Awarding Experience for Treasure

One of the staples for old school play is the awarding of experience for treasure instead of for combat.  This creates a disincentive to engage in risky combat unless there is an expectation of a treasure reward, and encourages creative schemes for obtaining treasure while minimizing risk.

Now, when I was a tween and a teen playing first edition, I hated experience-for-treasure.  I thought you should gain experience for what you were doing, i.e. you got better at fighting by fighting.  It wasn’t until much, much later that I decided that (a) experience also comes from being cunning, clever and resourceful; (b) adventurers have more skills than just fighting; and (c) the benefits of incentivizing certain types of behavior for certain types of play outweighs any reduction in realism.

The irony is that experience-for-treasure was dropped in later editions at the same time that skill systems and other out-of-combat options (like fourth edition rituals) entered the game.  Experience primarily from combat began to be less and less realistic as PCs gained the ability to improve in actions taken outside of combat.

Fourth edition D&D isn’t set up on the experience-for-treasure model.  Instead experience is awarded, partly from skill challenges and completing quests, but primarily from combat.  If you dislike skill challenges (and a lot of people do) then experience comes almost exclusively from combat.

However, in fourth edition experience and treasure do track, with an expectation that a predictable amount of treasure will be obtained over the course of a level.  As a result, it is almost trivially easy to convert this to an experience-for-treasure type of award system.


The chart at the left shows how this might be accomplished.  Instead of awarding experience for combat, whenever treasure is awarded, the cash value of the treasure is multiplied by the number in the far right column, determined by reference to the level of the party (or the character, if the party has characters with differing levels).

This assumes you award experience for the cash value of treasure, including magic items like consumables that are awarded in lieu of cash.  The cash value of permanent magic items would not be included in this calculation.

Note that in a traditional dungeon, where tougher monsters and more treasure are located on the deeper levels, this creates an incentive to push your luck and go deeper.  For example, an average encounter on the first level of a dungeon provides 14.4 gp per PC, while an average encounter on the second level provides 20.8 gp, and on the third it provides 27.1 gp.

It also creates a disincentive to try to grind on the upper levels of a dungeon once you are more experienced.  If you are sixth level, and are receiving 3.5 XPs for each gold piece you collect, there is not much incentive to explore the first level where you are getting 14.4 gp per encounter, when on the sixth level you could be receiving 72 gp per encounter.

I don’t use this system exclusively.  Instead, I tend to pick the system that fits with player and campaign objectives.  So if the objective is to kill orcs, I award experience for combat; if the objective is to achieve certain goals, I award experience for achieving those goals; and if the objective is to loot treasure, I award experience for treasure.  I might try to parse out my mental process and put it in a future blog post.

If you are a fourth (or second, or third) edition DM, and are looking for more information as to why you might want to try this method of awarding experience, and how to implement it, you might want to try the following resources:

DM David – The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold

DM David – Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

Hack & Slash – On Treasure Design

ADDENDUM:  six days after I wrote this, Dungeon of Signs wrote a similar article for 5e which is worth checking out.



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