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I'm a new DM with a group of very new players. I've read through the rules and some of the Player's Handbook (I just haven't finished it yet). We are still within the first arc of the campaign and have plenty of time to figure everything out and for the players to reach the end goal, so I'm not super worried about them leveling up super quickly. Everyone is currently level 1, just so that had something to start out with.

Something I have yet to understand is leveling up within classes. What do I need the players to achieve in order to level up? Is it something I just decide when I think they're "ready", or do they gain experience points or something with each battle? I understand what the players will gain when they level up (like the spells and features and bonus actions and stuff). Is this covered more clearly in the handbook?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi, and welcome to the site and to the game! I've made a couple of small edits to the post and am sure you'll get a good answer soon. In the meanwhile, if you want to poke around the site the tour or other questions tagged new-gm might be interesting. Happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 May 26 at 0:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any parallel experience? Like video game RPGs, or complex board games? They might be useful as a framing reference. \$\endgroup\$ – Xavon_Wrentaile May 26 at 18:09
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Some ways to advance your players' characters are described in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Specifically, at pp.260-261. But that's a whole lotta book to buy for just 2 pp. of guidance, so here's a summary of common methods:

  • Award experience points (XP) as monsters are defeated in combat, per their challenge ratings (CR). (CR 1/2 = 100XP, CR 10 = 5900 XP, &c.) Combat awards are "most often" the source of XP, according to the DMG. (These XP are divided among the party, so a party of 5 killing a pegasus earn 90 XP each. And serious bad karma.)
  • Award experience points as the party overcomes obstacles--combat or otherwise--in their way. An Unearthed Arcana article titled Three-Pillar Experience presents a method for doing this.
  • Award XP or levels as the party achieves narrative "milestones." That is, when the party finally obtains the Dwarvish Axe of Awesome--whether by hook or by crook or by force of arms--you award them each 1000XP. Or maybe you award them their next level.
  • Award XP for time played: some GMs like to have the whole party advance along as they play, without all the bookkeeping. So each session the players earn "half a level." Or whatever.
  • Assign levels narratively: perhaps your party is really intrigued by your description of the Bloody Bloody Bloody Forest, even though they're only level 2. Tell 'em to come next week with their characters advanced to level 5, because you know that's what they'll need in order to avoid their bloody bloody bloody fate.

You're a new GM: you haven't said whether you're running a homemade campaign or something published. Either way, I suggest you start by trying out the common "XP for defeating encounters" method. It's simple, it's unusual for it to go badly quick, and it's easily understood by the players.

Just do be sure to remember one thing: not all encounters have to be combat encounters. "Defeating" an opponent only requires that the two parties' goals are in conflict. Getting the location of the Dwarvish Axe of Awesome from the last cleric of Awesome who is sworn to secrecy is a defeat for the cleric, no matter how they achieve it.

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I can see how this can be a bit confusing if all you're looking at is the Player's Handbook. You need some of the DM tools in order to truly understand building encounters and how to handle character advancement. While the full description of everything is in the Dungeon Master's Guide, all you need to get started is in Part 4 of the free online Basic Rules. There are two main official places to get this:

Even with that, though, what you need is a bit scattered around. In the section on understanding monster stat blocks, in the "Challenge" section, it says this:

Experience Points

The number of experience points (XP) a monster is worth is based on its challenge rating. Typically, XP is awarded for defeating the monster, although the DM may also award XP for neutralizing the threat posed by the monster in some other manner. Unless something tells you otherwise, a monster summoned by a spell or other magical ability is worth the XP noted in its stat block.

There's also a lot of information there on how to "build encounters" in Chapter 13, which tries to give you some guidance on how much the player characters "ought" to be able to handle in a day (given an awful lot of assumptions).

Once players get XP, they use it to advance. This is covered in Chapter 1 of the Player's Handbook (or in the Basic Rules), in the easy-to-miss section at the end titled "Beyond 1st Level". This includes the chart of how much XP is needed in order to get to a given level. XP is cumulative; you never lose it. So once a character gets 300 XP it will be at 2nd level, and then once it gets another 600 XP more for a total of 900 XP it will advance to 3rd level.

There are other advancement methods described in the full Dungeon Master's Guide, including what's called "Milestone Advancement" where basically they gain a level whenever you think they're "ready" as you suggest. Different groups prefer different approaches, but the XP-based approach is the "default" and probably as good a place as any to start.

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There are in-general two different approaches taken to leveling in D&D (not just 5e), experience points and milestone leveling.

Experience Points (XP)

This is the classic approach in D&D, and is also used in most other RPG's. In short, players are awarded XP for doing things, and their level is a direct function of their total XP. Pretty much every game system that uses this approach has a chart somewhere that shows how much XP is required for each level (for example, in D&D 3.5e, you need to earn XP equal to 1000 times your current level to progress to the next level (so level 2 requires 1000 total XP, level 3 requires 3k, level 4 requires 6k total, etc)).

The most common case of this is an in-universe event-driven approach. Players overcome obstacles, and get XP as a reward for doing so. The most well known approach to getting XP in this case is defeating opponents in combat, but obstacles don't have to be combat encounters, and you don't necessarily need to win to get past them. For example, I've had players literally buy-out the mercenaries that the main villain sent after them before, and I usually award XP for getting past puzzles in dungeons or successfully getting through social encounters that have a major story impact. This is the approach that the DMG in 5e primarily talks about, and was the only approach listed in a number of previous systems.

The other common approach with XP involves awarding some flat amount of XP per unit of play-time. The WotC Adventurers' League uses this approach, calling the points "Adventurers' Check Points". This has the advantage that players (and DM's) can count on consistent progression no matter how much combat or other stuff goes on in each session, but has the disadvantage that it makes it easy for the character's power to get out of sync with the environment (though this is not as big of a problem in 5e as it is in, for example, 3.5e or Pathfinder).

XP is, in-general, useful when you expect leveling to take a long time because it gives the players tangible evidence of their progress between levels, but it can cause some interesting issues for you as a DM if you do it in a way that lets the players get out of sync with each other or the environment itself (few things are more frustrating as a DM than your players getting bored because the stuff you're throwing at them is too easy due to them being over-leveled).

Milestone Leveling

This is the other standard approach. In essence, you as the DM define some condition that needs to be met for the players to level up, and once that condition is met, they just level up. This used to be pretty rare in earlier editions because lots of stuff actually cared about exact XP values (in 3.5e for example, a lot of high-level spells actually cost the caster XP), but in 5e nothing really cares so it's much easier to work with.

Overall approaches I've seen to this include:

  • Story-based leveling. Each time the party completes a major plot point, they get a level. This can be really useful for the DM because they can plan each segment of the story around the party's level, but it requires players to be on-board so they stay on track and don't get discouraged by the lack of levels, and also often limits the value of side-quests during the main story.
  • The shonen approach. The condition in this case is that the party looks like they're going to be defeated in a combat session that's critical to the story, usually one which they didn't have any chance to win going in. In essence, the same pattern seen in almost all shonen manga and anime (hence the name) where the protagonist suddenly unlocks a power they never knew they had at a critical moment in the most important fight of the story arc. This ha the same benefits for the DM as the story-based approach, but it really needs players to be on-board with it, as it will seriously irritate many players otherwise. This can actually be really fun though if you've got a party who's really into the RP aspect and are running an action-heavy campaign, especially if every battle looks like it's going to be difficult.

You can also mix this in with XP-based leveling, simply giving out exactly enough XP for the next level on occasion when something big happens (in a lot of campaigns I run, there's a situation whereby the party gets to a point they just can't progress unless they take some time to actively train, and I always handle that as a time-skip from player perspective, awarding everybody one or two levels and having them RP the reunion of the party with everybody talking about what their character did as training).


In your particular case, given that you're a new GM, I'd suggest taking the time to read both the PHB and the DMG cover-to-cover, ideally before your next session. That should cover everything as far as the standard leveling methods (I'd suggest going with the first method I mentioned in the XP section if you're doing a pre-constructed adventure module, or the second in the XP section if you're doing a homebrew adventure), as well as hopefully resolving any other things you might not yet have a good understanding of.

Note also that in a lot of cases, most DM's explicitly require the characters to be able to take at least a short rest to level up, and many will require a long rest. This is often touted as being for narrative reasons, but it's important to keep the party balanced as most mages won't be able to use any of their new abilities stuff until they've had a long rest, while most non-magic classes will have all of it immediately available to use even without the rest.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As i understand it, what you’ve described is not Milestone levelling, you’ve described Levelling Without Experience. LWE is where the DM says when the party does or does not level up, or its based on how many sessions a player has attended, as the name suggests, it does not involve XP. Milestone however is where actual XP is granted for completing certain objectives, such as finding a hidden location. However, my interpretation if milestones seems to be in the minority, despite being backed up by the Rules As Written in the DMG, page 261. \$\endgroup\$ – Liam Morris May 26 at 18:57

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