XP, Leveling and Homebrew Systems

Today we’re going to take a closer look at developing your own gaming system and how to handle the challenges of XP awards and leveling:

Dear DM,

I’ve been developing my own system for awhile now, and I’ve hit a snag.  I tweak the dynamics of the powers and leveling every time, and things always deteriorate in one direction.  When you created your own system, how did you handle XP and skill point distribution, and the acquisition of skills on the players’ behalf?

Thanks for your input, and keep up the great work! 

Your faithful follower,


Along with combat balance, Leveling and Experience can be some of the most challenging aspects of developing your own Roleplaying System.  Unfortunately, the short answer to this question is that the only way to figure these mechanics out for your own system is trial and error.  You have to play a lot and find out what works and what doesn’t, and tweak it from there.  But as always, there’s a longer answer that can help you out a little bit during this process (Actually, a really long answer, so I apologize in advance).

How Much XP?
The easiest place to start with is to figure out if you want to go the hundreds and thousands of experience route, or the smaller scale 5, 10 or 15 XP per adventure route.  The benefits of going bigger is that you leave a lot more room open to give insignificant amounts of XP for things like cooking dinner or performing an interpretive dance.  I prefer smaller numbers, because it simplifies things, but means I only give out XP for meaningful actions.  You can read some more details on my own Level progression system here.

Once you figure this out, the next thing to ask is, “how quickly do I want my PCs to level?”  Let’s say you decide that they’ll end up with 10 to 20 XP in their first adventure (starting at Level 1).  If they’re going to need 20 XP to level up, then they could potentially level after one session.  If that’s too quick for you (which I think most DMs would agree with), then either adjust the amount of experience you’re giving out, or adjust the amount needed to level.

For example: You have them fight 15 monsters and complete 10 skill challenges in their first adventure.  You want them to Level at 20 XP and receive 10 XP each (for 4 Players) during their first session.  That means a total of 40 XP divided among all of them, which works out to be about 1.5 XP per Monster/Challenge.   Once you have that number you know what your starting place is.   So for an easy Skill Challenge and a low level Monster you’re going to want to award between 1 and 2 XP.

Now, the harder part is figuring out how to scale your XP Awards as the characters level up.  Let’s say you know that when they hit Level 4, they’re going to be earning closer to 5 XP per Monster/Challenge.  That means they might be receiving 30 XP each, and so it could be reasonable to decide that they need to earn an additional 60 or 80 XP before they hit Level 5, rather than the 20 they needed earn to reach Level 2.

Some of this you can figure out with simple math, and a lot of it is going to take some time.  The most important thing to keep in mind is your ideal rate of advancement for your Players, and use that to tweak everything else.

Leveling Up
The next thing to consider is how to handle Leveling.  There are 3 basic approaches you can take.   You can have predetermined stat & ability boosts and powers learned, you can have Players choose all of their own, or you can have a mixture of the two.  I go for complete Player customization, but this is also the hardest to maintain game balance with, because you lose much of the control, and it requires a lot more testing.

The important thing to remember here, is that whatever route you take – how abilities, skills, and powers get learned and distributed – doesn’t matter much.  If you want Players to grow exponentially in power, that’s fine.   If you want Level progression to be painfully slow, that’s fine too (but your Players will hate you).  The more important thing to be sure of is that you’re scaling Monsters appropriately.  Measuring Monster strength is tough though, and it requires a lot of time and testing (I know I keep saying this, but it’s important).

You can begin approaching this issue by really dissecting combat as you play.  What ends up being significant in a strong combatant?   Is it their attack roll, how much damage they do, being a good defender, their powers?   Are all of these things pretty evenly weighted?  You can try assigning points to everything starting with your weakest enemy (i.e. 1 point for their Damage, 2 for their Defense, 1 for Initiative, etc.).

Let’s say after doing this you have an enemy whose combat abilities total up to 12 points, and it’s supposed to be a level 1 monster.  If you’re lucky, this technique will scale upward, so that if you have a monster worth 24 points (divided by 12), it would be a level 2 enemy.   If this doesn’t work, then alter it.  If 24 points seems to create a monster more powerful than level 2, maybe you should be dividing your points by 10, 8, or 6, or maybe you’re giving too much weight to one combat ability that you shouldn’t be.

I could go on and on about this topic, but this blog is already too long, so I’m going to cut myself off.  If you come up with more specific questions about this process, please toss them my way, and I’ll do my best to help out.   Good luck, and keep on rolling!

The Dungeon Master

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, General Roleplaying and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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