It's my first time running a campaign (D&D 3.5), and I'm trying to figure out how to assign XP to the players.

I am used to playing in games where everyone gets exactly the same XP, whether they attended the game or not. I have played in at least one game where someone would show up every couple of months and go "so how much XP did I get?"

The DMG (pg 37) suggests that characters don't get XP if they aren't in an encounter, never mind players. I therefore decided that in this game, players don't get XP when they don't attend.

One of the players feels it's unfair because characters would advance at different rates.

Does that cause problems? My thinking is that as long as players more or less show up, any experience point discrepancies will even out, given that later adventures give much larger experience awards. So characters should always be within about a level of one another, unless one player really just doesn't ever show up.

Have such discrepancies in rates of advancement caused problems in any of your campaigns?


5 Answers 5


It does cause problems; not insurmountable problems, but problems

The problem is that when characters get different amounts of XP, they end up with different levels. A level in 3.5 is unbelievably massive – particularly at higher levels with higher-power classes. For example, spells tend to grow exponentially in power – and if the sorcerer’s class level is one behind the wizard, the wizard is whole spell level ahead. Glitterdust is a phenomenal spell – but fly opens up whole new worlds. At the high end, this gets even worse: greater planar binding can get you an absurdly-powerful minion if you’re very careful, but gate can get you something much more powerful without any of that pesky preparation or negotiating.

Still, that’s probably a worst-case scenario for a single-level split. And it’s not like the sorcerer would be useless. But it is a huge disparity, and the sorcerer is a lot behind. And that remains true, in greater or lesser quantities, across the board. And while the sorcerer-vs-wizard example was probably a decent worst-case scenario for a single level, if it’s not one level but two or three, the problems are going to be massive no matter who you are.

So when you give out differing amounts of XP, you end up with people at different levels, and they are massively different in their capability. That makes it difficult for the players to contribute to the game, to play, and that’s a big problem. It’s all the problems of someone in the group under- or over-optimizing, except no one did: it’s just a result of the XP you handed out.

As incentives go, that’s a painful punishment that a lot of players are going to want to avoid. That can be desirable for you, since it strongly encourages your players to make sure they can attend when they said they could. But, it is still a game. People are coming there to play, to have a good time. They’re devoting their free time to this. Missing a session here or there is just reality: there are a lot of things that any responsible person has to prioritize over game time, sad as that is. To then be “punished” from then on, by diminishing your ability to play in the future, would make me strongly question whether or not I actually want to spend any of my free time on a game I’m not really getting to play.

Worse, on some level, is that it also makes for serious headaches for you, as DM. Even if the player totally deserves to be “punished” (totally blowing off their supposed commitment on a regular basis without warning, say, so they fall quite a bit behind), and they accept that they earned it and are taking the consequences for their behavior, you still have a game to run. And you have to figure out how on earth someone two or three levels behind is going to take part at all. And that’s not easy.

In fact, considering all the work that already goes into DMing, I personally flat-out refuse to allow players to have differing levels. I strongly dislike things like Level Adjustment or XP spent on spells or magic items, and a player in my game who is interested in something that would typically have costs like this has to sit down and discuss an alternative to that with me. So you can be very sure that I’m definitely not willing to put myself in that position by handing out differing amounts of XP.

And when I have an out-of-character problem with a player in the game, like missing sessions, I handle that out of character like a mature and responsible person. Like I said, missing a session here and there, that’s just reality. Missing sessions regularly, though, is something I’ll confront someone on (actually, literally did exactly that just yesterday). “Punishing” undesirable out-of-character behavior with in-character penalties just injects unnecessary drama and bitterness into the game.


It causes some problems, but doesn't solve the issue it addresses.

The information in this post comes from my direct experience of this issue as the guy who would often not show up to a game. During college, I was in a weekly game where I would miss every 3 or 4 weeks on average, sometimes more often. My group understood that the game was just that: a game. I liked playing, but sometimes I had too much class work to justify the drive and playtime that week. My GM was using the rule mentioned in the question: Any time I didn't show up to the game, I wouldn't get XP.

The most obvious effect of not giving out rewards (treasure, XP, RP rewards, etc.) is that the punished player has a character that is less powerful than everyone else's. How big of a deal that is depends on how much system knowledge and character optimization the group has. If everyone is building the best characters they possibly can, and exploiting every feature that they can find, a level or a few thousand gold can be a really big deal. If you're playing in a game where your players try to make powerful characters, but don't have enough time or system knowledge to really push boundaries, it's going to be less of a big deal. What matters more than direct power is the feeling that you can meaningfully contribute to the game. Haste might be better than bull's strength, but as long as the person casting the buff feels like they are contributing, that difference isn't as big of as issue.

Most of the people on this site that play 3.X games play in relatively high-optimization games. In a high-op game, a level makes a huge difference. This is not the only way to play 3.X. In a mid-to-low-op game, missing out on a level has a much less significant effect. During the time that I was missing a lot of sessions, I ended up 3 or 4 levels under the party average, and it didn't cause any significant balance issues. By the time you're high enough level for there to be significant level gaps, there will already be significant power gaps between players unless everyone is already playing the same tier of classes.

That said, this kind of punishment scheme has a cyclical effect. If a player misses enough sessions and drops far enough back that they feel that they aren't contributing enough to have fun, then it becomes more likely that they will miss the game. If each week, they have to make the decision to either take care of whatever needs to be done in their non-game life or play a game that has become less fun due to their character being less powerful, the player is more likely to decide to stay home, which only makes the issue worse. If you're playing with this person because you're friends and want to hang out, and not just so you can have another person in your game, this effect will make it even less likely that your friend will stay in the game.

Punishing a player by denying XP can also cause a problem due to the weakness of obvious costs versus social ones. If a player is 'punished' for missing a session without a good reason by being made fun of (in a good-natured way) by their friends, the 'cost' they pay is a social one, which typically works better to enforce desired behaviors. If the 'cost' the player pays is the XP from the previous session, then it makes them feel like their cost has already been paid, and that they don't need to feel bad about missing the session anymore. When I was missing a lot of games, my group did both, which just made me feel bad either way.

In the end, the punishment approach doesn't solve the underlying problem: the player has something (or many somethings) in their life that they prioritize higher than game attendance. The only real way to solve this problem is to talk to the player and try and figure out a solution that works for the both of you. Maybe the player can't be in the game anymore. Maybe the player's character will have to take more of a 'backseat' role, so it isn't a big deal when they show up. Maybe the player has to drop some other obligation to be able to show up more. It depends upon your group, and the player, and your specific situation, but punishing your player isn't going to have any positive effects.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out that whether it's a problem depends partially on playstyle. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Apr 13, 2015 at 3:56
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ -1 for completely reframing this as "punishment." The way the rules work by default, PCs get XP and treasure for doing stuff; simply using entitlement-language of "well anyone not getting the stuff is just being punished" fails to engage with the initial point of the rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Apr 13, 2015 at 17:20

It can cause problems, especially when you have a single player missing multiple sessions in a row.

There is certainly a power gap that occurs when players are at different levels, but this power gap is created by other aspects of the game as well, such as magic item creation. The system is built to help adjust for experience differences that can cause level gaps if the experience is granted accurately to the method written in the core rules, so the chances of catching up to within a level or so gap is pretty high.

If the level gap gets too great, it becomes the DM's responsibility to deal with it. They can do this by building encounters with a broader array of challenges (thus giving the lower level characters the opportunity to see challenges that are roughly equal), or find other, similar, methods to compensate for the level gap. If this is taken in to mind, it does mean extra work for the DM, but it can allow the impact on the campaign to be minimal, even with drastic differences in level. The question then becomes if it is worth the extra work as a DM to balance the encounters for disparate level ranges, or if the DM wants to mitigate the experience loss in some way.

Ways to deal with players missing sessions

I have battled with similar issues in the past, and determine how to approach it based on the players. I want to ensure that the game isn't too imbalanced character-wise, yet at the same time ensure that players aren't getting away 'scott-free' with not coming to sessions.

I have come up with multiple approaches on how to handle the issue, though, and switch between solutions depending on my players and the situation.

If it is a very rare occurrence because of unforeseen circumstances such as a family member going to the hospital, I generally don't count it against them in any way. People can't control an emergency.

If it is a relatively rare occurrence for people to miss a session, but there isn't some emergency associated with the situation, I typically decide that they don't get the treasure that the party collects (unless it is a piece of treasure that was put in to the story-line for that player's character). This minimizes the impact, but allows people to make that choice for things like the weekend of the Renn-Faire (happened recently).

If a consistent problem begins to occur with day of cancellations or frequent consecutive sessions missed, I typically give them half of the normal experience of the rest of the party to provide a strong pull to show consistently.

If a player is refusing to show up so much that even the last method is ineffective, I typically simply stop inviting them.

Any one of these is a viable method of dealing with the problem, and so is simply not giving them experience for sessions that they miss. Due to problems that creep up, I steer away from simply not giving them any experience at all. I use a tiered solution so I don't punish players that don't show a real problem, but at the same time I can deal with consistent issues.

Luckily, 3.5e is built such that it isn't too difficult for a character to stay within a level or two relatively easily. A lower level character will catch up relatively easily when adventuring with higher level characters. Because of this, the approach you use should be tailored to your group and how much you want to incentivize showing up versus not showing up.


In addition to KRyan's excelletn 3.5 specific answer, I think this question is answerable as a question about experience point systems in general and what they are supposed to do from a game standpoint. So in that light, I will attempt to answer the question. I have had extensive practice fiddling with experience systems, as I don't think I have ever used the printed method in a campaign I have run. So hopefully all of my experimentation can lend some insight.


Giving out XP for things that aren't specifically addressed in the rules (like attendance and role playing) is only a problem when your players don't find equity in how these rewards are given. Your specific example of attendance, therefore, is problematic because one player is at a distinct advantage.

Skinner Box-ing Match

At the heart of it, every character growth system is the game's built-in way to tell players what they should be incentivized to do. They are little reward packets that give players almost instantaneous feedback that what they just did works, is a good thing to be doing, and will provide them with benefits in the future. It's why XP is one of the most powerful motivation tools at the GM's disposal. In D&D, playing with Rules as Written, characters will gain the most XP from "defeating" challenges, which mostly means killing things. So they are taught that killing things is a good and healthy activity to participate in, and will ensure that they try to become better at killing things, and will kill more things in the future. It's a positive-feedback loop.

So what does this teach us? That rewarding XP outside of how the game system explicitly instructs us to is a way to teach our players what actions and activities are and are not acceptable and encouraged in our game. So there is nothing inherently wrong with offering XP for a range of given activities, including roleplaying and attendance. The problem arises when the players start feeling cheated due to perceived imbalance in how these rewards are given.

Equity, not Equality

Human beings really, really like feeling as though their situation is equitable to others- that is, we don't really want to be the same as everyone else, but we want to be afforded the same opportunities as everyone else. We don't want to feel as though the system is unfairly giving an advantage to someone else, nor do we want to feel as though a system is limiting our ability to excel inside of it. This is why you are experiencing resistance from your players about these additional XP rewards.

They all have the same tools to achieve inside the game system. Everyone has the ability to make a character that is really good at killing things or overcoming obstacles. So even if someone is better at it than someone else, each player had the same starting point, so no feeling of inequity is garnered. However, in your other two examples, people are starting on an uneven playing field.

Attendance- some people have busier lives. Some players sometimes can't make the commute. And they're right about the host- (s)he is given an advantage because without them, there is no session, so they are never in danger of missing experience. If there were rotating hosts, or another way of making up this disparity, I believe the resistance would drop significantly to this point, because then most people are starting from a roughly even place in receiving this reward.

Roleplaying- some people are shy. Some people don't feel as though they are good at acting or coming up with "in-character" things to say on the spot. Some people don't care about the role-playing aspects to the game (which is okay). But I think there is a very easy fix to this that solves the problem while still encouraging role playing.

Spotlight Moments

Our playing group has a "spotlight moment" system. At the GM's discretion (or when the player thinks that their character is having a really cool dramatic moment), the GM pauses the game to have a "spotlight" shined on a particular character. That player than gets to have a monologue about what is going through their character's head at the time. It can be anything from a review of the situation from the character's perspective to a rousing speech given to bolster the army before a battle. It shouldn't last more than a couple of minutes, max. After the monologue, the GM rewards the player with a standard packet of XP, and then play resumes.

This does two things- one, it gets the players into the heads of their characters more and two, it standardizes the XP so that each player has the same opportunity to gain the reward.

We generally try to have these spotlights on each character once a session, but if you just keep track to make sure no one gets two without everyone getting one, you should be fine.

Also be mindful that you should be lenient with the XP you give in this fashion. Only if someone is clearly not making the attempt should you withhold the reward- we are encouraging behavior that some may not practice, after all.

Wrap Up

Alternate conditions for earning rewards are a great tool the gm can use to shape his game, but must be delivered in a method that the players view as equitable, and must be used to incentivize actions that increase the amount of fun for everyone involved.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This does not answer the question posed. It's not talking about "attendance XP" or "roleplaying XP." It's asking about negative effects of letting non-present characters miss XP and progress at a different rate than their party. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Apr 24, 2015 at 3:16

I realize that this is a 3.5 question, but I'll try to answer it in a general sense. You have a few situations going on here:

  • Players who show up only when they feel like it and expect to get the same XP that participants get -- In this case, absolutely not. If the character doesn't participate, he doesn't get the XP, GP or class specific magical item (in fact, it wouldn't even exist).
  • Players who try to make it most of the time but have family emergencies -- If time permits, have them give you the character (or someone who can bring it) and run the character as an NPC.
  • Players who try to make it every week but occasionally have spousal type duties -- if it's only occasional, run it as an NPC. If it happens a lot, treat it as the once-in-a-while-adventurer.

If you think about it, it seems pretty reasonable. You get the XP that you earn; that's only for the participants. If you're in school and miss a test, you don't get the average grade as the rest of the class.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I will add that in 5e, there is a mechanism called Challenge Rating (CR) to account for a disparity in party levels. This also mitigates the idea that when a character dies, you can have the player roll up a new on at 1 level lower. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2015 at 18:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't actually see an answer to the question here. Are there negative impacts or not? What are they? \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Apr 10, 2015 at 20:03

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