How I give out experience points and how PCs level up in my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
I have combined XP and levelling as they tend to go hand-in-hand.
First off, I am not a huge fan of experience points (XP) as they are written – in any edition of the game – for two main reasons:
- The calculations involved are onerous
- They reward certain behaviour
The Issue with Traditional XP
No matter how you give out experience or what for, you end up encouraging a particular behaviour.
- Give out XP for gold and you make the character crave after coins and treasure
- Give it out for roleplaying and they will just sit around and do that all game
- Give it out for killing monsters, and, well, you get the idea
Whatever you tell the players about how to earn XP, their characters will invariably lean towards doing that.
And this may favour one class, or style of player, over others.
The way I see it, this is frought with danger.
One caveat I will place here is that if you are definitely after a particular style of play, then matching XP rewards to that style can reinforce what you want, but this can be a slippery slope and it may not suit every player.
The other alternative usually given as a point of difference is milestone levelling.
I dislike milestone levelling even more than original experience awards.
The Issue with Milestones Levelling
Most milestone levelling happens during a set point in an adventure (a lot of the time the adventures calls for this), and all characters level at a certain point in the story or adventure.
The reason is I dislike it is that it breeds railroading during the adventure.
Railroading being defined as the GM wanting and forcing the PCs down a particular path due to that being what the PC “are supposed to do” according to the adventure or that is what the GM envisioned happening.
(Note, railroading and pre-written adventures being two different things).
And I am not a huge fan of either railroading or pre-written adventures for this reason.
The solution is simple.
You award 1 XP each time the PC plays in that session.
No calculations. No angst. No favouring.
Just one XP for each session a player shows up and their character contributes.
This means that players are there for the game and the story and the adventures, and not just so they don’t miss out on gaining experience.
It also means no bean counting at the end of each session. I always hated that as GM. Which means more game time.
Actually, I stand corrected, it does encourage one thing: players showing up!
Now that we have our XP sorted out, it is time to decide how and when we level.
I want to say this at the start: stop skipping over the low levels so quickly!
This is an important time when players are getting to know their characters and overwhelming them – especially new players – with even more spells, bonuses, and abilities does nothing to enhance their enjoyment of the game.
My Proposal for Levelling
I propose a slow(er) levelling.
At every level.
When I first implemented this XP system, I told the players that their characters would level up when they played as many sessions as they needed for the next level.
So, two sessions to go from 1st to 2nd level. Another three, to go from 2nd to 3rd level, and so on.
But even this is a little too fast for me.
Now, I level each character up after 10 sessions.
What!? I hear you ask.
You have to play 10 sessions before you get to 2nd level?
And another 10 before you get to 3rd.
Why Level so Slowly?
Because this allows the players to get to know their characters, have the characters understand their abilities and powers, and spells (so important for spellcasters).
And I mean a deep understanding of them.
This means knowing which spells and traits to use as second nature. Players who know their character’s abilities well, speed the game up.
A natural flow-on effect.
It also allows time for the GM to develop arcs for the characters and give them what they need to level.
Again, super important for spellcasters.
Leveling this slowly (is it really that slow?) also means your campaigns will probably last a lot longer, instead of ending after 20 sessions when everyone is 10th level and over the power-trip that is levelling (especially in later editions of the game).
Professor DM mentions about his long-running campaign many times in his videos, but this one in particular mentions how slow levelling is a better way to go and gives his reasons.
His players are happy with slow levelling because it will be longer before the campaign ends and they need to retire their characters!
This slower levelling also means a GM can explain how the character gets their powers and abilities.
For spellcasters, this means the GM can have a chance for mages and clerics to find scrolls from which they can then learn new spells.
For fighters, this means realistically having time to train for new abilities and proficiencies.
For rogues, it means getting better at their craft by actually using those traits and skills.
And so on.
This is especially true of multiclassed characters.
To learn the basics of a new class – even “dipping” into it – is onerous, and it should take some time. Especially, if the fighter is moving into wizard!
This allows the GM time – up to 10 sessions – to plan how the character can do what they want to do.
Which decreases the pressure on the GM.
And leads to happy players.
Campaign Length and Levelling
I believe this would also allow campaigns to continue on longer than they do now for the reasons outlined above as players will need to earn each and every level and so will be more invested in their characters.
D&D is, after all, about the journey and not the destination.
At least, shouldn’t it be?
If you didn’t want to strive to get to higher levels, you could just start out at 10th level. It’s pretty easy these days to make up a 10th level character so why bother with the first 10 levels?
Most do because they want to earn those levels.
This gives players a way to earn them and enjoy the ride as well.
Over to You
What do you think? Too fast? Too slow?
How do you calculate experience?
While You’re Here…
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11 Replies to “How I Do Experience Points And Leveling In D&D”
“Actually, I stand corrected, it does encourage one thing: players showing up! ”
Does it though?? 5e isn’t exactly built around having characters of varying levels within a party. I guess if you’re only leveling every 10 sessions the gap would build slowly but this is going to be an issue for most tables. Because most tables aren’t going to wait 10 sessions. Leveling up is a big part of 5e.
Personally, 10 sessions is about the average lifespan of one of my characters. Even that may be generous. So this doesn’t sound like much fun to me. I’d basically be starting over with a new character every time I gained a level. I’d never really see any improvement in one character.
In my experience, it does help players show up.
And we are not just talking about 5e here. In fact I don’t play 5e at all any more. There are way better editions and hacks available. But even in 5e, levelling happen way too quickly. It really needs to be slowed down. If not 10 sessions, then at least do 5. Give your players (and GMs) a chance to get to know their characters.
Also, just as an aside, if you keep on dying after 10 sessions in 5e you must be doing something really wrong. I mean, it’s super difficult to die at all in 5e, especially with all those level ups.
Thanks for commenting – I appreciate it.
My approach to XP has dramatically changed through the years. I now allocate XPs almost exclusively for adventure resolution.
I also almost exclusively allocate XPs to the group (including henchmen, followers, allied adventuring NPCs and the like) divided evenly. This is a group effort and the group gets CPs evenly.
As far as levelling, I have always preferred slow levelling for many reasons.
First, I find a world with very high level characters unrealistic. There is no way ordinary people would survive in such a world. So, slow levelling mitigates this.
Second, I find that players get to know their characters very well when they only change a little between sessions. They discover all the ins and outs of the character and find new ways to play them. Levelling every other session would mean too many changes. So, I allocate XPs to roughly have levelling every two side quests and every two medium adventures per current level. So, to go from third to fourth would require 6 side quests and six medium adventures. A side quest is one session, a medium adventure is 4 sessions and there usually is a session between medium adventures for travel, upkeep (which is roleplayed) as well as other activities (businesses, spell research, etc…). That way, there are other things going on aside from adventuring.
The slow levelling does not mean there is no change in the character. There’s new equipment, new magical items, new spells, new weapons and armors of quality, new allies, followers and the like. Additionally, I run a heavily modified 2nd edition AD&D where I have Feats similar to 3rd edition but the Feats are restricted to one every level and cost XPs. Furthermore, Feats cannot be deferred so they must be learned every level or lost (there’s good balance reasons for that). So, while levelling is slow, there is still change in the campaign.
Thanks for commenting. A thorough explaination there. I love the idea of slow leveling. I used to use a similar way to yours – it cost x number of XP to go up a level, x equalling the level they are trying to obtain, but even this was too quick for me. 10 sessions works well.
Levelling is relatively quick at lower levels (8 or 9 sessions) but slows down severely at higher levels. It’s a non-linear progression. I find high level characters (and therefore high level enemies) unrealistic in a world where 99.9% of the population is zero level.
Fair call. 8-9 is a good timeframe.
My approach to XP has dramatically changed through the years. I now allocate XPs almost exclusively for adventure resolution. I also almost exclusively allocate XPs to the group (including henchmen, followers, allied adventuring NPCs and the like) divided evenly.
I like PCs leveling at different rates. I’m cool with XP for gold because it reinforces for me the most important reason to become adventurers: for gold and glory! Not to save the world. I think each PC should also get XP according to actions befitting their class. Killing monsters for warriors. Finding and disabling traps/picking locks for thieves. Casting spells successfully for wizards and clerics (why I like systems that have spell checks to cast spells).
I’m with you on milestone XP. Hate it.
Yeah, I didn’t cover levelling based on class. I am not sure how I feel about it to be honest. It doesn’t work all that well with the system I have in place unless the classes were not balanced (which is fine) and it would cost say 12 sessions for the wizard to level up and maybe 8 for the rogue.
As mentioned, I think if you really want to encourage a particular behaviour (“for gold and glory”) then giving XP for gold is a way to do it. I think I just prefer to allow the players to decide what they want to focus on dependent on their characters and the campaign as a whole.
Currently running a new 1E AD&D group online over Discord.
It is my first time DMing in far (FAR!) too blog, and I have never personally met any of the players.
I am taking them through module N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which has extreme changes in tempo, style of play, and lethality (I describe it as “Twin Peaks: Greyhawk” with occasional showers of Cthulhu).
To make up for the “slow sessions” I instituted a 100xp per session actively contributed to, aside from anything else.
Having awarded that after the fifth session, I have altered that to being a minimum, not an addition, but that works well enough for my purposes.
It eases the drive towards having to kill or loot for advancement as progress is always being made, albeit slow.
eg. 25 productive sessions would get an MU up to Level 2, which actually seems reasonable for no dangers to confront, the character will get there eventually, just not as rapidly as those who return alive from forays into dungeons, etc
It also goes a fair ways to explaining level NPCs such as guards people or even Nobles who have significant levels but do not seem to ever go adventuring.
The reward comes from practical participation in something that is significant and that has a potential for consequences; such that while a guards person might get into a encounter or a significant situation once every few weeks perhaps and so reaching the equivalent of 3rd level after about 4 -5 years, a noble who for some reason the has attained level seven or so has been dealing with significant situations on a daily or weekly basis for some time 100xp at a shot.
If as is mentioned in the 1E DMG, HP are a sign of the favour of the gods, the dutiful watchperson or the Castellan in B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” who could probably clear out the case of chaos by himself (but does not) make sense.
And the thing that keeps city watches from being overfilled with level 5-7 guardsmen, while the aristocracy (who have people to fight for them) do attain those levels?
Training costs for leveling , more or less BTB.
An indifferent guardsman, without an real dedication (alignment focus) would get a crappy score on assessment (also BTB, RAW) meaning that for 2nd level they would need 4 weeks of training at a cost of 6000gp.
Not happening, they are indifferent, remember?
They WOULD get some free training over their career, just through drilling, etc, but they won’t do as well as the dedicated person who will level up with the equivalent of a weekend’s training under the captain or sergeant of the guard.
And the nobleman isn’t worried about cost, and has multiple motives to have instruction.
With that being said, my target is for characters to progress at about 6-9 4hr weekly sessions per level, with treasure counting for xp along with foes defeated/tricked, and a few small award bonuses for good play, etc (Class affecting speed of advancement, of course).
Much less than that cheapens the attainment (“Milestoning” every 3rd adventure? That sort of makes for a short career before adventuring seems kinda pointless …), while much more just doesn’t keep players engaged.
The number cited of 10 sessions per level seems fair enough (although I would suggest some sort of performance or accomplishment-based effect to reward solid play, that is other than the straightforward treasure, notoriety, or just plain survival, that are already rewards in themselves).
Thanks! You make some good points in there. And you can adjust number of session as per taste easily. I do think about rewarding “good play” or “good ideas” but usually come back to the argument that they should be doing that any way. 🙂