Customizing D&D 5e Leveling

TL;DR
Let’s try something. Leveling up is an abstraction from the story. It breaks the fiction and limits character’s options by forcing them into predefined templates. Instead of leveling up with XP all advancement is through in game actions such as training, practice and discovery.

Goals
My goal as a DM and a story teller is to create a world that is a living and breathing story in which the players can play and the characters can live. I want to maximize the things that bring that world to life and minimize the things that break the fiction or take our minds out of the fantasy world. Leveling up is one of the mechanics that is really abstracted from the world. There are several good reasons for this:

  • A Reward system that is standardized and easy to use.
  • Makes the game much more accessible to DMs and players.
  • Keeps characters somewhat balanced.
  • Requires almost no work or interactions from the DM making their job easier.

So why would anyone want to change something as complex and integral to the game as leveling? What would be the advantages and disadvantages for players and dms?

Try something new
I have played in and and DMed a lot of D&D games and it has been great. I always have fun, but the more I play the more I want to create something even better. Leveling up is one of the highlights of D&D for most players. Recently I played in a game were there were no classes or levels. The only way to gain powers and skills was through actions. Getting XP by fighting random things no longer made sense. Instead the focus shifted to gathering information and learning new skills and powers through training, research and magic. I found this to be very rewarding and fun and made the story congruent with the characters advancement, the fiction was preserved.

More flexibility
Classes are templates that characters are forced into. Although most classes have several options they are based on stereotypical archetypes. Even with different options available I find that characters end up being similar and limited, and often they need more depth and variety. Multi-classing can solve some of these problems but honestly I don’t know if I have ever seen multi-classing used as part of the fiction, it seems to just be used for min/maxing.

Leveling is usually disconnected from the world and story
This is my biggest complaint with how leveling up works. Not only is it completely disconnected from the world but it often breaks the fiction. There is no reason to gather resources, find the weaknesses of your enemies and makes plans to defeat your nemesis when you become more powerful simply murdering everything you meet. Think of any fantasy book or movie, the protagonists act with purpose to solve their problems and reach their goals. They don’t attack random creatures until they are almost god like and then destroy their enemies. They must find ways to reach their goals through their actions. To accumulate specific knowledge and power which will allow them to defeat their enemies and overcome the challenges they face. This is leveling up in the world instead of outside of it.

Magic Item relevance
Everyone loves magic items but they are often completely unnecessary. Almost any benefits a magic item can grant can also be achieved by gaining a couple of levels. Many magic items lose relevance quickly as levels are gained, especially when you consider the HP gains per level and how they define how powerful a creature is. I want magic items to be difference makers, unique and powerful with lasting implications on the world and story.

I covered some of the advantages and my personal goals but I will get more into the advantages and disadvantages  next time…

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