters can span a wider range of difficulties than combat encounters, primarily because the threat of imminent death isn't present (for the most part). It also nicely matches up with the DC scale categories for skills.
The DMG gives the following guidance on creating quick random encounters:
[...]That said, a random encounter table usually includes hostile (though not necessarily evil) monsters that are meant to be fought. The following monsters are considered appropriate combat challenges:
- A single monster with a challenge rating equal to or lower than the party’s level.
- A group of monsters whose adjusted XP value constitutes an easy, medium, or hard challenge for the party, as determined using the encounter-building guidelines earlier in this chapter.
(Chapter 3 > Random Encounters > Random Encounter Challenge)
In particular, for balancing a quickly created encounter we can use a monster with a CR equal to the parties average level. This of course makes the core assumption of between 3 & 5 characters in a given group playing an encounter. Based on experience, picking a random CR=level monster would normally match the description of a "Hard" combat encounter quoted above. We can use this as a nice proxy for the "Hard" column in our non-combat encounters, in that we can just read off the XP for this column from the XP given for each CR of monster in the DMG (Chapter 9 > Creating a Monster > Creating Quick Monster Stats > Experience Points by Challenge Rating).
This gives us one of the columns of the table above. We then use the CR Offset table to populate the rest of the table.
To do this, we take the CR Offset, add (or subtract as appropriate) it from our current party level for the row we are populating, and read off the XP value for that CR in in the "Experience Points by Challenge Rating" table. Because we never want to give 0 XP for an encounter, we also use the minimum XP column from this table to set a lower bound in the event that we would be reading off the CR 0 line.
So to populate the DC 5 column, we need a CR offset of -3. For levels 1 - 3 this would put us at or below CR 0, so we use the Minimum XP column of our CR Offset table. For level 4 we read off the XP value for a CR 1 monster (200XP) and so on up through the table.
How did I playtest this?
I used this system in two campaigns:
- Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
- Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
WDH is designed to use a set of suggested character levels in order to advance characters up levels (it gives the DM the option of using XP, but is exceptionally handwavey about doing so). It is also packed full of non-combat encounters (being set primarily in Waterdeep). As a result, it seemed like an excellent adventure to run this levelling system through. It took my party 12 sessions to run through the whole adventure from level 1, and I used this system to dole out XP for the non-combat encounters they faced. The characters level advancement, using this system to augment the combat XP they got, matched them precisely with the level pacing the adventure expected had I chosen just to use the suggested levels.
WDMM on the other hand is a much more hack/slash mega dungeon adventure. It does have its own group of non-combat encounters, as well as suggested levels per dungeon level. Again I used this system to provide XP for the non-combat encounters. We ran the same adventuring party from the WDH adventure through this adventure for 19 sessions, before some life changes meant we couldn't run in person anymore. But when we did use it, the character's level advancement matched the expectation very nicely.
So in total, I've used this system for non-combat encounters over 31 D&D sessions, each of which was ~4-5 hours long (for a total of about 140 hours of actual play).
What am I looking for?
Based on the collective D&D (and other RPG) experience within this community I would like to get feedback on how this would affect the balance of the game.
There are a number dimensions in particular I'm concerned about from a balance perspective:
- Have I done a good job of balancing the XP rewards for the different levels?
- What adjustments would I need to make for parties larger than 5 or smaller than 3 players?
- How quickly would this cause characters to advance too quickly, obviously it's quicker than a pure hack and slash, but ?
- How would this affect the "meta" of D&D play (ie. does it do a good job of moving things away from the murder-hobo style of play)?
Other aspects of how well or badly this is designed, or indeed how it might be improved are obviously welcome, but those are the things I'm primarily concerned about.
Questions & Answers about how I run this
- Have you considered using gp based XP?
- Yes I did, but the problem with using gp based XP is that it incentivises...getting currency. Not all interesting encounters that I would want to reward XP wise are going to involve gold (freeing the prisoners by a novel way doesn't necessarily get you gold for example).
- I would like the characters in my game to have some sense of a "moral compass" or set of guiding priciples (though I don't restrict what that compass is, good, evil, etc), and do things because they believe it is the best thing for them to do (for their specific set of interests). That may be because it is "morally" the best course of action, or it may be because they want to thwart the plans of , or indeed because they are getting paid in gold. It doesn't have to be linked to gold for it to be in the players interests to do so.
- So finding the door is DC15 exp, beat the trap and you get DC25 instead. Right?
- Yes, They get the XP based on the hardest part of the encounter they overcome.
- Extrapolating more, if there is a guardian at the end of that path, do you get DC25 + combat or just combat? Or DC30 for the combined thing?
- If there is both a combat encounter and a non-combat encounter, they would get the XP for each separately. So in your example they would get the DC25 Non-Combat XP and the XP for defeating the monster itself.
- Is there a link between the encounter DC you mention and what the players will roll?
- Yes (ish). The DC is set based on an uninvolved party attempting the task.
- Using your king example. You set encounter-DC30. Does that mean that the player would need to roll that high? Or is that just a design language (and the party that is friend to the king would need to roll vs DC20 to get DC30-XP.
- That means that the hardest check in the challenge will be DC30 for an "uninvolved" party. If the party had instead curried significant favour with the King previously, and were "calling in a chit" so to speak, then their specific DC for the task may come down to as low as a DC 20 persuasion check (a traitor is a traitor after all), and they may even have advantage on that check!
- Obviously there are no rolls for things that are actually impossible for the party to achieve (jumping to the moon, getting the King to give a random group of adventurers the keys to the Kingdom in perpetuity, etc)
- Do you require a roll for those challenges to give XP?
- It slightly depends. In general, in order to get the XP there will need to be a roll, or at least for the party to be able to get XP from the encounter.
- They may not get the chance to complete a roll because (based on how the encounter went) there is no possibility of them completing the task required for the encounter. Taking the example of the king again, if the players were to insult and threaten the king, in front of the room full of heavily armed guards, then those players now have no chance of getting the traitor freed, so they miss out on that XP, and in fact they may now have set themselves up for a Deadly combat encounter.
- Does every roll (or rolls written into your adventure, ignoring ad-hoc "can I roll insight at the goblin?") give XP in this framework?
- No, every roll doesn't necessarily give XP (a social encounter in a ball might involve a number of rolls that are not necessarily part of the encounter [dexterity for dancing in time for example]), but how depending on how that roll contributed to the parties efforts in the encounter it might set a minimum XP the party will get even if they fail. It's highly dependent on the particular encounter the party is in.
- Would you allow a party to bypass a check entirely (with or without consuming resources) and still get XP?
- It depends. For example, using our king scenario again, if the party had an ultra high level sorcerer who used subtle spell to cast dominate monster on the king (and the king had failed), and then free'd the prisoner as a result. In that situation they would likely get the XP without a roll but the king would know that they had been forced into this by the party and that party is now on the run from the forces of a kingdom.