D&D Player Character Advancement

This time, I’d like to walk through my take on player character advancement. There are certainly a variety of viable ways to do this, but this is my own adaptation.

Awarding Experience Points (XP)

The method with the deepest roots in the game is through awarding experience points. In early editions, experience points were awarded for the monsters you defeated, and even the gold found. There was a system of converting gold pieces into XP. 

This tended to work great for dungeon delving and combat-focused games. Let’s face it, the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, so it made sense for the playstyle of the time. Even the monster stat blocks included an XP value, so you knew what to award to the players. 

But it could be a little muddy when it came to non-combat encounters and exploration. 

Milestone Advancement

With the milestone method, XP is awarded when the characters complete significant milestones during the game. For example, experience can be awarded when the party accomplishes one the goals necessary to complete the adventure. They could also gain experience for completing some sort of social or exploration challenge.

Advancement without XP

You could also just go without experience points all together. Instead of XP rewards, this method grants character-level advancement after accomplishing certain goals. This could be session based, but it could also be based on story progression.

My version: Chapter Advancement

As you already may be aware, my players take part in a character prologue activity for their characters. This is because while D&D is a game, I really lean into the collaborative story playing elements. Each character has a prologue, and the adventuring group’s story are the chapters. And in my game, chapters correspond to levels. 

Chapter Advancement fits under the Advancement without XP category, and it could be considered a hybrid of both session-based and story-based advancement methods. 

However, a key difference is player agency. With Chapter Advancement, the DM and the Players collaborate to identify the chapters, and they are tied to the significant goals of the adventuring group.

This works really well with the Encounter/Encounter Response methodology I’ve implemented in my campaigns. Let’s look at an example.


I recently started a livestream campaign – Relics of the Ancients. The players completed their character prologues. Much of this was done in Session Zero, but the remainder was done offline. I also held private sessions for some players to help them get acclimated to the game. 

Chapter 1 started officially when the game started in our first session. As the DM, I’ve set the story in motion, and their choices are a little more focused due to the encounters I provided, and the amount of information they have at the beginning of the campaign. It ended at the conclusion of the first session, because the adventuring group completed their first significant goal. They formed the group, completed the first combat encounter, and investigated the situation. By the way, this is likely the only chapter I will have full control over. 

Chapter 2 begins when the party starts the next session after leveling up. From here on, the nature of the game allows for the players to make decisions about the overall goals of their characters. The Encounter Reponses inform me about the party’s goals on a strategic and tactical level, but I can also just explicitly ask the players what the group’s next goal is. After completing their next significant goal – and I’m not talking about a “Our goal is to buy a new pair of boots” type of scenario – they will advance to level 3. 

So, does character advancement happen as the story progresses? Yes, yes it does. 

Will character advancement happen at the end of every session? Maybe…maybe not. 

It will actually depend on how I structure the sessions. My goal is to include the appropriate amount of social, exploration, and combat encounters to ensure the adventuring group gets to attempt their goal. I say attempt, because ending a chapter doesn’t always mean completing the goal targeted. That’s ok…they still complete the chapter and advance to the next character level. But they continue on to the next chapter of the story, and move on toward their next major goal. In the end, you should use the character advancement method that works best for your group and your players interests. 

For a group of players who love dungeon delving and treasure hunting over roleplaying and story, maybe the XP reward method will be more satisfying for everyone. However, for a story-focused group, give this Chapter Advancement method a chance and see if it fits your needs.