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?


  1. I do 100XP per HD of the creature. I still use that. I had a big problem where people weren't advancing but that was because I wasn't doing treasure so well. I took Philotomy's and TFoster's advice that gold should be 2 to 3x the amount of monster XP for planned monsters.

    One other thing to consider - I award monster XP for monsters "dispatched or disposed" of, which doesn't mean killing. Turned undead that run away - my players get XP. Trick the dragon into leaving and never returning? My players get XP. Now admittedly, if they encounter the same monsters again in the future, they don't get double.

    If the players have too much treasure... well... the King does demand taxes. Magic items and answers are expensive. Those cure disease and cure poison scrolls/potions do rack up in costs...

  2. Pre-Greyhawk OD&D gave monster experience as 100XP/Hit Die. Maybe this would help?

    Also: give XPs if the characters force monsters to flee or even negotiate with them if your players are of such a mind.

    When I designed my megadungeon a couple years back, to make sure there was enough experience to keep PCs leveling at a good pace, I kept a running tally of monster and treasure XP as I stocked each level.

    I figured 3-5 sessions should be enough to level up in the early stages of the campaign, and that my group size averaged 4 people...from there I figured out how much XP each dungeon level needed for the PCs to keep pace, then added about 30% more (the PCs will never find everything on a large level...there are secret rooms, little niches they might not think to search, etc.).

    It seemed to work in my game.

  3. Damn, scooped! Stupid phone...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Disregard XP all together and level up the party when you feel they need to. I'm debating doing this in my campaign soon to where they level up when a story arc is done. Maybe before if the story arc happens to be longer. So in mine...we're looking at levelling up every 2-5 sessions.

  6. As a player, I can HIGHLY reccomend the use of carousing (http://redbox.wikidot.com/glantri-carousing-rules), I think Jeff or James first put this forth way back when?

    It allows your players to go nuts with story, create their own hooks, and even power up their chars (or weaken if they fail their save!).

    We've gotten pretty loose with this over time, our carouses have gone from "I want to party hard" to "I want to bribe the bartender" to "I want to buy the bar" to "I want to have an extra set of organs implanted to increase my constitution".

    Of course, if your players are not money grubbing tomb-robbing misfits, they are probably doing something wrong in the first place and don't deserve to level (I hear alot about these new-agey indie/story games). Isn't this a core conceit of old school rulesets?

  7. I agree with Vincent--XP for exploring is an excellent solution--especially since it's the activity your group seems to enjoy so much. Make the experience even more rewarding!

  8. Lord Bodacious, the original carousing rules are from Dave Arneson, so they a) predate D&D and b) make no sense. The ones we use @ NY Red Box are indeed descended from Jeff Rients' "Party Like It's 999" post, though.

    I think XP for spending gold is an awesome complement to XP for getting gold. Gold is IMO better than exploration as a source for XP because it's concrete in-game and flexible - if you want to make exploration award XP, for example, you can create a market for adventurers to sell maps and gain gold, which then has all kinds of interesting consequences you wouldn't get from an abstract "finding new places gives XP directly" system.

    I also use 100 XP/hit die as per the LBBs and try to place 4 times as much gold as XP one would gain by defeating its guardians.
    - Tavis

  9. Seems like one of the trickiest questions. I blogged about other things you might reward besides monster kills and gp acquired:


    I think exploration and keeping party members alive are things you might reward a little for and not change the game too much. I would be leery of leveling arbitrarily.

    But then, more treasure and more ways for players to want to spend it might be the easiest solution.

    Do you have any money sinks in your campaign? I always want to buy my own property as a player.

  10. I'd say to just apply a multiplier to the total amount of XP earned that scales it to where you'd like it to be.

    That way, you haven't really mucked with the core nature of the system, making it relatively risk free, and the relative differences between the amount of XP earned by different party members will be preserved.

    Advancement is sped up, but at the same time players can continue to expect D&D-like behavior from the XP system, both in terms of what they'll be rewarded for and in how it'll affect their XP gain relative to other party members.

  11. Well, OK, I give (in my 1st ed. games) 100 XP per monster level plus am very generous with my definition of "special abilities" in relation to experience for it. Monster can see in the dark (all of them seem to) is a special ability. Having two attacks is a special ability. See where I'm going with that? Doesn't have to just be breathing fire or paralysing to be an ability.

    I give experience for anything. Role play, exploring new areas, and even just for entering the dangerous dungeon. Taking a dump in a new and interesting location (like the first time I used a gas station rest room on Interstate 5 near Bakersfield - that is a learning experience). Anything of importance in a characters life should be worth XP. Death of a family member, losing your virginity, killing a humanoid for the first time. Anything.

    In my 1st edition since the 90's I have given no experience for the first game, and automatically let them have enough to be second level. If it is a full session, I now firmly believe that no PC should be 1st level for more than one game.

  12. First, thanks for mentioning the Roll-to-Advance system. While it won't meet everyone's needs, it does do a nice job of removing the kill-and-loot requirement of the standard system.

    Something else I've toyed with would be a per-session advancement based on the current level, such as 1 session for a 1st level character to advance, 2 sessions at 2nd level before advancing, 5 sessions at 5th level, etc.

    For story/plot-heavy games, just advance them by fiat as you think appropriate.

  13. Good for bringing this up. Slow advancement was the bane of my old AD&D games, and systems without hauls of XP for magic items are even worse. I'm not sure why all the published revival systems hew so close to the original model.

    100XP/adjusted hit die is a good start. At low levels smart players are looking to avoid combat anyway, so it's not an incentive to fight lots, and at higher levels it makes treasure relatively more important.

    Silver standard and being able to spend earned treasure for an additional amount of XP in some meaningful and slightly plot-generating activity is also good.

  14. If your players don't like going after the gold, a possible work-around would be important NPCs giving them rewards? Gems, jewels, relics -- and if the characters don't feel like taking it, have the NPCs donate it to a church in the PCs name. A governor raises a statue to the heroes worth some gold -- and some XP. That kind of thing.

  15. Thanks for providing me with blog-fodder. I posted my current method of level advancement a few moments ago, but I must admit that I like Arneson's carousing rules very much and am considering using them for an upcoming game I have planned.

  16. I like the exploration idea. Also, I'm using the AD&D idea of giving out experience for Magic Items, as well as standard treasure.

  17. I love LL as a rules light, fantasy system, but wish it would abandon the "kill-loot" method of leveling up. XPs should be based upon benchmarks or something like 500 for achieving a moderately difficult task, 1000 for a brutal one, etc.

    XPs for gold has always been a big turn off for me.

  18. Thanks everyone for your excellent feedback! I'll respond to all of your suggestions in another post.

  19. @ Cyclopeatron:

    Rather than changing how much XP is handed out, you could simply divide all the "XP to level" requirements by 10. For example a fighter needs 200XP to get to level 2 instead of 2000. I find this accomplishes several things:

    a) there's very little modification that needs to go into the game (hey, you'd still need to kill 400 orcs to advance to 2nd level without treasure).

    b) you can increase the speed of leveling while NOT flooding the campaign with oodles of treasure.

    c) it's less math/worry.

    I find a lot of folks (DMs) would like their players to advance at a brisker pace (I know I use the Moldvay standard myself...3 to 4 sessions to level) but don't want to corrupt their fantasy economy and do NOT want to put the emphasis on "monster hunting" nor "advancement by fiat" (the 4E version).

  20. If the players are goal-oriented and like to explore, design the campaign world around exploring places with lots of treasure to be found, and goals that happen to have treasure at the end too. The gold=xp rule actually *is* a goal reward system if you look at it right. Instead of giving out a few sp or gp for each monster killed, dump a huge hoard on the PCs when they reach their goal.

  21. OK we have 2 paths here.

    Seems the -problem- is handled in similar fashion by the majority.

    I feel it's up to the DM to plant obtainable xp. I came to the realization myself a few years back mucking around with what was happening during these games and realized it's often the adventure. I add more encounters and hurdles. In some instances, this improves the play anyways as players sitting around not rolling dice tend to get sleepy or disconnected.

    Put a black cat up in a tree with a strange amulet-collar on the players path. Put a victim of a highway robbery on the side of the road. You can drum up some XP in this way.

    When you read an adventure module to consider its merits, add up the XP as you go along so you know what you have.

    Finally, low level play does not change the game drastically except for the spell using classes (Who you cannot blame for wanting to be 7th level!). Classic DnD is a low level game. Sure you get to the high levels but you spend a good portion of your playing time muddling about 1-4th. The challenge is in surviving. Find a happiness in what the game is, if you cannot find it in low level play, how will the later levels fare?

    Hit points are an abstraction and it's up to the DM to provide balance in party challenges. Game tables enjoying puzzle solving and goal achieving are going to push a DM's creativity which is a good thing!

    Last point. All the other comments above are fine. You are watering the game down though I would fear as I have tried and still partially use some of those options. Usually making things easier do not equate to fun. If it is running too slow for your tastes I would do all of the above myself. Fun at the table is the goal!

    BTW, I've played in Cy's game & thoroughly enjoyed it!

  22. Three suggestions:

    1. Start each PC off with a set amount or a random amount of XP (e.g. 3d6-2x500). That way, they don't have to spend too much time fighting giant rats.

    2. Use the 1 hit die = 100 xp rule.

    3. Give out a set amount of xp per session, in addition to the xp gained from monsters and treasure, just for turning up and playing. Say, 1000 xp in total, to be divided among all the players. Then it doesn't matter so much what the PCs spend their time doing.

  23. @Everyone - Thanks again for all the very thoughtful comments. I've read all the ideas very carefully and I am formulating exactly what I'm going to do. I'll probably go with a system of giving out a certain base number of XP per hour or session, then allowing additional XP boosters for specific activities I haven't decided on yet - probably traditional stuff like monster killing, exploring, etc. I'm considering taking the radical step of disassociating GP and XP for reasons I will explain later (if I go this route).

    By the way, a lot of people mention the OD&D 1HD=100XP rule. I didn't say it explicitly in my original post, but this is something I have been doing already, and it's been very helpful. I've also taken to planting big value items at "end points" as well, which is how everyone got to 2nd level in the first place (they collected and sold a harpy egg). Ironically, the party is now holding a very valuable Book of Spells they could sell to immediately level, but they're more interested in exploring and adventuring than in going to town to sell the book. Hah!

  24. I just wanted to add my support for assigning an Xp amount per gaming session. I usually hand out 1/4 or 1/5 of the amount required for a level, and throw in bonuses for quick thinking, good character portrayal, etc. I think players need XP to feel like they're accomplishing something with regards to character progression, or they begin to lose interest.
    I'm introducing two new players into the RPG fold, and I've had great success with this method so far.


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