Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points

World of Warcraft Level Up DINGAs a Game Master, I have always hated experience points. It is one of the most frustrating and poorly designed aspects of many role playing games. Including my beloved Pathfinder.

I understand function of EXP, and why it’s valuable. Players enjoy being rewarded for their work, and (along with treasure) experience points are the most direct and tangible form of reward in an RPG. Watching the number of accrued XP grow larger and larger, bringing a character ever closer to the threshold of the next level, is not only encouraging, but it gives players a sense of control over their own progression

For the GM, though, it’s nothing but a pain in the ass. Every encounter in the game needs to have an encounter level applied to it. Each encounter level is modified by the variables in combat. If the giant slime had a challenge rating of 6, and each of the two dozen skeletons had a challenge rating of 1/2, what was the encounter level of the combat? Should the characters gain more experience because the floor was covered in pit traps? Should they gain less because they have that powerful magic item which kept the giant slime pinned down for most of the combat? Should the total amount of experience gained change if the players find it unexpectedly more or less difficult than the GM expected they would?

I don’t shy away from using a complicated system if I can be convinced it needs to be complicated. But experience gain never struck me as having that kind of need. Almost every game I’ve run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they’ve earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome.

At best, the method I’ve been using make experience points redundant. At worst, my method reduces player agency. It’s an arrangement I’ve never been happy with, but not one I never thought of a good solution to. Maybe I was just being dense about it, though, because the solution seems damned obvious now.

Last week during my morning blog reading. I found this post over at Blog of Holding. According to Paul, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is normalized so that each level requires roughly 10 encounters to reach. So, instead of bothering to calculate large XP numbers, Paul simply gives his players 1 experience point for every encounter, and once they reach 10xp they get to level.

I immediately fell in love with the simplicity and elegance of the system. But, not wanting to rush into things headlong, I ran the numbers for Pathfinder’s own leveling graph. My formula was simple:

[(Amount of XP required to reach next level) – (Amount of XP required to reach previous level] * (XP awarded to a character in a party of 1-3 when overcoming an encounter with a CR equal to the Average Party Level.)

This should produce the rough number of combats required to reach each level. While it is possible to raise or lower this number by having more members in the party, or dealing with encounters with a CR above or below the APL, this should provide a reliable average.

Since Pathfinder provides groups with slow, normal, or fast leveling progressions, I punched in the numbers sixty times, and lo and behold, the numbers are consistent.


Slow progression levels every 22 encounters, normal progression levels every 15 encounters, and fast progression levels every 10 encounters. I have to admit, as the results started to become apparent, I started to get angry. It seems ridiculous to me that leveling is actually based on such an exceptionally simple system, which is hidden behind needless layers of complexity. I can understand that large XP numbers are perhaps more fun to talk about, but couldn’t they have let GMs in on this? Knowing would have saved me a lot of work.

Having now shown that leveling is simply a function of the number of encounters players have overcome, I will now be using a modified version of Paul’s Simple XP House Rule in all of my future Pathfinder games:

At slow progression, each level requires 44 experience points.
At normal progression, each level requires 30 experience points.
At fast progression, each level requires 20 experience points.

Characters receive 1 experience point for: overcoming an easy battle; escaping from a difficult battle or boss battle; overcoming a non-combat challenge such as a trap, or diplomatic negotiation; other misc tasks the GM would like to offer rewards for.

Characters receive 2 experience points for: overcoming an appropriately leveled combat encounter.

Characters receive 3 experience points for: overcoming a very difficult encounter or boss battle, or completing a major task such as saving a kingdom.

The major difference between my system and Paul’s is that while his system converts the number of encounters into the total amount of required XP, I doubled the number of encounters to get the amount of required XP. This allows for more more nuanced experience rewards. The baseline for most of the experience most characters will receive is 2, which means that the average number of encounters will remain unchanged. Characters who only fight monsters appropriate for their level will still reach a new level every 22, 15, or 10 fights.

However, with my variation on the system, a GM is better able to reward players for more minor actions. Something like successfully disabling a complicated trap, using stealth to avoid a ferocious band of orcs, or convincing a band of marauders that it’s not in their best interests to raid the village which is under the PC’s protection. I’ve never liked RPGs which punished players for skillfully avoiding combat. As a guy who likes to play rogues who rely heavily on stealth, I’ve experienced this in essentially every class based video game I’ve ever played. It’s just poor design.

Let me know what you think. I haven’t actually play tested this system yet, so I’m sure I’ll have cause to update it eventually.

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30 thoughts on “Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points”

  1. Nice System of EXP. Simple but also covered every aspect of the adventure from minor tasks to major events. Much more better than the old, typical ones.

    1. Thank you! Even after all this time, I think this is still the best house rule I’ve ever implemented in my games.

      I really wish I could take more credit for it! Paul of Blog of Holding came up with the idea, really. I just did the legwork to adapt it for my uses.

  2. You might be a genius. I am a 3.5 D&D DM who is about to cater to a Pathfinder crowd. I am going over the differences in character advancement and it’s driving me crazy. Even at FAST, a Pathfinder character must earn: 2,400,000 xp compared to a 3.5 character who needs: 190,000 xp. I looked at the Bestiary and the unless I’m missing something; the amount of xp awarded is roughly the same to the Monster Manual. So now I have to keep track of (2) convoluted systems of experience… or I can adopt a system like yours to use universally.

    Now… how to *not* let the players know I’m doing it..?

    Thank you!

    1. Well, I’m not going to argue with anyone who wants to argue that I’m a genius.

      Though Paul did come up with the idea. I merely refined it for my purposes.

  3. Funny how I have been trying to figure out a way for easy XP rewards… and yet something I, quite literally, found by accident holds the answer… Thank you very much. Though I will say the XP encounter budget system they have where a encounter has a set amount of XP based on CR with which you can buy opponents with is So much easier when it comes to building encounters… at least to me

    1. Pathfinder did make some big improvements to D&D 3.5’s xp calculation system. It was a LOT easier, and I really liked the idea of fast, normal, and slow leveling progression.

      Just the same, I find it annoying that the game uses large numbers when it does not strictly need to. There was a reason for it in AD&D: experience was gained at a rate of 1 xp for each 1gp worth of treasure acquired. That’s no longer the case, so large numbers are just pointless nostalgia.

      1. I think making the slow progression 20 and then multiplying everything by 20. that makes it to where you can give XP based on CR of what they killed or beat. and gives players a feeling of gaining significant XP.

        The truth is my favorite xp system is A song of ice and fires.

  4. Way back when (early 80’s), in addition to getting XP for treasure as well as fighting monsters, DMs were encourage to hand out XP for good role playing. Does anyone still do that or is it just for combat situations now?

    1. I dont know about DnD 4e but 3.5/Pathfinder encourages it. And many people do give it out Though not as much as a combat encounter. Usually it is just a small amount based on responses and creativity for most GMs.

      The most I have seen other GMs outside of myself and those who taught me was 250 experience split evenly amongst 5 players for them convincing a henchman of the BBEG to turn towards good and help people instead of kill them.

      Though it gives an alternative/additional option called an NPC boon for dealing with NPCs other than the BBEG.

      Personally I like giving both XP and Boons for good Role Play. As it helps encourage the players to immerse themselves more.

    2. Many GMs give out XP for good role playing, I do not. I do this for a couple reasons:

      1) ‘Good Role Playing’ isn’t something which I necessarily think we need to encourage. Some players are really uncomfortable with it, and they would rather solve puzzles, defeat monsters, and generally play their character as though it were an avatar, rather than act as though they themselves are the character.

      2) Even if I did want to encourage role playing, I don’t think I would do it with XP, because there’s no point at which I would turn to a player and say “you have accomplished good role playing.” Good RP is a constant, ongoing kinda thing. I suppose you could hand XP out at the end of the session, but meh.

      3) My players get XP for overcoming challenges and accomplishing goals. Fighting monsters is in there, but so is successfully negotiating a peace treaty, or stealing a monster’s treasure without the monster noticing. Simply ‘role playing’ doesn’t really fit into those categories.

      But as I said: many GMs do it. There’s no reason you should not.

      1. I guess I should specific party of my role playing is done in moments such as negotiating/haggling with guards to get through a gate. Or a similar moment where they could fight but chose not to. Or even convincing a wizard to aid them. In fact i only use diplomacy as a way for them to see if something they done got the interest of an NPC and caused their opinions to shift.

        I base XP on an encounter based on the NPC/Creatures CRs. So it gives them an extra option. That way they don’t feel they have to kill every rat they find for XP.

        Them using this option is what I meant by encouraging them to RP. And it doesn’t have to be high-level RP like your ‘bring blood for the blood God, and skulls for his skull throne’ moment. Just them describing what their character says is enough for me.

        With the low CRs of most guards and such it might not seem like much but it really can mean the difference between leveling up or not. If I used your system I would reward 1 point per RP encounter.

        Hope that makes sense…

      2. Ah, by good role playing, I meant stuff outside of combat: puzzle solving, negotiating, etc., as well as actual character role playing. It’s been literally decades since I’ve played D&D and getting back into it is… interesting.

          1. Actually I just got a call from my FLGS yesterday. My 1st edition reprint books came in. Gonna go pick them sometime soon.

          2. Oh, Pathfinder. I picked up the Core Rules a couple months ago and got a bit lost. finally broke down and picked up Beginners Box last weekend and that’s helped clarify things. Daughter (11) wants to get into PnP gaming and I figure this is a good place to start. I’ll run her and wife (never played) though the beginner box adventure before starting on something bigger (Rise of
            Rune lords is on order).

            Trying to get a handle on the large amount of detail that can be brought to bear on the players is a little overwhelming. I want game play to move smoothly on and not get bogged down as I try to figure out some weird rule that makes no sense to me. And then there’s the story-telling. I’m way out of practice for this and feel a bit of stage fright, even now, thinking about it. Funny thing is, I’ve done radio, I do funny character voices for my daughter all the time and read books to her in voice and after all, it is my own family. Man, being human is weird.

            And once we’ve done one adventure, she’s inviting her school friends over to play. Aaaaaaugh!

            1. Relax and just make short adventures with few NPCs. Very few named NPCs and before to long you will get it. Heck build you a small Party and run through different scenarios to learn the rules.

  5. Great system. Since there is so much math behind the who CR rating of encounters of Pathfinder, it comes as little surprise that it breaks down as you showed. The only concern to keep track of that I can see is that low level encounters would need to be disregarded all together or given fractional point rewards. This is where big xp numbers come into play, allowing a player to wade through hordes of minions and not get the same xp that they would if fighting an evenly pitched battle. However, with some cleaver attention to detail this can easily be accounted for.
    Thank you for posting this and thanks to for finding you in my seeking to make the game easier and more enjoyable!

  6. It’s nicely done, I’ve been using a similar system since 1991. :)

    Character participated usefully 1-2
    Character vital to success 2-3
    Routine, Safe, or Unimportant x0
    Exceptional, Dangerous, or Essential x2

    Short basic scenario, 1-3 sessions 1-2
    Long involved scenario, 4+ sessions +2
    Dangerous or difficult scenario +1
    Important or complicated scenario +1
    Group worked together as a team +1
    Group solved scenario with role-playing +1
    Scenario was a great success +1
    Scenario was a horrible failure x½

  7. I am really considering running my upcomming campaign like this. Though I’ll probably going to do it this way:

    Every character has a “progress meter”.
    For an easy encounter, they get 5%, for a normal encounter 10%, and for a difficult encounter 15%. Every time they reach 100%, 200%, 300%, and so on, they get another level.

  8. I guess by the age of some of these comments i am a bit late to the party but i would like to weigh in anyway.

    Your simplified approach to awards is interesting, as a DM though i find that while simple and elegant it lacks gradient for smaller awards. I have often found that smaller awards for a clever idea or a particularly well played scene are often appropiate as minor incentives.

    Still it is worth thinking about for its elegance and the depth of thought you gave it.

    Well done.

    1. When I used this system, I was pretty free with giving out 1xp rewards for just about anything the players did that was clever.

      These days I only award xp for recovered treasure at a 1:1 ratio. I find it much more elegant.

  9. One of the problems from a content creation perspective is that each encounter in pathfinder can be more difficult or easy, I was worried at first when you talked about 1 xp, that you would forget that you need to balance easy fights and hard fights to give the characters a sense of accomplishment and challenge, but you covered it in your 1/2/3xp system. My only problem is you reward more for fighting rather than evading, and pathfinder is based on equal xp for avoiding.

    1. I agree, it’s important to award XP for avoiding fights. Without re-reading what I wrote above (it was several years ago), I seem to recall that I usually gave out equal XP for “beating” an encounter regardless of the method used. Combat, avoidance, etc. That might not be what I recommended above, though.

      These days, I only award XP for treasure recovered. It encourages players to seek treasure by the most efficient route, rather than the bloodiest one.

  10. You still have a problem. With 15xp, you gain a level; but what if you have an adventure end with 12xp? The players are not going to gain a level after their triumph! But they ARE going to level at some random point early in the next adventure. That’s awkward.

    An easy solution a lot of GMs already do with “standard” XP is to hold off on XP awards until after the adventure, then give them all they’ve earned at once. By doing this, the players gain a level at the end of every one to three adventures (in either your system or standard XP).

    So why not just do away with XP altogether and award a level every one to three adventures?

    1. You and I play very different games, Jon.

      I don’t care about the characters leveling up at a thematic time, or when they *feel* like they’ve earned it. That kind of thinking is the death of the game. You’re not playing a game anymore, you’re acting out a shared improv experience. Which maybe you’re having a lot of fun with, and that’s cool. But it’s not something I really want to take part in. I play games.

      In games, there are goals, and rules for reaching those goals. Sometimes, despite doing everything right, you don’t quite reach your goal. Sometimes, a great triumph feels hollow. And sometimes you fall just short of a level. Then other times, you level up after something stupid.

      That’s how I like to play.

  11. I really like this. Like you, I had already analyzed the math and realized that the exponential XP track aligned perfectly with the exponential growth of encounter XP, and I thought of making it linear instead. I’m really considering doing this.

    I only have one issue with the system: it’s ideal for parties where every PC has the same level. In our game, some people started later than others, some people skip some sessions, and not every one is the same level. Inherent to the original XP system is the idea that lower level PCs that hang out with higher APL parties will catch up with them in terms of XP: since the “normal encounter” for the party is a few levels above the low-level PC, the XP rewards are higher than his own “normal encounter”.

    And that makes sense: learning from the masters, etc. After all if the level 1 dude participates in slaying a CR 10 dragon, they probably learned more than by killing a few dire rats.

    With a linear XP track, every player moves forward at the same rate, and the gap between different-leveled PCs stays constant. You could of course give “more” XP to the lower level characters, but that would simply hide the mechanic of exponential XP tracks, and defeat the point of a “simple” XP system.

    Like you explained in another post, I think it’s ok to have different levels in a party, everyone can contribute in their own way, but I wouldn’t want the same people to always “lag behind”.

    What do you think?

    1. Hi again :)

      If it is of interest, I adapted the system to my own needs and you can see the computations here:

      I found different numbers, because you used a party of 1-3, while I used the standard 4, which gives exactly 20 APL +0 encounters to level up. I went for 40 points per level, as it matches better the 20 encounters (the same way you picked 30 XP per level to match the 15 encounters).

      I also “solved” the lower-level PC issue. At the end of the session, apply a bonus multiplier to the XP awarded to PCs below APL: 1.5 for APL-1, 2 for APL-2, 3 for APL-3, 4 for APL-4, (doubling the bonus every 2 levels below APL). The numbers work out :)

    2. That’s a good point. I do much prefer it when people are able to be different levels than one another.

      As I recall, back when I used this system, I allowed lower level characters to progress along a faster track than higher level ones. High level characters generally leveled on the slow track, while low level characters were on the fast one. Once they caught up with the rest of the party, they’d switch over to the slower track like everyone else.

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