On X.P. Budgets

The following quote caught my eye from today’s Legends and Lore by Mike Mearls, talking about monster design in DnD Next:

When it comes to combat, the math that our system uses assumes an adventuring day that lasts a number of rounds and involves a total experience point value for monsters based on the party’s level. Higher-level parties fight more and face tougher creatures. 

The adventure design guidelines give an XP budget for an entire day, a range of XP values for easy, average, and tough fights, and a suggested maximum XP value for a single monster. In other words, you have a daily budget you can spend, guidelines for how much of that budget to spend on a given fight, and a limit of how much XP you can spend on a single monster. As with everything that focuses on the DM, this is all advice to use as you see fit.

Except for that last sentence, everything here looks exactly like it did in 4th edition, which is one of the many reasons I really didn’t care for 4th edition. The question becomes, just how significant is that last sentence?

Old school gamers would say that it’s entirely superfluous. Nobody needs to be told that the DM can ignore something that happens to be in a rulebook (even– especially– the Dungeon Masters Guide). That’s the argument some make in favor of 4th edition; so what if it has x.p. budgets for encounters? The DM can just leave that part out.

The flip side of the coin, of course, are the many non-old school gamers who take exactly an opposite view. One of the great things about 4th edition, they say, is its finely wrought mathematical balance. By ignoring rules that enforce that balance, you’re turning it into a different game, and that’s not fair to the players who come into it expecting to play the game as it was written.

For myself, naturally I fall on the side of the old school in this debate. As DM, decisions as to how difficult to make an encounter are entirely mine, and nothing is going to change that just because there’s a formula for balancing encounters in the book. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of old school play is that some encounters aren’t there to be overcome– they’re there to be avoided. 

It will be interesting to see just how far the “just because it’s in the book doesn’t mean it must be used at the table” attitude is translated into the next iteration of the DnD Next playtest rules, and of course the final rule set. But they seem to be moving the pendulum back in the direction of 4th edition, which will most certainly turn me off if it goes too far. It’s one thing to take a stab at a new game if it is compatible with my style of play; it’s quite another to have to bend and twist it to do so. In that case, there’s no reason to leave what I’ve got now*.

* Please note: I don’t want the comments to turn into a dozen variations on “I don’t see any reason to leave what I’ve got now anyway”. Please keep comments on the topic of x.p. budgets. Offenders will be deleted without warning. Well, other than this warning, of course. 

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

19 thoughts on “On X.P. Budgets

  1. If you read the 4e DMG it advice there as well. But soon became enshrined as gospel mostly because of organized play.

    Me I rather have the math laid out but the company needs to make sure that in their adventures and supplements to stress that it is just guidelines and occasionally do something outside of the box so to speak.

  2. I was originally introduced to the tabletop gaming hobby through Palladium's RIFTS, both as a player, and a GM.Balance in RIFTS, in encounter difficulty and in experience rewards, was left entirely to the GM. (which in my opinion is how it should be.)

    That said, I wholeheartedly support the "This is how it is, unless you want to tweak it." attitude. Some GMs won't need it. Others will turn their noses up at it, but a very precious third demographic will benefit from it. Young (by experience, not age) gamers, those who cut their teeth on 4th edition and don't really understand that it's okay to wiggle the fiddly bits until they do what you want. (Pretty much every 4th edition GM I've played with was mildly offended at the concept of changing the rules.)

  3. I’m a big fan of giving DMs some benchmarks to help them make decisions on these kind of things. How do you keep people from treating it as rules instead of guidelines? While explicitly saying it helps, I’m not sure it helps very much. Having “rule zero” in the 3e books didn’t seem to prevent it.

    Then again, I’ve never actually experienced players who don’t understand that the “rules” are really only guidelines. (Even as recovering rules lawyer. I argue what the rules say, not that the DM must follow them.) I suppose it helps that the only people who aren’t old-timers in our group are people who started gaming with us. And the only con I go to is an old-school one.

  4. Jesus, I just posted about how every time I read something Mearls wrote or claims to have said he comes off as a total putz…and here's yet another example.

  5. I don't see the problem with XP budgets. In 4th edition, they have always been a way for the DM to easily set the difficulty of an encounter whether the DM wants it to be hard or easy. They are not, as your post suggests, a hard and fast rule for the difficulty level for every encounter.

    If I remember correctly in 4th edition, the XP budget for 5 level 1 PCs was 500XP. If you as DM put 500XP worth of monsters in an encounter, then you can expect that encounter be a reasonable challenge to that group of PCs. You want the encounter to be easier? Make it a 400XP encounter. You want the encounter one to be avoided? Spend 700 or 800. The guidelines for how to adjust the difficulty level of an encounter were a part of 4th Edition from the beginning.

    I don't see how this could be a bad thing. It just makes it easier for the DM, especially inexperienced ones, build the encounter to their specifications. In RPGs without XP budgets it takes trial and error to know. Are 10 kobolds a challenge for 4 level 1 PCs? Or will they be too easy? Or result in a TPK? It's hard to say. At least with an XP budget, I have a ballpark of how hard it will be for the PCs instead of guessing and trial and error.

  6. Amusingly, like Daniel I was also introduced through Palladium (first Robotech, then PFRPG, then RIFTS) and came away with the exact opposite lesson: having the DM as the ultimate authority is great (even ideal), but some GMs need to have a baseline of "this is balanced; less is easy and more is hard" in order to be effective. For that reason, I like that they have math behind their system, AND I think it's great that they're explicitly stating what old-school gamers already know — because new-school gamers don't know it, and introducing the concept in-source is great. I do agree with Rob C. that they should hold the line in their published adventures, too, and give us over-powered (and maybe underpowered) encounters from time to time.

  7. Level1Gamer: If you want to understand why some people have a negative reaction, you have to understand that there is a style of DMing for which tools like an XP budget are entirely extraneous. The DM simply creates the world as makes sense. It’s up to the players to either avoid the encounters that are too tough or find ways to make them less tough.

    It isn’t that these DMs don’t need it because they’ve got experience. It’s that they don’t understand why anyone would use such a tool since—for them—creating encounters is fully independent of the PCs. It suggests a style of play that feels wrong to them.

  8. "As with everything that focuses on the DM, this is all advice to use as you see fit."

    I believe this to be a very important sentence, for the simple reason that it's something "new/young" gamers do not understand.

    Today's gamers are nothing less than "Rules Lawyers" — "but The Book says." And they say that in the same tone that older persons might say, "Well, the Bible says . . ."

    The DMG — or any other Source Book — has not come to us from God. So the two books should not be confused with each other.

    Everyone is familiar with the term "it's the DM's game," but don't seem to have any idea what that means. It means this:

    "I am the DM of my game and I don't give a dam what the book says — you're DEAD!; or, You can't jump that far!; or, You don't have a +5 Vorpal Sword! et al."

    I pity those that can't DM or even game without "the Book." It's a shame that they don't realize that Source Books are nothing more than Guidelines. They're not Gospel.

    But then, I've only been gaming since my Army days — late 1970's — and it's a "brave new world" in the gaming community.

    Too damn bad.

    But that's just me.

  9. Robert Fisher: That makes sense I guess. XP budgets may suggest a certain style of play but they certainly do not preclude the style of play you describe in any way. DMs can simply ignore XP budgets.

    Again, XP budgets aren't an edict: "You can only spend this much on an encounter" is not what they are. XP budgets are more about if there are a certain XP amount of monsters in a fight, this is how hard it is likely to be for the PCs.

    I'd think even a DM who is more interested in building a world as makes it sense would like to know how hard an encounter will be before the PCs walk into it. If only to drop those hints to the PCs that this is a fight the may want to avoid.

  10. You're missing the whole point. Many DMs *do* treat it like an edict, published adventures treat it like an edict, and many players will come to expect it and will be discomfited if it is not adhered to like an edict.

    Plus, as far as I can tell, it *was* an edict in 4E. I still don't see any "ignore this if you want to" language in the book.

  11. This type of math has been in the game since at least 3rd. ed. the numbers were just different, i.e. challenge ratings/encounter levels None of which I ever took as anything but a guideline. If I wanted to throw a minotaur (CR/EL 8, for those who might wonder) at a first level party, I did.

    […] published adventures treat it like an edict […]

    I think that has more to do with the linear tournament style in which those adventures are written. If you run from an encounter you don't really have anywhere to progress, unless the GM tampers with it.

    I grew up on AD&D 2nd. ed., WFRPG, CoC and stuff like that, but we barely used half the rules, cos we didn't care, as long as it was fun and felt epic. I then started playing 3rd. ed. which I enjoyed so much more than 2nd. and I've tried my hand at 4th. But lately I've taken a shine to LL due to the simplicity (and the fact that I never owned anything basic or 1st. ed.).
    Having had my share of experiences I can see why they felt the need to include such rules, both the encounter math and rules like "rule zero". To me it seems that many of the younger generations of players are self taught and might therefore need stuff like that to guide them in the right direction. and yes, I know some people just end up in the cult of the RAW, but hey, you can't win 'em all…

  12. I think the whole idea of XP budgets/CR really does change the game in terms of what characters expect from an encounter. The genius of the older editions is that they generate surprise for both players and DM. From experience, using XP Budgets/CR ratings for encounters, I feel, tends to be too much work and lends itself towards encounters that usually don't generate surprises because the party goes into each encounter thinking they're going to survive it.

  13. Level1Gamer: If you see it as a useful tool, it is no surprise that you can see how those DMs could find it useful too. My point is that they have such a different point-of-view that they don’t see that at all. Though, again, this is about understanding why there is a negative reaction. Not about whether it is or isn’t useful to anyone.

    That plus having to deal with “strictly by the book or it’s wrong” players, though—as I say—I don’t think I’ve ever actually played with one of them.

  14. I think one of the things that should be noted is that while I agree with you on a level, the "Encounter to be Avoided" is something that doesn't work if you stay by rules as written, ever since 2nd edition. The movement speeds are codified, the halfling's hide in plain sight ability negated, and a lot of monsters are just plain faster than PC's. Since Move Silently has been a real proficiency and the default sneaking ability, you just can't sneak past that Giant anymore. Oh, you can turn away, and maybe, if you have horses or a teleport, get away, but the Giant moves faster than you do, and typically has attacks with great reach.

    The only thing that lets the party not be detected by monsters is DM Fiat. Which is something which you may do, but players will know that it's because you choose not to notice them that they got away with sneaking or moving past a unbalanced encounter.

    Running away has been something that has not worked for decades now, under the AD&D system. While I *like* the idea of an encounter one shouldn't fight, actually getting out of an encounter if you accidentally stumble upon it is just not likely.

    I realize it's a playstyle issue, but by the mechanics, I've given up trying to run away or sneak a whole party by something long ago.

    While I can pull off what you are searching for with other systems, or 1E, I can't so that with any version of D&D post Proficiencies.

  15. @Joseph

    Page 56

    A standard encounter should challenge a typical group of characters but not overwhelm them.

    Also Page 56
    Choose an encounter level.Encounter level is relative
    to the number of characters in the party.

    An easy encounter is one or two levels lower than the party’s level.

    A standard encounter is of the party’s level, or one level higher.

    A hard encounter is two to four levels higher than the party’s level.

    Chapter 4 explains exactly what a Standard encounter means. An encounter where the same level of characters will prevail with all other factor equal.

    Nowhere it state this his how your adventures must be designed. It reads like a toolkit. Here how to make it easy, hard and everything in between.

  16. What I find interesting is how close this system is to the one used in AD&D. Look at page 174 of the DMG. It lists the suggested XP values for each encounter and a chart to determine if the encounter is easy or hard.

    So a first level party will have an 80% chance of an encounter of 1-20 XP, a 15% chance of 21-50 XP and 5% chance of 51-150 XP.

    The only difference I can see is the idea of a daily XP budget.

  17. HH: There's nothing in there about suggested x.p. values per encounter, or encounters being easy or hard.

    That page gives a system for determining what monsters will be found on what dungeon levels; but if you read the "monster encountered adjustment for relative dungeon level, you'll see it's more a straight progression of deeper level=harder encounters. There's nothing there about balancing encounters, or having a maximum number of x.p. per encounter, or anything.

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