For the last ten years, I’ve played almost nothing but Dungeons & Dragons — and games inspired by D&D, and other games completely separate from D&D but nonetheless run by players who enjoyed, and were most familiar with D&D.

Which is not a bad thing.

But I’ve played almost nothing but 3e and 4e, and most of the people I’ve played with started no earlier, or if they did, they got their start with 2e — and to my knowledge, each awards XP for combat as its primary means of advancement.

And through the last ten-odd years, I’ve had a passion — call it an obsession — with discovering the secret to this lofty ideal of “encounter balance” — just the right amount of challenge to the right amount of reward.

Always in the back of my mind, there was this odd information that I occasionally drifted in from the OSR that encounter balance wasn’t important, and I just didn’t get it. At the worst of times, it was outright dismissive.

Why would I listen to that? How was that fair? D&D was supposed to be a game — there had to be a measurable challenge between the players and the end of the stage. If it didn’t, there was a bug — a glitch — like in a video game.

And all the while, I was struggling with my players just not caring about anything except slogging through fights, maximizing combat options — or worse, showing utter contempt for the rules of the game because fighting was all it offered.

To add to the problem, I constantly wrestled with the wealth system — wherein treasure seemed superfluous, inflated, and at times — utterly meaningless.

What was I doing wrong?

I think I get it now — I think I understand why encounter balance doesn’t matter. I don’t agree with the dismissive attitudes I got from a lot of “old school gamers,” but I think I understand why XP should be based on treasure and not combat.

GP can’t buy you anything that you can’t get by leveling up.
The most effective way of leveling up is by killing things.

It’s so simple that I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone articulate it before — but I think that players seem to get it instinctively. It doesn’t stop them from wanting treasure, even if the GP don’t mean anything.

And all the apparent problems of “Wealth By Level” that I wrestled with — melt away when level is dependent upon wealth.

I understand now, why 3e monsters just don’t tend to carry treasure with them — if it’s only a vestige of earlier editions, it’s because they were only supposed to be guarding the treasure, not dispensing it.

I get now why the math doesn’t add up when you try to add monster level to treasure carried and encounter challenge — the numbers are incompatible. It’s like trying to add oranges and apples to get the total number of bananas.

It’s just bad math.

Once you remove the XP component from a fight, encounter balance becomes almost mindlessly simple — you want to challenge the players, and that’s that. You throw some things at them that will challenge their PCs, whether it’s high AC or defenses, saves, area attacks, energy resistance, rust monsters, or whatever.