How I Award Experience in D&D

How I Award Experience in D&D

The word “murder hobo” gets thrown around a ton in the D&D and RPG community. A murder hobo is a player that simply goes around killing, looting, and stealing from anyone or anything in a game. I find that most players that fit this category are new to D&D and RPGs in general and are simply playing like they would in a game like Skyrim. And honestly, that’s fair. They don’t know any better. The best way I’ve found to help break this play style is to take a look at the way you award experience.

I had this issue with my players when we first began playing D&D a few years ago. The way I corrected it was not by punishing them in-game. It was by rewarding them. Everyone wants their character to get more powerful, therefore, everyone wants experience points.

Milestone Leveling

I’ve seen a large surge in groups using milestone leveling instead of the traditional method of awarding experience each session. Milestone leveling is when the players will level after completing specific objectives or a major part of the overarching story. This method is great for a multitude of reasons.

  1. It makes dungeons and encounters easier for the DM to balance as they decide when the players level.
  2. The players know that defeating creatures is not the only way to get experience.
  3. The players are all the same level.
  4. Players that miss a session are not punished by having less experience than the rest of the party.

I’ve tried milestone leveling a few times and it works very well. The one drawback that I’ve found with the system is that it can be tricky to manage with more open-ended games. If you drop your players in a sandbox it can be hard to manage what does or does not grant them a level. That being said, when my games have had a specific story-line in mind milestone leveling has been fantastic.

Still, though, my players have always preferred adding up and tracking experience. I think the big reason why is flavor. RPGs have always had characters gain experience points after completing a quest or defeating a foe. It just feels right to us.

Combat Encounters

Combat encounters are the basic way to award experience. They are also the one part of the game where the players know you will award experience for killing the creatures that are in their path. To be fair, they’re absolutely correct. If they kill these creatures, they will be given experience. One way to reinforce that not everything needs to be killed in your game in order to gain experience is to stress that they will receive experience when they defeat the creatures.

DnD 5e experience
Hordes of creatures can be deadly, but great experience! Credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Defeat Does Not Mean Kill!

Defeat in this context does not always mean that the creatures die. If the party knocks the creatures out and ties them up that is a completed encounter. The DM should award experience to them as if the creatures were slain. If the party is able to outmaneuver the creatures and get away safely they should get experience.

Environmental kills should also award full experience. It should take some creativity from the party for using their environment to kill the creature. Just because a party member did not land the killing blow does not mean that they should not be rewarded regardless.

The players deserve an experience reward if the creatures have been defeated in such a way that they are no longer an obstacle for the party to overcome.

Non-Combat Encounters

The best way to break the murder hobo play style is to ensure that the players are being rewarded for their success in non-combat encounters. Things like interacting with an NPC, solving a puzzle, or overcoming an obstacle. Page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has an entire section on this very topic.

NPC Interactions

One way to avoid combat is to talk your way out of it. If the players are able to find a way to avoid a combat encounter by using diplomacy or intimidation they have defeated the combat encounter. Based on the content of the last section this is probably the first example that comes to mind when thinking of NPC interactions. That’s fair, and it absolutely counts.

I like to award some experience for any type of interaction where the party gains information or creates an opportunity for themselves. This does not mean that each time the party speaks to an NPC they gain a small amount of experience. Quite the contrary. I tend to only give out experience when the conversation has a significant outcome for the party.

An example of this is if the party is speaking with a high-ranking official in a town or city and they are able to squeeze more information out of them. Perhaps it is information that was supposed to be under lock and key. This would typically be a difficult check to make. It may also require some great role-playing from the players. I’d give this the same experience as I would an easy or medium combat encounter depending on the situation.

Traps and Puzzles

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post an encounter is simply an obstacle the party has to overcome in order to complete their goal. This means that combat encounters are not the only types of encounters players must defeat. Puzzles and traps should also be found in your dungeons and adventures that you throw at the party.

Since these are encounters they should be given an experience value that the players will gain for overcoming them. Determine the difficulty of the encounter by considering what resources the party may need to expend to defeat the encounter. Once this is complete simply award experience as you would a combat encounter.

For the record, defeating a trap does not mean stepping on it and triggering it. That is the trap defeating you.

DnD 5e experience trap
A trap can be living creatures too! Credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Ability Checks

In many ways, this falls under the “interacting with NPCs” category. However, I do find myself awarding some minor experience to the party for coming up with a unique solution to a problem. Most of the time this will result in an ability check. I will generally make a note of this during the session in a notepad and add the tallies to my experience calculation at the end of the session. This is just a simple 50-100 exp mark for my 5 player group each time they have a moment like this.

For example, if the party goes about the town or city looking for information I would generally have them make an ability check. Depending on the outcome of that roll they may find information or a hidden informant. I’d then make a note of this during the session and grant them a little experience at the end of the night.

Missing Players

One thing that sucks is having to miss a session. Your players should be playing because they enjoy the game. They have fun with each other, and they love the work you’ve put into the game. If they have to miss a session they’ve missed out on fun encounters, story progression, and a chance to hang out with their friends. That sucks.

I’ve seen many groups only award experience to players that were able to make the session. This creates problems for both the DM and players. For the player, they now have not only missed out on a fun time, they’re also potentially weaker than the rest of the group. They’re now not able to contribute as much if they are a level lower than the rest of the group.

For the DM, you now have to create your encounters with players being different levels. This is considerably harder to balance and keep track of.

My solution has been to tell my players to give me an appropriate heads-up if they are unable to make a session so I can scale the encounters. I also keep all characters at the same exact experience. This goes for players that have to roll a new character at some point in the campaign. This is a win-win for the players and the DM.


Explaining to your players that D&D and other RPGs are games where your actions have consequences is not the correct way to prevent them from becoming murder hobos. Creating a major consequence for their actions is not always productive. In my opinion, awarding experience to the players for interacting with the world and coming up with creative solutions to problems is much more constructive.

It’s one thing to say to your players that they don’t have to kill everything in the game. But, if you only give out experience when they do kill creatures, that just shows them that they need to kill to become more powerful.

Try out milestone leveling. Incorporate some (or all) of these ideas into your game. Whatever you do, make sure you’re conveying to your players that they are rewarded for simply playing.

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