Mining for Mechanics: Alternative Levelling Options

We’ve previously written about ways of dealing out XP that are different to standard. An interesting part of the follow-up discussions to that was that many people do away with XP and use milestone levelling instead. That brings us rapidly to our first alternative method.

Milestone levelling

This is pretty well known and commonly used at this point. The PCs simply level up at points in the story determined by the GM to represent some sort of achievement. Adventure modules often provide guidance on this as well. It’s good for helping with preparation as the GM knows exactly when players will level up, and can plan things out accordingly. It’s also good because it removes finicky tracking of numbers. If simplicity is king in your games, do this.


Achievement levelling via player goal setting

Milestone levelling is cool and all, but it puts the cards in the hand of the GM, and if you run a sandbox-style world, or want to give the appearance of one handing off the goals to the player can be interesting. Instead, take a small bit of time at the beginning of a session for the party to define their goals. These can be individual, group or both. The players decide what they want to achieve within the world, and it shapes the GM’s preparation for what they might do.

An obvious question with this, especially in a sandbox, is “what if the players go in a different direction?”. Just write a new goal, and keep the old one open. The players can build up a quest journal of sorts, giving them some predefined things to do that they know will advance the game.

Achievement levelling via tracing successes

Another way of approaching achievement-based levelling is to create a list of the things the players must do relative to their PCs abilities. It’s a lot like the achievements system used in many modern video games.

Here’s a brief example for a rogue:

  • Sneak attack ten different enemies
  • Succeed at stealth ten times
  • Sneak attack three times in one encounter
  • Pickpocket ten people or monsters
  • Pickpocket something work over 100GP
  • …and so on

This list can be longer or shorter based on how long you want levelling to take. What can really make this work is creating goals that encourage good roleplay. Give your cleric something related to spread the word of their faith. Give your bard the task of writing four new songs about noteworthy events. Give fighter from the rough streets the goal of using every combat maneuver.

The obvious downside of this is that it does involve tracking a whole lot of things. Get the players to manage this, and remind each other to do it. Have a quick recap stage at the end of each combat. With the right group, it can be a fun thing in itself, and there isn’t the maths of tracking XP. If you were inclined, you could make a nice sheet for this with progress bars the players shade in as they move upwards.

Micro-levelling per session

This one is simple. Break what the PCs would get at a full level up down into small components and dish out one each session.¬†Players can choose what they gain until they’ve completed the list for their current level making small incremental gains in skills, or gaining a single hit point a session.

This lets them shape their character slowly, which is arguably more realistic than sudden huge gains in performance that most level systems provide, and lets them weigh up how their character is currently performing and make small tweaks.

This also breaks down the admin work related to levelling into 5 minutes per session, rather than occupying a bigger chunk of time. Some people really enjoy those level-up sessions, so consider that when choosing this system.

These are just a few ways we’ve been dabbling with alternative levelling, and they all have their upsides and downsides. If you go about things in a different way to this, we’d love to hear about it as well, come tell us on Twitter or Facebook.

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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

August 14, 2017 at 5:37 pm

One method I read about that intrigues me a lot is BUYING your level. Basically, you spend an amount of gold equal to the XP needed to level, and then you do. There are modifications on this to make it more engaging, such as you must find an appropriate teacher (which may involve questing, especially at higher levels), you can level only once per time interval (session, game year, etc), the leveling process takes an amount of time proportional to the level being gained in game time (and thus costs you food and lodging and entertainment money, which is a whole other subject), and there are plenty of opportunities to role-play during your training, especially if the rest of your party has to cool its heels while you train.

By using this mechanic, players CHOOSE when they level, and if you’re a half-decent GM, you’ll make them have to struggle with those choices. IMO you should build a world where there’s lots of directions they’re pulled in so that sometimes it’s inconvenient to take the time out to get leveled. The original poster suggested giving larger cash awards, to compensate for the fact you need so much more gold (and that quite a lot of monsters don’t drop gold when you kill them), but I disagree. Characters are at their most interesting and easy to challenge when they’re low level, and making players make hard decisions on when to level and when to buy that magic sword are GOOD things that keep players engaged. Too high a level with no gear to fight with is as bad as too low a level with big guns; they’ll either figure out that they need to keep it roughly even or they’ll make some very interesting glass cannons.

August 15, 2017 at 7:18 am

I like the tracking success type “Stab 10 spines” and such! It needs a bit of talk between the players and the GM I think, to make sure everyone is on the same page. Or, would you keep the players in the dark? Let’s say, when the Cleric healed 10 people, his Cure Light Wounds spell moves to 2d8?

Interesting indeed.

The Trenchcoat Dwarfreply
August 15, 2017 at 7:22 am
– In reply to: Etienne

I think the players should have a hand in choosing them to choose abilities they want to use, or facets of their character they wish to roleplay. This incentivises using new abilities, and can also encourage players to use abilities they might otherwise forget about if their character has quite a number.

This idea was partially driven by a new player in my current campaign, who is playing a bard, and already has quite a few abilities, and remembering to use them all was a bit taxing, so linking them to progression serves as a reminder.

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