Once you start DMing for Dungeons and Dragons, there’ll be a lot of questions that pop up in the planning. Do I run a homebrew world or a pre-published campaign? What encounters would be best suited to my party’s makeup? What lore do I include, and what do I throw out? And, of course, how do I level my players?
There are a few different methods of player leveling found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Combat XP and Milestone leveling are the most common. I also like to add in Encounter XP, a slightly more involved use of the experience point system, which grants rewards not just for combat, but for social, puzzle, and survival challenges as well.
All methods of leveling have their pros and their cons (yes, even milestone, don’t listen solely to what livestreaming DMs say about it). But how do you know which one is for you? We have a few tips:
Combat XP Leveling
Leveling your characters by granting them a certain amount of experience points (XP, colloquially) is the classic way to do it. It’s the original method for the game, with each level requiring a certain amount of XP to reach it, and XP being garnered from fighting monsters. The higher difficulty the monster, the more XP you get.
While it gets a bad rap from roleplay-focused characters nowadays (many of whom eschew combat as a necessary part of the game), XP makes a lot of sense from both a mechanical and worldbuilding perspective. We’ve written a whole article on just that here: The Case for Combat XP.
This method gives a lot of freedom to the players, whom it gives a relative degree of control when they level up to. Players can decide to grind, for instance, before taking on a boss if they feel underpowered and don’t necessarily want it to be a challenge. However, it does require that you use combat in the game, which can be restricting for groups who don’t enjoy that aspect of DnD as much.
What Campaign Styles are Suited to Combat XP Leveling?
Since it requires combat encounters to work, combat XP leveling works best for games with a lot of combat, and often a lot of difficulty as well.
- Hack-and-Slash (combat-heavy with absolutely minimal roleplay, where players have fun by figuring out effective combat tactics and the power fantasy of being an awesome fighter of some kind)
- Survival (combat-inclusive with relatively minimal roleplay and lots of skill checks, where players have fun by testing their survival skills and enduring a difficult challenge, often environmental)
Another option listed in the DMG, and extremely popular among DnD live-players, is Milestone leveling. In this method, you don’t use XP of any kind. Instead, the DM alone decides when the party levels up, typically at or after an important story beat.
This method is the easiest on the DM, requiring next to no prep when you’re planning each session. It also affords the story an increased feeling of through-narrative, letting the characters gain power when it’s narratively satisfying, or when it makes sense to the plot. It is, however, pretty limiting to the players. Even if they decide to train or ‘grind’ specifically, they’ll get no ability rewards, which can be frustrating for some. And the worldbuilding that you have to invent to justify it can be pretty shaky.
What Campaign Styles are Suited to Milestone Leveling?
Milestone leveling works best for campaigns with minimal combat, or where the DM wants to keep a close reign on the plot.
- Narrative (combat-neutral, with a heavy emphasis on roleplay, where players have fun by telling a story together, trying to create emotional beats and grow their characters in satisfying ways)
Encounter XP Leveling
Encounter XP isn’t outlined in the DMG, but it is still a fairly common method among DMs. It’s a system that still uses XP, but assigns it for more than just combat. Instead, XP might be granted as a reward for the players completing any kind of challenge or encounter – be it combat, social, skill, or puzzle.
This method is probably the most difficult on the DM, but makes the most sense from a worldbuilding and mechanical perspective. It also grants the most freedom to the players, allowing them to have input on when and how they level, without forcing them to engage in frequent combat if they don’t want to.
Assigning XP values to different encounters is the most challenging part of this method, since the given materials only list them for combat. I try to use the XP amounts assigned to different CRs as a guide. A difficult challenge, no matter when encountered, grants the amount of XP that a combat encounter of equal difficulty would (that is to say, the amount that fighting a monster with a CR of their level would give them). Skill and puzzle encounters give a great deal less, or add up in total to equal the amount assigned by a larger overall challenge.
You can also lump series of encounters down into ‘quests’, like in a videogame. Completing a quest gives an amount of XP relative to its difficulty, against using combat CR as a guide.
What Campaign Styles are Suited to Encounter XP Leveling?
Encounter XP is pretty variable, and works for middle-of-the-road style games, where you don’t want to overemphasize either combat or roleplay.
- Political (combat light and roleplay heavy, where players have fun by engaging with the sociopolitical maneuverings in the campaign world)
- Dungeon Crawl (combat-inclusive and roleplay-neutral with plenty of skill and puzzle challenges, where players have fun by exploring short challenge-heavy areas with a variety of different encounters)
- Casual (combat-inclusive and roleplay-inclusive, where players might face any style of campaign or challenge, but take it fairly lightheartedly, without too much difficulty)
What style of leveling do you usually use? Why? What style do you prefer to play under? Let us know in the comments below!