This article was originally found on the Grinning Rat Publications Medium account. It has been brought over and made free for viewers. Note: Some ideas and considerations may be out of date.
Chances are if you’ve played any sort of role-playing game, whether it’s the Witcher 3 or Dungeons & Dragons, you’ve experienced ‘leveling-up’.
This is usually represented through ‘stratified progression’¹, in where the player character accumulates arbitrary points, over some period of time, and is rewarded with new features and abilities once those points reach a certain threshold. This is fairly straightforward and, like I mentioned above, is something you’ve likely experienced in your own games.
In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson writes:
If Dungeons & Dragons has an object of play, it is progression. Any scenario may have its own internal objectives … but insofar as a character may survive any number of scenarios, the overarching reward for play is unending self-improvement.
But what are you rewarded with at level-up and, more importantly, how you are rewarded with these points is extremely relevant. What does is mean for a game to reward you experience points when you kill monsters? What does it mean when progression is doled out by the dungeon master? These are two distinctly different types of games and by virtue of their own rules of progression will inform how the players and dungeon master approach it as well.
For example, in DND 5E’s default rules, progression is reached through violence and murder.
Reach Heaven Through Violence
You may think I’m being hyperbolic, but in default DND 5E the only way to gain experience points is through killing things.
Why is this a problem? Avoiding for a moment the ethical issues of killing the nebulous and ill-defined ‘monster’ (is an orc really a monster?), the issue stems from the following:
- To fulfill the ‘reward of play’, as Peterson notes, unending self-improvement will be the overarching objective.
- This ‘unending self-improvement’ is only gained through combat, as it is the only method of gaining experience points.
- Therefore, in sessions with little to no combat, there will be little to no progression. To reverse this, if one wants a sense of progression in each session, then each session requires combat.
At this point, we start to see the issue. Combat becomes a required aspect of the game. It is as necessary as the dice themselves. But this is only a subsection of a section of the problem.
What happens when the player characters try to avoid a fight? The game itself has no real method for rewarding the players talking it out, instead relying on the DM to create a system on the fly (generally resulting in the players awkwardly getting the same amount of XP they would have gotten otherwise) to arbitrate what any normal, sane individual would do in a situation of conflict: attempt to deescalate the situation. This being a game that already touts 4+ hour session lengths, it’s understandable that the DM in many situations will simply say “There is no way to communicate with the monster. It attacks. Roll initiative.”
How do we avoid this? The Dungeon Master’s Guide says:
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.
Before we talk about the section of that quote I’ve bolded, I want to briefly discuss the ethical issues of ‘violence as progression’.
If a player can play as an orc character with their own complex personality characteristics and backstories, what does it mean when the party kills tens of them when they’re suddenly described as ‘monsters’?
What is the real difference between a rational player character orc and a Gruumsh-worshipping Monster Manual orc? Or any ‘monstrous race’ player character and their Monster Manual equivalents? You can see how dangerously we tread towards harmful tropes and stereotypes, where a player character is immediately assumed to be “one of the good ones”. One of the most popular book series for DND, the Legend of Drizzt, exemplifies this method of thinking: the hero is a Drow, but he’s not like those otherDrow.
“So combat is bad!”, I hear you saying. “That’s why I use the milestone system of progression you mentioned earlier. That way I can give them level advancements after moments of great role-play or clever solutions to exploration puzzles.”
In other words, you require the players to dance until you are sufficiently satisfied and toss them a shiny coin for their trouble. The players, ever eager for that ‘unending self-improvement’, take their coins graciously and resume dancing.
Mother, May I
In a milestone system, within which the players are granted levels at certain pre-determined intervals (or milestones), it may appear that the problem of combat has been solved. However, rather than not shooting ourselves in the foot, we have proceeded to shoot ourselves in the other foot instead.
Think for a moment on the issues the players might glean from a milestone system of progression:
- “I have no idea when I actually will level up.”
- “The DM has a plan and its my responsibility to follow it.”
- “I don’t want to hold us up from leveling up by doing something else.”
All of these are issues that crop up from a milestone system. In other words, the DM is expected to have specific milestones at which the players will level up — which requires the players actually getting to said milestones. This prevents the players from feeling like they can explore or really role-play; that the only way to progress is to listen to the DM and do exactly what they’re implying the party should do.
Not to mention that this flies in the face of ‘unending self-improvement’. Not only do the players never actually know when or how they’re going to level up, but these milestones can feel incongruous with what would constitute as improvement. Reaching the holy city of Avadan does not accurately reflect why suddenly the wizard and cleric know more spells, or why the fighter can suddenly swing their sword more times per turn.
In other words, the milestone system presents a pretty large example of ludonarrative dissonance, or the conflict between the story told by the narrative and the story told by the mechanics / rules of the game.
So, with both of these realizations about combat progression and milestone progression, how does one create an effective method for advancement? There are a few examples seen in other games that have pretty strong solutions. Included with each are pros and cons to using them in DND 5E.
Solution #1: Treasure for XP
In this solution, XP is granted for treasure returned from dungeons and other dangerous places. The general conversion is 1 unit of value (gold, silver, credits, etc) is equal to 1 experience point.
- The party is completely in control of how quickly they advance in level.
- The focus of progression moves from killing things to acquiring loot. This promotes clever thinking and finding hidden entrances into dangerous places.
- The party is naturally inclined to avoid fights, as they simply drain resources rather than grant experience points.
- The world is suddenly one filled to the brim with lost treasure, which may prove difficult to conveniently explain narratively.
- As players are in control with the speed at which they level up, they will naturally want to do so as quickly as humanly possible.
- Fights become things that the party avoids, making martial characters (fighters, paladins, barbarians) less useful.
Solution #2: Asynchronous Advancement
Generally speaking, the characters progress through some other trackable means that may not be within either the player or the DMs hands. For example, a character may advance in level when they hit 0 hit points or when they roll a certain number of critical failures (natural 1s).
- This provides a unique and ludonarratively consistent path of advancement. If your game is about overcoming the impossible, leveling up when you hit 0 hit points makes a lot of sense.
- It disincentivizes players from actively seeking advancement by decoupling Peterson’s ‘unending self-improvement’ theory; you can’t constantly improve if leveling up is something that happens to you, rather than something you work towards.
- This becomes similar to milestone systems, in that the players are not in control of when they level up.
- In this system, certain playstyles may be more heavily rewarded than others. Suddenly, character builds may become focused on how to maximize the chance at leveling up rather than simply playing the role of the character.
Solution #3: Players Decide Milestones
In this last solution, the players are the ones determining their own milestones for leveling up. For example, a wizard may declare the results of their spell research as a significant milestone or a player deciding that one should be when their paladin fulfills their oath to a local regency.
- The players are in control with their own advancement conditions, therefore allowing them greater buy-in to the setting and world.
- The players have a higher sense of accomplishment fulfilling the goals they themselves created.
- Certain milestones may prove easier to accomplish than others, resulting in misaligned advancement.
- This may require the DM to approve milestones ahead of time, which is fairly similar to the default milestone system and the problems it brings with it.
There are of course many different methods of advancement not covered here. And while you can spend a significant amount of time looking into them, remember that progression is not simply a means to an end. It is both a way of describing the game you’re playing as well as describing the actions you are required to take to gain rewards. Knowing this ahead of time can save hours and hours of headaches and provide a much better, more defined experience for the players and dungeon master alike.
For the next article, we will be transitioning to an example of how progression affected my last campaign — and why it was one of many things that caused me to stop running it altogether.
¹ Peterson, Jon. “Stratified Progression.” Essay. In Playing at the World: a History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games, 341–41. San Diego, CA: Unreason Press, 2012.