A New DM’s Guide to Experience Points and Leveling

As a new DM, it can be tricky to manage how often you award experience points or how often your party levels up. Not to worry, this simple guide will answer all your questions about experience points and leveling up your party! So how often should you award experience and level up your players? You should award experience points to players when they successfully complete a task or complete combat. When players reach the next tier in experience points, they have earned the next level. Alternatively, you can grant levels based on reaching important milestones in the campaign or for the number of sessions completed. While each method of leveling is perfectly valid, not every method is right for your game. Each one has advantages and disadvantages that you should consider before choosing which one to implement.

Experience Point Based Leveling

Using experience points to level up is the traditional way of tracking player progress in D&D. Players enter combat, take on quests, and gain experience points based on the difficulty of the task or enemy. Players track their experience points and use the chart below to determine their level. Once he/she has crossed the threshold into a new tier, he or she will “level up” his/her character. *The chart below can be found on page 15 of the Player’s Handbook
Experience Points Level Proficiency Bonus
0 1 +2
300 2 +2
900 3 +2
2,700 4 +2
6,500 5 +3
14,000 6 +3
23,000 7 +3
34,000 8 +3
48,000 9 +4
64,000 10 +4
85,000 11 +4
100,000 12 +4
120,000 13 +5
140,000 14 +5
165,000 15 +5
195,000 16 +5
225,000 17 +6
265,000 18 +6
305,000 19 +6
355,000 20 +6
Using experience points to level up is the traditional way of tracking player progress in D&D. Players enter combat, take on quests, and gain experience points based on the difficulty of the task or enemy. Players track their experience points and use the chart below to determine their level. Once he/she has crossed the threshold into a new tier, he or she will “level up” his/her character.

Experience Points from Combat

The amount of experience earned by battling monsters is directly related to the monster’s CR or Challenge Rating. Challenge Rating indicates how difficult the monster will be to defeat. The higher the CR, the tougher the monster, the more experience points earned. Monster challenge ratings range from 0 CR earning 0-10XP to 30 CR earning 155,000XP. To get the total experience earned from an encounter with multiple monsters, add all the experience points together from all monsters, but do not multiply the experience points like you would when calculating your party’s XP threshold. Each monster is worth only the experience listed in the book. If you want to learn more about how to calculate your party’s XP threshold to make sure you aren’t throwing too much at them, check out this helpful article on Creating Balanced Encounters. For all experience points by challenge rating see the chart found on page 275 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Once you have added the experience points for the encounter, divide the points among your players. For example, if your party just fought a young black dragon (CR 7) they earned a total of 2,900XP as a party. If you have 5 players in your party, then each player receives 580XP (2,900/5).

Non-Combat Challenges

Combat isn’t the only way players can earn XP. A DM can choose to award XP for exceptional role play, clever or unorthodox plans, expediency in completing a quest, solving a mystery or discovering a plot. The possibilities are limitless. The XP earned from these quests will depend on how difficult the task and the level of your characters. If you would like help creating epic side quests to award your players with non-combat XP, check out this guide to Creating Epic Side Quests. While DMs can choose to award XP for playing the game well, many would argue that non-combat challenges should be rewarded in other ways, such as in gold, contracts, alliances and contacts. This depends on your campaign’s style of play and is purely preference. Just be sure your players are earning their XP and you aren’t giving any handouts.

Advantages of Experience Points

The advantage of this method of leveling is its clarity. Players know exactly how much experience they need until they level up and that can motivate them to be more involved in combat and plot devices. Furthermore, because only the players who participated in the fight get XP, this method can also keep players accountable to show up to game night. If they miss too many sessions, they could fall behind the other party members. This system also allows DMs to give out XP as a reward for exceptional role-playing or cleverness. With the other systems, there isn’t much of an incentive to focus on these things because, regardless of if they do or don’t, they will level up at the same pace. However, in XP based leveling, working for non-combat XP can make a huge difference in how quickly players level up.

Disadvantages of Experience Based Leveling

Level Gap

One potential disadvantage to the experience based leveling system is that players who often skip sessions can quickly fall behind in levels. It is possible for most of the group to be at level 5 while one player is still at level 3. While this isn’t a huge problem, it can cause some headaches for you as the DM and for the party. You must keep the lower leveled player in mind while you are creating encounters and the party might find themselves protecting the weaker party member in the midst of a higher level dungeon.

Tracking Experience Points

As you saw from the chart at the beginning, players need A LOT of experience points to reach higher levels. This means keeping track of every encounter and how much players need to get to the next level. This can be stressful as the DM when you are creating encounters. You never want players to be just a few points short of the next level, especially if they need to level up to survive the next session. Using experience points means tracking experience points, so if you and your party aren’t great at this, you might try one of the methods below.

Milestone Based Leveling

The milestone based leveling system is most often used by DMs, and is the method Matt Mercer uses in Critical Role. Players level up once they have reached a milestone in the story, such as getting to a city or meeting an important NPC (non-player character). This is completely up to the DM and the players don’t know when they will level up.

Advantages of Milestone Leveling

The biggest advantage to milestone leveling is the amount of freedom it allows DMs. You no longer have to tally, divide and track XP. If you want players to level up at the end of the session, you simply tell them to level up. This can take much of the pressure off of encounter building and allow more focus on story.

Disadvantages of Milestone Leveling

Some disadvantages of milestone leveling include a lack of player incentives, accountability, and clarity. Without the carrot of XP dangling in front of the players at all times, some players may not actively role-play or try to find clever solutions to problems as much. If your players are only motivated to be creative when a reward present, you may have to come up with other ways to keep them engaged. Players also may not be as motivated to attend every game if they know they will level up with the rest of the party when a milestone is reached. Milestones are always obtained as a party, so there isn’t a way to leave just one player behind, meaning there may not be as much accountability for players to show up. Finally, some players like to know exactly how long before they can level up. They don’t like to be surprised and they want to feel as though they have earned the next level. These players may be a little antsy if they haven’t leveled up for a game or two. If you have a party full of these kinds of players, I wouldn’t suggest using the milestone method.

Session Based Leveling

The final leveling option is the session based leveling method. This method uses the number of sessions attended to determine when to level up. Most often, DMs will allow players to level up after 2 attended sessions.

Advantages to Session Based Leveling

The clear advantage to session based leveling is its blend of player clarity and DM freedom. Players still know when they are going to level up, just like with experience point leveling, but you don’t have to calculate and track XP. It is the best of both worlds. This system also provides incentives for players to show up to games, because that is the only way they can level up.

Disadvantages to Session Based Leveling

The disadvantage of this system is the lack of DM control and incentive to participate. Although this system frees you from the complications of XP, players are going to level up after two sessions, regardless of if they have earned it or if you are ready for them to do so. Players could spend an entire session talking in a tavern and still level up at the end of the night, some simply won’t see that as fair. The other disadvantage is the lack of incentive to participate. The only requirement to level up is to show up. Unlike the other two systems where players did have to do something (either earn XP or progress the story) session based leveling requires nothing of the players but their presence. This can affect the overall quality of the game if the players are only there to level up not there enjoy the game as it was intended.

Related Questions

How long should it take to level up in D&D? Typically it should take around 6 quests/encounters for your party to go from level 1 to level 2. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a guideline. After that, the required experience increases with every level, so it will take more and more encounters to level up. If you are using the milestone method, a good pace would be to level up every 2-3 sessions, depending on how quickly your party completes each part of the story. How fast should you level up in D&D? While many players will want to level up as quickly as possible, don’t get caught in this pitfall. Let the game progress naturally and never try to hurry players along to higher levels so they can face bigger enemies. Plan encounters for where your party is at and lets them enjoy the game at their own pace. Until next time, my friends, may your game have advantage! -Halfling Hannah

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