Levelling Up

When do you like to receive experience points? And when do you like for your characters to level up? Video games (Super Mario Bros. in particular) has conditioned me to expect to know how many points I’ve earned immediately. There is a part of me as a player that wants instant gratification… a desire to get the XP immediately every time a creature is killed or challenge overcome. As a player I am motivated to level up as soon as I can because new levels means new powers.

There is a wide variety of how leveling up is handled in the CRPG world. In final fantasy, you go up a level as soon as you get the XP for it at the end of the battle. This allows the player to stock up on healing potions and spend a few hours grinding in the lava dungeon. In the elder scrolls games, you need to sleep for at least one hour in a real bed before you can level up. This means you could potentially gain multiple levels at once. My personal favorite is in the original Bard’s Tale; there you have to discover the location of the Review Board and go back there when you get enough XP to level up.

In D&D leveling up works a little different. Generally my group plays such that the “level up” moment comes after at least an extended rest between game sessions. When we do this, there is no latency between the rewarding of XP and the leveling, since we add up XP after each game. With previous groups, I’ve generally done leveling up at the end of the “adventure”, with XP being handed out either after each night or at the end of the adventure. It would be nice theme-wise, to have to do something to get that extra level – training, meditating, etc, but in practice it’s hard to fit that in to the adventure flow and to role-play. I think the hereos are always training and experimenting with new skills, and the levelling up is a just a mechanic to abstract it out. So while everyone might not in reality learn their skills at the same time, it just makes it easier to play it that way.

When I DM I generally like to hand out XP at the end of the adventure. Since all the classes advance at the same rate and there is a strong emphasis on rewarding all the players equally, I feel like the whole XP thing can be shortcuricuited completely. I forget the exact number, but the idea is to have 10-12 encounters per level. In my game group, that’s probably an average of 6 sessions, or about 2 months. This seems like a pretty good advancement rate to me.

The downside to the 1 level per “adventure” is that it might feel like there is nothing players can do to affect the experience points, and how much fun is that? I’m not sure how much XP is really under the player’s control (unless the DM gives optional RP rewards and quest XP), but there is  a nice fiction in getting XP after each night–I feel like what we did directly influenced the rewards.

I think the best thing for my group is to keep doing what we’re doing…XP after each night of gaming. But it would be nice if there was an in-game way to RP out the level up part.


8 thoughts on “Levelling Up

  1. As a DM I like to give xp to my players at the end or beginning of a session. I don’t want to take up valuable game time by calculating and distributing xp, but I also want the players to be awarded fairly frequently so that they can gain a sense of accomplishment and progress. In my opinion, making a player wait more than 2 sessions between xp awards is too long.

  2. When I played 3.5, I had this elaborate training scheme for leveling up, based upon abilities gained, spells learned, etc. This meant that it could sometimes take weeks for certain classes, and my Characters got fed up with it and flatly told me so.

    I like 4e better, and I do not have a training rule other than the Characters have to “take a day off”. That’s it, nothing more. They have to go someplace safe, like an inn or festhall, and party for a day, and they can level up.

    I shy away from leveling up in the middle of adventures, mainly because after I have planned all the encounters for a particular level, a “level up” can skew combats a tad. But it doesn’t happen often enough to worry about it.

  3. In the olden days, you had to search out and pay a master, tutor or teacher and spend at least two weeks on game time in order to level-up. The “good old days”, my arse. As a player and as a DM, I hated dealing with all that.

    “I think the heroes are always training and experimenting with new skills, and the leveling up is a just a mechanic to abstract it out. So while everyone might not in reality learn their skills at the same time, it just makes it easier to play it that way.”

    I think you’re on the right path with that. I’m taking that standpoint as well. I just have the characters level up between gaming sessions. For example, my group just finished an adventure and we wrapped up for the night. They gained enough XP to level up right near the end. So when we play next, the characters will have leveled up despite the fact that in the story they haven’t had a chance for an extended rest yet.

  4. Excellent ideas. I feel like a lot of the rules that have evolved over time started out as house rules and the ones that were most practical became the official rules or at least common practice. I like the theory of having to seek out training, but there are too many other things I’d rather do more in a game night to hold off leveling. It might be neat to write an article about making in-game training worth permanent bonuses or allowing characters to earn skill training as an alternate reward.

  5. One issue with waiting until the end of an adventure (and also with training delays) is that it puts an arbitrary length on an adventure. One level.

    We had a GM that required training on a big adventure in a 3.5 game. We survived a surprising amount of combat in it. We ended up going up four levels at the end of that adventure. Part of it was 3.5’s experience setup, where we got more experience for defeating monsters above our level. If we’d have gone up during the adventure we probably would have gotten two and a bit levels.

  6. @Philo, I’m not sure if you’re for or against leveling up in between adventures or not. I think it depends on how you divide up a campaign into “adventures.” For instance, when we played Keep on the Shadowfell, our party gained two levels before the end, by gaining XP each night. It would have been a very different experience if we waited to the end to gain those levels. But then again if I designed it myself, I would have made the quest smaller so that it would have been about one level’s worth.

  7. Oh, I’m for levelling up within an adventure. We usually use an extended rest in a relatively safe area as the trigger.

  8. depends on the game. our sunday GM has done away with XP (as have i long ago, in the far off past of 2006-07ish when i last ran 3.5). in this game we normally level every 3-4 sessions.

    our Monday & Wednesday GMs (two different guys) gives us last session’s XP at the start of the session & we level up at home or during a mid-session smoke/coffee break.

    we’re currently running a mini adventure on wednesday as a mid-campaign break (we just finished a 2 and a half year campaign) to give our regular GM some downtime. we’ve played 3 sessions and not seen a single XP, and we probably won’t: it’s a one-shot and the characters are meant to be in an ongoing arc… so why level? he did say if we were running into problems he would let us level at the next downtime, but we’re surviving this deathtrap dungeon so there’s no level 8 in our future it seems.

    like i said before, i gave up on XP during 3.5 since player attendance was irregular due to some of our work schedules (we all did shift work at different jobs, so the party makeup was… irregular… at times). the players who were lucky to be off on game day several weeks in a row would have leveled up much faster then the guy who could only attend one or two sessions a month. bad enough he has to miss a session due to Real Life, but to fall behind in levels can be harsh if you fall 2+ over time.

    i personally level the PCs after the adventure if it’s a long one, or after two short adventures; effectively when the characters get some downtime to reflect on the past events and learn from it.

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