Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Do I Fix Slow Leveling?

In the last year or so I’ve run around 20 sessions of old school D&D using the OD&D, Labyrinth Lord, and Sword & Wizardry rules. These systems are all basically the same game, differing only in fairly minor ways. They all share the basic experience / leveling system, where characters gain experience points (XP) by killing monsters and getting treasure, and the resulting XP then lead to level advancement. As a DM I have been doling out XP by-the-book.

My steady campaigns are having problems with this system, however. It’s taking a really long time for my players to level-up. Much longer than average, based on this discussion at Dragonsfoot. In fact, it took over ten ~4hr sessions for the players in my Labyrinth Lord game to get to 2nd level. Ideally, I’d like to aim for the optimal-fun target of leveling up every four sessions or so. I think the characters deserve it, really. After 15 sessions the LL game has seen three major locality-based “chapters”. They’ve been through a lot and rocked real hard. I feel they should at least be 3rd level by now. It would also be more fun for me as a DM if they got tougher faster, so I could start throwing different kinds of challenges at them besides wheezing goblins and diseased monkeys.

Leveling is happening slowly because:

1. My players are showing minimal enthusiasm for killing monsters and finding gold for its own sake. They like achieving goals, roleplaying, and exploring. So do I, for that matter.

2. I’m stocking treasures based on recommendations in Moldvay’s Basic Set book. I am even being more generous than the book. Still, the pickings are meager.

3. There’s still a lot of monster murder going on, but by-the-book monster XP values are low and the party size is big enough that very little XP result from slaughtering gaggles of giant rats and mumbling stink-eyed psychopaths.

First of all, I should say that I really like the old school concept of experience leading to leveling. It’s clean and simple and fun for players. I think “levels” are cool for both aesthetic and practical reasons, and I have no desire to house-rule a more modern and sensible character customization system. Given this, I am now considering these possible methods of speeding up leveling in my campaigns:

1. Give out more treasure. I’ve been trying this, and it’s working. But now the players are loaded with more cash than they know what to do with. The sweet little angels have actually started donating their gold to charity because they can’t carry it all! It’s kind of ridiculous, actually. To get to 4th or 5th level they’ll start needing wheelbarrows of holding for all the treasure.

2. Give out more XP for gold and monsters. This could be a good solution, but it still doesn’t address the fact that my players, bless their tender hearts, aren’t highly motivated by burglary and murder.

3. Use something like the 4e system where players advance after a certain number of combat encounters. This is appealing for its simplicity, but again, the focus on killing to advance doesn’t jive with the atmosphere of our exploration- and RP-heavy games.

4. Use Lord Kilgore’s roll-to-advance rules. Read them HERE. With this system each player gets 1 XP per session. After each session each player rolls against a class-specific value, modifying the role with their total XP - make a good roll, you level! Nice and clean. Pretty appealing actually.

5. Allow characters to level based on the number of hours they’ve been playing. For instance, maybe characters could level for every 12 hours of gaming. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this, but it seems like it might work pretty well. Has anyone tried this before?

This is one of the oldest and most worn-out topics in D&D, but it’s still highly relevant to anyone running an old school D&D campaign. It would be a big midstream switch for us to move to a new level advancement system. I’d be curious to get input from anyone else who has confronted this. What have you tried? How has it worked? What would you recommend?