I have a confession: I don’t like XP in D&D. Modern XP (mostly based on monster-killing and defined quests) feels like it should be better handled inside of a video game, and has a tendency to emphasize combat. On the other hand, gold-as-XP means I have to worry about encumbrance... so no.
But what about Milestone leveling?
It’s a little better, but it’s still not great. It relies a lot on GM fiat, which in and of itself isn’t bad, but it puts the onus of pacing a level squarely on the GM. The GM also has to actually remember where they are in the lifecycle of the level, and if you’re me, you’re too distracted by running combat or misremembering how saving throws work to remember that. Leveling becomes an uneven mess that relies upon your GM being mentally organized enough to follow through in a timely manner. This too presents a problem – when is the right time to level the party?
Fortunately, I’ve hacked together a way for the GM to disclaim management and tracking of level progress. If you’ve read my blog, you probably know where this is going.
Yep, that’s right... I’m going to rip off Blades in the Dark again.
Countdown to Awesome
Here’s how it works. At the start of the party’s new level, start a clock. Jot that down on a sheet of paper or an index card. Every session, roll an amount of d6 to determine how much progress to reward and take the highest result.
* 1-3: 1 tick
* 4-5: 2 ticks
* 6: 3 ticks
* More than one 6 rolled: 5 ticks
When the clock is filled, the party gains a level and the clock is reset.
But how many dice should you roll? What should your clock look like?
As a rule of thumb, use the guidelines that Blades uses for Fortune Rolls: default to 1d6, and adjust from there. I’m a fan of players playing their characters to the table, not just the GM, so I would reward a die if someone at the table could point to a particularly amazing character scene. I’d also reward a die (or two) for completing a quest, story arc, or other significant milestone. On the other hand, if the party suffered a significant setback of some sort, take a die away. Personally, I would use the 13th Age guidance for what’s considered a Campaign Loss as a guideline, but use your discretion, GM.
This is where you have the most responsibility, GM, and also the most creative latitude. I’ve been playing a lot of D&D 5E, so here’s how I think I would run it:
- Level 1: I wouldn’t use it – just level them up after one session
- Level 2: 4-segment clock
- Level 3-4: 6-segment clock
- Level 5+: 8-segment clock
My thought is that the first couple of levels should be zipped through fairly quickly, so start small (or don’t use at all). Level 3 is a nice breakpoint – most classes will get their subclass, and characters start feeling a bit more durable, but they really don’t get a chance to shine until they’re about 5th level (when spells like Fireball come into play), so shorten the journey somewhat. After level 5, though, they should ease into a normal cadence.
- If the die count dips below 1, you have a couple of options. First is to just say “no dice, no advancement”. That’s a tough stance to take, and personally I wouldn’t recommend it. The approach I think works better is to use Blades’ own idiom – treat “rolling 0d6” as rolling 2d6 and taking the lowest, and not allowing Crits. There’s still advancement, just likely much slower than the players want!
- For grittier/slower-paced games, you could step down the advancement rates to 0/1/2/3 (from 1/2/3/5 as above).
- You can always make clocks bigger than 8 ticks.
Yeah, But Why?
This allows chance to decide how quickly a level will go, but it’s still constrained. The most likely outcome will be that 4-5 roll, so a 4-segment clock will need two sessions of play to complete (and a 6-segment clock will need three sessions, and so on). Bonus dice are not flat bonuses like extra XP – just improved odds. When you clearly set expectations for what rewards extra dice, you set incentives for what sort of play you want at your table.
Also, by putting it down on something physical like an index card, it becomes another artifact of play. It’s something that commands attention, just as your maps and minis do. Everyone’s on the same page.