After killing your adversary perhaps the most satisfying part of playing Dungeons and Dragons is leveling. It represents the tangible evidence of your time playing. New abilities become available, old ones improve, and the monsters that used to terrify you suddenly stop being so scary.
Why then has this been the most substantive point that people have been dissatisfied with online?
In a situation that probably only comes up online people begin this expressing their dissatisfaction with leveling in Fifth Edition by complaining that leveling early comes too quickly and that once that becomes remedied at higher levels it's now too slow. It's an exasperating argument where level progression might as well be compared to the three bears and their porridge. But are they right in their criticism? Is the leveling progression off?
Level | 1st | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | 5th
1 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0 | 0
2 | 2,001 | 2,000 | 1,000 | 1,000 | 300
3 | 4,001 | 4,000 | 3,000 | 2,250 | 900
4 | 8,001 | 8,000 | 6,000 | 3,750 | 2,700
5 | 18,001 | 16,000 | 10,000 | 5,500 | 6,500
6 | 35,001 | 32,000 | 15,000 | 7,500 | 14,000
7 | 70,001 | 64,000 | 21,000 | 10,000 | 23,000
8 | 125,001 | 125,000 | 28,000 | 13,000 | 34,000
9 | 250,001 | 250,000 | 36,000 | 16,500 | 48,000
10 | 500,001 | 500,000 | 45,000 | 20,500 | 64,000
11 | 750,001 | 750,000 | 55,000 | 26,000 | 85,000
12 | 1,000,001 | 1,000,000 | 66,000 | 32,000 | 100,000
13 | 1,250,001 | 1,250,000 | 78,000 | 39,000 | 120,000
14 | 1,500,001 | 1,500,000 | 91,000 | 47,000 | 140,000
15 | 1,750,001 | 1,750,000 | 105,000 | 57,000 | 165,000
16 | 2,000,001 | 2,000,000 | 120,000 | 69,000 | 195,000
17 | 2,250,001 | 2,250,000 | 136,000 | 83,000 | 225,000
18 | 2,500,001 | 2,500,000 | 153,000 | 99,000 | 265,000
19 | 2,750,001 | 2,750,000 | 171,000 | 119,000 | 305,000
20 | 3,000,001 | 3,000,000 | 190,000 | 143,000 | 355,000
If we compare the leveling progression from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with each of the subsequent editions* what becomes clear is that leveling has increasingly become easier throughout the editions. In the transition from First to Second you'll notice that up until level 8 Second doubles the required experience each time to better establish a solid progression that makes sense; unlike First which doubles for the first four levels, then adds an odd amount, then doubles to level 8 where both editions lockstep with the 250,000 experience point increase for each subsequent level. This resulted in a slightly increased rate of leveling for Second and then the same arduous slog once your character started leveling beyond level 10.
Third Edition established a very easy to understand progression where predicting how much experience you needed to advance was no more difficult than remembering your current level. All you had to do to know how much experience was need was to know your current level, multiply it times a 1,000, and add the result to the current level's threshold.
For example: 171,000 - (Level 19 threshold for experience)
19,000 - (19 x 1,000 = 19,000)
190,000 - Level 20 threshold
This creates a steady rate at which your experience point requirement increases, just as First and Second did, but it made the process far less arbitrary and more predictable throughout all of the levels.
Fourth Edition's progression between levels, however, remains a mystery to me. Early on your progression is by an increase of 250 experience points each time. Thus it takes 1,250 experience points to advance from second to third; 1,500 from third to fourth; 1,750 from fourth to fifth; and 2,000 from fifth to sixth. After that the increase is by a value of 500 for three levels and then it continues to change at odd rates that don't make a lot of sense to me. What is clear, though, is that Fourth Edition has the quickest climb from level 1 to 20. Part of the reason for this speedy climb is that this is the only edition that actively encouraged players to reach beyond 20th level from the Player's Handbook. This larger field of play brought forth the idea of tiers of play assigned to levels within the game - something that had not really been at the forefront of the discussion in previous editions where you only had regular adventuring and then epic levels after 20.
It's been my contention throughout this series that Fifth Edition is a love letter to Dungeons and Dragons, so you might be wondering why it's experience progression doesn't mirror any of the previous editions. It's because they're listening to us.
Level 10 - 11 XP: It's by design. Data shows campaigns stop at 10, we're trying to speed up 10+ a bit so groups can reach 20 in a campaign
— Mike Mearls (@mikemearls) July 10, 2014
After observing the results of survey after survey it became clear to them that a lot of us - whether we had jobs, children, or just went to high school - weren't making it past level ten. Why?
To take a character from level one to 20 in First Edition wasn't something that could be generally done in summer even if you played multiple times a week. Hell I ran a Third Edition campaign which has a markedly quicker progression for two years with weekly sessions, each averaging six hours, and it took us 78 sessions for the first player to break 20 (that's over 468 hours of play). That's a huge level of commitment for everyone involved.
The new edition continues Fourth Edition's tiers of play by breaking up the 1 to 20 progression into four distinct sections. Levels 1 - 4 represent your Apprentice levels and it's designed to have you level each time you play. Levels 5 - 10 represent your Journeyman levels where you level every other session. Levels 11 - 16 represent your Tradesman levels where you've become a powerhouse and you can expect to advance every three to four sessions. Levels 17 - 20 represent your Master levels where progression has slowed further but your challenges are now matters of importance with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Unlike Third Edition where it took my players nearly 40 sessions to advance to tenth level you can reasonably expect to make tenth in 14 sessions. That's absolutely brilliant as it helps eliminate so much of the slog from the game and makes each session an opportunity to experience the fun of advancing in the game.
Basic Dungeons & Dragons 5e v0.1
Part 4 (pg. 10): The Problem with Experience
* For both First Edition and Second I have used the Fighter/Warrior's progression as my standard of comparison with later editions that do not have fluctuating leveling based on class.