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How fast should characters level up?

Written by Expy - Published on July 20, 2007

I was discussing on the D&D forums and started a thread on how fast should characters level up. The first reply to my post came about 10 minutes after I posted it and boldly stated that characters should level up once every 13.5 encounters. I thought the ridiculously precise number was pretty funny, but then came a second reply that claimed the number was actually 13.33 encounters per level. I was stoked.

Following the Dungeon Master Guide’s guidelines

On one hand, the challenge rating system is great for assigning experience, if everything goes according to plan. But which game ever does? The encounters I think will be difficult often end up being easy or vice-versa. And do you really want to go through 13 – excuse me, 13.33 – encounters at level one? Personally I don’t.

Many liberal replies also were posted on the forum and I strongly suggest that you spend some time on the message boards. I know it broadens my dungeon master horizons when I do.

Switching gears

My take on how fast the characters should level up depends on the kind of game I am playing. When I’m in a very laid back game with casual players, I’d say that I would level every 3-4 games. If my players are veterans, I’ll breeze through the first 10-12 levels (1 lvl / 1 or 2 games) and then slow down dramatically. I think that experienced players have fun roleplaying, but they can be bored with low-level character, and the higher levels offer so much more complexity.

What about you?

Your thoughts? Do you often start a D&D game that lasts only a few weeks or months – meaning you rarely get to play high-level characters?

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Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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22 Responses to “How fast should characters level up?”
  1. Pé0 says:

    When you said slow down dramatically you meant it. I think it took about 10 games for me to pass from level 11 to level 12.

    Get a haircut and die!!!

  2. Yax says:

    PeO is one of my players. He doesn’t really want me to die but he really means it about the haircut.

  3. Gryphon says:

    I advocate leveling up when it suits. I use a very good programme to determine the xp allocated based on CR and EL, and if you set the CR/EL about right, 13 encounters or so it is.

    We use DnD standard xp allocations, and I believe it is generally one level per game….not session, GAME

    Most of the games take a couple of months to play, once a week for four or five hours…there is lots of bimbling involved.(Roleplaying), so we often don’t get as much done as it would sound like.

    Some people go up two levels some only 1, there is no real hard and fast rules about it. I expect to go up two in the next adventure, as I am personally 3k off 14th.

    The only thing I would recommend is that folks actually say what they are working towards, skill and feat wise before the level they get it. They then only get those bonuses skills and feats when it is sensible for them to have done so.

    Not “I woke up one day and POP I knew 2 weapon fighting and tumble 5.”

  4. Stûnibu says:

    with the new campain ive just started I started all the players at 5th lvl, we couldnt be bothered with the low level stuff and its worked rather well!

  5. Yax says:

    I’ve started at level 3, 5, and even 10 before. It works well if your players know the inner workings of the game already. The learning curve for a first time player is too steep if you start a game at medium to high levels.

  6. Robert says:

    I like the idea of 13 encounters, or at least something more like 10 – 15. However, that should include nearly everything as an encounter, traps, dealing with NPCs (successfully?), perhaps even choosing to retreat, finding and protecting a nice hide to hole up in as you refresh spells overnight (I’m an evil DM who will send something in to test the party overnight, especially if they have retreated from a fight).

    I usually get through 3 – 5 encounters per session, usually more if it is primarily roleplaying. So with an average of 4 that’s a new level every 3 or 4 sessions. If anything I feel that might be a bit fast.

    We’re still low level, and the players a new to the game (and, ee-gads!! I’ll be teaching them 4th ed soon) so perhaps leveling that fast isn’t so bad. I should also note that with a few players being shift workers we haven’t gamed for a few weeks now.

    I don’t bother with CR and ECL and all that, just tell them to level up for the next game, usually fitting in with “we’re in town, find someone to train you in your new skills and feats.”

  7. Yax says:

    Yep 4th edition is upon us and might be a good excuse to level faster than usual.

    If the players are not too experienced it might be detrimental to the game though. They have to learn to handle the new powers at each level.

  8. sylvain says:

    Perhaps I’m a schmuck DM, or perhaps my players have A.D.D. (yes I read the article you wrote on that), but we rarely get through 2-3 encounters per session. This makes the actual leveling time (according to the DMG, which is 13.33 encounters, as you are now well-aware) take about 6.5 sessions. We don’t play a lot, so that’s a lot of sessions for us. Verily, My players somehow end up leveling every 2-3 sessions, which would make for about 6-7 encounters be one level.

  9. Yax says:

    I love fast-leveling. If the players can handle their characters’ new abilities, it’s all good. Instant gratification can be a good thing!

  10. morhg says:

    you guys are lucky im not the dm but my group only plays about once a month and in that we are lucky to get even 200 exp so we are stuck forever at what ever lv we start at for enstince we were in a lv 5 campiagn and it took us over a year to lv and after that our dm was like ok time for new chars and started us over on another campiagn .

  11. Yax says:

    That’s probably an extreme. Changing characters before leveling is no fun IMHO

  12. Pixie Cinnamon McCarthy says:

    I think that the 13.33 number that WotC in their infinite idiocy, err wisdom, came up with is just silly. First of all it tries to restrict the game to preset patterns and creates a system full of “this will happen at this time” kind of mechanics. As a player I don’t mind if I have to go through more than 13 (or many many more) encounters to level up if they are meaningful, story-progressing, adventurous, or just darned fun encounters. Likewise, going through a few really hard encounters should be worth more than only 7.5% of the XP I need to level my character up (100/13.33 = 7.5 ; for those that wondered where I got that number and didn’t want to do the math to figure it out ^_~). If I went through two or three very hard encounters I would feel ripped off if I had 10-11 more to go to level up just because of some preset number.

    D&D isn’t an “exact science” kind of game. Heck, if we wanted that GM’s would all use a point-buy system to buy monsters like the miniatures game based on your party’s average level and all encounters of whatever average level would be worth the same set amount of XP and no guess work would be needed. It’d be the same *yawn* predictable crap that make bored games (Yes, I made that word selection on purpose) lose their appeal to RPG gamers… Those games ARE regimented to the letter for pretty much everything. Sadly WotC has decided to go this route with 4e and is now screwing D&D over by making it a half-assed excuse for an RPG by cramming role playing into some revised miniatures rules. Add some pretty pictures, a magazine-like presentation in the books (they’ve said: “More like a magazine with better images and flow where you’re not looking at text and tables and endless information thrown at the reader.” – I read that to say: “Oooh, looky looky! Pretty pictures! Big letters!” and worst of all “less content for your money!”), and a few new rules to make it much much harder to die so that the game “is more fun.” It’s complete crap! If they wanted to sell their miniatures better, they should have marketed them as accessories for gamers, not like they’re the D&D equivalent to Magic cards! They way they’re going we’ll see a revision to 4e in 3-5 years and it’ll likely have static damage for weapons and attacks and remove dice – it’s more fun since there’s less time wondering how things effect characters and monsters… right?!

    Bah! They can shove those idiotic rules in the same place they can shove the 13.33 encounter “rule” – all in the same place their heads are shoved!

  13. Bob says:

    Gryphon: “We use DnD standard xp allocations, and I believe it is generally one level per game….not session, GAME. Most of the games take a couple of months to play, once a week for four or five hours…there is lots of bimbling involved (Roleplaying), so we often don’t get as much done as it would sound like.”

    Wha-wha-what? In my experience, with 3.5 at least, after about two encounters you’re typically at or close to 2nd level. And that’s just from a few combats or traps. How the heck can you go months without leveling? I realize you say there is a lot of roleplaying in your games, but (in my opinion) experience points should be awarded for roleplaying as well (not as much as for combat or traps, maybe, but some). As a DM, sometimes an entire session will go by without any combat, but I still like to reward my players for their efforts, even if it’s not from combat. Even without combat, the characters are doing a lot that gains them experience, including skill checks, gathering information from the tavern keeper, sneaking past the castle guard to enter the enemy castle, etc.

  14. Glenalth says:

    One of the things they were mentioning about 3rd edition is that the “sweet spot” for fun was in the lvl 7-10 range because that’s where the “math worked”. Hopefully the goal of making it work from 1-30 will prevent the need for that initial rush to 6 or 7 and keep the early levels a bit more evenly spaced.

  15. Firechkn34 says:

    is their a specific amount of XP that you need to level up? ie. level 5 = 15,00 xp

  16. Nicholas says:

    @Firechkn34: There is but the DM has a lot of control over the rate at which players get XP. He can throw more battles at the players to give them extra XP, be very generous with roleplaying and quest experience or even apply modifiers to XP gain (double all XP reward or halve them). So even though it is a fixed number the DM has most of the control over how long it takes to get there.

  17. Stray Dog Strut says:

    I came upon this trying to get a quick fix on how to assign XP to more roleplay related things. Like in WoW when you do deliveries and such for people, without much fighting involved. But as I was reading the comments it really surprises me how some of you level really slowly and some very quickly.

    We usually level once every couple of sessions. It used to be that to cover roleplaying, we would just give a standard 1000 XP for playing, and then we’d recap cool, funny, or interesting things we had done and award XP for those as well. Great to set you on your way in the first few levels, but pretty trivial in the higher levels. But I have a lot of spare time on my hands, and created a way to supplement that 1000 we would get for something a little more meaningful, and something that gets more dice-rolling involved.

    It also supplements the idea that the more you do something, the better you get at it. It’s based solely off of skill checks. Each time you roll and succeed on a skill, you’re awarded some XP. It usually stacks up to being better than that 1000 XP we were previously awarding. If you want to check out my system, you can hit up my MySpace (click my name) and d/l it. It’s solid, but should be flexible enough for those loose DM’s and structured enough for those hard-a*ses.

  18. Sylvarria says:

    I personally go through the lower levels generally quicker, I am setting up a game now, and after about the first 8.5 encounters, you level up.

  19. MPA says:

    I see this post is very dated but oh well. Why limit anyone to a game on the number of levels?

    If you have the number of treasure and awards to put you up more than one level, then what is the big deal? It’s a freaking game for Pete’s sake. Who wants to win tons of treasures and awards after a hard adventure, only to find out that they can only use 20% of it, because they are only allowed to go up one experience level?

  20. InnocentBystander19 says:

    My group usually gets a level in every session, not by encounter. That happens primarily because we play for long hours of the night, and refuse to sleep until we have reached some point at which is acceptable to break away. This point usually comes at the end of a big encounter.

  21. hawkwind7026 says:

    I have always liked slow leveling. i know this is totally contrary to most players ideas, but i really enjoy playing characters of levels 1-9. After level 10 the characters seem to get TO powerful and just seem to plow thru dungeons with ease.
    I am most always the DM in our sessions and have alot of 1-3 level dungeon modules, so that may be a big facter in why I dont want pc’s leveling up so fast. 13.33 encounters actually isn’t that bad. I prefer 15-20 encounters myself.


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  1. […] Talking about epic… D&D 4th edition came out. Are your characters epic-tier yet? What are you waiting for. Just kidding – take your time, but you can still wonder how fast your characters should level up. […]

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