Why Have an XP Budget?


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 19 April 2011

Jerry, also known as @DreadGazebo, has a nice article on his site about Abandoning the XP Budget. While I don't agree with everything in his article, I do think people shouldn't start off thinking in terms of the XP budget. Why? Well, as he mentions it often puts us down the path of thinking about the mechanics rather than the story and plot. The latter is what the players are likely to remember, not "wow, you did a really good job there finding monsters whose XP fit into your budget." That said, I'd like to defend the XP budget a bit.

Puts You in the Ballpark

So why use it? For one, it serves as a good 20,000 foot view of how difficult an encounter might be. So many other factors go into whether or not an encounter is difficult for the players: player experience, party composition, character optimization, NPC group composition, monster synergies, random chance, etc. Let's not forget that the DMG also has encounter templates to use to address part of these issues as well.

Helps New DMs

Also, it's good for DMs, especially new ones, in a group that would rather play a "heroic" campaign than a competitive delve. Neither of these are better than the other, it just comes down to group preference. I know I loved the guidance when I started creating my first encounters as a new DM. I was so afraid of killing the PCs, especially since they said they really didn't want that to happen. Coloring within the lines for a bit gave me the confidence to start hacking around with the encounters. What happens if I throw them a n + 1 encounter? an n + 2? now how about a ton of minions? what about a bunch of soldiers? These experiments were instrumental to me learning the game well enough to write about it and produce content for it. Without guidelines like the XP budget and encounter templates, I wouldn't know where to begin and I might not have met my players' expectations for the game. It also keeps us honest. If we don't keep track of the encounter levels, when things start heading in one direction, we won't know why. If we never calculate it, we'd never know that what we thought were n + 4 encounters are really n + 8.

DM Skill

Finally, abandoning XP budgets, building multi-layered encounters, and many of the other things Jerry mentioned in his article require DM skill, not to mention time. And that's hard for someone writing a book to know in advance. I think that's why it's called the Dungeon Master's Guide. As DMs grow in skill, I hope they feel empowered to use and change the rules and guidelines to create the experience their table wants.

Thoughts for the Future

While I understand why Jerry wants to do away with the XP budget, I have a different proposal. Let's think about what the XP table would look like for groups playing different modes of the game, normal, medium, hard, and nightmare. What might the min and max levels be for an individual monster? What might the max level encounter be? The min? When should we break these expectations? Should traps and some terrain elements count in the XP budget? We get a taste of this in the encounter templates and in the Player's Strategy Guide, but it would be awesome to get more.

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When I started my big 4E campaign, I clung very closely to the XP Budget and Treasure Parcel "Guide." As time went on, I relied less on this as I got a better feel of the game and my players' preferences (which I'm sure is similar to a lot of DMs).

I find your idea of gaming modes intriguing, and would love to test out the "nightmare" setting. I'd love to read more about your idea of gaming modes...

I've been a DM over a decade, 4e for nearly three years now. I still use the ol' XP budget, but mainly as a guideline to see how many monsters to use. I never add XP for environmental variables or skill cahllenges.

I ran an encounter recently where I was trying to split up the party. It worked, but they went opposite directions from what I had planned. The result was that the group fought in a room designed for one person, and the one fought an encounter designed for three. One 20th level fighter vs 15,428 in creature xp (hard xp is 6,999). The whole encounter was a resounding success, the fighter just barely lived (all by himself). According to the rules, he should never have survived that fight, more than double the hard value for XP. But he won! What does that say about XP budgets?

Last j0nny_5's post:Inherent Items

So there I was, going along in my 4e game, and the players suddenly hit paragon tier. We'd played ten levels of D&D so far; this shouldn't be a problem. Except it was - everything was much too easy. They were shutting down encounters without trying, and I found myself intensely frustrated. I went back to calculating encounters by listed XP budgets, and my problem went away. Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does sort of wink and nudge in its direction.

As I mentioned in comments to the original post, the main problems with the XP budget are the things it doesn't account for that do make a meaningful difference to an encounter's difficulty - lingering consequences from previous fights, terrain effects that mostly only affect one side (somehow, I don't think those undead are going to worry too much about the necrotic-damage terrain), or plot-granted benefits that make the fight easier on the PCs. The game assumes that these will fall within the range of things that still challenge the PCs without overwhelming them, because that does represent a decently wide range - particularly if you can make up for too-easy encounters with more encounters later.

Last Harbinger of Doom's post:4e Skills and Class Balance

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