My group wants to play a long-form game of modern Dungeons and Dragons; that means worrying a bit about progression and especially level advancement. My players haven’t expressed any desire to tangle with D&D’s experience system, which ordinarily means embracing milestone leveling. However, I want something which is going to provide a bit more gameplay leverage for players.
This system, which I’m calling “achievement leveling,” is rooted in old school and story game experience systems.
The gamemaster and players agree on a list of types of suitable achievements. When someone completes an achievement, they write it on their sheet. Once every member of your party has an achievement at your current level, you all level up together at the end of the session.
You can have multiple achievements per level, but this doesn’t give any direct advantage. You can’t stockpile achievements. Use good judgment regarding the worthiness of an achievement allowing more trivial achievements will speed up leveling, while allowing only the most notable achievements will slow it.
- find a sponsor or patron
- devote yourself to a cause or organization
- give a recently recovered treasure to a worthy holder
- master a divine secret
- triumph over a threat to an important place or group
- make yourself an authority over a group of people
- declare substantial downtime for the whole group and describe training and personal growth
Achievement leveling keeps the party at the same level, and expects new characters to be introduced at the same level as established characters. These are typical expectations in modern D&D, but wouldn’t work in an old school system. Further, the system is going to incentivize big actions, commitments, and boldness. It assumes investigation, problem solving, and genre performance are already worthwhile on their own merits, but that our characters would benefit from a bit of an incentive to perform the big, heroic elements and to lean into engagement with world concerns.
You’ll see that my sample list emphasizes social attachment and responsibility. Fifth Edition tends to create superhumanly powerful characters who are independent from any social or material responsibility, and the chance to bind their mechanical advancement to things like obligation, reputation, and specific sites of heroism or villainy seems like an opportunity for a more responsive and fulfilling game for everyone involved.
More interesting is the possibility of the use of achievements as backstory material for characters starting above the first level. A fourth level character who leveled “naturally” would have marked three achievements, so we might ask the player bringing in a new character to list that character’s already-complete achievements as part of the character development process.
Off the top of my head, we might get a list like this:
- I served the great wizard Gretchen for a year and a day. In exchange, she taught me to control fire.
- I became the patron of the Red Vale orphanage.
- I slayed the Grimtooth Wyrm; this has made me a hero of Red Vale.
Players get to establish reputation and achievements, and the GM gets some organic hooks for each party member (Gretchen wants to give you another secret if you do this, the Red Vale farmers are claiming the Wyrm is back, etc).
Achievement leveling permits level loss if characters neglect their reputations and obligations. We have good precedent for this–a knight weakened by a broken heart, or a mage whose spells are weaker while exiled from their university. I’d recommend against actually doing this in modern D&D, because these games rely on level progression to maintain player interest.
Achievement leveling also provides a good angle for NPC management. Players could weaken a villain’s stats or power to influence the world by targeting their achievements, and it’s an effective way to encourage players to help an ally if their contribution of stats or resources are reduced by a crisis targeting one of those ally’s specific achievements. I don’t have a particular system for NPC and organization management yet, so it’s just a tantalizing possibility for now! “Targeting/ holding achievements” isn’t effective phrasing for these cases; I’ll find new unified phrasing for future developments at some point. Perhaps “holdings”?
That’s all, thanks for reading!