The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Roleplaying Games

Leveling Up in D&D 5e is Broken. Let’s Fix It.

A lot of colorful Dungeons and Dragons dice falling out of a bag of dice.
Photo by Alperen Yazgı on Unsplash

This idea is a draft, please comment on it to aid me in balancing out mechanics.

Before I define my system I will first go over what the options currently are for advancement in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. Then I will explain why I feel my system is an improvement. If you want to skip to the good stuff, my proposal is Option 4: PointUP which can be found about halfway down the page.

Option 1: Experience Points

While this method of advancement is extremely popular amongst wargamers, it is extremely unpopular at newer DND tables. Experience point based advancement is defined as:

As your character goes on adventures and overcomes challenges, he or she gains experience, represented by experience points. A character who reaches a specified experience point total advances in capability. This advancement is called gaining a level.

(Player’s Handbook page 15)

In essence, this usually amounts to experience being distributed solely based on combat encounters. Technically, the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests:

You decide whether to award experience to characters for overcoming challenges outside combat. If the adventurers complete a tense negotiation with a baron, forge a trade agreement with a clan of surly dwarves, or successfully navigate the Chasm of Doom, you might decide that they deserve an XP reward. As a starting point, use the rules for building combat encounters in chapter 3 to gauge the difficulty of the challenge. Then award the characters XP as if it had been a combat encounter of the same difficulty, but only if the encounter involved a meaningful risk of failure.

(Dungeon Master’s Guide page 261)

But crucially, regardless of how such a system is spun, it still prioritizes combat as a means of establishing XP gain. Even the Noncombat Challenges attribute the amount of XP gained based on how much XP would have been distributed had a fight occurred upon failure.

Option 2: Milestones

This method of advancement is probably the most well known due to its popularity being referenced in actual-play media. The rules for this are purposefully loose and are intended to ascribe advancement to the Dungeon Master’s whims, giving increased power when it feels natural to do so within the story. While not appearing in the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide describes milestones thusly:

You can also award XP when characters complete significant milestones. When preparing your adventure, designate certain events or challenges as milestones, as with the following examples:

  • Accomplishing one in a series of goals necessary to complete the adventure.
  • Discovering a hidden location or piece of information relevant to the adventure.
  • Reaching an important destination.

When awarding XP, treat a major milestone as a hard encounter and a minor milestone as an easy encounter. If you want to reward your players for their progress through an adventure with something more than XP and treasure, give them additional small rewards at milestone points. Here are some examples:

  • The adventurers gain the benefit of a short rest.
  • Characters can recover a Hit Die or a low-level spell slot.
  • Characters can regain the use of magic items that have had their limited uses expended.

(Dungeon Master’s Guide page 261)

Interestingly, while most people will claim Milestone is an alternative to XP based advancement, the definition of it explicitly claims it to use experience points, and allows for “minor milestones” which give smaller amounts of experience. This system is intended to be used to give 1000 experience points every time a trap is detected or give 200 points for doing a good deed. It is not intended to be used to, say, level up at the end of a story arc. Such a system is actually called…

Option 3: Level Advancement without XP

Listen, I didn’t name these. Anyway, on with the quote.

You can do away with experience points entirely and control the rate of character advancement. Advance characters based on how many sessions they play, or when they accomplish significant story goals in the campaign. In either case, you tell the players when their characters gain a level. This method of level advancement can be particularly helpful if your campaign doesn’t include much combat, or includes so much combat that tracking XP becomes tiresome.

(Dungeon Master’s Guide page 261)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide also gives two potential use-cases for this system. One, in my opinion, works better for actual-play shows, while the other works better at real tables without an audience.

3a: Story-Based Advancement

This is what I described earlier at the beginning of the section on Milestones. Basically:

When you let the story of the campaign drive advancement, you award levels when adventurers accomplish significant goals in the campaign.

(Dungeon Master’s Guide page 261)

This variant is as simple as possible, and largely puts the power in the hands of the Dungeon Master, as they are ultimately the one who determines where the ending of a story is. In actual-play shows, the emphasis is on storytelling to an audience, and, as such, there is the expectation that the Dungeon Master is going to treat this form of advancement fairly.

Additionally, when we look at the fantasy media Dungeons and Dragons is inspired by, this system fits best with them. A character only gets stronger after they have finished a story arc, because that story arc gave them the experience they needed to grow stronger.

However, at a traditional table without an audience, this system relies on a Dungeon Master to be able to determine pacing, something which, even with the best Dungeon Master in the world, can lead to unforeseen problems as the story and goals shift and plotlines become unresolved. Additionally, at tables which play one session per week, players can begin to feel as though no advancement is being made, as a story arc may take several months to complete.

This has led to a popular homebrew of this system being to have players gain 2 levels at the end of every story arc, in order to ensure that the campaign ends within what the Player’s Handbook would call either the third or fourth tier of gameplay. (see page 15 of Player’s Handbook for details on tiers)

3b: Session-Based Advancement

If you were to stick to the Rules-as-Written for a home game, this is what I would most recommend. This system, in a sense, sort of meta-games. However, it does so in order to ensure that the players level at a good pace. This is the formal description given:

A good rate of session-based advancement is to have characters reach 2nd level after the first session of play, 3rd level after another session, and 4th level after two more sessions. Then spend two or three sessions for each subsequent level. This rate mirrors the standard rate of advancement, assuming sessions are about four hours long.

(Dungeon Master’s Guide page 261)

What I love about this system is that, first and foremost, it prioritizes timing on the player’s end, such that advancement never feels stagnant. As long as a session occurs, progress is being made. As such, the player has the freedom to explore the space as needed, rather than feeling a pressure to continually push the story forward in order to ensure their play-time is not wasted. In my eyes, as a Dungeon Master, play-time should never feel like something that can be wasted. Playing the game should be rewarding on its own, regardless of the player’s need to move toward a specific goal. If a player feels like time they spent having fun in Dungeons and Dragons was wasted because it brought them no closer to gaining levels, I have failed as a Dungeon Master.

Also, keep in mind that the majority of players have the majority of their experience with level-based gameplay through video games. In a video game, the player has the freedom to pick up the game whenever they want and progress at their own pace. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, requires so much coordination for even a single session to occur, meaning that a player might be ready to progress, but could be butting heads with the pacing of the game.

An interesting homebrew I have heard applied to this system is to use it on a per-player basis. The idea being that, if a player were to not show up to a session, they would level up one session behind the other players. While this seems brutal, it has two benefits. One is that a player’s participation at a session is no longer mandatory. If they do not wish to gain the levels from attending a session, they can simply choose not to attend. The onus is on them whether or not they would like to progress, rather than having the social pressure of the group being the force keeping them at the table.

Additionally, this homebrew allows for the potential of a single-character or two-character session, in which the Dungeon Master meets with smaller groups of players for aspects of the campaign which other player characters are not present for. In this way, a Dungeon Master can increase levels for players who, like the aforementioned video game player, are ready to progress but are being held back by the infrequency of the sessions with the full party.

Notably, however, this concept is not fully homebrew, and is instead an adaptation of how XP gain is described on page 260 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide under the header “Absent Characters.” Using this system in conjunction with Level Advancement without XP can lead to some really interesting gameplay, but the application is a bit more nebulous if you are choosing to use Story-Based Advancement.

Image from dndbeyond.com

My Thoughts

Well, so you might have noticed two things. Firstly, all of the quotes I have pulled are from two pages, one being page 15 of the Player’s Handbook and the other being page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. As a matter of fact, putting together all of the provided quotes from the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives the entirety of the contents of page 261. While I am not one to say that the length of a writing determines the quality or effort put into that writing, I think it is very interesting that Dungeons and Dragons chooses not to provide more alternatives to advancement than these three systems. It, to me, indicates a lack of thought into how agency and hierarchy plays into most home game tables.

Far too often do we see horror stories of Dungeon Masters wielding their power over players irresponsibly. And, don’t get me wrong, the Dungeon Master deserves responsibility. The idea of Dungeons and Dragons is for the Dungeon Master to build the world and characters for the players to interact with. It’s like a choose your own adventure novel or a gamebook, except the book is your friend and changes to be more entertaining for both of you. The issue comes when a lack of experience or perhaps pure malice removes the agency of people at the table. While the Dungeon Master never has to worry about loss of control, the players unfortunately do, to the point that there are entire YouTube channels dedicated to documenting bad experiences.

In my eyes, what is needed is a flattening of that hierarchy between Game Master and player, which a lot of game systems do really well, Shadowrun: Anarchy being a largely successful one. However, in a system like Dungeons and Dragons, the best move might be to give players full agency over their characters, their actions, and how they progress, while the Dungeon Master only controls the background details of the story. Create a world in which the Dungeon Master never says “no” to what a player wants to do, and instead gamifies and interprets player decision making. One example is the ever-present “seduce the dragon.” If a player wishes to do this, that could be game breaking, but if they think that is what is most fun for their character, then the Dungeon Master’s job should be telling them what to roll and interpreting the outcome. That’s not to say it will even succeed on a 20, the Dungeon Master is still in charge of ensuring a balanced and fun game for everyone at the table, but giving the player the ability to at least try goes miles towards player autonomy in a game as hierarchical as this.

In my eyes, the only aspect of player autonomy that, by the books, lies in the hands of the Dungeon Master is level advancement. Between the three (or four, depending on interpretation) level advancement systems, the one I have used the most as a player is Story-Based Advancement. While in my games, it has always felt fairly natural, it definitely left something to be desired, as it relies on the Dungeon Master’s ability to pace out a story such that advancement still seems active and exciting. I suspect the reason this system is used at all is that Dungeon Masters often gain their knowledge of how to perform their role through consuming actual-play media which uses this system. Meanwhile, as a Dungeon Master, I have more frequently used Session-Based Advancement, and would far prefer my Dungeon Masters to do the same.

However, even Session-Based Advancement has its downfalls. Namely, Session-Based Advancement includes no assurance that players will be engaged at the table. While I would love to have players be able to do whatever they please at the table, choosing to do nothing at all simply creates an emptiness at the table, which does a disservice to other players. This is a problem present in all forms of Level Advancement without XP. And I don’t blame the players at all for this. If a game does not prioritize your engagement, then you cannot be expected to engage with it. I dislike Story-Based Advancement because it forces the player’s gameplay to be centered on the story the Dungeon Master wishes to tell, while I desire for the player to do whatever they please, but a game is not a game without a player, and if the game does not create a need for the player to engage with it, then the game is going to be left unplayed.

And again, I strongly dislike hierarchical gameplay management like this. The idea of the Dungeon Master being in a role of power over the table is just rife for abuse. Even in a scenario without abuse, an unskilled Dungeon Master should not mean that the player experience is worsened. Players should have control over what they do and how their characters grow and interact with the world. While Experience Points allow for this, they don’t operate very well for anything aside from combat. Even with the addition of “Noncombat Challenges,” the Dungeon Master can far too easily mis-ascribe experience points to a social interaction and harm the player’s experience. I enjoy the agency the player is granted in being able to attack what they want and be assured that they will gain XP that they can use to level up, but in any advancement system aside from the vanilla Experience Points, and any gameplay style that does not spend 50% of the gameplay on combat, this system of advancement is far too limiting.

This is where I step in.

Now Introducing Option 4: PointUP

I want to be incredibly clear that my inspiration is largely coming from this web page:

https://www.5esrd.com/gamemastering/5th-edition-options/#XP_Tokens

Which, itself, heavily draws from this forum post:

https://www.enworld.org/threads/xp-tokens-an-alternate-leveling-system.667037/

While both of them seem to do a good job at creating the framework of a system of advancement, the former suffers from a lack of the destruction of the Dungeon Master’s hierarchy which is present in the other advancement systems, and the latter suffers from the same, in addition to a lack of intent in what it incentivizes from players. In my eyes, it seems as though the forum user Reynard recognized a need for a new system of advancement, but had not yet articulated the desired products from that system. So, that is what I will try to do first. I wish to combine the benefits of all of the aforementioned “Rules as Written” systems of advancement without the same drawbacks. This includes

Intents of a new advancement system.

  1. The reduction of the Dungeon Master’s input into progression
  2. The ability for gameplay to occur in whatever way the players desire
  3. Player progression to be determined by the players and not the Dungeon Master
  4. Characters to be able to progress narratively rather than mechanically
  5. Players to make decisions as to what they wish to accomplish
  6. Better pacing of gameplay
  7. Reduction (or perhaps repurposing) of the “meta game”
  8. Prioritization of player engagement

I know, that sounds like a lot. Let’s synthesize that into one mission statement.

A new system of advancement should allow the players to do whatever they want and still be able to; engage with the game, progress at a good pace, and have progression justified by the story.

Okay finally.

The Rules

PointUP is fairly simple. It relies on the idea put forward on page 8 of the Player’s Handbook, that Dungeons and Dragons 5e is based on three pillars. Namely, social encounters, exploration, and combat.

The way this advancement system works is by the Dungeon Master awarding XP tokens (I’ll get to how the players have autonomy with this in a moment). 15 XP tokens can be spent on advancing 1 level, while 20 XP tokens can be spent to roll 1d4 and either gain 1 level (on a roll of 1–2) or gain 2 levels (on a roll of 3-4). The idea behind tokens is to keep the benefits of XP but remove the component that links it so heavily to combat. The purpose of allowing more tokens to be spent on the 50% chance of a bonus level is that players who are gaining XP at a faster rate than other party members can potentially be rewarded for doing so, as in this system, XP gain does not imply engagement in combat, engagement in story, or engagement at the table, it instead means personal engagement with the game. So let’s talk about how to obtain these tokens.

Firstly, you are going to gain 1–3 tokens per “scene.” What is a scene? A scene is one of three things. Either it is a conversation, a puzzle being solved, an obstacle being traversed, or a combat encounter. Here is how points are awarded for a scene.

1 Point:

The default outcome or the fail-state.

In this system of advancement, you do get a participation trophy at the very least for just being there. This does not necessarily mean something bad happened during your scene, it instead could mean your scene did not progress your narrative.

If a scene happens, and it seems like the contents of the scene fit a different point value, as long as the scene’s outcome can be described as the “default outcome” you are awarded only 1 point.

This would also be the outcome of a combat encounter where success was practically guaranteed, such as a Level 20 character fighting a CR ¼ enemy.

2 Points:

Anything between 1 and 3. You partially achieved a goal. You wound up in a position better than the “default” state. You accomplished literally anything through your scene. However, you didn’t do the best possible thing to do.

If there is any ambiguity between how many points to award, award 2 points instead.

If a combat encounter is medium difficulty, where success is likely, but sloppy gameplay could wind up killing the player character, this should be the outcome.

If a combat encounter is sufficiently difficult and results in a partial success, like perhaps 5 high CR enemies are being fought and the player(s) do something they had set out to do- perhaps getting a kill or peacefully escaping- but still fail somewhat (in these examples by not killing everyone or being chased during their escape) this is also the outcome.

3 Points:

Accomplishing your goal for the scene or achieving the best possible outcome.

If you go into a social encounter with the goal of persuading someone to do something, and you successfully persuade them to do it, you get 3 points. However, if you end a scene without having a set goal you’ve achieved, you cannot gain 3 points. That is not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that your scene was less narratively important.

This would also be the outcome of successful and difficult combat encounters.

An optional additional rule is that if 3 points are achieved without any drawbacks; as in no resources are expended, no spell slots are used up, no inspiration points are used, no players are killed; then 1 bonus XP token is granted for the scene. I personally would not use this additional rule because I want my players to use any resources at their disposal, but if you value pure roleplay then this might be the option for you.

Another optional additional rule is that if a player’s bonds, ideals, or flaws play into their outcome, regardless of what that outcome is, they gain 1 bonus XP token. The idea behind this being to inspire players to play into their characterization, rather than having their character act however they, the player, would act. I personally would not use this additional rule because I want my players to be able to use bonds, ideals, and flaws descriptively rather than prescriptively. Bonds, ideals, and flaws at my tables are able to change with the character, so the idea of linking “good characterization” to bonds, ideals, and flaws feels like a mistake.

Important to note, “narrative” is being used as a term distinct from “story.” While “story” implies the Dungeon Master has a planned out beginning, middle, and end to a story arc, narrative implies that the scene simply changed something about the world enough that future gameplay is impacted.

Think of it like a television series. If a character had a scene just talking- having a chat with a friend about something that the audience already knows about- that would not really progress the narrative. That does not mean it is unimportant, often scenes like that are setting up something in the future for the series or establishing tone or worldbuilding. Additionally, if we think about the “story” of a television series, there could be narratively important events, such as two characters becoming friends, which has no bearing whatsoever on the overall plot of the series.

Also, unlike Experience Points, this advancement system allows any player participating in a scene to also gain points, though their points are based on their goals, inputs, and outcomes. If three players are talking to a non-player character, with each player character having different goals, they individually gain points based on if their personal goal is met. If a non-player character helps out in a scene, the player character can still gain points so long as their goal is achieved.

In Experience Point advancement, XP gains are lessened when a non-player character helps in a fight, including hirelings. While I do not think a Dungeon Master should employ non-player characters to help in combat unless necessary or adequately balanced against player-oriented combat, I think if a player has the forethought to bring a non-player character to help them, that should be rewarded behavior.

Lastly, I really like that, due to the simple rules, this system allows for easy accountability from the players against the Dungeon Master. If a player is awarded 1 point unfairly they can ask “what was the default outcome” and if they did better than that then they have now justified a need to give them at least 2 points. Same for if a player did not receive 3 points but was meant to, they can ask the Dungeon Master “what outcome would have received 3 points” and if the Dungeon Master cannot answer, that is a sign that the player likely achieved the “best possible outcome.”

Now this system alone already seems to meet all of my goals, but it leads to one problem, one you might not even pick up on because, especially in actual-play content, it is a mechanic seldom used…

Inspiration Points

So, the “3 point” outcome of PointUP intersects largely with the types of behavior which would traditionally reward inspiration points. As such, we need to overhaul the inspiration point system for use in our game. This can be done one of two ways. Either remove it (less fun) or reuse it (more fun).

Removing it would just be ignoring that the mechanic exists as most people already do. And I mean you can do that, but I think having a replacement for it can potentially be even more fun and inspire people to use it more.

So, first thing, we’re changing inspiration from granting advantage on a roll to adding +5 to a roll up to the highest possible roll on that die (excess is wasted and yes multiple inspiration can be used on a single roll). Second thing, we’re allowing it to be used on any dice roll, not just a skill check (the only exceptions being rolls used for randomization, where the highest outcome is not necessarily the best outcome such as the Wild Magic Surge, or percentile dice, where the outcome is a percentage). Third thing, we’re allowing players to expend XP tokens to gain inspiration at a rate of 1 inspiration for 3 tokens.

This system of inspiration is comparable to a moment in any story-telling media (aside from actual-play) where a character has a sudden burst of strength or adrenaline and pushes themself to do something they could not normally do, then is worn out afterwards.

With this system of inspiration, it might also be worth considering how skill checks are treated at your table. Are natural 20s considered an automatic success? If so, somebody could easily metagame and spend inspiration to automatically succeed on skill checks in order to gain the full 3 points back from the successful scene.

If natural 20s are treated as per the rules as written, then they are not special. If the roll has a DC, that DC still might be far above 20 + the skill modifier. If it does not have DC, the 20 describes the best possible outcome, which might not be a success. For example, a persuasion check that fails with a natural 20 could simply mean the subject isn’t upset by your attempts at persuasion, while they might have been made upset had you rolled sufficiently low.

Alternatively, you could simply rule that inspiration no longer qualifies for “natural 20” rolling since a modifier is being used.

Image from dnd.wizards.com

Conclusion

So yeah! That’s my level advancement system. Any help with adjusting, retooling, critiquing, or anything like that would be much appreciated. I want to build something sensible for role-play based players but I also don’t want to remove combat entirely, as it is a fun pillar of the game. Ok, that’s all, bye!

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Megan Jordan

Megan Jordan

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writing about my interests, LGBTQ+ liberation, feminism, racial justice, and more