Dealing with varying levels of XP amongst your players

Posted on June 2, 2009 by


I currently DM a group of 7 players, varying in levels from about 5 (maybe 6) to 8.  Some players can’t always make it, and the way we’ve been dealing with absent players is to hand wave them as just sort of disappearing into the background, only to reappear next time the players shows up.  He also misses on the XP for that session.   Sure, fading into the background requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but at the end of the day we are grown men pretending to be elves, so who cares.

One side effect of this however, has been the growing inequality of levels amongst the party.  Some guys are d&d fiends who make it all the time, while others have cranky wives that limit playtime for little Timmy.  So what happens?  We have low level defenders who can’t defend, or low level strikers that can’t strike.  By limiting the XP, and not following the advice in the DMG that says to award XP even if the guy doesn’t show up, I’m doing more harm than good to the party.  Nevermind my intentions of rewarding the players that bother showing up, the way the game is designed with so much emphasis on balance, players need to be on an equal playing field with each other in order to succesfully play their roles.

Now, I come from the school that says “You don’t show up, you don’t get XP.”  And while I’d love to be able to keep rewarding players that come, I think I’m going to have to take the advice of the DMG, even if I do it with a bad taste in my mouth.

Per the DMG, a hard encounter can include monsters 5-7 levels above the party.  That means that a party at mid Heroic, let’s say 6th level, could end up fighting 11-13 level monsters.  Let’s look a closer look at that.

I’ll use a 6th level version of my party’s Warlock  as the example.  Using a +1 Magic Rod as an implement, and the implement expertise feat,  he does a +9 with his Eldritch Blast.  A Banshrae Dartswarmer at 11th level , out of the first MM, has an AC of 23.  The Warlock needs an 14 to hit his AC.  Now, we have a Ranger who was 4th level when the Warlock was 6th.  If a 6th level PC can, in theory, fight an 11th level monster, then the 4th level Ranger would be at the edge of that range there.  But imagine a 4th level PC attacking a monster 7 levels above his.  A 4th level ranger hitting a 23 AC?  Very, very hard.

"You, Dwarf, you check out the broom closet back here.  You can't help us against these monsters anyways."

"You, Dwarf, you check out the broom closet back here. You can't help us against these monsters anyways."

So, what if you’ve noticed this very same thing in your game?  As a DM, you have several options.  The most obvious one is to gimp your encounters and spread lower level monsters that mysteriously drift towards the lower level PC’s all the time.  That’s kind of crappy, because you are forcing your encounters to take on a tone you may not want.  You can also bring everyone up to the same level via handwave.  This may be the most ideal way to deal with the situation, as it makes the playing field equal to all, and may make your DM’ing life easier.  Another thing you can do is boost up the lower level guys via magical items.  Although you may get some resentful higher level PC’s asking for their share of free stuff.

Another situation that may develop with multiple levels of PC’s is the magical item/treasure parcel situation.  4th Ed. assumes the party is of equal level, and it makes it so that the distribution of magical items is dependant on this.  Now obviously then, the treasure parcel system falls apart when not everyone is of equal level, so that’s another argument for simplifying your life and making the players all be equal.

Ultimately, you’ll decide what’s best for your game.  Me, I’m leaning towards changing my XP attitude, and seeing it less as a reward and more of a necessary evil to give even absent players their share.

So now I ask you, 4th Ed. DM’s and players, have you encountered this situation?  What does your group do?


Plot hook of the day:  A snake oil salesman comes to town, and people immediately fall for his shtick.  Some in town say maybe too much.  He hangs out for a few days, and gains a quick following.  But you don’t fall for his nonsense, his forked tongue and slight reptilian features give him away as a a Snaketoungue Cultist.  He’s got half the town following his every move thanks to that crap he’s peddling, and rumor is he’s going to start building a temple of some sort with their help.  What’s that “oil” he’s selling?  And how do you convince the town this guy’s bad news?

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming