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.