There’s a neat article gone up at Hack and Slash about character progression in Dungeons & Dragons, both analysing the old school-new school split (and in particular the impact of removing XP-for-gold), as well as batting down some of the more common (and less useful) points people tend to raise in such discussions. I had a mild quibble at the point towards the end concerning setting personal character goals and pursuing those in games where character advancement is based solely on sessions attended (a point raised in response to the common “I just level everyone up after 3 sessions or so” thing), which grew into this.
My quibble is that accomplishing your character goals isn’t necessarily connected to the level of your PC. Yes, being level 11 instead of level 5 might come in handy when you want to seize the throne of Aquilonia, but your level 5 dude might be able to pull it off if they’ve gathered sufficient allies, or uncovered suffiicent weaknesses of the current incumbent, and have a plan which leverages them effectively. You are correct that there’s no behaviour you can engage in to increase your rate of advancement to achieve your goals faster, but that is not the same thing as there being no behaviour you can engage in which would allow you to achieve your goals faster – it’s just that you’ll need to work out that behaviour by looking at the in-game situation and saying “what do I need to do to take this guy down, and what resources do I need to accomplish that?” rather than saying “OK, what level do I need to be to take this guy down?” (I concede, however, that this requires referees to actually provide sufficient in-game meat for you to make that assessment.)
I’ve also seen “level up when we feel like it” play based not on attendance but on advancement towards goals – usually the common goal of advancing the “main plot”, but I can see running a game where the GM could give out levels if they believe a PC has made concrete progress towards accomplishing one of their declared life’s ambitions (or has accomplished a more short-term major goal) – indeed, I could even see a game where the referee and player sit down before hand and identify a set number of landmarks towards achieving the goal in question which they both agree constitute a sufficient challenge to merit a raise in level.
But I personally wouldn’t do that if I were running a traditional D&D game, which is what I’m currently doing.
What I think the people who focus a lot on “but you should have personal goals anyway” are really missing is the benefits to be had from having common goals beyond “show up and play”. If there’s a course of action which clearly and objectively benefits every single party member, then that provides an in-game stimulus towards co-operative play, whether that’s co-operation in grabbing gold or killing things, and whilst there is a long and honourable tradition of player-on-player backstabbing in RPGs, most games assume that the players will tend to co-operate. Although most players will sit down at the table with that in mind, presenting an in-system incentive towards co-operation helps to focus their mind on that, whereas concentrating on personal goals pushes each player towards thinking “what’s best for me?” rather than “what’s best for the party?”.
If you just give out levels for attendance and encourage players to select their own personal goals for their characters, then I can foresee three possible outcomes, two of which may be undesirable (and would probably be considered undesirable by most groups) and the third of which is functional but not interesting:
- Some of the PCs have goals which are directly incompatible in a way which doesn’t leave much room for compromise: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to overthrow her. This is fine if you don’t mind a game focused on player-versus-player conflict, and that’s cool but it’s not really what I use D&D for.
- Some PCs’ goals are entirely disconnected from each other: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to visit the moon. Viable, but gets awkward when you want to explain why Gabriel is accompanying Lyra to the moon or why Lyra is hanging out at Bess’s court when she really wants to go to the moon. Why hasn’t Lyra joined a party who want to go to the Moon with her? Why is Gabriel off on interplanetary adventures when Queen Bess has bigger problems closer to home?
- By lucky chance or careful planning, the players actually manage to come up with mutually compatible and interrelated goals for all the PCs; Gabriel wants to protect Queen Bess from the Archdemon Throatstabber, Lyra wants to go to the moon to learn how to defeat Throatstabber from the kindly toad people who live there. Great, your personal goals now tie into a common party goal – explain why experience is tied to session attendance instead of progress towards the party’s common goal again?
Another point which is missed if you go with “level up every X sessions” is the point that, especially in TSR-era editions of D&D, the experience progression is set such that you don’t actually necessarily spend the same amount of time at each and every level. Experience requirements for levelling up tend to double with each level in these editions of the game, but treasure doesn’t necessarily increase exponentially.
In my 2E campaign I do give XP for session attendance, but at the same time the majority of XP given in my game is for stuff accomplished in-game (monster defeat plus gold plus class-specific stuff). The attendance XP is enough to accelerate character development (helpful since ours is a fortnightly campaign) and encourage attendance but not so much that it dominates progression – for instance, by my reckoning if I were only giving XP for attendance at the present rate then the PCs would only be level 2 and still be quite vulnerable after over a year of play, whereas currently they’re level 3 and 4 and beginning to come out of the squishy lower level portion of the game.