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Murder Hobos & XP: Driving Behavior

When I was running games in the final years of high school there was this kid who wanted to play with us. At first I wanted to include him, but over time he became a caricature we ultimately had to drive away.

One of the first red flags, which I remember nearly verbatim, came after I had described a rural community similar to Hommlet: thatched roofs, wood smoke, an elderly woman crossing the road with a basket of bread.

"I punch her for the experience!" ----Caricature Kid.

I did NOT give him XP. I like to think I incarcerated him and when the party left town without him, he was forced to roll up a new character.


The impetus for this blog post was an astute inquiry made by one of my players. You see, an intaglio sapphire had been found that was worth 5,000 GP. But the cleric in the group decided it should be returned to any remaining descendants of the family whose crest graced the stone.

Because of this choice, I noted there would be no XP award for the gemstone. The announcement caused at least one eyebrow to lift.

Now, I know I've discussed XP in other posts, but this felt like a good opportunity to dig a little deeper and talk about how arbitrary, abstract rules influence player characters and whether, in this case, it's good or bad.

I have heard legend of newer systems that lean toward story goals in lieu of monster/treasure xp. I think this might be fine, but believe it too might "steer" PCs. As I understand it, the main argument against GP = XP is that it steers PCs toward generally bad behaviors. Maybe the counter argument is that story-based XP steers PCs toward positive behaviors? But might that also mean a more on-the-rails experience? Can story based XP awards be representative of a sandbox world? This starts to become another topic and goes down the rabbit hole of "What happens if they don't rescue the Prince from the bandits? What happens if they side with the bandits and begin a reign of terror? How supportive of choice is the campaign with regards to XP awards and/or do experience points even matter?

Right. Do they even matter? I know some DMs don't even track them. They just tell everyone to level up at certain beats. But how is that reconciled? If everyone levels up in the throne room of Scab the Orc King, because "the situation" is now handled, does it matter WHAT the players did before that point or HOW?

Are we leveling up just to keep pace with encounter difficulty?

Tangentially related, there's an argument that the option for Players to be truly evil is sort of an illusion because campaigns where characters do heinous things don't tend to last long. Therefore my concerns listed above would be moot. I cover this premise in other blog posts.

Even so, the point I want you to think about, is this:

  • Should PCs get the same XP/Leveling Reward at the end of the session REGARDLESS how they performed both individually and as a group?

If your answer is YES, you and I might be playing different versions of the same game. And that's fine but his blog post has now reached that fork in the road where you either come with me or you don't.

I don't think you should gain XP just for showing up. Some sessions the characters literally gain no XP at all. I know. I'm a monster. But hopefully this blog will explain why. And why I don't think it really matters. The point of D&D is not to level up, but to have a journey with friends. Leveling up becomes the focus when everything else is terrible. I'll talk more about that in a bit. First, we need to discuss the elephant in the room:

AD&D is deeply rooted in performance based rewards. (I hear some of you shouting "Tournament modules be damned!") Even a casual read of the rules reveals, for example (DMG p86) shows that PLAYERS are to be rated with an E,S,F,P (Excellent, Superior, Fair, Poor) rating system, which then determines severity of cost and length of Level-Up training. Gygax believed in these kinds of punitive mechanics. I don't. Sure, the stick has uses but the carrot almost always produces better results.

GP = XP is an example of the carrot. It is also an example of performance based rewards. Gold Pieces are agnostic. They don't care HOW you acquired them; so long as you did, you get the XP and you level up. We're going to get into whether this is a good thing.

GP as a measurement of performance accounts (at least in part) for stuff like:

  • Thoroughness of Exploration by the party

  • Ability to maximize gains by overcoming OR CIRCUMVENTING obstacles

  • Planning and Forethought: e.g. avoiding destruction of treasure through AOE spells and ensuring a method for transport of said treasure to town (for starters)

Nice. Straightforward enough. Although the accumulation of treasure is the primary source of XP in AD&D, such accumulation can also be said to have unequal influence on various classes. Thieves level extremely fast for example, whereas Paladins level slowly. You could read into this. Hey, it's "fun" thinking about corrupt clergy (the very type that might rob tombs) having the 3rd fastest progression velocity, immediately after Thieves and Assassins. Murder-hobos indeed.

Could there be some meta-morality to Paladins' wealth restrictions? An answer to why accumulation doesn't pay them the same dividends as it does thieves? No. Pointless and probably not. Especially when you realize how lax those restrictions really are (extolling paladinic altruism in one breath while nullifying it the next):

"They will never retain wealth, keeping only sufficient treasures to support themselves in a modest manner, pay henchmen, men-at-arms, and servitors, and to CONSTRUCT OR MAINTAIN A SMALL CASTLE." (PHB24)

Riiiight. If I took all the money I've made in my entire life I couldn't construct and maintain a small castle. So yeah, Paladins. Good guys. NOT poor.

Clearly in AD&D terms, Money is NOT to be thought of as the root of all evil. In fact you need mountains of it to mount a reasonable defense against all things terrible. But why then does the Paladin have that tacked on stricture (the one so noticeably explicit and apart from the generalization on wealth):

"An IMMEDIATE tithe (10%) of all income----be it treasure, wages, or whatever----must be given to whatever charitable blah, blah, blah..." (PHB p24)

Cross reference with DMG p85:

"Treasure must be physically taken out of the dungeon or lair and turned into a transportable medium or stored in the player's stronghold to be counted for experience points."

You Keep What You Kill, Riddick

It is my opinion the Paladin not only has the steepest leveling requirements, but also suffers a 10% penalty on XP gained through acquisition of treasure because of the tithe. Interesting, isn't it, that by slaying monsters, presumably evil monsters, the Paladin does not incur this penalty.

An IMMEDIATE tithe precludes taking possession of treasure (vis-à-vis storage in the player's stronghold

And my peeps wonder why their paladin is leveling so slow! Discussing the fairness of this rule is another potential discussion I will not get into. Especially since you can't change my mind! You want continual Protection from Evil 10' radius? Pay the bill.

But what is all of this preamble even for?

If we can agree the GP-to-XP standard offers SOME benefits (see performance measurement listed above) it also SEEMS to drive decisions that lead to bigger and bigger piles of money and, instead of avoiding treasure hunting, drives even Paladins to desire more of it.

All the mechanics point toward punching the old lady to death, taking her bread and selling it for gold. Caricature Kid had it right all along! Young Goku punches anyone they meet and laughs about it.

While wanton murder is something that often calls for the stick: city watch, outlaw status, bounty hunter consequences and so on----and while greed can also be handled with similar in-world punishments----greed also offers opportunity for introduction of "the carrot".

Let's step back and assess the true fulcrum on which the campaign balances: Player choice.

Player choice manifested through characters to be precise.

Only if the world is a thoughtless amalgam demanding no consideration, do I believe that players resort to min-maxing. The reason players resort to min-maxing is BECAUSE they have nothing else to do. They are looking for a puzzle, a way to win, and they are doing it because you have not given them anything that conflicts with that perspective.

What you really need is to get the min-max components into the background, forgotten about or at least buried in the subconscious. To do that, you rely on the inseparable fraternal twins:

  1. Meaningful choice

  2. Meaningful consequences

Players will apprehend in a single session whether you and your world care about consequences. If you don't, they will wag the dog.

In order for Players to pause on difficult decisions (rather than gaming your systems) there must be more to the world, to its inhabitants AND to the immediate choices, contexts and implications related to them. Put another way, there must be temptations. There must be immediate benefits (and possibly consequences) for succumbing to those temptations AND there must be delayed gratification, rewards, etc. for withstanding those temptations.

Not all temptations should be cast in an evil light. The template is highly malleable. It could just as easily be a neutral matter of something now vs something more (or just different) later.

A temptation can also be inverted such that PCs must decide whether to do something GOOD to avert an immediate crisis (possibly a crisis that does not affect them directly but affects the world or NPCs they care about) but in so doing, the PCs lose access to a second longer term GOOD goal they had been pursuing up to this point.

In such a case, the thing the PCs are losing access to is often clear and immediate. They know what they are giving up. What should often be less clear is what they stand to gain.


"So Anthony, you're saying lack of clarity on the benefit of choice X leads toward selecting X over a guaranteed reward Y? That makes no sense."

Yes. In a sense that is what I am saying and it makes perfect sense. I'm saying interesting choices must proffer rather than promise. They often present risks and an element of gambling. Some mystery in order for Players to speculate and discuss the best course. Even better if the Players see part of the mystery but not ALL:

E.g.: Give me1,000 GP for whatever is in this mystery box. Oh and by the way, whatever is in the box is probably nearly as valuable [or] possibly more valuable than 1,000 GP.

Extrapolation: If you keep this artifact, which is super powerful, you know all its powers. But you could also give it to NPC A----because you think he'll do X with it [or] you could destroy it because you think NPC A will then (fill in the blank). The fallout from either choice could include a host of non-trivial benefits and compensations, none of which are in perfect focus at the onset, but IMPLY a deep impact on both PCs and the game world for many years to come.

These kinds of setups might be complicated, require proper staging and may need to be tied-to [or] ingrained in the long-running fiction of the milieux. As such they might therefore be less common.

But perhaps there is a way to capitalize on the GP = XP mechanic in such a way as to coax Players (and their characters) to not always act in their own best interest at a slightly more frequent tempo.


Killing monsters [or not] offers an immediate trade off. XP in exchange for risk and resource depletion. You keep what you kill.

Now what about treasure? The DMG is explicit that treasure must be carted to town and it must be owned in a substantive way. Listen closely to this: Tithes, taxes and charity, I would argue, must NOT count toward XP because the benefit of ownership is being forfeited.

"Anthony, your players aren't dumb. They'll just wait and make charitable donations from their vault, after they've gotten the XP."

I'm actually talking about something different. Bear with me.

PCs who make donations from their pockets and vaults are doing so at a point in time when the sacrifice is often more transactional:

  • Pay for bishop B to cast Remove Curse

  • Bribe orderly Ö to let us talk to the prisoner

  • Pay on castle C upkeep and wages so our men-at-arms don't sell us out.

In the above examples the PCs have already gained XP for the coins being spent and are now simply using them however they see fit.

What I'm talking about is the NEW lucre looted five minutes ago from the blue dragon. New treasure offers interesting choices PRIOR to ownership as defined in the DMG.

Here is where I have to add the forever-and-always-relevant caveat, that if you have been fair and good to your players, if you have trained them with rewards and consequences in a kind and good way, you should have a partnership now that is long on trust.

In this context, intentions can be freely discussed during acquisition of the hoard:

  • Do you plan to keep magic item X or sell it?

  • Do you plan to keep the intaglio sapphire or return it to the family that once owned it?

When this intention is declared the DM should, in good faith, be able to determine whether to assign the magic item's XP value [or] GP-as-XP value (as listed in the DMG). Likewise, in good faith, you should be able to bestow or withhold experience points for the sapphire based on the intentions of the players.

Players who renege more than once or otherwise seek to game your system should be obvious as the squirrels raiding your birdfeeders. You can decide whether you want to play with them regularly.

"I don't get it, Anthony, this seems like much ado about nothing. What's the advantage here? What are you talking about?"

Alas, subtlety often exists at the center of a Ven diagram where the confluence of many factors create a goldilocks zone, the benefits of which might go unnoticed until suddenly, someone somewhere does the TED Talk.

I'm not sure I have the chops for a TED Talk, but I believe the goldilocks zone I'm pointing at here, is a place where the mechanical crunch of GP = XP (and the murder-hobo munchkinism so many claim it foments) can be turned into an opportunity for role play, for temptation, for strategy. When the altruism of a PC, or the inhabitants of the game world, occasionally pull opposite the instinct to cash-in on every available experience point...when there MIGHT be great rewards, or tactical advantages, alliances, divine favor, hidden and secret ways that suddenly open...then perhaps the Players will choose the mystery box.

Here then is a simpler version of the mystery box that could pop up. Remember, a choice between taking 50 gold [or] 100 gold is not a choice unless choosing the lesser sum also implies a mystery.

The intaglio sapphire is worth 5,000 gold = 5,000 XP. But, returning it to what remains of the destitute family line as an act of personal remuneration/atonement (along with the possibility space such an act affords with regards to potential friendships, connections, information and resources)----now THAT begins to be a choice worth discussing.

Make an effort to replace the black and white of "whatever it takes to go ding" with gray spaces composed of possible pros and cons.

"Anthony, why can't the PCs just get the gold/xp AND the interesting side stories?"

Consider if I removed the treasure rule found in DMG p85 and instead give the 5,000 XP for the gem regardless of Player intention. The Players now simply collect the experience points. True, if they deliver the sapphire they won't have the gold value but what real difference has 5,000 GP ever made in the grand scheme?

Experience points are the treasure adventurers seek and the currency they can never get enough of. It is my belief that only when there are stakes, only when the Player's character sheet is impacted at a Meta level, do we suddenly find the common ground for everyone to experience deeper investment at the non-Meta level. This is a subtle way of enhancing the drama of in-world-in-game with what may at first appear to be non-orthogonal systems.

We find correlations between the abstract (XP system) and the specific (role playing) only upon deconstructing Player motivation. My argument is, "I care when my guy stands to gain, and even more when he stands to lose, something. And when I care, that impacts EVERYTHING."

When your players care, murder-hobo becomes an irrelevant option. There's just too much at stake. The game world, the campaign, the experience. All of it is just too good to waste. Your players want to know what's going to happen as badly as they want to reach next level.

And this where I've been steering this blog post all along. Experience Points should not fall into player's laps à la gravity. They should be awarded with precision. And sometimes the opportunity should be taken to award them with additional intrigue. The tension that connects all systems in AD&D is sometimes dismissed as punitive and unimportant. I have learned that is seldom the case. Things that at first SEEM punitive are often just impulses, a sudden lull in the wind on a hot day for example that finally prods you out of your chair on the patio and toward the choice of a lemonade or a margarita.

Nuisance has utility. There are hidden advantages to these systems though some are exceedingly subtle and, I think, many of them were unplanned. More likely, in my opinion, these advantages manifest through serendipity because of Gary's wholistic approach and stubborn adherence to design principals and game rules. The design principal of AD&D can be summed as "Pros and Cons to EVERYTHING."

You encounter give and take at every corner, at every die roll, and even in the nuances of experience point awards. Magnifying strengths of the XP system (or any system) while simultaneously diminishing reasons to exploit the weaknesses is part of running a successful game. It becomes a closed circuit, wherein "Choose, because you can't have it both ways," results not in frustration but fertile ground for Player engagement and Player engagement leads not toward min-maxing but into deeper and deeper role playing choices.

XP have long been central to nearly ALL role playing games. Rather than hunting them directly, I think we should feel their influence like gravity. We should be pulled constantly by that invisible tug while resisting its immediacy in favor of the world's limitless choices (which our characters want to consider) before finally accepting its assistance in sling-shotting us toward our chosen goal.

The same may well be true of OTHER systems you've thought little of until now but which might be hiding subtle impulses for player choice.


And Happy Gaming.

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