Variant Rules: The Checkpoint System

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is by far one of the best supplements Wizards of the Coast has ever released. It is a Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s best friend (after the Dungeon Master’s Guide), and many players leap at the opportunity to try new character options outside of what is presented in the Player’s Handbook. But there is much more to it than new spells and subclasses, and one of its lesser-known features has recently come to the forefront of the D&D community’s attention: checkpoints.

On June 19th, Adventurers League—the organized play association that creates and carries out one of the official campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons—announced that with the upcoming Season 8 (due to begin in September 2018) character advancement will proceed using the checkpoint system. Or, rather, the “checkmark system”, as their version is apparently an adaptation of what appears in Xanathar’s.

Whatever it’s being called, this announcement has spurred a lot of interest in the variant system and its approach to character advancement. People want to know: What is it all about? In this article, we will explore how the checkpoint system is designed and discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of this variant, as well as how to make it work for your table.

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The Good

Checkpoints were conceived as a tool for streamlining character advancement in shared campaigns. Shared campaigns are those in which more than one member of the group can serve as the Dungeon Master. By their nature, they are more likely to succeed when they are done in an episodic manner, rather than continuous. Each episode might take one or more sessions to complete, but it would be largely self-contained. The D&D Adventurers League is currently the largest shared campaign in the world, with close to 100,000 members.

The most important way in which a checkpoint system differs from the standard method of character advancement is that it doesn’t use experience points (XP). Instead of gaining levels by accumulating XP, players instead accumulate a number of checkpoints that they can then expend to level up. For levels 1–4, four checkpoints are sufficient to level up. At 5th level or higher, you need eight checkpoints. These checkpoints are earned based on your playing time. If you play for one hour, you earn 1 checkpoint; it doesn’t matter if you’ve spent that entire time waist-deep in sewer water battling otyughs or spent it lurking in the tavern. It follows the success of the milestone system, which allows players to level up when they reach a certain point in the campaign’s story, however they managed to get there.

There are many reasons why this method of character advancement would be desirable. Most importantly, because it does not penalize players whose preferred playing style emphasizes roleplaying and social interactions instead of the more typical focus on combat. Players who devise clever ways to bypass battles also find themselves rewarded the same way as if they had cut a bloody swathe through every group of enemies they faced. Likewise, because it’s based on the adventure’s projected playing time, if you finish a 4-hour adventure in 3 hours, you still get the same benefits.

It also is clearly intended to speed up advancement to tier 2 (levels 5–10). The standard rules are designed such that 1st and 2nd level should take one session to get through, and two sessions for 3rd and 4th level. Checkpoints extend that faster pace of advancement, as a typical play session (4 hours) should be sufficient to see you level up after each of the first four sessions of the game. This fast-tracks you up to levels where stakes tend to get higher and the adventures tend to become more interesting.

The Bad

There are, of course, downsides to this depending on your party’s mentality and style.

For starters, if you have a slower group who take longer to get through an adventure, you don’t get any additional benefits for the additional time. A party that takes 3 hours to complete a 2-hour adventure only get 2 hours worth of rewards. In a home game, this really doesn’t matter all that much as DMs are less likely to actually go through and estimate how long the adventure will take and simply round up to the nearest checkpoint. On the other hand, for missions that have a set length (as is the case with Adventurers League content), a 2-hour adventure can only offer 2 hours worth of rewards.

Secondly, the system removes the opportunity to be accumulate additional rewards in the form of ‘side quests’. Many adventures—especially those Adventurers League ones—tend to offer bonus experience for tying up loose ends or achieving additional goals. These add an additional dimension to the adventure which many players will possibly feel is not worth the time any more. At least, not in organized play where the missions are typically given out by faceless faction agents as opposed to more personalized quests that a home-based group would use.

The Ugly

The checkpoint system also removes any built-in incentive to actually finish quests. While it would be silly to assume that players would altogether avoid adventuring in favour of simply sitting in the tavern and earning checkpoints because they can get away with it, the incentive to earn tangible rewards like experience points by completing quests is nonexistent. This means that a party that is worn out and likely to lose members if they push on will have less motivation to actually take that risk because they could simply abandon the quest and claim the exact same rewards. It is an excuse to hand out participation awards to people unwilling to take the risks, even when the mission was in fact an abject failure.

Fortunately, quests in a shared campaign are, again, episodic and therefore smaller in scope. The consequences of failing a mission will therefore rarely be earth shattering, so abandoning a mission may not literally spell the end of the world. Nonetheless, many DMs may resent handing out rewards when their players failed.

Making It Work For You

There are a few suggestions that we can offer to help ensure that you are both taking advantage and also mitigating the drawbacks of this system.

Firstly, find out what your party really likes to do. If they are less interested in the combat side of play, find other ways to allow them to use their character abilities. If they prefer puzzles and tests of skill, obstacles which involve tests of mettle or the use of spells can still force the players to use their existing resources, maintaining the relevance of game mechanics which the players took time to consider. If they prefer roleplaying encounters, consider creating situations where the players succeed on a certain number of skill checks before accumulating a certain number of failures. Give the NPCs they must convince each distinct (and perhaps in some ways conflicting) interests that must be balanced, sometimes resulting in advantage or disadvantage being imposed on the check rolls.

Additionally, DMs who write content for shared campaigns should be prepared to consider what consequences should occur if the party gives up and goes home. Though missions in shared campaigns tend to be episodic, you are still building a collaborative story, and the different missions don’t have to be entirely self-contained. Several episodes can be written around the same issue and the various consequences of its fallout. You may find it easier to start planning these episodes as a set, as opposed to writing one and then linking others to it later. Start with an event that would meaningfully change the fabric of the characters’ lives and then work backward to generate plot hooks and precipitating factors that can either succeed or be thwarted. These become the outlines for the episodes in the series. Be sure to threaten the things that your players enjoy to ensure that they remain invested in seeing the adventure through.

Because it is a shared campaign, you may have to take extra caution to keep the full picture from your players until the final episode and also ensure that the storyline doesn’t get hijacked by one of your fellow DMs. Ask them to leave certain NPCs and loose ends to you, or that they don’t take the party too far from a certain area. Collaboration can certainly be helpful in planning, but they’ll also be playing in the adventure and so you don’t want to spoil what happens.

Putting It All Together

The checkpoint system is designed to streamline character advancement in the less predictable model of shared campaigns. Characters achieve checkpoints based on hours played, and these checkpoints count toward their next level up, guaranteeing regular character advancement. It also accelerates advancement out of early levels and into the area where players typically gain some level of fame (or infamy) and are more likely to get involved in larger, riskier endeavours.

This system allows for parties with different play styles—be it roleplaying or stealthy operations—to get the same rewards as if they had followed the more traditional expectations of kicking down every door and clearing each room one enemy at a time. Groups that emphasize roleplaying aren’t penalized for attempting to resolve problems through (hard) negotiation, and groups that are more interested in avoiding combat aren’t penalized when the DM offers up puzzles and tests of mettle to challenge the players instead.

With this system, Dungeon Masters are under more pressure to consider the effect of the party’s failure if they abandon a quest. We recommend writing a series of adventures together, carrying forward the consequences of the party’s actions—their victories and their defeats—in ways that meaningfully reward or punish them as the story comes together. Just because adventures tend to be told in episodes doesn’t mean they are entirely self-contained, that their consequences can’t spill over. Have the party’s failures haunt them, especially if those failures are a result of not taking the consequences seriously and being unwilling to commit beyond the point where their rewards end.

Once you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the checkpoint system, it is easy to develop adventures based around them. Like the milestone system, it both changes and embraces the fundamental nature of D&D, empowering parties to explore all three pillars of gameplay, rather than just simply focusing on combat. It’s a shift in paradigm, but well handled it can remove some headaches and frustrations that have plagued character advancement for many editions.

Addendum: Loot Changes in Adventurers League

We weren’t going to talk about this because it honestly has nothing to do with checkpoints, but so many people are discussing the other variant rules in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything in the context of the Adventurers League announcement that we felt it was worth devoting a short section at the end of the article to offering our insights and a sneaky hint to which we have been privy.

The checkpoint system that Chris Lindsay mentions in the video announcement about the change to character advancement happens to appear in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything alongside a few other variants, including Individual Treasure, Magic Items, and Buying and Selling. These other variants are completely separate from the checkpoint system, and no announcement to date has firmly established that they will also be implemented. That said, as we indicated, we have been privy to a hint. And that hint is that we will indeed be seeing more rules from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This hint came with the additional comment that these rules will also have with some adjustment to account for the standardized missions that appear in Adventurers League, rather than simply being wholesale copied over from the book.

That these systems will be tweaked before being implemented is an enormous relief to us. Like many others, we have been looking at the official versions of the variant and wringing our hands. There are certainly some very smart ideas, such as the ability to purchase magic items with points using the Magic Items variant rather than having to possibly fight for those items that appear in the Adventurers League missions. This change will effectively curtail the unfortunate practice of people joining AL modules simply to ‘snipe’ a specific item. Even if the system will require that players purchase items only from modules they have played (as is the way DM Rewards work), the chance of more people being able to obtain an item by using their points will remove the competition for loot in what should be a collaborative game.

Frankly, we’ve never understood why the treasure system was designed the way it is now for Adventurers League.  Oh, to be sure, we understand the concept that each character has their own canon version of the story of missions in which they participate. But that logic falls flat when that character can encounter another character who did the same mission in a different group. Suddenly, there are not only two versions of what happened, but also two versions of the cool magic sword that your party fought over. And if another character in the party also did the same mission with a third group, then there are three cool swords out there. So why, if there is an effectively infinite quantity of the cool sword, is there any reason to bother limiting how many people in a single group can get it? We sincerely hope that this will be addressed with the new season.

But while the Magic Item variant has the potential to be a wonderful solution, we have some trepidation about the Individual Treasure variant. If we are to be totally honest (and when are we not?), we think the version that appears in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything would be an unmitigated disaster under Adventurers League’s rules paradigm. Any given character under the variant rules has a lifetime earning capped at 26,425 gp. This means that you must choose between making expensive purchases such as a suit of plate armour (which has a price tag of 1,500 gp) and ever being able afford to have true resurrection cast on you without help (it requires a diamond worth 25,000 gp). And if you’re a wizard, chances are you’ll never be able to maintain a full spellbook and have all the spell components you need with the limited number of coins you earn on levelling up.

In a normal game where players can pool their resources freely, this is not an issue because some classes have fewer major expenses they need to make, and therefore some surplus of coin can be found. In Adventurers League, however, every player is in their own separate silo. According to AL rules: “A character’s treasury belongs to the character and is used for their expenses only. The D&D Adventurers League Player’s Guide disallows players splitting the cost of goods, like two players going halfsies on the cost of dragonscale armor.”[Src] This will severely discourage AL players from playing classes that require large investments of coin, such as wizards.

Fortunately, and as we have already said, the AL admins are making adjustments to these variants before implementing them, and so we must give them the benefit of the doubt. The admins are certainly aware that they would have an open revolt from their players if they change things too dramatically and without any meaningful consultation. At least, we hope they are aware of that. All we can do is wait and see.

Have you used the checkpoint system in your games? Let us know how you liked it in the comments below!


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