Leveling Skyrim Style In Dungeons & Dragons?


A while back, I wrote the most popular article on my site – “4e D&D Plays Like A Video Game, And That’s Awesome” though you wouldn’t know that from what my site currently displays due to having to rebuild completely after being hacked by some shitheads. I’m not bitter. Anyway, today I’d like to discuss an idea that came to me during a twitter debate instsigated by the NewbieDM the other day, and that is alternatives to levels in D&D. Particularly in this case, players leveling up.

Now I’m no pro game designer, or even good at being an amateur one so bear with me here – I’m just a guy who likes video games and D&D, and has a (probably) dumb idea. Hear me out.

In A Nutshell, Or Two.

The way the Elder Scrolls games work as far as leveling goes is basically as follows: As you are out adventuring, using your abilities, the more you use something, the better you get with it. Say for example, that you spend a lot of time using a sword – this will earn you a point in Blades which relates back to the Strength attribute. After you have earned 10 points in any skill you achieve a level up, when you level up you get points to spend on your Attributes. In the Elder Scrolls universe, these differ slightly from D&D, they are Strength, Endurance, Speed, Agility, Personality, Intelligence, Willpower and Luck.

Depending on what skills you used to earn you those 10 points will affect the bonuses you get when distributing points to your attributes at time of level up. When leveling you get 3 points to spend on your attributes, so lets say you used Strength 5 out of the 10 times you got a skill point towards leveling, if you chose to put a point into strength, you’ll get a +3 bonus or so, actually resulting in a +4 bonus to strength. Now lets say you want to increase your willpower but didn’t use any willpower related skills on your way to this level, spending a point would only earn you +1 to that attribute.

Specifics, Details, Whatever

The above mentioned math is not verbatim from the games so please don’t rib me on that, and while the system is still technically a labeled leveling system “You are now level 2”, the beauty of it is that really there is no cap unless of course you somehow manage to max out every single attribute you have which takes some real dedication, and lots of time.

Unlike a video game, if a system like this were used in an RPG, no one could put a brick on the jump button and walk away from the game for 12 hours to come back and see “Your Acrobatics has increased to 10,000” Though I suppose it wold be both hilarious and insanely annoying to hear a player at your table say “I jump” or “My character jumps repeatedly everywhere he goes”. Roll those endurance checks!

Anyway. Now I’m fully aware that I’m going to get a ton of comments from people telling me 30 different tabletop RPG system that probably already uses something similar to this. I’m no tabletop RPG dictionary, though I’d like to be, and I’m not asking you to refrain from those comments because I’m definitely interested in being enlightened. Just let me down easy folks.

Adapting This To D&D

Since D&D already has a list of skills that relate directly back to a set of attributes it seems houseruling something like this wouldn’t take too much work. Though I’m sure its no easy task and may break the game entirely so keep in mind that this is just an idea I’m tossing out there and has about zero ranks in refinement.

What if something like after using a skill X times you ‘leveled up’ in it. Perhaps if you succeeded a certain check by a certain degree it would count as two of those X times? Once you’ve ‘leveled up’ in ten skills or so, your character levels up and gains a few buffs here and there. This could eliminate “flat” levels in D&D and perhaps make for some fun mechanics like, let’s say “unlocking” Sweeping Strikes or a Whirlwind ability would only be available once a character has achieved X ranks in blades, dexterity and strength. Attribute bonuses would still be worked out still only rise every 4 levels, and somehow tying this all into power accumulation would be slick!

Of course there are a lot of ideas people could take and run with this on, which is why I’m putting this half-assed idea out there on my blog. What are your ideas? Let’s hear them in the comments.


  1. In a computer game, that system of tallying skills used, attributes used, and powers used X times is dynamite, but at the table top, that leaves the tallying in the hands of the players.

    Threre was an old system – maybe old Chaosium – used to use a system like that, where you ticked off a successfully used skill, and got to roll to see if it increased when you leveled. But I also remember people forgetting to tick, and then an argument ensuing when level up occurred, and the GM said “well if you forgot to tick, then you don’t get to increase… I don’t remember every skill everyone properly used!”

    It works great in a computer game because the computer remembers perfectly everything you did, and always ticks off a skill. It’s a great advancement system, so long as the human element is removed.

    Of course, one could make the GM keep track, but that would be madness of another sort…

  2. Definitely an interesting idea and if there is a game already using this I would be very interested in it. Though I think implementing it into D&D would be a nightmare to figure out. Could you only level up skills after a successful skill check? what about when you use attack powers? There isnt really a skill to cover blade, or ranged. and how would that effect attributes, as it stands D&D attributes are fairly static only raising every 4 levels I think it is. Changing them every time you leveled would be a huge change to the power level of the game.

    I think as a new much more skill focused system this would be a brilliant idea, but as a D&D house rule I think it is a little ambitious. But maybe I’m just thinking outside the box enough.

    • I see where you’re coming from, and I didn’t have answers to most of these questions when I posted it. I think there’s a way you could pull this off and keep the stat progression the same in D&D. Unsure how but, maybe? Yeah it’s ambitious and probably totally unworkable, but hey…I had to toss it out there.

  3. My group has something going similar. I gave each player a pool of skill points that they can only put to untrained skills, and only when they use that skill (no more than 2 at a time). Once they have 5 points its trained, until then the points used are a bonus to the skills.

    So to take this further get rid of half level bonus, and use a larger pool. Translate point use back to attributes.

  4. I think you could definitely come up with a houserule for leveling skills. One of the issues I have with my 4e play group is nobody is willing to try an untrained skill. However, if we had a house rule that let you add +1 to your skill score after 3 successful uses of that skill, I bet more players would try to us an untrained skill. So after 15 successful uses, your PC would be effectively ‘trained’ in that skill through OJT (on the job training). The number of successes needed to level could be adjusted if your game uses a lot of skill checks per session. If a player is already trained I would require only successes against a Hard DC to count towards increasing skill level. This represents the PC really trying to improve their ability beyond their training.

    • I really like this idea. Not sure how that would pan out with game balance or having all the PC’s eventually be even keel on skills and diluting the diversity of the group or turning them all into superheroes. Then again maybe the same OJT idea but only allowing a cap of +3 to a skill and make it take more attempts to actually get those bonuses.

  5. The game Burning Wheel has a system like this, where to improve a skill you have to attempt rolls of a variety of difficulties – some easy, some difficult – with the number of rolls required increasing a your skill rises.

  6. I get the aversion to tickmark bookkeeping. I wouldn’t like that aspect either. The basis of this idea is “I use something a lot, so I should be getting better at it.” So, instead of the bookkeeping of “how many times have I used this,” try a tradeoff. The tradeoff is focusing your time on one thing, to the detriment of something else.
    In other words, the PC gives up the ability to use one thing to be better in something else. For example, the PC foregoes all ranged attacks for a bonus to melee. Or foregoes diplomacy for a bonus to intimidate. Stealth for Athletics. I would say the more specific the tradeoff, the better the bonus. So if I limit my character to usage of only one type of weapon (e.g. Mace only) I would get a better bonus than the aforementioned “generic” Ranged for Melee. Also, I wouldn’t allow Untrained/Trained skill trades. You would basically have to give up training in one skill for a progressively better bonus (on top of the +5 trained bonus) in another. (So if my character should normally get 4 trained skills, they only get 3, but will get a progressive bonus in one of those 3)

  7. How about something like, if you succeed at a skill with a Hard DC, the DM lets you roll an improvement check, and if you roll a 20 you get a permanent +1 to that skill.

    Instant problem: Eventually skill progressions will be higher than intended, so Hard DCs will be easier to hit, and this could spiral, and by level 20 you’d have a character with a 50 in Diplomacy (10 for 1/2level 7 for super charisma 5 for training and 18 because my honeyed words make Saruman sound like Hodor).

    So maybe you cap it to one roll per level, and then this bonus, when the 20 comes up, becomes an excuse to throw a party. But now you’ve added another column of bookkeeping.

  8. As another poster said, this is the system used by burning wheel, and the same one used in the very streamlined mouse guard. The system is fairly setting neutral, and is easily to switch to a more classic DnD world if you like.

  9. You may not have to use just the D&D system in order to get this type of leveling up system. Example: In GURPS you can limit players to only level up a skill that they have used in-game.

    Also, I like what James suggested and I don’t think you would get a ton of +’s from natural 20’s. I mean, the possibility of rolling a 20 is very slim. Or, you can make it more difficult and only provide a Permanent Increase Possibility Check = PIPC – hehe… when a player rolls a natural 20 on a skill. Thus they would need two natural 20’s in a row, which is insanely difficult to do…

    Doing it this way you run into the problem of this being more of luck thing, as opposed to a “how many times you swing your sword” thing.

    Just can’t get away from the tick marks. Perhaps the question is… how can you make the ticket mark a little less micromanaging?

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