Experience and character advancement in D&D 5e

If you look at the table for level advancement by experience points, in the DnD 5e Player’s Handbook (PHB) p15, you can see that not only do you need more experience points for each level, but that the additional number needed to progress from one level to the next increases as your level gets higher.

Current levelNext levelXP for next levelAdditional xp for next level
XP needed by level

As we can see, the incremental number of experience points needed for each new level does not increase steadily. It starts very low and increases very rapidly, doubling or even tripling in each of the first few levels. Then it increases by smaller but still considerable fractions, until you hit level 11. There, it drops back and thereafter increases only about every other level. This strange pattern looks like it ought to have a purpose.

Monster xp values and level advancement

To understand the purpose, remember that experience points come mainly from defeating monsters. And that the more powerful the monster, the more experience points you get from defeating it (see Monster Manual, p9). But since higher-level characters can defeat more powerful monsters, they gain more experience points from defeating each level-appropriate monster. And so, to maintain the requirement to defeat several monsters to gain a level, the number of experience points needed to progress from one level to the next has to keep increasing.

We can look for the reason it does not increase *evenly* by looking at the relationship between the experience gained points from defeating a level-appropriate monster against the experience points needed for each additional level. I am using as my yardstick the experience award per character (assuming a party of 4 adventurers all at the same level) for defeating a single monster of Challenge rating equal to the party level. I will call this a standard encounter (SE).

I am also going to bring in the concept of character tiers. Character tiers are explained on p15 of the PHB but, briefly: Tier 1 is junior adventurers who are heroes only from a local perspective; Tier 2 are exemplars of their class who may be national heroes or save the city; Tier 3 are exceptional heroes who take on international-level threats; and Tier 4 are among the greatest of all and may be called upon to save the world itself.

Current levelAdditional xp for next levelXP from SESEs for next level
Tier 1
Tier 2
Tier 3
Tier 4
Standard Encounters to move from each level to the next

We can immediately see that the changes in the pattern of additional xp needed per level correspond to the character tiers. The very rapid multiplication is in Tier 1, the fractional increase every level is in Tier 2, the sudden drop is at the start of Tier 3 and the slow increase is through Tiers 3 and 4.

Looking across to the right-hand column, a tier pattern also emerges and we can perhaps see the reason for it. The Standard Encounters needed in each level to advance to the next are very low at the beginning of Tier 1. They rise towards the end of Tier 1 but are at their highest throughout Tier 2. Then in Tier 3 they suddenly drop back to a lower level and stay there.

I think this is all to do with the ‘sweet spot’ in DnD play. At very low levels (1-2), characters are vulnerable and can’t do very much. These levels are suitable for introducing beginners without overwhelming them with information on their first session. They may also be fun for storytelling players who like to go into depth about their characters’ formative experiences. But they are tactically limited and it is fairly popular for groups of experienced players to choose to start at level 3.

The sweet spot begins perhaps about level 3 to 5 and includes all of Tier 2. Characters of these levels are tough enough that death is rare and, thanks to spells like Revivify, often temporary. So groups can tell stories that are reliably about the same set of protagonists. Players get the enjoyment of usually succeeding against their enemies in the end. The characters get to play with the signature abilities of their classes and players vicariously feel powerful, heroic and fantastical. But the characters are not so powerful that they can circumvent plots and obstacles in ways that become boring.

Above Tier 2, you leave the sweet spot. It gets a bit harder to set up balanced combat encounters, and it gets considerably harder to plan and structure adventure plots when the protagonists have access to magic like Find the Path, Teleport and True Seeing. A lot of campaigns end by this point as real life intervenes or the group otherwise stops meeting.

For those that continue into Tiers 3 and 4, to maintain a feeling of excitement and progress, bigger and bigger challenges are needed, six impossible things are done before breakfast every morning and sharks are jumped. To avoid boredom or silliness, the GM often introduces (or brings into play if they have always been in the background) a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) who threatens the whole world and whose defeat by the PCs makes a fitting end to the campaign. Then the group can move on to playing a different game for a change, or start a new DnD campaign with low-level characters and revisit the sweet spot.

Not every player will feel this way, but I think that is a common perception. Anyway, I think it is consistent with this pattern of advancement: zip through the first couple of levels to get to the sweet spot. Slow advancement in the sweet spot to prolong it. Once out of the sweet spot, increase the speed of advancement so that groups can get to really high levels and have a go with the most powerful abilities in the game while defeating the BBEG.

The adventuring day

At the risk of slightly repeating myself, there is a similar pattern with another yardstick called an ‘adventuring day’. I’m detailing this because it is relevant for points about treasure hoards and magic items I’m going to come back to in future posts.

The ‘adventuring day’ is explained in the DMG, p84. The DMG says “Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters … before the characters will need to take a long rest. In general, over the course of a full adventuring day, the party will likely need to take two short rests, about one-third and two-thirds of the way through the day.”

(It is worth noting, if you’re a newish 5e GM, that the game is balanced assuming that the PCs face six or so encounters between long rests. If you structure the adventure so that the PCs are fully rested going into most encounters (or even every three or four) then the PCs can use their best spells and per-day powers (more) freely and will need considerably greater challenges. There might be good narrative reasons to have only one or two combats or other power-dependent encounters per day, but be aware of the effect on game balance.)

Anyway, because I’m going to use the adventuring day in assumptions in a future post, I will here provide the table of speed of advancement by tier in units of the adventuring day (AD) in place of the standard encounter (SE). The pattern as you go up the tiers is very similar because the relationship between the AD and the SE is fairly stable.

Current levelAdditional xp for next levelXP from ADADs for next level
Tier 1
Tier 2
Tier 3
Tier 4
Adventuring Days to move from each level to the next

(I’m not going to clutter this post with too many tables, but I will just note that although the DMG text says “six to eight medium or hard encounters” to the adventuring day, the xp values per adventuring day work out at 5.2 to 7.8 Standard Encounters depending on character level, and Standard Encounters are, I think, always medium. So eight encounters may be pushing it and if you use hard or deadly encounters then you may need to reduce the number further. Your Mileage May Vary—a lot will depend on the tactical and game-mechanical savvy of the players and GM in question, and whether the GM arranges the environment to favor one side or the other. Also on the availability of magic items etc. in the campaign.)

(I will also note, because it seems to surprise some people, that if you do structure your adventures with 6-7 standard encounters per adventuring day, then your characters will probably reach maximum level in just over a month of adventuring days, plus downtime in between. And in 5e, with all hit points, all spell slots, all limited-use powers and half Hit Dice regained per long rest, and limited other uses for downtime built into the rules, you might not have much more downtime than adventuring time. You therefore could finish a campaign from levels 1 through 20 in two or three months on the in-world calendar. If this seems weird to you, I suggest you think from early on about building in uneventful traveling, downtime activities, and even considerable time skips into your story. You could also construct your encounters so their difficulty comes more from monster numbers and/or environmental factors, which don’t increase xp awards, than from monster Challenge which does. Or personally I recommend not using xp for level advancement and using a more controllable process for timing level-ups, like milestones.)

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