"How many experience points for that encounter?"
"How much experience do I get for this treasure?"
"If I seduce the bartender, will that be enough to level up?'In my game-mastering experience, some players are so focused on the immediate reward of points that it drives a rift between them and those players who want to enjoy the game. Over time, juggling exact numbers just proves to be tedious--particularly when a 9th level character is 12-points shy of her next level. Yeah "just fudge it" could solve that situation--but how can you make sure you have been fudging fairly for everyone?
I like the idea of eliminating experience points all together, shifting "leveling up" to something session- and story-based. In this post, I will be exploring and expanding on an idea presented almost as a footnote in the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide:
... 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. ...
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.
Instead of rewarding a character for lucky rolls, you will be rewarding players for plying the game. While the DMG suggests rewarding either session or story, I see no reason why both couldn't be recognized in the same game.
Session LevelsThe bulk of a character's levels will be session levels, earned very closely to the model outlined in the DMG.
While the DMG suggests a 4-hour long session, how your group distinguishes one play session from another is up to you. A "session" should consist of more than one encounter (combat, social, etc.), and it should advance the campaign in a meaningful way (be that major or minor). Generally, if a group plays once a week, each weekly game should count as one session; if this group were to play twice as long as normal one week, that game could count as two session. A group that is easily distracted, however, may take two real-world play-sessions to complete a single "session."
Initially, levels will come easily--one session apart at first, then two, then three, then more. If looking for a formula: To gain the next level of experience, a player's character must "survive" (a subjective term I leave for individual GMs to interpret) a number of play sessions at his current level equal to 1/2 that level, rounded up. For example: At 1st and 2nd level, a character must survive 1 session each to gain the next level; at 6th level, a character would require 3 sessions before leveling up; and at 19th level, a character must survive 10 (!) additional sessions to gain 20th level.
Through earning 7th level, this follows the guidelines presented in the DMG--then gets significantly harder. Using this method, it works out to 100 total sessions to reach 20th level. Playing once a week means reaching 20th level in about 2 years--far sooner than any campaign I have ever played--but at a rate which should feel comfortable and satisfying to the players. This does not seem unreasonable to me.
You could adjust this rate as you see fit. For a longer game, you could say that a character needs to survive a number of session equal to his current level (190 session); or even equal to the next level to be earned (210 session). Longer benchmarks like these would be appropriate for groups lucky enough to meet more than once a week. Whatever you choose, make it 1) consistent across all levels, and 2) easy to remember.
Story LevelsIf the campaign has an over-arching story--such as any of the adventures released for 5th edition, one of Pathfinder's adventure paths, or an old-school mega-dungeon--then characters should also earn story levels. During a major story-line, each character will earn three story levels.
If you are not using a major story arc, you can still offer story levels--instead rewarding them for crossing moments in each character's personal story. Normally, personal story would be rewarded with inspiration or hero points. More tips concerning personal story can be found in another post.Story levels begin with character creation, representing the exposition phase of storytelling: Who is your character? Where do they come from? What have they made of themselves? How did they get here? You've taken a lot of time to establish the character's character--so you earn level 1 for free. Yes, first level counts as a story level.
If you are not using story levels, there are options out there for creating characters at level 0, and then earning 1st level. I'm not going to post a link, because you will have to find the option that works for you.After exposition is rising action, represented by early session levels.
Another story level is granted at the point when the characters are forced to take action toward confronting the main conflict of the campaign. In storytelling, this is sometimes called the crisis moment. When the players have met the crisis and taken action to resolve it, then all characters have earned their second story level. This should happen somewhere around 8th to 12th level.
If a character would have gained a level anyway, then award that level first; the story level will be gained after the next session. At this point the session counters toward the characters' next levels re-start.
As the campaign moves from crisis to the next turning point, more session levels are gained.
When the main conflict of a campaign is resolved--that is, when the climax of the story has been confronted and survived--then a third story level is earned by all characters, and all session counters restart. This can happen any time after 14th level. As with the crisis, if a character would have gained a level anyway, then the story level is gained after the next session.
Everything after this point is falling action--and may including the process of ascending to immortality. No more story levels are earned.