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I am the DM for a D&D 4e game. Recently, I stopped keeping track of XP, on the assumption that I could just give my players a level every time they finished a major quest. In my mind, this had a few benefits:

  1. It severely reduces bookkeeping, both for the players, and for me, because it means I don't have to worry about each adventure having exactly ten encounters.
  2. It prevents leveling at an awkward time ― we'll never have an issue where the PCs finish an adventure and aren't quite leveled up, and then get an encounter or two into the next adventure. In this way, it also helps split the game into even chunks.
  3. It also removes a mindset that I think a lot of players pick up from video games, where they feel like they need to go fight monsters and engage in random, pointless fights just to gain XP. This is not the sort of thing I want.

However, before I completely commit to this progression system, I'm like to see it from the opposite perspective, to see what I may be missing out on by abandoning XP.

What benefits does an XP-based leveling system offer that I will lose if I use a story-based leveling system?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Another way of looking at this question would be "What are the benefits and downsides of XP-based leveling and story-based leveling?" \$\endgroup\$ – Aventinus Feb 1 at 11:48
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XP rewards tell the players "This is important"

If XP are given for a certain activity, then the players will naturally gravitate towards that activity. In your case, this is towards combat, because combat is where the XP come from. In the original DnD, this was acquisition of gold, because that gave more XP than fighting by a factor of almost 100.

By giving XP for completing story, you tell the players: "Following the story is rewarded, everything else is considered unimportant." Whether this is desirable by you is something I can't answer, but given that right now, you are a bit at odds with what you consider the way to progression to be (doing story) and what your players consider it to be (or rather, what you consider they consider), which is combat, I'd say it can't make things worse.

If your players have agreed that the roleplay is about following the story the GM makes, then aligning the XP reward system with that is not a bad choice. However, it should be noted that for other groups, who don't consider a pre-plotted story as the important part of roleplay, this change in XP would not be received favourably (although it wouldn't be worse than the original per-combat XP model: Both equally badly align with the needs of the group).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ On a more pessimistic note, using story-based leveling basically tells the players that what they want to do doesn't matter, the only thing worth doing is following the story you have planned. In fact, some people will equate it to soft railroading. \$\endgroup\$ – Kyyshak Feb 3 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Solution: Also grant XP for completing (potentially improvised) side quests. \$\endgroup\$ – Egor Hans Apr 10 at 12:53
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It depends on your players

Some players will consider this to be an improvement of the normal functionality. In fact, many of the campaigns made for 5e actually do this now, they suggest certain points in the story where the characters should get a level, so at the very least, Wizards of the Coast seems to think this isn't a game breaking idea in 5e, so it seems unlikely it'd be in 4e.

So here are some possible results:

Players will focus entirely on storyline 'quests' and ignore everything else

You tell us that players will go into mindless combat just for exp. If getting experience is a party's only goal, than the natural result is that they will now try to ignore as much content as possible unless they know it will give a level.

Players will no longer feel pressured into combat

But perhaps they never wanted to do all these mindless combats, but they felt they had to to actually advance in levels. In that case, you might see a drop in pointless combats you didn't want to run in the first place.

You get into arguments on what is and isn't a major quest

If you tell your players that they will only get levelups after a major quest, and these players are only interested in getting levels as quickly as possible, they might start an argument after every quest that this was "clearly a major quest" and they would have skipped if they realized it wasn't. This might lead to players insisting on knowing beforehand if quests will give a level, and if it does not, skipping the content you've prepared for them.

What I do

For what it's worth, I always use the exp-for-story system in D&D 5e, and I believe it would work equally well for 4e. Nobody in my party really enjoyed the exp bookkeeping, it was always a mess with some players claiming they had a levelup while others were missing like 4k even though they had all gained exactly the same amount of exp in total and it cuts down on the obnoxious tendency of some of my players to think tabletop RPGs should be played like a single-player PC RPG.

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I've seen level pacing become an issue, particularly if the characters like to stop and chase every butterfly on the way to major quest points or skip everything and rush to the closest solution.

I recently switched from XP to Milestone at our table (every event ended with a 'how much should I have now' mathlete debate), but keep it paced by maintaining a tally of the amount of XP available in each quest, encounter or RP scenario. As they pick a thread and complete it, I lump that value to a loose total. That way I can be positive if they are overdue for a level or need to spend a few more sessions at their current one.

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It might pressure you into Leveling them up faster then what the normal progression would be.

Experience Points are rewards, like Gold is. It is also a rather granular reward. You can get some after every session, without it meaning you level up after every one. You got a persistent feeling of progress, even of most of the time that progress is just increasing a integer.

If you only reward the players in whole levels, you may have to speed up the levelup process later on so the players do not start feeling like there is no progress. You will also need another set of rewards to hand out to the players more regulary. Mind you, that might not even be explicitly wanted by the players. It can just be something that happens.

It also removes a mindset that I think a lot of players pick up from video games, where they feel like they need to go fight monsters and engage in random, pointless fights just to gain XP. This is not the sort of thing I want.

D&D switched from "deafeat in combat" XP to "overcome challenge XP" ages ago. Pretty sure I read it in the 3.0 Gamemaster book. A lot of people still think it is XP only by combat. But it never realy was. There is still a requirement of actually engaging with the challenge - sneaking around all enemies will not get you anything.

However overall if you do not want a combat focussed game, D&D in general and 4.0 in particular might not be the right game system. Skill Granularity was never a strenght of D&D. And 4.0 cut down the number of skills massively. The Rogue in 3.X got around 8+Int Modifier Skills to train. In 4E they have 2 base + 4 by choice. Overall counts of skills have been reduced to 17. Meanwhile the amount of paper used for combat has increased to the point, where a mage has less paper but everyone else matches him.

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