Days of High AdventureBonus Rewards in D&D: Why XP Is the Wrong Way to GoDays of High Adventure - RSS 2.0
Many Dungeon Masters have house rules for giving out bonus rewards. Be it for good roleplaying, coming up with a clever plan, or writing a fantastic character background, the typical reward DMs run with is experience points. After all, that is the core reward mechanism around which the game is structured - and rulebooks across multiple editions even explicitly mention awarding bonus XP. But this concept is fundamentally flawed. There is a better way.
After more than a decade of using XP as my bonus reward system, I can say that doing so works well enough in the short term. People enjoy receiving measurable recognition, and competitiveness will motivate some players to make an extra effort in an attempt to earn that bonus XP.
But therein lies the first problem: power disparity over time. Awarding bonus XP only works if all players receive roughly the same amount of bonus XP over a prolonged period. If, instead, some players earn much more than others, this will ultimately translate into some characters leveling up faster, which creates balance issues and breeds dissatisfaction among the lower-level players, who begin to feel like sidekicks. Suddenly, rather than seeming like you are rewarding players with XP, some players feel as though they are being punished for not being "as good" as the others.
Over the span of two years and dozens of sessions, I saw a disparity of two levels grow between the highest- and lowest-level characters in a party - from bonus XP alone! As I struggled to make combat encounters fun and balanced for all players, I realized that the problem would only get worse with time and implemented a rule that limited how quickly characters can level up. It was a patchwork solution that worked up and until the highest-level players realized that, while they could keep accumulating XP, they couldn't level up any faster than their companions. The drive to keep earning that bonus XP instantly vanished.
The high-level players had no desire to earn bonus XP, since they couldn't use it. The low-level players had no desire to earn bonus XP, since they felt they could never catch up to the high-level players. No one was happy with a system that seemed perfectly fine on the surface - a system that did keep players happy in the short term.
But that's just the first problem with awarding bonus XP. The second is the underlying message that awarding bonus XP sends.
What is XP? It is a quantifiable measure of mechanical power. More XP means more bonuses to rolls, more unlocked abilities and spells, more hit points... Ultimately, more XP means you are better able to overcome challenges by means of game mechanics.
Why do we commonly award bonus XP? For clever ideas and good roleplaying. But what message does that send? "You roleplayed that diplomatic negotiation well! You are now better at killing things." "What an ingenious plan you came up with! You have now learned a spell that renders that plan redundant."
The second fundamental problem with awarding XP is that doing so puts the focus on game mechanics, rather than the behavior we actually want to encourage with bonuses.