The main Experience Point (X.P.) awards discussions seem to be based around two things: Either you get X.P.for finding treasure or you do not. I tend not to give X.P. for treasure, but I also tend to award experience a little differently that what it tells you in the rules.
The TSR days (and various editions) of Dungeons & Dragons all awarded X.P. for two things: finding treasure (especially magical treasure), and slaying monsters. Now, while not bad in and of itself, this led to some players doing very bad things (like slaying townsfolk or other PCs) to get experience. The sad thing is, there were some Dungeon Masters who let them get away with it. It says normal men are worth a certain amount of X.P. in the Monster Manual, so those who went by the book just awarded the experience, threw up their hands, and wondered what went wrong.
Well, aside from the fact that those Dungeon Masters needed to put their collective feet down, and the "angry mob rule" from Original D&D never made it into the later rulebooks, it seems as if some campaigns degenerated into "kill the monster, take its stuff." As if one single part of the rules had become the whole point of the game.
Certainly many computer RPGs pretty well took that route. There were several articles and letters in Dragon Magazine (in its early days, at least) that dealt with the hack and slash aspect, and whether it had a place in D&D.
But interestingly enough, around the time of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition (2e), 1989, there was a computer game called Baldur's Gate, loosely based on the 2e ruleset. In this game you had various tasks to perform, and the rewards included XP. I had never seen that before, but it made sense to me. Torment did the same, as well as Icewind Dale, which is why those games appealed to me despite my dislike of AD&D. At that time, I was playing Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, Warhammer, RoleMaster, etc.
Time passed, and 3E was released. Even its experience system, with its Challenge Ratings, was skewed in much the same direction as its TSR predecessors. According to designer George Strayton, WotC stuck to the "kill 'em all, take their stuff" philosophy when designing 3rd Edition D&D. They did add one thing, you received experience for disarming traps, but still their X.P. system felt woefully incomplete.
Looking at Rolemaster and Palladium, the way you gain X.P. is far different than in other similar games. in RoleMaster you can gain experience for adventures, and some of the equations to calculate experience are overblown. Likewise, Palladium gives out experience for planning, and you get more if your plan worked, and less if it failed, etc. Both of these are germs of a good idea. What if, like Baldur's Gate (and the much more recent Gothic series), you got experience for doing things? Bring a nobleman back his amulet from the brothel he left it at: 50 xp in Baldur's Gate, for example. In the PC game Gothic 2, the reward could be 3 times that. Reward players for actually doing things in the adventure, instead of just mindlessly killing.
This is not as radical as it may seem at first. Tournament adventures are scored in a similar manner. Why not transplant that into an actual game?
So, I propose this system, scaled to D&D:
You get experience from two broad categories. The first is a larger experience award, the major objective. The major objective is the whole point of the adventure. You might get 1,000 points for it.
- Exploring the Unknown
- Investigating an Evil Outpost
- Removing the effects of an evil curse
- Recovering Ruins
- Eradicating a force of raiding goblins
- Destroying an Ancient Evil
- Fulfilling a Quest
- Escaping From Enemies
- Rescuing Prisoners
- Finding a Lost Race
The minor objectives are things that you did during the adventure. They're worth anywhere from 100-500 points, though not more than 300 points should be given unless the objectives took more than one session to complete.
- Following a trail of clues to the next part of the adventure
- Searching around a town's taverns to find a guide
- Bribing a guard (or quietly rendering him unconscious) to gain entry
- Killing or overcoming a monster that is preventing the Heroes from progressing further.
- Using a Magic Portal to go someplace (or come back, or both)
- Travel to a shrine that has been lost for ages, in order to remove the curse.
These are base Experience Awards, and they increase as the Heroes rise in level. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the awards by the Heroes' level. So if the Heroes are 3rd level, they might net 600 X.P. for the last group of monsters they killed. Or, after exploring the ruins to find the foozle they might get 3,000 X.P.
Obviously, you can increase or decrease the base experience award as you see fit. A slower progression might see 500 for a major objective, or even 250! You might even flatten the rate, so even at 5th level the PCs are getting the same amount of X.P. as they did at 1st level. Part of the advantage of this system is the sheer control. You can tailor it to the exact number of adventures you want your players to go through before they level. Also, set up this way, hack and slash actions are not rewarded unless you want them to be.