D&D 5e: Goal Based Experience

D&D 5e: Goal Based Experience

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/fantasy-beach-children-jellyfish-3281842/

I love Dungeons & Dragons.

I've been playing on and off since the tail end of 2nd edition. I adored 3rd edition (obviously including 3.5), but like many I drifted away when 4th wasn't quite my thing. Don't get me wrong, I think it was a really well designed game, but it didn't scratch my D&D itch. Again, like many 5th edition drew me back in. Thanks to Critical Role I was able to convince my wife to play, and the addiction is back stronger than ever.

I've been running my latest campaign once a month for just over a year now and I'm expecting it to end in the next session or so. This is the first game I've run in 5e and the first game I've run monthly. When I was putting it together I had grand visions of an epic saga that would take the heroes from 1st through to at least 15th level. In my mind, they would chew through the story discovering all the secrets I had scattered throughout my homebrew world in a matter of months. When it took four sessions to get through the content I had prepared for the first I started to realise two things that should have been obvious. Firstly, running monthly is very different to weekly. Secondly, my tastes have changed. When I play D&D, I'm no longer content for the story to revolve around kicking in the door, slaying the monster, and looting the treasure. That's why Steve Jackson gave us Munchkin (it's a brilliant game that I should probably do a post on at some point as well). After realising that both I and the majority of my players want a different type of game, I'm ending my current one at a natural story point and launching a new story in a new homebrew setting. With that, I'm going to try a new way of giving out experience.

Story Based Experience Points for Lazy DMs

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/book-old-clouds-tree-birds-bank-863418/D&D 5e is built upon three pillars of game-play that (in theory) are supposed to reward players with experience: exploration, combat and social interaction. However, I feel like the DMG and MM focus in on combat based experience, making it easier to accidentally over/under reward players in the other two areas of the game. I'm not the first person to suggest this, and even WotC themselves have tried to address this perception by playtesting an alternate XP system. I don't hate the official system, I don't hate the play-test, I just want something that allows me to be a lazier DM.

With this issue in mind, I was inspired by a podcast on how else I might do XP in D&D. The new homebrew setting I'm putting together is science fantasy; my white whale. I've tried to run D&D in space on a few occasions, and for various reasons each time it has fallen apart (I think I should do a 'How NOT to DM' series). In an effort to be as prepared as possible I've been listening to a few actual play podcasts from various game systems and one of them inspired this whole thing. Space Case is played using Stars Without Number, a system I've never played in but which sounds pretty cool. In one of the episodes the players are talking to the GM and identifying the goals their characters will get rewarded with XP for completing. Goal based experience is nothing new to me, but I've never played in a game where it was handled quite like this. One of the players set his goal for the next session as requiring him to convince an android to voluntarily accept a lollipop. It sounds (mildly) less absurd in the context of their game and the characters involved, but the thought that this one character might earn most of the experience necessary to gain their next level by simply handing out a lollipop fascinated me.

I'm sure there are some gamers who will hate that idea; I can think if at least one of my players who just wouldn't be able to parse that. Yet, I think if handled with care D&D can accommodate a similar system. As it turns out, I'm not the only one. If you do a Google search for "d&d 5e goal based experience" you'll quickly discover others DMs who have sought to do something similar. However, none of what I could find really fit what I wanted. I wanted something that fit within the current XP progression, encouraged teamwork and player agency, included multiple size rewards each level, provided some experience for failure, was included in a simple table, etc.

Basically, I wanted what I ended up putting together below. I'm going to use this new system for at least the first session of my next campaign. Hopefully through playtesting my group and I will work out the kinks and this will form our new standard. I present it here as inspiration for your game. Feel free to use it as is or tweak it as you see fit. But, if you share it anywhere please don't be "that guy/girl/etc." If you like or hate it please link back here and let people know just who is to blame for such a bad idea.

Below I've copy and pasted the text as it currently appears in the current draft of my campaign document. This is something I put together for my players where I explain what rules we'll be using for the campaign, with some setting fluff thrown in. So, when you see reference to Ghostdrive (the name of my setting) and other things that don't sound very traditionally D&D, feel free to just ignore them.

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/warrior-fallen-angel-demon-fire-2712800/


Goal Based Character Advancement

Experience points are used to encourage different styles of play. The Ghostdrive XP system is designed to inspire players to think deeply about their character's desires and motivations, rewarding player agency via in-character goal creation.


To progress their character, players must actively engage with both their character's motivations and the DM’s story.

  • Players create 1 long-term goal for their character.
  • The DM will assign a group mission goal with an assigned complexity.
  • Players create 3 short-term goals for their character with an agreed upon complexity.
  • Incomplete short-term goals increase their complexity every session.
  • Completed goals earn XP based upon complexity and character level.

Character Goals

When describing your goals, use action verbs: Destroy, Escape, Explore, Find, Kill, Save, Visit, etc. They should be clearly attainable and have a clear resolution. The more obscure your goal, the harder it will be for the DM to reward you.

Goals should reflect a character's actions, behaviours and desires. If a character has an elaborate or convoluted goal, they should be highly motivated to achieve it, likely asking other party members to assist in completing the task. If a character must abandon a goal, roleplay their frustration. They are after all giving up on something they desired.

Each character has 1 long-term goal, 1 mission goal, and 3 short-term goal. At character creation a player will choose one long-term goal for their character. The DM will assign your mission goal based upon the current story. At the beginning of each session, a Player may create new short-term goals for empty slots or replace incomplete goals that they wish to abandon.

When you identify a long-term goal, work with your DM to create a significant goal for your character. You don’t need to do this at character creation, but the earlier you create a goal the sooner you can begin to work toward it. It is expected that a long-term goal will form a major part of your character’s story arc for the entire campaign. When you eventually complete a long-term goal, you receive experience points for a convoluted goal of your current level. Based upon the campaign, your DM may then allow you to set a new long-term goal.

Each session, depending upon where the characters are currently within the campaign story the DM will assign a group mission goal. The mission goal is intended to be straightforward and obvious, therefore it is recommended that regardless of the skill level involved to complete the goal the complexity should be set at direct. The mission goal should be all but inevitable with players only failing to achieve it due to exceptionally poor rolls and/or choosing to ignore the goal entirely.

When you identify a short-term goal, work with your DM to determine how complex you both expect it will be to achieve that goal this session; the XP awarded from the completion of a goal is determined both by the complexity as well as your current level. It is recommended that you choose one direct, one composite, and one elaborate short-term goal every session. Following this pattern, if all these goals are achieved, combined with one direct mission goal each session, your character will level up once every three sessions. You can however ignore this suggestion and simply choose any combination of short-term goals you like. The creation and completion of goals are of course evaluated by the DM and are subject to DM fiat. If a goal isn’t achieved, at the next session you can automatically upgrade that goal to the next level of complexity, increasing the XP reward when it is achieved, or abandon it for a new goal.

Setting Goals

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/doors-choices-choose-open-decision-1767563/When choosing any type of goal, it is worth considering if you can weave your goals together with either a story thread, or the goals of other players. If you have the goal “Save Prince Fezzik,” then it is perfectly acceptable for another player to select either the same goal, or the related goal of “Help Shriek save Prince Fezzik.” The more you and other players weave your goals together the easier it will be to achieve them all in one session.

Goals don't necessarily need to be combat orientated or even overly practical. Have fun with your character's motivations and think outside the box. For inspiration, consider some of the following examples suitable for short-term goals:

  • Cook a meal enjoyed by the whole crew.
  • Defeat five enemies.
  • Design a drone prototype.
  • Find a job ending in the Court of Ravens system.
  • Find the source of that smell in the wash-room.
  • Navigate through a space storm.

The complexity of each of these goals may vary depending upon the circumstances and the other characters. The more involved you set out to make them, the more likely you are to share an interesting story with your friends.

Completing Goals

There should be clear conditions with which your DM can judge whether or not you've successfully completed a goal. That said, there may also come times where the edges between completion and failure get a little blurry. Failing a goal should be pretty unambiguous. If your goal is "Save Prince Fezzik" and Prince Fezzik gets eaten by a larval bug beast of Nowe, then you've failed.

However, if your goal is "Save Prince Fezzik" and after you free him from captivity you shoot him in the face because it turns out he tortures baby space-donkeys for fun, it wouldn't be completely unreasonable to argue that you completed your goal before you pulled the trigger.

If at any point you choose to abandon a goal, you get a sad feeling and no XP reward.


  1. If a player has a short-term goal left over from a previous session they can either increase it by one complexity level, or abandon it altogether.
  2. Characters without a long-term goal may wish to create one.
  3. When necessary, the DM assigns the group’s new mission goal and assigns it a complexity level.
  4. At the start of a session each player needs 3 short-term goals.
  5. The DM assigns a complexity level for each new goal.
  6. If the player wishes the goal to be more (or less) complex, they can work with the DM to reword the goal.
  7. At the end of a session, if a short-term goal remains incomplete a player can choose to roll it over into the next session.
  8. At the end of a session, if a character has completed a goal they receive that goals full XP reward.
  9. At the end of a session, if a character has failed a goal with no hope of salvage, they receive half of that goals XP reward.

TABLE: Experience Reward by Character and Complexity Level

Character Complexity Level
Level Direct Composite Elaborate Convoluted
1 15 25 45 135
2 30 50 90 270
3 110 150 230 690
4 245 315 455 1365
5 510 620 840 2520
6 590 750 1070 3210
7 695 915 1355 4065
8 875 1165 1745 5235
9 960 1330 2070 6210
10 1290 1750 2670 8010
11 690 1250 2370 7110
12 995 1665 3005 9015
13 875 1665 3245 9735
14 1160 2080 3920 11760
15 1440 2500 4620 13860
16 1290 2500 4920 14760
17 1960 3330 6070 18210
18 1790 3330 6410 19230
19 2445 4165 7605 22815
20 2255 4165 7985 23955

Narrative Example

Min’sk the Dragonborn Bard is on Earth. While trying to establish himself as a criminal kingpin, he has gotten into trouble with some local gangsters. Min’sk’s favourite cousin, B’oo, lives on Mars where he operates a freighter that regularly travels out of system. Min’sk knows that if he isn’t on the next run he’ll be taking a long walk through a short airlock. Working with the DM, Min’sk's player knows his long-term goal, is assigned a mission goal, and chooses 3 short-term goals.

Long-term Goal: Become a criminal kingpin.
Mission Goal: Leave the Sol system (direct).
Short-term Goals: Avoid the gangsters (elaborate).
  Make it to Mars (composite).
  Convince B’oo to provide passage out of the Sol system (direct).