The XP Train(ing)

Have you ever looked, I mean really looked, at the NPCs in the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide? Specifically, at the NPCs listed under the “Villagers” heading in Chapter 8: NPC Gallery? Yeah, it’s fun to laugh at the village idiot entry, but what about the others?

More specifically, take a look at the entries for the farmer and the mayor. It doesn’t bother a lot of people, but it’s always rubbed me the wrong way that the farmer has not one, but two class levels; this is to say nothing of the mayor having ten. True, they’re all NPC class levels, but the salient question remains: how did these guys ever get the experience points necessary to level up?

It’s unlikely (though possible, albeit far-fetched) that these were the results of story XP awards. I find it hard to imagine exactly what the story there was, however. Perhaps the mayor got an XP award for winning the local mayoral election? But what would the farmer’s XP awards look like? “You survived another unbelievably harsh winter! Gain 100 XP!”

It’s only slightly more plausible that these characters gained XP the same way most adventurers do: by killing things. Partially this implausibility is due to how ridiculously weak both characters are (the mayor is a CR 8 character, but she wasn’t always that high-level). It’s hard to imagine a level 1 commoner wracking up enough kills to advance in level. True, he may fend off the occasional rat (100 XP) or two, and perhaps the rare goblin (135 XP), but those are still a long way from the 2,000 XP necessary to hit 2nd level on the medium XP track.

What I’m trying to get at here is that these NPCs likely gained XP in a way not covered by the Core Rules: training.

Training Troubles

Training as an XP activity is something that’s usually left out of most Pathfinder – and other d20 – games. The usual reason for this is that most GMs don’t see a need to include a nod to verisimilitude in regards to a meta-game function like earning experience points; particularly when doing so often seems to leave the system open to abuse. In other words, it offers too little gain for the headaches that come with it.

Because it only deals Charisma damage.

These headaches are usually found in a player saying that they want to have their character spend some drastic amount of down-time training, then hand-wave away that time having happened, and re-introduce their character now that they’ve leveled up (“okay, so I spend the fifteen years at the monastery, and when I come out I’ve gained eight levels of monk! Let’s go adventuring!”)

To be fair, it’s easy to shut this particular problem down at the beginning of a campaign (e.g. the GM says “No, you’re not starting with a 45-year-old graduate of the war college. You’re just like everybody else, a teenage knucklehead just starting out!”). The problem often comes after the campaign has started, when the GM has already laid out the training rules, and it’s suddenly harder to hand-wave things away (“We saved the village right? Why can’t I buy a house there and teach magic at the local mage’s college for a while? Let someone else rescue the duke’s daughter.”)

All of these issues, however, are actually symptoms of a single problem: the GM is making training too good.

Rate of Return

The solution here is simple – training grants XP at such a low rate that it shouldn’t ever be worth it to your PCs. The rate of return should be so abysmally small that it’s never worthwhile to contemplate if there’s any other avenue of XP acquisition available (and, for your PCs, there always is).

So what rate is so horrifically low that it’d scare off your players? There’s all kinds of rates you can set, but the one I usually stick to is that one day of training grants 1 XP. Given that – plus the fact that no one can realistically train every single day – most characters would need around six years just to make it from 1st to 2nd level (using the medium advancement track). It’d take roughly another eight years to make it from 2nd to 3rd, and about twelve years to go from 3rd to 4th. At this point, your character has spent a quarter-century training, and hasn’t even made it to casting third-level spells yet.

Can you spot young Elminster in this photo?

One interesting side-effect of this system is that it gives demi-humans (that is, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, etc.) a plausible reason for being generally higher-level than humans…though not much. They’ve had more time to train; the diminishing rate of returns, however (as it takes more and more XP to gain a level) ensures that this will keep most demi-humans from having super-high levels from training alone (getting to 6th level using this system would take almost one hundred-fifty years of training!).

Of course, this brings up a salient point – if it takes lifetimes just to earn a couple of levels, how do guys like the aforementioned mayor get to be 10th level? Ah, but that’s the nice part about NPCs not needing to earn their levels through actual play – you can say that she actually did earn them fighting monsters or winning story awards. Perhaps the mayor personally lead the charge against an invading orc horde, despite having no military training (and killed several, earning XP). Or perhaps she uncovered political corruption in town (for a story XP award). At 10th level, the mayor should have some sort of noteworthy background.

Ironically, these low-XP training rules can be of help to PCs as well. Perhaps if the PCs find themselves just 200 XP short of the next level, they decide to take six or seven months off from adventuring to train and earn those last few experience points. That’s fine; remember, our goal is to stop the training rules from being abused, not make them absolutely useless. This is also a nice way to prevent your adventurers from going to 1st to 20th level in less than a year (something that seems to happen a lot).

Work Hard, Game Hard

Most likely, at some point while reading the above, you wondered to yourself, “why use training rules at all? If we’re keeping the PCs away from these, I can just make my NPCs whatever level I want.”

Leaving aside how, as mentioned above, these rules aren’t meant to repel the PCs but simply discourage abuse, the last phrase is true; there’s no reason the GM can’t set their NPCs with whatever level they want. The training-for-XP rules aren’t meant to shackle the GM; they’re meant to be a good shorthand for measuring a character’s age-to-expertise ratio, where their age is how long they’ve been training and their expertise is how much XP they’ve gained for it.

This guideline lets you quickly determine that a character that’s been a farmer for thirty years has about 10,000 days of farming, which means he has about 10,000 XP, which makes him about 4th level. Once you’ve got that, you can easily adjust the totals by providing other reasons for how he got his experience. Suppose you want your farmer to be a younger fellow, but still 4th level. Then he must have gotten some of his experience another way – did he go adventuring for a bit and then retire for some reason? Is he a local celebrity for having performed some incredible deed? Just like that, the training rules have helped stimulate our back-story for an otherwise-ordinary character.

Training, and providing a means by which ordinary people improve without killing monsters or completing quests, helps to flesh out the world just a little bit more. In doing so, it makes the game world a little more vibrant, and thus more fun, for everyone involved.

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15 Responses to “The XP Train(ing)”

  1. Stephen McBurnett Says:

    Nice write up of an easy way to address the issue of NPC XP gain. Personally, I figured that the solution to this issue was that the NPCs would get XP for overcoming various challenges in their lives, just like PCs, though the challenge ratings would be substantially lower compared to PC encounters. Things like getting a better deal from the grain merchant or saving a harvest from bad weather – each such encounter is insignificant to PCs, but provide good life experience for NPCs, which seems to me to be the basis for getting XP. I think that your method returns pretty much the same results with a more formulaic process.

    • alzrius Says:

      Thanks for the reply, Stephen!

      I think that there are ways for the system you describe and the one I laid down in this article to sit side-by-side. Specifically, I’d say that your method is assigning story-award-based XP, which I touch on in the article. Mixing that alongside the 1 XP/day of training, and the occasional monster slain, allow for a quick but flexible guideline for charting NPC levels as a function of age and life experience as the GM needs.

  2. Neruz Says:

    One thing that is also probably worth noting is that people have a habit of ‘overlevelling’ NPCs, especially important NPCs

    It’s especially apparant in a lot of fan-made third party stuff, but Wizards have a long history of going “This NPC is important to the story therefore he is level 14” or “The PC’s will be about level 16 at this point so we need the king’s royal guard to all be level 15 with level 20 leaders so that they can’t just blow up the entire city on a whim.” Paizo seem to be falling into this trap like WotC before them.

    I do like your suggested training though; i’ve always wanted to have some form of training mechanic but never been able to find one that worked.

    I think i would however add to your proposed system some kind of ‘mentor training’, perhaps you get 2 or 3 XP per day if you are ‘training’ under a higher level mentor, while you only get 1 XP per day if you are just ‘working’ : Ergo your average farmer would be earning 1 XP per day, while his son who’s just come of age and is now learning how to help out on the farm would earn more than that, but only to a certain limit.

    That also opens up more varied XP progression for NPCs; if they have the time and the money to go get ‘educated’ about something they’ll level up much faster than the average commoner who has to work most of the time, and opens up a simple mechanic for school systems.

    • alzrius Says:

      The idea of “over-leveling” NPCs seems to be based around the idea that the world is constructed around the PCs – that is, the PCs in adventure X will be level Y, so the NPCs need to be comparable to level Y as well.

      It’s an understandable mindset to fall into, simply because, I think, the designers are worried about the PCs being many levels above everyone else in the world. When your PCs have much, much more skill and power than everyone else, not only do they tend to do whatever they want, but it’s hard to justify why everyone isn’t treating them like demigods walking the world.

      I admit I hadn’t considered a form of “mentored” training, mostly because I felt the rule of thumb I proposed was easy enough to bend – want them to have more XP than the 1-per-day rule would provide? Just give them some story XP for something they accomplished, or say they killed someone/something in the past and got XP for that.

      That said, you can certainly implement a mentor system for more XP per day – that’s the nice thing about a guideline, as opposed to a rule; it’s flexible.

  3. DooHickey Says:

    XP is a game reward for accomplishing something cool and amazing while on an adventure. Just because NPC’s have a “level” does not mean they needed to get some adventure based reward mechanic. It’s using a similar term to help define how experienced that NPC is for their given profession. Sadly, by using a similar term, level, it makes one want to collate the NPC’s XP like a character.

    That said, how does one deal with HDs for monsters? Do they also need to train or go adventure? Or are they simply that tough just by growing up?

    While I like the training idea presented here, I don’t think it’s really needed for the game to work.


    • alzrius Says:

      You’re not wrong about not needing the training idea presented here to level NPCs. Unto themselves, NPCs don’t need to justify their levels, since they don’t need to answer to any sort of in-game rubric to measure their progress. The system I proposed here is just a shorthand for the GM to correlate their age to their relative level progression, modified as necessary. It’s a framework, in other words, and not a rule GMs should feel bound by.

      Likewise, I interpret natural Hit Dice as being, well, natural. That is, creatures with natural Hit Dice gain those as they mature into an adult.

  4. Jaye Says:

    Nice write up!

    • alzrius Says:

      Thanks Jaye!

      • Jason Sonia Says:

        Absolutely… I’ve had an ongoing discussion with some other designers about this problem (with NPCs) very recently and you’re training metric for training highlights a lot of what I was discussing.

        It’s nice to see a tight, logical attempt at something that brings the concept of training into the game without leaving gaping holes for abuse.

        Great job.

  5. Jack Says:

    Good article. By coincidence, I was thinking about rules for training earlier today, and came up with the same figure: 1 xp/day.

  6. Telliria Says:

    Thanks for a very interesting article, page bookmarked!

    One of the points I find most flawed about the pf/d20 system is that you earn so much xp from killing things. Though this might be good for learning how to fight though it still doesn’t take away the need for proper training. More so when it comes to other skills; how can dungeon crawling experience points give ranks in craft pottery?

    My GM deals with this by requiring us to spend rather a lot of down time in between adventures/missions for training. We also get a certain amount of bonux XP which we can spend to develop our character (ie. craft pottery if that is our interest). This is done with the assumption that one wants to spend your lvl XP on getting better as a fighter/wizard etc. As our characters spend a lot of time training in-game we get a more reasonable skill:age ratio. Also I should mention we follow a character advancement scheme slower than “slow” in the CRB.

    I feel these issues are very interesting to discuss, particularly for those of us who enjoy character development (as much or) more than (over 9000!) hack’n slash.

    • Alzrius Says:

      Telliria, thanks for the kind words! Unfortunately, you’re right in pointing out that experience points are dissociated mechanics in Pathfinder, something it inherited from D&D.

      Having PCs spend downtime training after gaining XP is an idea that’s been around for a while (though I couldn’t tell you exactly where it’s been put to print). Presumably, your GM doesn’t make you train for one day per point of XP gained though! If requiring training to “actualize” XP, I’d recommend bumping the ratio up by an order of magnitude – or even better, making it by percentage of XP gained (e.g. one week of training for each 5% of your XP gained), so that it scales with you automatically.

      Also, if you like alternative methods of leveling, check out this article too!

  7. AnonMunchkin Says:

    Hmmm… 1xp per day eh? Well, that’ll be tough to exploit for a while, but once I get a Rod of Security that system’ll be shot to all hell. I get 200 days of training per week, and I don’t age, so… around 10,000xp per year. If I’m playing as an elf, I can easily make it level twenty within my life span.

    • alzrius Says:

      Well, if you’re using a magic item whose creation requirements include a 9th-level spell and caster level 20 regularly across your entire life, then I suppose you could game the system pretty well.

      You live up to your name, AnonMunchkin!

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