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Experience Points and Levels
Mike Mearls

I always like a rule change that mimics what a lot of DMs and players are already doing at the table.

A few weeks ago, I ran a session of my at-work playtest campaign. The characters had cleared out a nest of monsters, rescued a captured knight, and learned the location of a villain's hideout. Rather than calculate the total experience point reward for the two sessions that the action covered, I simply told everyone to level up their characters for the next session.

Informally, we know that lots of games are run the same way. Whether at conventions or online, many DMs talk about setting aside XP rewards and simply telling the players to level up after a climactic event in the campaign. It's nothing new. No particular DM invented the practice. It's just one of the many unofficial rules and mechanics that have grown out of the D&D hive mind because they work.

Tracking experience points and using them to award levels makes a lot of sense in open-ended games, where the players can go where they wish, tackle the specific challenges that appeal to them, and create their own goals as a campaign progresses. In this type of game, when the players decide to assault the lair of a blue dragon, their primary goal is most often the treasure and XP they'll gain for defeating it.

In a more story-driven campaign, however, that lair assault could have a more complex purpose. The characters might serve as an elite cadre of spies and operatives for a king. The blue dragon might be a key villain who plots against the crown. Defeating the dragon removes a threat to the realm and creates a key event in the campaign's story arc. In this type of campaign, treasure and XP take second place in the characters' goals, behind the dragon's importance in the narrative.

Both campaigns employ the same monsters, maps, and treasure, but they use them in very different ways. In the first campaign, defeating the blue dragon is its own reward, reflected by the treasure and XP earned. Sometimes that XP takes characters up a level, but sometimes it doesn't. In the second campaign, defeating the blue dragon is one step along a greater story arc. The reward lies in making the kingdom safe and completing the mission, not necessarily in collecting loot. Leveling up might feel like the best way to mark that campaign milestone, even if the XP earned by slaying the dragon doesn't quite cover it.

From the perspective of game design, the difference between these approaches becomes important when we think about how best to implement rewards in published adventures. In the past, we've always defaulted to using experience point rewards for everything. However, for narrative-driven adventures like adventure paths, that approach can prove troublesome. Designers have to jam in the "correct" number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace. Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot. Otherwise, if characters don't level up at the expected rate, subsequent chapters in an adventure path become too difficult or too easy.

Rather than force the issue, a much better approach is to allow designers to present both options, and let DMs decide how best to run any adventure. This simple change to an experience point mechanic that's been in place since the earliest days of D&D helps to illustrate one of our critical guiding principles in the design of D&D Next. The game must provide options to support different styles of play—especially when it's clear that the default way of doing things no longer matches the way so many DMs run their games.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
I agree that DnD should be a game options. Each group, each DM, each style of play has to be covered by the system. No impositions of rules. XP is one of those things. I hope many XP options.

The official adventures can let the DM determine when the characters advance in level. DM is one who knows the group of players.
Posted By: R.A.S (3/5/2014 11:37:51 AM)


I run and have run my home games for years now with scheduled leveling, or leveling when it feels right, and my players love it. Having some guidelines in a specific prepub adventure is fine, as is having some general guidelines for workign this way in a DMG.

That said, I am fine with the designers also including rules for XP, and guidelines for assigning XP. etc. (in fact I would encourage it). I know that some gamers like to use XP, so thats fine.

Posted By: The_Eye_of_Kyi (2/23/2014 8:53:28 PM)


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Posted By: ORC_Lolth (2/23/2014 7:33:55 PM)


I'll like to add to my post (after reading many comments here) that the reasons to auto-level shouldn't be the need of the campaign. C'mon, designing a campaign (or using pre-made adventures) doesn't strictly require a particular level to operate. There's always a need for a good spread or variance in managing encounters or the entire adventure.

On top of that, there's always side-quest (if the campaign is not time-critical).

Somehow, after reading so many articles on the DnD Next, either WoTC is using these articles as further feelers for how to build DnD Next or they are trying to pander to all. Sigh...if it's the latter, unless it's perfectly done, it will fall flat and fail.
Posted By: mouselim (2/21/2014 1:56:17 AM)


I will only agree with Mike to a certain extent - auto-level the characters in campaign scenario will help to move the story along but it fails on several counts (not conclusive though). If the campaign requires characters leveling to progress the story, then I think the campaign may require a re-look in terms of planning. If the campaign gives auto-level, then it matters not how the players perform.

If the campaign really needs more fire-power from the characters and if they perform poorly whereby leveling is totally out of the question, then I suggest providing NPCs to help or better (magical) equipments (a special sword to slay undead).

I am a strong proponent of awarding XP accordingly to encounters, experiences, kills and role-playing. Not all characters will progress at the same pace. This will encourage players to do better and learn from better peers. Look at LoTR. Gandalf, Legolas, Aragon and Gimli are definitely levels above the hobbits. Yet as a campaig... (see all)
Posted By: mouselim (2/21/2014 1:39:48 AM)


Good point to consider XP reward for two different play style.

The DM Guide of 3.5 talk a little about those differences, leaving each DM's decide on extra-combat XP reward.
For standard system, the table on Enemy encounter x Character level XP reward is one of the most usefull tables that I used, so I hope to see it again.

Of course, a DM want its players levelling after a climax, like a boss fight or a crime resolved. But often things don't follow as planned, and players skip certain encounters (even fleeying from boss fight!), or miss proof, or complicate things, ecc.

So, is fundamental that the final rules write on capital letters that the DM has the right to determine when players can level up among an adventure, and if. Without be disonest to his players.
------------... (see all)
Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (2/20/2014 4:00:42 PM)


Wonderful article!
Posted By: Pyrate_Jib (2/20/2014 11:27:56 AM)


I guess you could have a paragraph or side-bar for :Assigned Experience" or something. Using exp as a yardstick to measure monster power is a nice convenience for the DM, and the game's always had an exp system, so there's no question it should stay and probably be assumed as the default. It's /so/ easy to hand-wave, though, that surely, a little re-assurance that doing so wouldn't be committing some unwitting sin would be all that's required.

Exp for risks and challenges other than monsters wouldn't be amiss, either.
Posted By: Tony_Vargas (2/18/2014 7:59:55 PM)


Really? an article on this? It isn't even a real game mechanic. The only time anyone cares about xp is in sanctioned play. Most players care about magic items and making their characters do more stuff, because that is all the rules have limited everything to. Maybe if players spent XP instead of just earned XP then it would mean something.

Most DMs don't care about xp because it has to be calculated. Most players have planned their character past level 5 before they even hit level 2. DM tend to say...level up because they are ready to move on just as much as players are. So nobody outside of RPGA really cares about XP.

Wow. I am excited about 5th edition, but it seems that it is just going to be a Pathfinder Rip off. Which is basically just 3.5.

There are a million d20 games on the internet. Why don't you guys focus on making Good Adventures instead of another system. Most of the fans don't even play the game anymore because they are too busy worrying ... (see all)
Posted By: Phoenixmcl (2/18/2014 5:49:53 PM)


An advantage of xps - They allow lower-level characters to catch up to the rest of the group in a natural, satisfying manner. A DM could, of course, simply tell the lagging players in the group to level up, but that option seems less gratifying.

As for the necessity of leveling prior to the next adventure - nonsense. With today's tools it's very easy to modify the level of encounters.

Nonetheless, though I'll stick to xps, having options for different play styles is, I think, a good thing.

On a related topic, I'm glad Next will cap levels at 20. It's taken my 4th-edition group three years to get to 30th level. For many groups, sustaining a campaign for that long is practically impossible.
Posted By: Steppenwolf41 (2/18/2014 11:23:22 AM)


I think the article about covers the subject - as well as you can in a few paragraphs.

Adventure Path type of products do need to have specific 'level-up' points in the narrative - especially if you have folks jumping in and out of weekly sessions.

I've pretty much thrown out the notion of awarding XP for killing things and finding treasure. I like the 4e 'Quest' concept. Each session has certain goals and the players get XP based on how well they accomplish those goals. Right now I use a two tier system, or three depending on how you look at it. If the group fails completely no XP at all. If they do OK and accomplish the goal - full XP. If one or more players seem to excel at their game play (not dependent on dice rolling) they might get a bonus award. You have to watch this though if you have a mixed group of players. For instance kids playing with seasoned adults. You don't want to depress the kids because they don't have the chops that the adults have, and at... (see all)
Posted By: Kazadvorn (2/18/2014 8:51:58 AM)


My game group was doing this, when we played Thunderspire Labyrinth it worked pretty well, there were three fortresses that needed to be routed for the game, each fortress when completed allowed the characters to level up. It felt right and made sense. However now that we switched to Gardmore Abbey, I found as the DM that while we love the open ended sandbox nature of the game, it was way too hard to figure out when levels should be awarded. We've turned to XP and it's a lot more rewarding, and it makes sense to carefully pick foes and locations based on how experienced we might be later, and that is a lot of fun too. Basically both options are needed.
Posted By: MacEochaid (2/18/2014 1:30:24 AM)


Back when 4E first came out, I had this same particular insight when I read in one of the DMGs that each level was roughly 13 level-appropriate encounters. If so, all I needed to do was count out thirteen challenging / interesting situations that happened during the session (a combat, a skill challenge, good roleplaying, a clever solution, a deadly trap) and at that point tell my players that they had leveled. Now maybe it was because the group were mostly DnD first-timers but no one seemed bothered by the fact that I was not giving out however many individual experience points after each combat or session.

Amusing thought: what if the books didn't say when you leveled? There would be charts that say what you have at what level of course, but no actual place where the book says, “You level when you have done this.” DMs would have to just make up their own system: maybe one group would stay at level one or three until they decided unanimously it was time to level, another gro... (see all)
Posted By: Cobrateen (2/17/2014 10:15:29 PM)


I'm really happy to see this here. Personally, I fall into the camp that gives out levels as the story needs dictate, but I think it's really, really important for the game to consider both methods.
Posted By: Aavarius (2/17/2014 10:00:21 PM)


Works for me. You can also have both using XP, simply give quest XP for ending important chapter of an adventure path.
Posted By: Plaguescarred (2/17/2014 2:03:11 PM)


That's how I do it with my campaigns. Any time my players finish a particular chapter or defeat a big boss, I give them a little extra Exp for doing so. I also give out Exp rewards for things like placing first in a jousting competition. It keeps the pace about 1 level per 4 sessions and seems to keep everyone happy with their character progression.
Posted By: AK_Endgame (2/17/2014 9:36:53 PM)


HackMaster 5e specifically tells GMs that no more than half of the experience earned should come from combat, the rest from quest rewards and other non-combat sources, thus the characters are rewarded for more than just killing things. What I do is keep track of how much combat experience they earn along the way, and then give them that same amount again at the next milestone, after which I start over my XP tracking.

Since my current campaign was converted from HM 4e, they started at level 5 and haven't leveled up yet, but the mess they just stumbled into will be so taxing, especially after what they've been through already, that I have all but decided to just them level afterwards, if they don't already (especially since if they don't, they'll be really, really close).

It bears mentioning that both editions of HackMaster are actually hybrid class-based/point-buy systems, so players earn Build Points in addition to XP. The latter are used to upgrade skills (or wea... (see all)
Posted By: kitsunegami (2/21/2014 7:19:14 PM)


It seems to me that what we're talking about, at least for story driven adventures, like published adventures, is essentially quest rewards. Your writers don't have to cram a bunch of extra combat encounters into their adventures in order to get the players up to the requisite level at a certain point in the adventure. You just award XP for completing a particular objective/quest. This keeps the focus of the game from becoming strictly combat, and allows for more story/roleplay.
Posted By: TheGimper (2/17/2014 1:55:42 PM)


This sounds pretty good. I just wonder if they still plan to have the two experience tracks where levels one and two either go by slow or fast. I would think having level one and two last only a session or toe would fit well with the "level after a quest" approach so maybe you only need the slower xp profession. just a thought.
Posted By: moes1980 (2/17/2014 12:16:15 PM)


That's not supposed to be there... - John
Posted By: Seanchai (2/17/2014 11:17:46 AM)


4th-edition already had a mechanic like this. It was called quest XP which was awarded for Major and Minor quest lines. 2nd-edition had a similar mechanic such as adventure Partial and Full experience which we found in the "Treasures of Greyhawk" adventure book. The same mechanic could be applied to the next version, but I think that the XP should be defined by Major and Minor quests. Besides, all good adventures have a main story (Major Quest) line mixed in with mini stories (Minor Quests) wrapped in.

4th-edition gave Minor Quests the equivalent of 1 monster of the quest level which I felt was a little low and almost made Minor quests not worth it. Perhaps making Minor quests equivalent to the XP a Major quest gave and then doubling the Major quest XP reward would be sufficient.
Posted By: Darkwon (2/17/2014 10:01:41 AM)


One more thing.

If we want this mechanic to just level up the characters, the Major Quest line could just bridge the gap of XP needed to level and Minor quests could add extra XP based on its challenges. I for one hand out XP for monsters that retreat from battle since the players are getting the experience of battling that kind of monster, thus that is why its called XP right ?
Posted By: Darkwon (2/17/2014 10:20:06 AM)


4th edition gave quest xp equivalent to an encounter of some level, so you were still having to jam in the 'correct' amount of monsters for an adventure, rather than paying attention to story. One time I did play a 4th Ed game where we had rotating dms each week, and each session was assumed to level us up at the end of it, regardless of whether or not we killed enough stuff. It was a fun way to play. But no, awarding x amount of quest xp in the style of 4th Ed is not the same as just leveling up at particular point in the story for the sake of moving things along.
Posted By: moes1980 (2/17/2014 12:20:40 PM)


The problem with providing DMs options like this in the core ruleset is that it lacks concrete guidance for fledgling DMs. Experienced DMs can come to these conclusions on their own, while those new to the game are looking for something more definitive... especially when you take into consideration that they might not be able to discern how much "storyline" drives the gameplay over hack-and-slash in their campaign. While DnD might want to be all-inclusive to accommodate a wide audience and type of play styles, ultimately, it has to lay down some bricks and provide a foundation. If you make certain rules pillars too loose - and I would include awarding XP among those pillars - then you really base your core books on a bed of sand. It would be more helpful if the next edition decided if it was a game first or a communal storyline game. There are some things that shouldn't be cut both ways.
Posted By: VividAntivirus (2/17/2014 9:44:03 AM)


1) Just because the books provide options doesn't mean they don't establish one of those options as the default core rule assumption.

2) Even if inexperienced DMs misuse XP or other ways to measure a level up...what's the worst that happens? Their players level up more slowly or quickly than "normal". They can certainly still play and nothing prevents them from still enjoying a game like that. And Newbie DMs will improve their craft by learning from these mistakes.
Posted By: Ramzour (2/17/2014 10:26:36 AM)


Hopefully we'll see some much better modular options than this (if this even is intended to be one). - John
Posted By: Seanchai (2/17/2014 11:15:43 AM)


Valuable points. While I would hardly raise the alarm over the suitability of this version for beginners, it is important that guidance be provided as well as choices. Personally, I am concerned that the slavish adherence to simplicity Mearls espouses, will prevent his team from creating a product which can be expanded to maintain the interest of players as they become more sophisticated. Now that I have read all the posts I will add my agreement with the very few commenters who mentioned that awarding experience for interacting with NPCs (prefabricated "quests" have their place as well) should be supported.
Posted By: RadperT (2/21/2014 10:25:43 PM)


I think it will be simple to incorporate both methods into adventures. Simply add bonus XP for completing specific tasks that move the plot along.
Posted By: strider13x (2/17/2014 9:43:23 AM)


Personally, I would have a riot on my hands if I attempted to ditch XP from the game, but I think having rule options for either way makes sense.

When it comes to published adventures, you really should present both options too... I did not like how it was handled in Scourge of the Sword Coast, where hand-waved XP was the only option offered. That's the real trick with modularity--you have to support a variety of play styles in a product.
Posted By: Osgood (2/17/2014 8:26:01 AM)


From the reasoning Mearls gives, the award style may depend on what works best with the style of the adventure; and in cases where either works well, both may be given.

Even if you wedged story-progress adventure chapters between bouts of XP-collecting sandbox, there are ways to mix: if you level at 1000 and 3000 XP and you have 2568 XP, a level award would could award you 2000 XP (the distance between levels), putting you at 4568 XP.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/17/2014 11:51:07 AM)


Very good idea! How will the "recommended encounter for a group this level" system work then ? Will there be some sort of "challenge rating" system as in earlier versions of DnD? Or will the encounter difficulty system be tied to "if you would be using the XP-based version of the system, this enemy would give this much XP".

Anyways, really great that this, what everybody is doing anyways is now finally inisde the system!

Will there be recommendations around the lines of "how many evenings for a pivotal story point" and stuff like this in a Dungeonmaster's guide?
Posted By: MagicSN (2/17/2014 6:48:45 AM)


The game must provide options to support different styles of play. I hope they take that approach for simple things like experience, and more complex things like classes, healing, and magic.
Posted By: Uchawi (2/17/2014 6:25:24 AM)


I had made some major changes in my homegame to streamline this mechanic while still allowing it to progress lvl by lvl along with the players. I say along with because I don't look at xp as a mechanic that forces characters along but aids them along. Xp in my mind is story driven. Crushing a monster in an epic battle earns you xp sure...but standard xp? Bonus xp? Additional xp? Its up in arms. Now just doing the motions widdling it down turn by turn might grant standard xp but it might just progress you along. I agree with what I interpret Mike's line of thinking is here. I play 0-100 th lvl and assigned xp by lvl with bonus xp to be had, xp per encountet, per adventure, per monster and by type/lvl as well. A simple 3pg system with all the values and mechanics clear as day. Give me clear choices and mechanics so I can quickly adapt it to my all inclusive homegame and I'll use it up.
Posted By: Valkrim (2/17/2014 5:53:06 AM)


It's good to hear they intend to approach the problem from both directions. This is the kind of awesome modular options we'll see. They'll design the rules and published adventures to accommodate both styles of play. I wonder if this means we'll definitely NOT see any mechanics that use XP as currency in the default rules? (like Spells/Rituals, Magic Item Crafting, etc.)

In my games I use a non-XP based system. Lately I've been using the Proficiency Bonus to determine how many gaming sessions my players need at a particular level before they level up. So at level 1 and level 2, they level up after 1 session each. At levels 3-6, they level up after 2 sessions. At level 7, they level up after 3 sessions. And so on. I discuss it in this thread here.
Posted By: Ramzour (2/17/2014 5:52:02 AM)


During 3e, everything had to fit into some formula or other. Want to make a monster? Stick to the formula! Want to level up? Add up these numbers! Want to know what to roll? (...Did size modifier apply this time?) So I threw some out, and my group has leveled up at plot-important goals in story-based campaigns for years.

It's refreshing that Next's designers are taking a more holistic view of the game with such no-fuss, no-math rules like advantage/disadvantage and now this.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/17/2014 4:37:22 AM)


Not the point of the article, but does Mearls forget that the picture at the bottom is a Cobalt Dragon (a metallic) not a Blue Dragon (a chromatic)?

I know in Warcraft, Blue Dragons are the ice guys (equivalent of DnD White Dragons), and Cobalt Metallics sort of pick-up that role, just that they aren't that commonly known about, but still. I would expect him to know the differences between the Dragons that he's got creative license on.
Posted By: Marandahir (2/17/2014 1:26:17 AM)


Really? Are you satisfied with a dig like that......
Posted By: FirebanDM (2/17/2014 2:00:08 AM)


You think that *Mike* picks the art?
Posted By: (2/17/2014 2:21:16 AM)


Posted By: TheGimper (2/17/2014 1:58:44 PM)


Who cares? I liked the art. Why didn't you complain that a blue dragon has a ground plug instead of just two prongs for their tail cord too?
Posted By: ZaranBlack (2/17/2014 8:03:14 AM)


I've run adventures with no experience points and with experience points. I tend to find players prefer experience points, but I'm glad to see the design team thinking outside the older methods of adventure design.
Posted By: Prom (2/17/2014 1:13:57 AM)


Some of the comments here just boggle my mind.
People whining about not being told exactly when and how to implement a free-form levelling system?
Here's some news for you: if you can't figure that out yourself, then that system isn't going to work for you. Go back to counting XP.
Posted By: Bolongo (2/17/2014 1:13:12 AM)


So true.
Posted By: Prom (2/17/2014 1:16:10 AM)


You missed the point.

I don't need to be told how to implement this. What I want, is information on how THEY intend to implement this. It's a big difference, as such a thing often has more to do with what's correct for the campaign or playstyle of the group.

And I'm actually more disturbed that he wasted a L and L article on just it, and not other alternative methods as well.
Posted By: LupusRegalis (2/17/2014 1:20:39 AM)


Who specifically is "whining"? - John
Posted By: Seanchai (2/17/2014 11:10:09 AM)


Lupus, for one.
Posted By: Bolongo (2/18/2014 1:16:57 AM)


That would be a "person," though, and not "people." You said that more than one person was whining. You named one - where are the others?

That aside, he's hardly whining. You disagree with him. Fine. But whining is complaining in a certain fashion, and he's barely doing the former. - John
Posted By: Seanchai (2/18/2014 11:10:12 AM)


As someone who rarely if ever uses XP when running a game, I'm all for this approach. That said, I've found that the current XP values per monster (and the accompanying guidelines) ARE helpful for putting together encounters.

Even if the game did away with XP, I'd want some kind of budgeting system that helps me to quickly determine which monsters (and how many of them) are an appropriate challenge for a given level.
Posted By: DrewMelbourne (2/17/2014 12:36:11 AM)


What this article is saying is that published adventures will have XP values for the monsters, and advice for just leveling when it's appropriate for the adventure, and the DM can choose which to use.

To which my response is: Why present those as the only two options? What about treasure XP?
Posted By: G_X (2/17/2014 12:31:43 AM)


So...details? Or just random words on what DM's already do?
Posted By: LupusRegalis (2/17/2014 12:08:17 AM)


I don't think we'll get any details. Whenever he writes an article he is maybe telling us what he working on this week, or about the rules they just put to print. He is just letting us know this is going to be a part of the game, and he is inviting feedback about. That is the real point, to get our feedback, so I appeal to you to provide your own suggestions or ask for something in particular.
Posted By: SirAntoine (2/17/2014 12:22:22 AM)


Kinda hard to give feedback or suggestions when you don't have any details on what they intend to implement...
Posted By: LupusRegalis (2/17/2014 12:24:36 AM)


He did give the details: in addition to providing the XP values for encounters/monsters (which has been the typical method), they will be providing information on when to just "level up" the PCs (at the appropriate time{s} during an adventure), for those groups that don't use XPs.
Posted By: lawrencehoy (2/17/2014 12:49:37 AM)


That's just a statement of intent, not a general idea of how they will be implementing such a thing. I'd like more info and less ideal, thank you.
Posted By: LupusRegalis (2/17/2014 12:55:22 AM)


And so what are those times?
Posted By: SirAntoine (2/17/2014 12:52:42 AM)