Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Basic Dungeons and Dragons 5e v0.1, Part 4 (pg..10): The Problem with Experience

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.

Now on to the difficult ones

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.

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.


  1. Fantastic assessment - and it makes so much sense. I used to think I had a hugely kick-butt character at level 9 in 2e, but frankly never "rule leveled" after that point. My DM simply upped me a level ever 6 - 7 months (real time, not game time) - there was a distinct awe factor every time I leveled. If I had to slog through the "rule's way" of leveling though, the campaign for me probably would have just ended (although part of it was that I went away for school and couldn't really play in a weekly or even monthly session). But, it took an enormous amount of play time to get to level 9 - I can see why people would sort of drop off by 10.

    Recently started playing through the starter box set adventure. I was a little surprised that I went up to level 2 after the first adventure - but you are spot on. This is how it should be. Gentle, adventure by adventure progression up to level 5 keeps one engaged - growing the character, and allowing their abilities to settle and form based on the role-playing done in game.

    1. +Otto Q I can attest you played your character for a LONG time before you ever saw level 9.

      In past editions (barring 4th I have never ran it,) I have always felt D&D for me as a GM has a personal sweet spot between levels 5 and about 12 or so. These were the levels where the Players had cool abilities and packed a punch, but were not so overboard powerful that the lone fighter would think nothing of facing off against the whole Orc army. In my opinion 5th ed does what it can to get the players into that sweet spot more quickly and extend it (though lower modifiers and such.) That's a positive in my book.

    2. With Third I always felt the sweet spot was 7 - 15. Just a great place to adventure because everything can be a reasonable challenge and nothing is too far beneath you to make it unworthy of your attention.

  2. Looks like they have taken more of a middle way by that table.

    1. That's certainly a valid way of looking at it. Though I think that one of the things you can judge by that table is that there has been a consistent trend over the last 14 years to make it possible for more people to attain a higher level and to see a greater scope of the overall D&D game.

  3. I like your comparision table, and I like this new leveling progression.

    If you think about it a bit it's like the "level of learning" that accompanies some heroes of the fantasy books, that is thrown against his will in the epic events of the story and he starts, usually, as the scarce of the group, but one can see from the beginning its potential.

  4. Aside from treasure, new magic items and weapons, the only other thing to look forward to is leveling. I think this iteration of the game has taken a lot of factor into consideration when it comes to leveling up. Since gaining XP for gold has gone by the wayside for some time, they had to fine tune the math over the editions and find a happy point. I think fast leveling early on, and then slowing it down later on (but not making it a crawl) is a great decision. They had to take in to account their whole challenge system, calculate XP values for all of those monsters, and playtest the crap out of it to find that happy point. Not to mention everyone screaming for no "dead levels" that were an issue up until 3.5.

    As a DM, I want my players to gain power quickly early on. I get tired of throwing goblins and kobolds at them, and I want to start throwing dragons and vampires and maybe a beholder at them. That's where the game starts to get fun, especially for me. Last session, I threw a dracolich at the four of them, and they are 4th and 5th level. Three of them got dropped over the course of the battle, but with healing potions and the paladin's healing, they survived, but just barely. It was a great fight, and at the beginning of next session, two of them will be 6th level and two of them will be 5th. They just don't know this yet, since I don't give them their XPs, but keep a secret running total, and tell them when they level.

    1. I love the dracolich! What a great monster!

  5. And you're only looking at half of the equation, obtaining experience has gotten easier over the editions too. While I haven't looked at the XP values for 5e, the difference between 1e and 3e was it took killing 80 orc to raise a fighter to 2nd level in 1e. By 3e it was down to seven .

    1. When I compared the tables it was more to discuss where we leveled rather than how we leveled. I didn't discuss the values of experience for killing monsters in an edition by edition comparison, gaining experience through treasure, or role-playing because it would have made this post far more math intensive and less fun to read.

      That said, it's been my experience that if you're only awarding experience for fighting monsters that the game tends to not only bog down your advancement but it also tends to create an experience where your players are grinding their way through the levels instead of enjoying the game. Some groups really like that grind, but mine tend to start checking out during the game.

  6. Whoa, hold up. XP and levels don't work that way.

    You can't just do a comparison of levels by the name (which just happens to be a number in the case of levels, like a priest is a priest and a thief is a thief) you have to take into account what kind of 'scope' is represented by a level -- and for that you have to factor in monsters, too.

    I discuss this a bit in this post on my blog:

    It's worth noting that levels-and-tiers are *close* between editions, but they aren't the same. 30th level in 4e is comparable to 20th level in 3e, which means you have to average them.

    As for XP and level progression in 4e... that's a different story.

    The "XP budget" for encounters meant that monsters had to award worthy XP across several levels. There are major thresholds where XP costs/values jump up between tiers, but otherwise the progression is fairly linear.

    If you require 1,000,000 XP to reach the level cap, you will accumulate the majority (80% or more) during the last third of your career -- Epic tier. The remaining 20% of career XP is earned during the first and second tiers, of which something like 14% (I forget exactly how much) is earned during the Heroic tier.

    The XP requirements scale gently upward within a tier, then increase sharply going into the next tier.

    IIRC when you break it down, you earn 3% of your career XP in Heroic, like 14% of your career XP in Paragon, and 83% of career XP in Epic. That isn't exact, that's just what I remember off-hand.


    1. See, this comment is just another example of why I love you coming by the blog!

      Anyway, I'm utterly fascinated by the whole concept of Fourth's 30 being other editions' 20. I'm going to have to look more into that after I get through everything because that's a rabbit hole in and of itself that I really want to explore.

      "You can't just do a comparison of levels by the name (which just happens to be a number in the case of levels, like a priest is a priest and a thief is a thief) you have to take into account what kind of 'scope' is represented by a level -- and for that you have to factor in monsters, too."

      You also have to take into effect the way that we award experience points for treasure, role-play, and the like; and that's where things get really difficult and to a point that I don't want to explore at this juncture. Because once I start down that path of comparing how each edition awards experience for all aspects of play (which is required to do more than this cursory examination of leveling) and then determining how long it takes to ascend through the levels things become incredibly boring and dull.

      In the end though this wasn't designed to be THE definitive statement on how we level, but rather a cursory examination of when we leveled between each edition. Sort of a touchstone to get new players to examine the data themselves - which is why I'm so glad that you dropped that link. That's a great place for people to start looking deeper into the topic and gaining a fuller understanding of the "how" that goes beyond the when I've been talking about.

    2. "You also have to take into effect the way that we award experience points..."

      I was thinking about this. There are three levels at which XP interactions occur -- the mechanical level, where XP increments character level. There's the dynamic level, where character levels interact with encounters. And there's the aesthetic level, where players feel XP and character levels doing stuff.

      As a designer, you can only account for so much. The GM (at least in D&D) is fully in control of how much XP is awarded and for what and how often. Because of that, we have to make allowances for what's beyond the designer's control.

      Much of the conversation about "how quickly" or "how slowly" we level up is aesthetics, where players observe how much XP they get for whatever activity increments character level -- and dips into dynamics where we see how character level adds to character power.

      Historically, I believe the first three levels of play have always been the "fastest." I think this is true across all editions but I don't have the data in front of me. By fast, I mean power increases dramatically between levels at a comparatively low cost.

      To have a meaningful discussion about "how quickly" PCs level up, we need to understand power benchmarks -- what those levels "mean" in each edition, and how long it takes to get there.

      --Dither :)

    3. "To have a meaningful discussion about "how quickly" PCs level up, we need to understand power benchmarks -- what those levels "mean" in each edition, and how long it takes to get there."

      Another rabbit hole that will devour my free time. You're enjoying giving me topics that I may never have an answer for and that may consume me entirely aren't you?

      Ah well, what are friends for if not to lead you down the path of ruin . . .

    4. Sorry if any of what I said came off as pedantic... it was intended to be informative rather than uh... snobbish or lecture-y. I was trying to fit as much information as I could as quickly as possible into a small space.

      ...Moving along with the inevitable rambling on the subject of scale and scope...

      I started examining the power levels of characters between editions when someone posited in the "Brilliant Gameologist forums" that 3e characters achieved more powerful effects more quickly than 4e characters.

      The basic premise was that 30th level in 4e was equivalent to 20th level in 3e. There's actually a lot of support for this idea, in spite of WotC's idiosyncratic naming policies with concepts like "hero" and "artifact" and "epic."

      The author of the post was actually more interested in pilfering ideas from 4e since 3e was shriveling up than actually discussing the concept, so I wound up doing my own research into levels, tiers, benchmarks, power doubling, and so forth.

      I could provide you with more information if you're interested in a specific topic, I could also try and dig up some of my reference material.

      Lol, or we can not. I know you're busy with stuff and there's only so much time in the day. ;)


    5. "Sorry if any of what I said came off as pedantic... it was intended to be informative rather than uh... snobbish or lecture-y. I was trying to fit as much information as I could as quickly as possible into a small space."

      Not at all! I genuinely enjoying the information but it's sending me into research mode when I've already got two different series that I need to wrap up first. :D

      "I could provide you with more information if you're interested in a specific topic, I could also try and dig up some of my reference material."

      The answer is yes.

      Swear to god, Dither, you're like a drug pusher. You like sugar? Well I've got some crack here that's even better! Oh, you liked the crack? Well now I've got bath salts - just swallow the whole package and everything will be wonderful.

    6. Okay, I'll put some stuff together. :)

      "Combat and Character Advancement"

      I wrote this tutorial for RPG Maker users back in 2012. JRPGs are basically D&D mixed with the Visual Novel genre. Many of the things discussed in my tutorial (length of game, status effects, equipment upgrades, benchmarks & power doubling) can be applied to any game with level advancement.

      "For Massive Damage"

      I wrote this tutorial to explore and discuss critical hits, energy types, and status effects. Sadly, most of the people I've met who use RPGMaker are newbs who wouldn't be able to GM two sessions in a row, let alone tell a story.

      It'll take me some time to put together links. If you have the time and the drive, I derive a lot of my terminology from game reviews.

      Spoony talks primarily about his experiences, and while he doesn't talk about *design* so much, he does a pretty good job outlining and explaining the aesthetic side of design problems. I would also recommend his Final Fantasy and Ultima reviews.

      Sirlin talks about fighting game strategy and design and it blows my mind. Insomnia seems like a lot of angry ranting and his website makes my eyes hurt, but there are some big concepts in there.

      There's a lot of good game design material out there, it's just hard finding people with experience who know what they're talking about. But that's the case with everything, isn't it? ;)


    7. Tsk. How could I forget Egoraptor?

      For some reason, his Zelda episode isn't listed with the other three. He's merciless AND funny, a rare combination! :D

      A lot of times when gamers bitch about the design on the internet and fancy themselves game designers, they're really focused on the one kind of game they play, whether it's D&D, Poker, Chess, Call of Duty, Farmville, Settlers of Catan -- RPGs, shooters, puzzle games, strategy games, war games...

      The thing is many design concepts are universal to gaming while not being immediately obvious. It takes playing and understanding games across different genres and media to really get why some games are good, ... and when your enjoyment of a game has more to do with WHO plays than the game itself.


  7. Despite all of the analyses and comparisons of level progression, relative character power, and what factors into XP awards for various editions; the pace of level advancement for all editions of D&D can be summed up in one rule with one correlary: The characters will gain levels approximately as fast as the DM wants them to. However, exceptionally clever players will advance a bit faster than average and exceptionally clueless or annoying ones will go slower.

    As a DM I strongly believe that advancement should be fairly slow. (As you probably know by now, I have little interest in playing any D&D edition more recent than AD&D2e, so many of my comments and examples may need to be translated from AD&D terminology to "modern" d20 stuff.)

    2nd Level ought to mean more than killing a few Kobolds and hauling a sack of treasure back to your crappy rat-infested inn. Gaining a level should be a special event, like a birthday, or getting a raise -- it should represent hundreds or thousands of hours of character time, and somewhere between 20-60 hours of real-world player time. 10th level (or in AD&D terms, your class's "name" level) should be something major, like getting your PhD. 20th level should be on par with completing your major lifetime goal. I'm not saying you (as a player) necessarily should spend half a lifetime getting to 20th level, but your character probably should. If you automatically gain a level after every 1-2 gaming sessions, you don't fully experience the richness and genius of the game.

    I am not alone in this belief. Analyze some of the classic modules, for example the "Giants" series. Gary Gygax expected the typical character to gain one or at most 2 levels by the time they completed all 3 Giants modules, and he clearly expected it to take multiple play sessions to complete each module given the notes about the players' safe cave hideout and how the giants, given time, would regroup and organise traps & ambushes at the beginning of each module.

    Maybe I'm weirder than the average gamer, but I like low level play. As a DM it makes me stretch my abilities to keep things interesting whether my players are new or experienced, and balancing things for a mixed group of newbies and old-hands is a real challenge.

    And as a player, it's where shit is real! Every move is a calculated risk and the only thing keeping you alive is your wits, your fellow characters, and a healthy dose of luck. Guess wrong once too often and somebody dies, possibly you!.

    Done right with a good DM, that is what builds real emotional connections to your PC, to your friends, and to the game. Take a crazy chance & succeed--you have a lasting fun memory and a story to tell. If you fail but your sacrifice saves the party, that too is a story about why you play D&D. And if you die or end up with a TPK, in the grand scheme of things who cares, you were only 1st or 2nd level, you can roll up a new character and not be left way behind everyone else. It's really hard to maintain that kind of intensity with high level characters.

    And consider the consequences of easy rapid advancement on your game world: Are high-level NPCs a SP a dozen, like they would be if they went up a level after every "adventure"? Or are they rare and special, like they need to be if you want a chance to survive and advance to high levels?

    Or consider the real world: How many soldiers get promoted to 5 Star Generals? How many priests become Pope, or even a Cardinal?

    Sure, you can go with the easy cop-out answer that PCs are special and advance faster. But if that's the case, why are there any super high level NPCs

    1. You aren't weirder than average. You'd probably fit in with the E6 crowd.


    2. Probably not. Had to look up what E6 meant but I don't think it's for me. It isn't that I am opposed to progressing to high levels, I just don't think that the lower levels should be dispensed with as quickly as possible. For non-munchkins, they provide some of the most intense and satisfying game experiences.

      Also, E6 seems to place a lot of emphasis on feats. I don't like feats.Or for that matter, much else in the 3.5 rules.

  8. Personally, I think that PC's are not typically "supposed" to reach level 20. I think the convention that the game was conceived with is that level 10 is like being an incredibly powerful badass and level 20 is for demigods and dragons and other NPCs. The idea that you should alwqays hit level cap is from WOW and is a "later development".

    1. I absolutely disagree with your point that a character is ". . . not typically 'supposed' to reach level 20. I think the convention that the game was conceived with is that level 10 is like being an incredibly powerful badass and level 20 is for demigods and dragons and other NPCs." The only convention that matters when it comes to how powerful a player's character can become is that any advancement must be achieved through the player's skill and consistent efforts in play. To limit them to level 10, or 20, or any other arbitrary level is to stop rewarding their efforts and to effectively tell them that the possibilities for the character have been ended at that point. Artificial level caps of that sort are not a part of the traditional D&D game as we can look at 1st, 2nd, Basic/Expert/Champion, 3rd, and even the 4th Edition to find rules for play beyond 20th level and ideas for how to challenge players who move into that realm of play.

      The idea that there is a "cap" to how far you can advance a D&D character is a self-imposed construct and not a part of the game.

    2. Level caps are for video games. In D&D, 20th level is just where the design notes kind of trail off. . . "here there be dragons."

      Advance at your own peril! >:D



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