Experience and Leveling

In my opinion, any DM worth his salt will welcome the occasional combat-less, roleplay-heavy session. However, at the end of said session, many of those same DM’s will feel disappointment when they hand over little to no experience for all that great, non-combat work—to say nothing of the players on the receiving end of that non-existent experience.

As noted by dissenters and endorsers alike, D&D has never been properly set up for rewarding non-combat encounters. 4th Edition’s attempt to offset this uneven balance of award distribution was to introduce quest experience. Although the DM has always had the ability to arbitrarily hand out experience for a job well done, now they have a codified set of rules to follow. DM’s everywhere can grant experience for completing any non-combat task, from accompanying goods between faraway merchants, to returning NPCs home safely. Quest experience helps sessions highlight the importance of non-combat encounters.

Sounds great, right? Well, when handing out all that quest experience, it’s important to remember to factor it all in with the rest of the standard experience the group is set to receive for combats. Otherwise, between the two, the characters could quickly spiral out of control with levels. Of course, a DM could just reduce the amount of combats encountered, but for pre-published adventures that are heavy on the combat, what’s a DM do?

I’ve toyed with different ways of handling advancement. There’s the method of random, experience-less leveling. (The Leveling Fairy visited you in the night, took your tooth, and left a level under your pillow!) Or, in order to stay closer to the feel of D&D and that whole “handing out experience thing,” I’ve also kicked around the idea of lowering combat experience amounts and then handing out experience for every interaction, be it social- or combat-related. That creates a lot of extra work, however. Not to mention, it would grant exactly the same amount of experience in the end, just distributed differently.

Like hit points, armor class, and other D&D-isms, experience is meant to be abstract; it’s simply a way to keep a character’s level in check. With that in mind, I prefer a fleshed out version of my first suggestion. Since most adventures are meant for a range of levels, they can easily be divided into semi-equal chunks. The group is then leveled at those points. Imagine an adventure as a continuum: Point A is where the group starts, fresh at 1st-level, Point D is where the adventure ends, with the characters presumably attaining 4th level. Points B, C, and D are level up points:


The adventure is already designed to give characters the appropriate amount of experience in order to level at the more or less predefined points of B, C, and D. Just do away with experience altogether and level the group at those already defined points. The trick is to determine where those points are; a simple task for most pre-made adventures.

My only concern is that, with the lack of tangible advancement that experience provides (ooooh, only 200 XP ’till next level!), the D&D game would lose something indefinable. This is something you and your group will have to feel out and decide for yourselves.