There are a lot of things to love about “the world’s greatest role playing game”, the heroes and the villains, the treasure found and friends made along the way…but nothing so valuable as the party’s evolution from humble beginnings to champions of legend. Narratively, it’s fairly easy to see this change. New perspectives and growth with each battle, newly gained knowledge with each NPC interaction…and mechanically, the excitement that builds up when it’s time to ascend to the next level is pretty hard to beat. But while choosing your new spells and abilities is thrilling, finding the best way to quantify this progression is another matter entirely.
There are two basic ways to determine progression: experience points and milestones. There are pros and cons to each, but here are some basic differences between the two:
- The party can level up together, based on how they progress through the story
- Progression is more narrative focused, but certain plot point milestones need to be determined beforehand (at least loosely).
- Good for lower levels and new players as it allows for more fluid gameplay, but can get harder at mid-high levels to identify appropriate progress points.
- Less math for the GM 😂
- Many different approaches but, in a nutshell, this approach assigns pre-determined points to certain tasks (combat, social engagement, etc.) that are awarded to the party at the end of each session, in accordance with the tasks and challenges they complete.
- This method can often fall into a “grind” with combat encounters as, at least with 5e, there is a larger emphasis on combat as the primary experience-awarding mechanic.
- Level progression is easily quantifiable, as the thresholds between each stage are clearly defined.
- Can be challenging, at times, to assign XP to non-combat challenges.
For Heroes Of Iyastera, I made the switch from XP tracking to Milestone levelling early on, as it made for much for flexible gameplay for the younger players at the table. Now, at level four, I find myself wanting to quantify things a bit more effectively…though I don’t want a heavy reliance on combat. My first thought was to use the Pillar System (which I use for my adult-player Iyastera campaign). With this approach, all XP-awarding challenges fall within three overarching categories, with different difficulty levels within:
This pillar includes the multitude of ways a player can actively interact with the environment around them, whether by going spelunking outside of town, investigating new areas in search of information, or even people watching in festival square. This is a way to reward players for their active skill and ability checks while they explore their surroundings.
While the Exploration pillar deals with the surrounding environment (or the setting), this pillar deals with the “human” element of the environment. So much of a D&D is simply talking to people, so this is a way to encourage your players to interact with eachother and with the NPCs you put in their path, from asking questions, engaging in contests, stealthily tailing people, or influencing another characters perceptions and behaviour. The levels beneath this pillar can be a bit challenging, but a good rule of thumb is to use the level of influence of the NPC the party interacts with.
This pillar requires the least explanation, as the XP levels for each encounter are already determined. However, as a GM, you can always add or subtract from that total by adding other elements to the encounter.
This Pillar system offers a bit more structure and variety in regards to how you can award XP. It also is helpful, from a writing and game design perspective, when it comes to balancing out a game session. For example, you can easily breakdown the focus or weight of a campaign session by pillars: if your party just finished a particularly taxing dungeon crawl (with heavier focus on combat and exploration), you’d probably want to mix it up with something more centered around social interaction to keep the pace manageable.
If your campaign emphasizes themes of negotiation and critical thinking, you mY not have much focus on combat at all! However, you would need to spend some more time determining the criteria for “success”: Can a combat encounter still be “won” if no fighting occurs? What if the NPC isn’t convinced to do what the party wants them to do, but your players still role played well?
An alternative to this method, which we recently adopted in our home game, is Goal-Based XP. This method is inspired by Adam Koebel (@skinnyghost) and the Burning Wheel RPG, and required players and GMs to work together to determine attainable goals for the session or campaign. This leads players to think critically about their ideals and motivations, and how they might act upon them. This also encourages more directed exploration and role playing, which helps to minimize periods of stagnation and indecision at the table.
So how is this tied to XP? There are different quantities of “points possible” which can be awarded depending on the degree to which a player achieves their goal. For example, a short-term goal might be easier to achieve, but it doesn’t yield as much XP as a mid- or long-term goal. If a player only partially achieves their stated goal, then they can earn partial XP.
This technique worked so well in our home game, that I may begin incorporating it into the Heroes of Iyastera family campaigns. It encouraged active role-playing and exploration, while also providing a metric for progression in a way that the players found very satisfying. If you are interested in learning more, check out Adam’s YouTube here. I’ve also included an excerpt below, from his larger set of home rules he uses in Court of Swords (warning: not a family friendly game).
No more encounter based XP – if you fight something for no reason, you’re not rewarded for it.
Goal and Quest based XP – a goal is a player-set objective, a quest is an NPC or Faction-set objective. Goals apply to individual PCs, Quests apply to the entire group.
Each character has three Goal Slots, which can be filled with a Goal to be achieved. Such as;
- “I will discover an artifact proving that the farang exist.”
- “I will convince the local police captain that the House of the Falcon was haunted by a vampire.”
- “I will free myself from my bonds of slavery.”
- “I will kill the Dragon that Lurks in Darkness.”
The GM assesses the difficulty of the goal, and assigns it a category; “Easy, Medium, Hard, Deadly” based on narrative likelihood they’ll succeed, obstacles in the way, etc.
Category of the goal is equated to an XP value. Achieving the goal means getting the XP.
GOALS: XP values are Encounter Difficulty*3 in XP value
QUESTS: XP values are Encounter Difficulty*4 in XP value
Same goes for Quests the difficulty is similarly adjusted and the source is external.
- “Go to the Tower of Hell’s Fury and Kick the Wizard in his Butt”
Attempting to accomplish a goal or quest and failing means no XP, too bad, you failed. This is not an XP for failing model. However, taking a meaningful risk in pursuit of the goal (usually a roll is involved) nets a player 50 x their level in XP for ongoing pursuit.
Goals can be changed at the start of the session or abandoned at any time.
If a goal is resolved during a session, you don’t just get to write a new one.
THE POINT: the players now have a method for telling ME what they want in the game and mechanically invest the players via their characters in the game itself