During my last game as everyone’s favorite Dragonborn Rogue, J’hari Wrex, our group played for approximately 10 hours. As the session concluded around 3AM, I asked if we had enough experience to level up. My DM informed me that I just made it to Level 12, which made me quite happy. But then I learned that everyone else in the group during the session was already Level 12. I had no idea I was a level lower throughout the entire marathon session.
Given that it was 3AM and I had to drive home, I didn’t have the time to ponder the implications of not being at the same level as the rest of the party. In the following days, I reached out to our DM (AJ, who is also a player in my campaign and host for both games) and asked why I did not level up at the same time as everyone else. He has decided to link Experience Points (XP) to attendance and he plans to run the rest of the campaign with players within the group possibly being at different levels. I disagree with this approach for several reasons. As we discussed the topic in an email chain, I decided it would make a decent blog post. Since he recently started his own blog (the power of Iddy compels him!), I told him we should answer the following question in our own way:
Should DMs level up all members of the party at the same time in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition?
AJ and I did not read each other’s answer before posting our responses. And check out the rest of his blog for other good D&D commentary and information about his Ultimate Gaming Table.
In communicating with AJ (my DM), he commented that previous editions handled experience differently than 4th Edition, and stated it was not uncommon for players of the same party to be at different levels. Since I have not played previous editions to a great extent, I really cannot comment on them. However, I can comment on my experiences with 4th Edition.
The level of players and monsters are based so much on the math behind the scenes. The encounter level XP budget is based on Party Level. There are clear guidelines for creating an encounter for six Level 12 PCs. But the guidelines are less clear (or even nonexistent) for creating an encounter for five Level 12 PCs and one Level 11 PC. Without realizing it in our last session, my Rogue was at a disadvantage in numerous statistics throughout the game, especially since it was the difference between the group being at a higher even level and me being behind at an odd level. A 1/2 Level modifier is added to most statistics for a PC at each even level, and since I was still at Level 11, I did not have the same 1/2 Level benefit as the rest of the party.
As a result, my Attack Bonus, Skills and four Defenses were all lower than they “should have been.” Compared to the rest of the party, I was playing the game with a permanent -1 penalty to many statistics and rolls. Some may not believe that a -1 penalty to the majority of rolls is a major deal, but that is a 5% higher chance of failure for the PC. If a player in the campaign is two or more levels lower, then the math becomes quite unfair. Not only does it hurt my character’s abilities, it also hampers the party since they rely on me as a Striker in combat. If I’m missing 5% more often, then it sucks for me (I don’t like to miss) but it also makes an encounter more challenging for the party since I’m not as effective. I have not yet found an adequate reason to punish a player with that type of penalty. But one possible reason to limit XP earned is if the player is not attending the game regularly.
I will be the first to admit that I miss more sessions that other players in my group. The majority of the games I miss are because I’m out of town and literally cannot be there for the game. It is not a dedication-to-the-game issue. My wife and I live far away from our families (about 1,200 miles in opposite directions) and we travel to visit them four or five times each year. Not to mention some non-family travel, other things like holidays and stuff that “just comes up.” I do not blow off sessions at the last minute, and my no-shows from the group are documented well in advance. But I respect the subject of attendance as a very big deal. Since I’m DM for one group, I know the importance of having a stable group of players that are reliable. Thankfully, I think both groups I’m in have that reliability.
I went back to the original Dungoen Master’s Guide to see if they present guidelines for handling absent players. Indeed, the DMG on page 121 reads as follows:
“The game works better in a lot of ways if you just assume that the characters all gain experience and advance levels at the same rate, even if their players miss a session. You don’t have to worry about players lagging behind the others, and the players who miss a session don’t feel like they’re less effective. D&D is a cooperative game, and it’s more fun when all the players are on a level playing field, able to make equal contributions to the group’s success . . .
The alternative, of course, is to give XP only to the characters who are present and who participate in each encounter . . . If a player misses a session, that character doesn’t get XP for the whole session. The result is that players who never miss a session get ahead of those who miss the occasional game, and eventually they wind up a level or more ahead. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
The DMG indicates the “games works better” is the party members are always at the same level. But is does leave room for DMs to emphasize attendance and for players who attend a session to earn more XP than players who miss a session. I realize that rewarding XP to all players – regardless of attendance – can set up a dynamic where players who attend each session get frustrated because they do all the work in the campaign but somebody that is only attending sporadically recieves the same rewards. I think it is important to reward players for being at the game compared to players who are missing sessions, but XP should not be one of those rewards.
First, I have other ways of rewarding players for attending the games and being invested in the campaign. The players who miss sessions are not involved in gold and magic item splits during treasure parcels. A player that misses the session may miss out on an item that they would really like to have for their character, but since they missed the session, they are out of luck. They also do not have the same amount of gold to shop with in the future (although GP in 4th Edition is another topic that bothers me, but I’ll save that for another day!). Second, I reward players in my campaign with +1 tokens for a variety of in-game deeds such as excellent roleplaying, “cool” moments and other displays of creativity and investment in the campaign. The players who miss sessions are not able to receive these benefits. I also give out rewards such as +1 tokens or Healing Surges for players that send me a journal from the PC’s perspective between sessions. Not to mention the players get the privilege to play in my campaign, which should be reward enough! Sorry, I slipped into The Angry DM mode there.
The final point I wish to make on the attendance issue is that it sets up a situation where a long-running group can have players with a wide range of levels. For instance, I am dedicated to our campaign but have to miss a few sessions during the year. As time advances, I might be two or more levels below those who never miss a gaming session. I demonstrated above that just a one-level difference can have a strong effect on the game. The only way to balance that is to have easier monsters, but then the higher-level party members will not be tested. It would result in a great deal of unbalance in encounters.
I do not track XP in my campaign while DMing. I started off by keeping track of the party’s XP but realized a few things rather quickly. First, our group can only play once every two weeks (at most, see scheduling issues above) and the pace of progress was too slow for my tastes. It would take four years or more at that pace to finish a campaign from Level 1 through 30, and I simply do not want to wait that long. Second, I enjoy the fact that it is one less thing to worry about. I do not have to keep a separate page or file to document the XP earned by the party. I inform the party at the conclusion of a session, “As you recover from the last encounter, you begin to feel stronger. Level up!” The only downside I see in this system is that the group might feel shortchanged that they are not earning XP fast enough. But I am leveling the party faster than they would have otherwise “by the book,” so I don’t view this a problem.
My DM informed me that he would be using a modification to XP to “catch me up” to the group. If I fall below the level of the party, I would earn XP + 15% (or something like that) until I am at the same place as the party. This seems to be a fair compromise, but I do not see the point of spending the time to track and modify XP if the end result is the group will be at the same level anyway. It is good that I will not fall too far behind the rest of the party, but there will still be sessions when I’m playing with a penalty compared to everyone else. I’m not sure what holding me back from a level for a session or two accomplishes.
I level up all party members at the same time for two primary reasons. First, it makes my life much easier. I do not have to worry about the extra complication of dealing with players at multiple levels. In fact, I don’t even track XP and level up players when I want, which is always faster than they should be leveling according to the DMG. I have enough to worry about as a DM, so I’m perfectly fine “handwaving” the XP to keep the group moving along. Second, I think an unbalanced party can cause problems for the players in the group. It creates a fairness issue, and not only imposes a penalty on the player who a level lower, but also drags the entire party down and makes them less effective. I suggest you level all party members at the same time.
If you do have an issue with attendance, then that should be a separate discussion with your group and the specific players that tend to miss sessions most often. Find other rewards for the players who are present for the majority of games to keep them feeling invested.
I think our DM is quite fair with the players in our group. But this is one issue where we disagree. He has his reasons, and you should certainly read why he thinks rewarding XP based on attendance is a fine idea. We’re curious to learn where other DMs stand on the topic, and hope it generates some lively discussion.
EDIT: I have decided to turn off the Comments for this post. It was not an easy decision, and I very much thank everyone that stopped by to read the article and write their thoughts. I think the “for” and “against” positions were covered, but I do not want things to get personal or out of hand. I do not have the time to moderate every Comment, and I do not want something offensive to bother a loyal reader or someone casually viewing the site for the first time. Also, I think the discussion has reached a point where further back and forth will not be productive. Thank you for reading the article! I will have new articles up next week, and Comments remain open on the other articles.