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Personally, I’ve had no trouble with the Pathfinder XP system in my own campaign (mostly because there is a lot of role-playing in my campaign that allows me to mitigate character advancement), but several DMs, and by several I mean two guys I personally know and an assortment of online compatriots, have trouble keeping the overall party level in line with the pace of the campaign they’re running. This becomes a problem when, as far as plot is concerned, it’s time for the party to face the evil demon lord and they find themselves a few levels shy, resulting in a TPK (that’s Total-Party-Kill for you newbs out there), or a few levels heavy, making the big boss battle surprisingly anticlimactic. So, I took a closer look at Pathfinder XP and found a couple of things that need further consideration.

Farming XP

Pathfinder did a great thing when they standardized the XP values for creatures – it’s comprehensive, easy to understand, and is a marked improvement (I think) over 3.0/3.5 D&D where you have to calculate party CR (Creature Rating), compare it to creature CR, and then calculate XP from there. In Pathfinder, it doesn’t matter if it’s a party of 1st level pukes, or a collection of 20th level archmages, if they kill a CR 1 creature they get 100 XP apiece.

Simple, right…and problematic.

You see, though the 3.0/3.5 system was perhaps a bit convoluted, it had a built in safety preventing players from trying to farm XP. Simply put, in the old system if you were high enough level then the killing of many a creature was meaningless to you, because you got no XP for it. Pathfinder, on the other hand, gives XP regardless of character level…you can see the problem. While XP farming was possible in 3.0/3.5 D&D it was time consuming and impractical. A player would have to make a cost benefit analysis of every creature around them to determine if they were worth killing. I’m sure there’s a sweet spot (were resources spent is worth XP gained?), but it would be tedious and overall, take more time than it was worth, but in Pathfinder you don’t need to do anything like that. Everything is worth something to you, from commoner to chaos beast, it’s all tasty, tasty XP.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Your thinking, “but Dude (I assume you say “Dude,” you seem the type), wouldn’t the DM just stop giving XP for things that are too easy to kill, and furthermore (you seem the type that would use “dude” and “furthermore” in the same sentence), if you’re playing a party of good aligned characters wouldn’t that prevent most XP farming?”

Dance magic

First, if your DM decides that he’s not going to give you XP for something, that’s their call, but the quickest way to alienate a group of role-players is by shafting them what rules say they’re due.  Second, good aligned or not, a group of role-players can justify killing just about anything if it nets them XP. No ghoul, gremlin, gnoll (bet you pronounced “gnoll” wrong), or anything possessing an “E” in its alignment description would be safe, and there’s only so much a DM can do with players who are desperate to advance. The game would literally degenerate into scenes from “Goblin Encampment 1: The Massacre,” followed shortly by “Goblin Encampment 2: Electric Boogaloo.” This is certainly a “slippery slope” argument I’m laying down here, and, one hopes, doesn’t reflect the reality of actual in-game situations, but the fact that it can happen means that there’s something left wanting in the Pathfinder XP systems design.  Which brings me to my next point…

Pacing seems to be a problem for some people when they’re DMing Pathfinder. Dungeon Masters everywhere know the difficulties of making sure a party is adequately prepared for a future filled with NPCs that wish nothing but harm on their persons. DMs often spend hours crafting bosses, with just a smattering of minions, to make what they hope is a truly memorable encounter. It is my belief that the secret dream of every DM is to stage a battle that results in the last PC, standing with zero hit points, against the last standing NPC and the PC’s finally action kills the enemy, but as a result, renders them unconscious. No PC is dead, just down or otherwise incapacitated, and the battleground rings in perfect silence…or something like that. The point being, it sucks when there’s a miss-match of power when there isn’t meant to be.

Now, as a quick and dirty (very quick and very dirty) fix for this immensely complicated problem, I simply took this:

Standard Pathfinder Experience Progression Chart

And made it this:

The Slightly More Options Pathfinder Experience Progression Chart

I did nothing here a powerful God or a particularly bored six-year-old couldn’t have accomplished…you’re welcome!

This gives DMs more control in advancing characters, but it doesn’t solve the real issue. The Pathfinder XP system itself is…well clunky. Sure, looking at big numbers is cool and all, but after even a moment of gazing at the Pathfinder XP chart you begin to wonder…why the hell didn’t they just drop two zeros off the end of their calculations? I mean seriously, why not? It would change nothing, NOTHING, from a mathematical standpoint, expect for the fact that players would now be using decimal points (Oh God, not DECIMAL POINTS!!!) in calculating XP. Your CR 1 creature that’s worth 400 XP…now worth 4. Not that difficult. Oh yeah, the “Slightly More Options Pathfinder Experience Progression Chart” would look like this:

The Even More Improved Slightly More Options Pathfinder Experience Progression Chart

You’re welcome, again; but does this really help to simplify the issue? Visually, to me at least, it’s more appealing, but mathematically it’s the same shit in a tighter package. So how do we simplify the maths?

Solution 1

Well, turns out we don’t have to do anything with the maths, a guy named LS over at Paper and Pencils did it for us. The truth, it turns out, is that to “level up” a character takes roughly 22 level appropriate encounters for the slow track, 15 for the medium track, and 10 for the fast track. What does this mean? Well, if you took the time to read the linked article (and you should, you bum) then you know that this information lends itself to the creation of a simple points system, where a fight of appropriate badassery earns the PCs 1 point. LS suggests doubling the number of points necessary to level to 44 for slow, 30 for medium, and 20 for fast, so that the DM has more wiggle room to give PCs points for appropriate role-playing, above average encounters, finishing campaign arcs, et cetera. LS also designed his own house rule for using XP as Hero Points, which is just downright sexy in my opinion.

The system is simple, elegant, and removes the need to calculate high levels of XP. There’s still the question of CR appropriate encounters, but if the DM feels something is too easy or a bit tougher than it should have been they can adjust accordingly, maybe by giving plus or minus half a point. This does not completely fix the problem of XP farming, but without knowing the exact value a DM will give for a particular battle it does make it at least as difficult as it was in 3.0-3.5 D&D.

Solution 2

Please…make it stop!!!

Say you’re just fed up with XP altogether. Maybe as a DM you can never, no matter how hard you try, get the PCs levels to match the encounters you’ve built. Who knows; maybe you just hate numbers because they steal your lunch money, or something. So what’s the solution for those of you with arithmophobia? Fear not! Sean K. Reynolds wrote a little something just for you. It’s called Alternative Level Advancement: The Step System, and it has its advantages. Reynolds says goodbye to XP and breaks leveling into four categories that he suggests you label as A, B, C, and D. Each letter represents an increase in player power to the tune of:

A – Hit Dice/Hit Points/Base Attack Bonus

B – Saving Throws

C – Skill Points

D – Specials

Once a character has accrued all the letters, they are officially the next level (level 1ABCD being identical to level 2). PCs can pick which letter to chose at each step of advancement and as DM, you have complete control over when that advancement takes place. No number running or needless time wasted on calculating XP. The plus side to the system is that players now get the reward of progression as they play instead of having to wait for a complete level jump to gain power.

The obvious problem with Reynolds’ system is a question of player agency. Role-players have been born to look at XP as a means of tracking their character’s advancement and as a reward system for acceptable play. Psychologically speaking, many players may feel lost without some type of gauge that tracks their progress. With Reynolds’ system, a player doesn’t know if their actions translates into advancement, because it’s completely up to the DM when advancement takes place. Personally, I think this system requires a lot of trust between players and DM, which is something hard to come by when the Dungeon Master is literally making shit up that’s suppose to just-almost-but-not-quite kill you. The system does solve the problem of XP farming, but only because players are in the dark about whether their in-game decisions have any meaning.

All in all, I’d say go for Solution 1.  It’s simple, allows players to track their progress and gives them the opportunity to figure out for themselves what nets them XP.  As a DM myself, I think it is monumentally important to give players as much agency as they want…even if it’s an illusion.  Just remember kids, at the end of the day, the man behind the screen is your God.

Yeah…I totally just rolled a 20!