How Fast is Too Fast?

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I’ve started running D&D 5th edition for my son and his friends. In fact, I’ve now started running a solo game for him as well, in which he plays a drow fighter/ranger named…Drizzt.

Yes, he’s thirteen years old, why do you ask?

Anyway, as I’ve delved into the rules more fully, and started outlining the early bits of the campaign, one thing I noticed was the advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide about planning encounters and experience point (XP) advancement.

Like all previous editions of D&D, characters in 5E gain experience points as they adventure, and when they accumulate enough experience points to reach a certain threshold, their level increases. And, like all previous editions, it requires more experience points to advance to the next level than it did the previous one. So you only need 300 XP, for example, to reach 2nd level in D&D 5E, but you need another 600 XP to reach 3rd level.

As I said, this is like every edition of D&D before it. However, one of the big changes in advancement that came about with D&D 3rd edition is that how a character gains XP is different from the editions that came before.

In AD&D, for example, characters gained most of their experience from treasure. One gold piece was worth 1 experience point. If you managed to steal the chest of gold from an evil necromancer, you could acquire a lot of money, and therefore experience, very quickly. Conversely, while characters also received experience points for killing monsters, it was only a fraction of what they would typically get from stealing treasure.

It’s true in most aspects of life that reward drives behavior. Therefore, if a party of characters could manage to steal a bunch of treasure without getting into combat at all—and combat was always a dangerous proposition, especially at the lower levels, and could easily lead to the death of one or more characters—then they were likely to be more successful than a party that went in and tried to kill every monster.

This also contributed to a sense of urgency when exploring a dungeon, through the use of wandering monsters. You see, wandering monsters didn’t generally carry any real treasure on them, and since you got very few XP from killing them, it was a big risk with little reward.

This changed dramatically in 3rd edition. At that point, characters started receiving all (or at least the vast majority) of their experience points from the defeat of monsters. Treasure became a way to purchase better—sometimes magical—equipment, but it didn’t contribute to the character’s advancement directly. Needless to say, players quickly learned that the fastest way to advance was to murder every monster in a dungeon, and then collect the treasure afterward. Wandering monsters stopped being a threat, but instead were roving piles of extra XP. There was no longer an urgency to get in, collect what you could, and get out, because that wouldn’t help you increase your level.

The other big change from earlier editions of D&D was the rate of advancement. In AD&D, the first few levels were gained fairly quickly, but advancement tended to slow down dramatically. By about 10th level, characters were spending quite a bit of time in each level before gaining enough XP to advance to the next. Campaigns could take years of real time for the characters to level up to the mid-teens, and only a small percentage of campaigns ever made it to level 20.

In 3rd edition, the rate of advancement was also changed. As designed, it would take approximately thirteen level-appropriate encounters to reach the next level, every level. This is because, as it took more XP to reach each successive level, the characters were expected to face tougher monsters, and defeating tougher monsters resulted in higher XP rewards. So the rate of advancement was expected to remain the same, or very close to the same, throughout the campaign. In my experience, with adventures designed using the advancement system as outlined in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it would take around 18 months of regular weekly play to reach 20th level.

Fourth edition pretty much kept this rate of advancement (or even a bit faster, as the top level in 4E was 30, not 20). In addition to monsters, this edition also codified the option to give XP for story-related goals, such as rescuing a village, or closing a portal to a hostile dimension, or whatever. It was a step in the right direction, but really didn’t make a big difference to the campaign. A full campaign of level 1 through 30 could be done in about 18 months. Actually, it was designed to be a bit faster than that in theory, but the fact that each combat in 4E tended to take longer and longer as the characters’ levels increased meant that it ended up slowing down the campaign just through the length of each battle.

Now we’re at D&D 5th edition, and there are two options. The first provides XP for defeating monsters—characters are not required to slay all the monsters if there is a way to drive them off or otherwise defeat them in a non-bloodthirsty way. This method is very similar to the one in 3rd and 4th edition, in that monsters are worth a certain amount of XP, and that is the expected way to advance.

But in looking at the various published adventures and the rate of advancement, one thing I see is that a typical party of four or five characters will likely advance fairly quickly. In fact, as designed, the game expects that characters will reach level 20 in about a year of regular weekly play.

So is one year to level 20 too fast?

As someone who started playing back in the early 1980’s, it certainly seems so to me. But then, I’m also pretty much always the DM, so I’m aware that my perspective is skewed, both in early experience and in my viewpoint of the game.

Apparently, it’s a common expectation for players these days to complete a campaign in about a year, or perhaps a bit longer.

Is this good or bad?

The correct answer is it’s neither. The fact is, most campaigns don’t last for multiple years. There are certainly groups out there who can, and do, have campaigns like that, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Imagine if you’re in college or university, and you start a campaign at the beginning of the school year. Assuming you can play regularly, you’ll be able to get your characters’ levels up to at least the early teens before everyone splits for the summer (or graduates). Or maybe you’re in your twenties or thirties, and you’re trying to keep a group together for a multi-year campaign. But people often have to move due to jobs. Or they have kids and then find can’t play nearly as often.

It can be rather difficult to maintain a campaign for years at a time.

So maybe the XP rate of advancement is pretty appropriate for the time people actually have to play this game.

But maybe you find tracking XP is a pain, and just wish the whole thing would go away. I know I’m in that boat sometimes. And so I was pleasantly surprised to find that 5E includes as an official option using “milestones” instead of XP.

The milestones option simply means that all characters gain a level at certain points in the campaign. The DM might decide that a level is increased every time the party completes an adventure. Or perhaps they simply agree that the level goes up every two sessions. Or they can choose whatever pace works for the entire group of players.

I know a number of DMs who were doing that already in previous editions of the game, but it’s nice to see it formalized as an option. In fact, the published adventures from Wizards of the Coast even recommend using this option. As an example, the Tomb of Annihilation includes a “Suggested Character Levels” table that outlines the ideal level ranges for different parts of the adventure. Just below the table, the adventure states:

“As the DM, you can dispense with XP tracking and allow characters to gain levels at whatever pace suits your campaign, using the Suggested Character Levels table as your guide.”

Since the adventure includes some great sandbox areas, it means that the DM doesn’t have to worry about steering the characters to certain places at certain times in order to avoid having to redo all the encounters. Instead, the DM can let the players follow leads they find interesting, and have their characters explore and interact with the setting at their own pace, with the DM occasionally granting them a level as they have adventures. And when they start to show interest in the main thread of the adventure, the DM can either hold off any more levels, or grant them an additional level or two to ensure that the adventure can be run without a lot of rewriting of the encounter locations.


D&D has always been a level-based game, and players have always tended to engage in behavior that brought them the biggest rewards at the fastest pace. As the editions changed, the focus on how to accumulate experience points have changed. In conjunction with this, the expectations of the real-time length of a campaign has also changed to better reflect how people actually play the game.

For some people, the expected rate of advancement in D&D 5E is too fast. But it’s nice to see that there is an official option for the DM to adjust this rate of advancement to suit the playing group’s style, including the removal of experience points altogether.

What’s your favorite rate of advancement in D&D? Is it tied to the edition you play, or do you use an unofficial method to track the leveling up of characters? Tell us about it in the comments.

Image available under CC0 1.0 Public Domain, downloaded from Pixabay.

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