I was reading on geek-related.com that there is a large debate on the effectiveness of using experience points as a means to level up for D&D Next. I want to start using a non-XP method of advancement in my game but want to understand the exact changes I may see in play.

What are the effects of removing the XP system as a requirement to level, especially on the players' in-game activities? When using an alternative to XP in a campaign, is there any change in behaviour from the players? (i.e. problem solving to achieve their objectives through stealth, diplomacy, responses like that over killing whatever moves) and are the changes for better or worse?


11 Answers 11


I'm the author of the article you're talking about, The Time For Experience Points Has Come And Gone.

As noted, my gaming group has given up on XP in all our D&D-type campaigns. It was introduced by one GM, but all the players immediately assented and starting using it in their campaigns (all but one of our players also GMs in one group or another).

By and large, this hasn't changed behavior all that much - players that like to kill things still kill things, especially if they think there may be loot. There's been a slight reduction in homicide in situations where there's a non-mission-oriented monster (especially one unlikely to have treasure, like animal intelligence ones) in a location, and it's made negotiating a truce more palatable to the kill-happy players. For example, we were going through some haunted castle thing and there were a good number of big animal-critters hiding out in the outbuildings we managed to convince our fellow players not to attack. "But... XP!" would have been an additional argument on their side prior to this change.

It has reduced time spent recordkeeping, and jealousy among players when one levels and another doesn't - as well as level disparity causing player experience to degrade or GM prep to be harder.

Also, since you can level as quickly or as slowly as you want, it allows for various play experiences. My Reavers campaign's been going 4 years and the players are level 8 - it has the benefits of being like E6 or E8 but without actually having to change any rules, just by slowing down advancement to the desired rate. Conversely, when we finish one thing and a GM wants to run a higher level adventure, we just advance. (Several published Pathfinder Adventure Paths don't have enough XP in a chapter to advance to needed level and want the GM to throw in some random grinding to get the players higher - bah to that). This led to improved player satisfaction, as even the more kill-happy players don't like pointless grinding.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 1 '18 at 3:11

Ditching XP in D&D is one of the more common house rules.

My experience with running 4e was that, pragmatically, it's better if all the PCs are the same level, which meant keeping the rewards the same. At that point, tracking XP just seemed redundant. We agreed to drop XP and instead level when they completed something important. Functionally, this turned into leveling every three sessions or so. (Our sessions were anywhere from four to six hours, about four combat encounters.) It also made planning for advancement easier, and the ends of those leveling sessions were also a good time for discussing powers options, with actual details worked out between sessions.

It did not lead to any changes in how they played. Killing was still their bread and butter, but that's what I've come to expect from 4e.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The only real thing with 4e is just making sure that the party has sufficient treasure awarded every level, after that there's really no need for XP, leveling every ~10 encounters is about the same. Excellent point that this doesn't solve the third bullet there. \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Mar 12 '14 at 0:02

I've played several games of D&D 3.* in which levelling up just happened periodically by DM declaration, as needed to keep party level at the levels expected by the campaign design. I've also designed, and am planning to run soon, a campaign that is laid out semi-episodically, with a "boss fight" at the end of each episode, and everyone levels up after each boss.

It complicates treasure calculations somewhat if the game is following wealth guidelines (in a game that substantially changes wealth anyway, this extra complication is pretty much subsumed by the complications of not using standard wealth), but it's hardly prohibitive (with a bit of math, you can translate the wealth-gain-per-encounter charts into wealth-gain-per-level, then spread that wealth across the time they're at that level, or just run off the differences on the starting-wealth-by-level chart). Other than that, nothing really changes in Pathfinder. Pre-Pathfinder requires some alternate way of handling XP costs, but those are a bad idea, anyway, and should probably be alternate-way-handled whether you're levelling with XP or without. In this case, there's an easy way to do the alternating: have the DM declare level-up at the normal time for those without such costs, and then wait a bit longer before telling the guy who took the costs to switch to his higher-level sheet.

As for your third bullet, about changes in behaviour from this, no. Changing what gives XP easily and dramatically changes how most players will usually play, but unless you replace XP with something else that rewards or penalizes specific types of actions with faster or slower advancement (in which case you haven't really eliminate XP, a rose by another name and all that), just eliminating XP doesn't do much to change player behaviour. In the absence of a specific motivator causing them to eschew their current patterns, most people tend to continue with the patterns they already have. With players new to the genre, this might help avoid teaching such patterns in the first place, as I have seen happen to some degree with XP rewards being based on goal-reaching instead of body counts, but in a game with lots of options for being a combat powerhouse, and limited rules for non-violent interaction, most people will still quickly figure out that the easiest way to get to those XP-awarding achievements of goals (or to those directly-level-rewarding points in the plot) is to kill everything between here and there that moves, looks like it might move, or theoretically could move.


XP can be completely ignored in most cases. But there are a few corner cases (depending on edition) that you would still need to address.

  1. If you're playing an edition of D&D that doesn't level everyone at the same rate (or someone is taking multi-classing penalties), you may need to track some XP behind the scenes so that people are leveling at the appropriate moments. Not sure what you'd do in old-school D&D, but it's likely simplest for 3E to disallow such character builds up front.

  2. If you have players who aren't regular AND you want to reward attendance. By default, if you have the same X players every session, everyone will level at the same time (because they all get the same percentage, etc etc). For simplicity I personally just ignore that detail (the missing player loses out on loot, of course), but you could also delay leveling for the people who were behind if you need the carrot.

  3. Crafting magic items in 3E costs XP. This will probably require a houserule of some sort. For my game, I track how much XP they owe me, and they don't get their level until they catch up (at which point I stop caring about XP until next level). Also found a houserule to allow the other players to spend XP for gear they're going to use, which hopefully will help keep everyone roughly level. Ish.


I have played in games (D&D-clones) where levelling up was at the whim of the GM. Eventually we gave up on the game because the GM was manipulating us into playing out his pre-planed story by only rewarding "correct" play. It certainly impacted player behaviour but frustration set in when the player's idea for the character didn't entertain the GM or fit with his vision of the campaign design.

It did take a long time to set it, however, and I'm quite sure the GM had a great time.

What XP is good for is putting some level of objectivity into the mechanical reward system (roleplaying being its own reward), but it's not a guarantee as the GM ultimately places those things that grant xp of course.

Taking xp out can seem a good way to move along a group who don't play often enough to have any chance of seeing high levels. My experience was wholly negative, but I believe that it could be made to work; I just don't know why to bother since xp works just fine for a class-based game.


Having characters level at an end-point of the story or chapter is common and I've played and DM'ed games which do this. It is certainly not specific to dnd.

The change was agreed by the players and DM before the start of play, and it didn't really matter who raised it.

The team behavior did not change significantly because of the alternate leveling method.

You may want to discuss this with your group in detail first, to determine if it introduces any potential friction.


Has anyone on here used an alternative to XP in their campaigns that they've participated in as a means to level up?

Yes I have, and more often than not actually.

Was this new way to level brought about by the players or the GM?

Both, I have been a GM more often than not. One game was only run on a monthly basis and the players suggested I level them up after major plot advancing sessions. Currently, I suggested a similar method due to having 9 players who play on a fluctuating basis and wanting to keep them all at the same power level.

And lastly, by having this new method to level up, did you see any change in behaviour from the players? (i.e. Problem solving to achieve their objectives through stealth, diplomacy, responses like that over killing whatever moves)

Yes and no. The group I had that met monthly was always more story driven than combat driven, so when we decided that leveling after plot points nothing changed. They had always worked toward advancing the plot and continued to do so.

My current group is more combat oriented however, and while they still really enjoy the combat, I feel like they are more accepting of any RP or non-combat encounters now that they know XP is a non issue. I haven't talked to them about it but I suspect that since they thought fighting was the only way to get lots of XP quickly, that was the reason they wanted to focus on it so much. (Even though I gave them XP for RP and and non combat encounters the players had it in their head they had to kill to level up).

Alternatives to XP Rewards

First, you can just level them when you feel it's necessary, with nothing other than your whims of power to guide you.

Second, The DMG offers a suggestion of granting levels every 6-10 encounters depending on the difficulty of the encounters. Harder encounters level characters more quickly than easy ones.

Third, You can grant levels after Major plot development, such as finding a special magic item, saving a damsel or completing any number of quests.

  • \$\begingroup\$ the players had it in their head they had to kill to level up -- CRPG's and video games tend to reinforce this expectation. Are most of your players CRPG and video game players as well? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 '18 at 17:53

When I run my D&D games I usually send my players the following text:

Experience, level ups and rewards, and the “meta” of it all:

This is a game about getting stronger, being the most powerful, etc etc... Yes! But your character does not know this, he does not know what experience points are, or what level ups are. Yes, the character knows he gets stronger, or better, or learned better spells, or is more favored by his god. But this is not the mystical power of level up. your character believes this is through his own endeavor and hard work - just like you should. In my games you gain level ups as ‘quest’ rewards, and experience for everything else. If your main ‘quest’ is to hunt down a witch; To get to her you had to pass her treant minions you will not get experience for killing them, but you will probably still get some loot (and maybe the more goals you accomplish along the route to a quest will grant you better loot, outcomes, and make it easier, or even grant more level ups) but if you took the back roads to the witches house and were ambushed by some random bandits, they might give you experience. You also gain experience for being you. If you are a Paladin and you do Paladin things like help the poor and needy, or fight evil with complete disregard for your own well being - then you will get experience. Simply for trying it, let alone doing it. Because you are literally gaining experience at being a Paladin, the same applies for healers who heal the sick and wounded, or a bard singing a song in a tavern.

Basically this describes my feelings on the matter. Level ups should be something reserved for quests, story, and DM allocation. Having said that however - the game of D&D has a lot of elements that cost the players experience points. To that end I decided that players still need spendable experience points. So I decided that they will get experience for doing things beyond the main quests and stories, and I started offering it as a reward for good gaming (not a meta-reward, but players who in-game did things got experience for them).

To sum up my feelings so far:

  • Grant levels to characters as rewards for completing quests, plots, and story-arcs.
  • Reward characters with (limited) experience points when they do things outside of the quests, plots, and story-arcs (But not too much, just enough to spend on improvements).

Taking it one step further:

In a few games I ran - I decided to give experience to each player each session (as currency to fuel their abilities) but they had to earn it!

In order to earn the experience, each player was expected to do something outside the scope of the game that fit his or her character that benefited the game. For example, the Bard's player was tasked with writing a brief summary of the session each time we played. The Wizard's player kept track of the in-game calendar, marking off how long travels and sessions took, and what was going on in the meanwhile based on what they knew in the game. etc. This way each player had a task to perform that helped the game, and their characters got experience for it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Pathfinder neatly removed all XP costs from spells and crafting and it really didn't change much at all. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Mar 12 '14 at 19:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, that is true - but this question isn't labeled as Pathfinder, it is labeled as Dungeons and Dragons. \$\endgroup\$ – Inbar Rose Mar 13 '14 at 8:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but it shows how trivial it is to do - they were just plain removed without compensation from crafting and no balance problems resulted. And Pathfinder is a version of Dungeons and Dragons to all intents and purposes. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Mar 13 '14 at 13:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not just to all intents and purposes, but also literally, on a technicality. Due to the particular way in which Paizo applied the open gaming license to be able to create Pathfinder in the first place, any group playing Pathfinder is technically playing 3.5, just with really, really extensive use of third party materials, including variant rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Najmon Feb 2 '18 at 15:55

I play in two 5e games (both published modules), one with kill xp and one with milestone levelling.

In the Kill xp game, we go through a building killing every single thing that moves. It gets dull and slow. but otherwise we don't level.

In the milestone levelling game, we stealth, we sneak, we try to just avoid entire sections of the dungeon if it doesn't actually add to the mission. It is honestly much more fun. We still get enough combat for the combat guys, as every mission involves killing something. We just don't bother with random encounters etc just to gain what to me feels like pointless xp.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When 1 GP = 1 XP in the original game, we used to do that sneaking thing quite a bit, but we also went full combat mode sometimes. It's not an either/or proposition when the incentives (XP as incentive) isn't only about slaying or defeating monsters/NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 '18 at 0:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast was it only gold xp? We had a funny moment when the module said we needed to be level 3 for the next section, and we were still only halfway through level 2, so suddenly our XP got "fiddled" and we were now level 3. So i may be biased because of our DM. \$\endgroup\$ – WendyG Feb 1 '18 at 10:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, it was both. But monster XP were quite a bit less at low levels, unless you got into crowd killing ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 '18 at 11:56

The answer is, as always, that this depends on style of play, and also on the edition of D&D.

Easy with modern D&D

With D&D 4 and D&D 5 there are no mechanical problems with the suggestion.

Takes some thought with older editions

With D&D 3, characters can use experience for creating magic items. Pathfinder is an example of how to change this, should one not want to use experience points. Unfortunate multiclassing also causes experience penalties, but forgetting this entirely is not an uncommon house rule.

With older editions of D&D, the experience that characters require to level up depends on their class, and the variance is large. One would need nontrivial house rules to retain the effects of this on gameplay, while at the same time not using essentially experience points.

Reasonable if following (a scripted) story or playing through disjointed adventures

In organized Pathfinder play, characters gain a level for every three adventures they play through (roughly speaking). In a game where one is following a rigid adventure, or a story prepared by the game master, the GM can simply say when everyone levels up, and there will be very little effect on gameplay.

If following a story or module, levelling up at game master whim can help in keeping the power fantasy going, or in creating actually challenging fights, whichever the game master prefers.

Not so good with OSR sandbox play

In OSR play characters should be rewarded for good play by their players. The typical way of achieving this is by mostly giving experience for recovered coins. The play often happens in sandbox, and the referee may run the game with an open game table, or West marches -style. Characters often die. One player may have several characters.

In this type of game, earning experience and levels is a significant achievement, can happen incrementally, and leaving it to referee whim is against the purpose of play - to measure player skill in a dangerous fantasy environment, with a neutral referee. With often shifting cast of characters, it would be difficult to keep track of who has adventured enough to earn a level. Experience points are a good measure for this.


Gaming with or without Experience Points (XP)

I have run games with and without XP, but it was driven by situational. XP gives a more definitive base for progress, non-XP gaming gave freedom from the table (paperwork and tracking details).

When gaming on the fly in short segments of time, like when traveling or during a fifteen minute break between other activities, we have forfeited the use of dice and XP. This is a very ad-lib method of playing and sometimes things move faster, sometimes slower, but it allows for gaming when there are not opportunities to do longer sessions.

I tend to run a game with no boundaries, if player decisions take them in a direction that has not been mapped and planned, I have enough knowledge of my world, that the opportunities are not restricted and sometimes I learn what is out there as the player characters discover it. It level gaining is based upon reaching certain objectives; this could restrict and lock in what course of events the players have to follow and fail to give players credit for experience from extemporaneous activity. Playing without XP in a hard structure preformatted questing environment would have less impact than open play in an open world, but this reduces the player's flexibility and freedom of movement.

As far as changing the way characters are played, having or not having XP should not make any significant difference if the XP if given for overcoming an obstacle rather than just for killing the obstacle. Using diplomacy, stealth, killing or other methods of overcoming an obstacle are still worthy of the XP for the difficulty of the accomplishment. So if you are gaming without XP the methodology of character play should not really be impacted, but then there is no rewarding the innovation of the character that came up with the brilliant method that was used, everyone gets the same reward leveling at the planned point in the adventure.

There are of course always methods that can be applied to compensate for anything that does not seem to be working, but building a new hierarchy of house rules to rebalance things like multi-classing, PRCs, rewarding active play over passive presence, and other things that start falling apart may turn out to be a lot more complicated than just keeping track of XP. Actively giving XP bonuses to characters/players who are providing the innovation and life to the party is a way to keep everyone actively interested in events instead of just riding the coat-tails of the group leader. ~~~~


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