It's surprising to me that as radical a revision 4th edition is, they still have the thousands of experience points- D&D's last fiddly little bit-- hanging about like a vestigial tail. They came very close to smoothing them away in standardizing the level progression table and in making the innovation of the combat itself as a unit of measurement. But, as far as I know, thousands of experience points are still needed to go up in level and thousands of xp need to be tracked.
If you're going to assume that accumulating power is a fundamental part of D&D, then you're going to need some way to track that growth. That's fine. but couldn't we find some way to cut down on the bookkeeping the way Delta's "stone" did for the pounds of encumbrance?
One possible unit to track experience might be the Combat itself, so players go up in level after 10 combats, maybe. But this is to make a dangerous misunderstanding-- which is I think a mistake the 4e designers made-- to assume D&D is a game about combat and getting better in combat. But as much combat as old school D&D has, veteran players know that getting the score without having to fight is even more of a success. And there are whole realms of the game that have nothing to do with combat- gathering rumors from NPCs, magic pools, tricks and traps.
Another unit to track experience might be the Session. There is nothing more fascinating to me then to hear hoary old DMs talk about how experienced a party should be after so many months of play. If you pay attention to these discussions you really get the sense that D&D, as wild and wooly as the sandbox might be, has patterns to it that are closely linked to level.
The most extreme example is the Endgame, with name level characters setting up castles and gathering armies. But I think that you would expect the hijinks a party of 8th levelers can get into would be different than those of first levelers as well.
The problem of just leveling by time played-- "Okay folks, this is our fifth session, you all are second level now." -- is that it de-links leveling from success. And this is dangerous because experience points have been important in defining what D&D is about. If it is about combat prowess you give points for monsters defeated, if its about successful dungeoneering you give xp for gold piece value successfully recovered. But if progression is based on session, what is it all about-- attendance, perseverance?
I think we can have our cake and eat it too. Taking a cue from video games and their Achievements, what if we allow leveling only after certain level-related accomplishments have been made?
Two things would need to be done:
1) Make a list of those things that are most fun doing while at level X. This would require some experience on the part of players and DMs, if the highest I've ever gotten a character was 2nd level how do I know what is most fun about name level. and then
2) Decide on a subset of those for each level of your campaign. Because I wouldn't want these to be related to video game achievements in that players would know what they specifically needed to do-- "We need to rescue someone or we'll never go up in level!"-- (at least, I don't think).
Keep in mind, I certainly don't think you need 20 levels to feel progression or, god-forbid, 50. I think we could make the number of levels more granular too, something between 5 and OD&D's 10.
So, what things would you expect players to accomplish before moving from first to second level? Here are some ideas off the top of my head:
- experience the Mythic Underworld
- survive a dicey combat
- outwit a trick/trap
- interact with some local NPCs
- aquire some treasure
- find a magic item (however minor)
patterns of D&D-- and yet allows for personal tailoring like houserules. Want you game more about roleplaying, leave out the underworld requirement or vice versa.
Of course you could make level progression more granular in another way using these achievements- by leveling as a group rather than individually, but that is a whole other post.