Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 01, 2012
Leveling speed in Dungeons & Dragons

In any level-based roleplaying game the people who run the game need to think about how fast they want the players to gain levels. There is clearly an optimum somewhere in the middle: Too fast and players get new abilities before they had time to try out the previous ones they got; too slow and players have the feeling their characters are stagnating. So while preparing my first D&D 4E campaign, I had to think about this.

My introductory adventure from level 0 to level 1 took just 2 play sessions. Or rather one-and-a-half sessions, with the second half of the second session spent "building" the level 1 characters. That was okay for the "tutorial", but I would consider this a bit too fast for the long run if my players leveled up every other session. On the other side we only play every 14 days, and even that is postponed sometimes when real life intervenes. So if I would say "lets gain a level every 6 sessions" that would mean only every 3 months, which is probably too slow.

The official 4E D&D rules help by giving good guidelines at least for the formalized parts of the game, e.g. combat. There are guidelines on how to design a "standard" combat encounter, and these are based on giving an xp "budget" and adding monsters to the encounter based on how much xp they give. The overall result is that a standard combat encounter gives 10% of the xp a player needs to level. Of course there are minor combats that give less xp and epic fights that give more. But as a fight that gives more xp also takes longer, I can do my xp math just on the standard fights. That works equally well for encounters like skill challenges or traps and hazards, which pretty much result in the same amount of xp per hour as a standard combat.

Where it gets a bit trickier is when it comes to roleplaying. On the one side you want players to roleplay, to interact with the NPCs, to discuss the situation among each other. But giving out xp directly for roleplaying is difficult, especially since naturally some players are more talkative than others. This is where quests come in in my campaign: If there is a murder mystery or similar situation, the players would get a quest which rewards them with xp for solving it. Thus the time spent roleplaying isn't perceived as "lost". And the leveling speed isn't slowing down just because the players spend a session with little or no combat.

The other use for quests is to give an added bonus to the "final boss fight" of the adventure. By handing out additional quest xp for having finished the adventure, the end stands out more. And as an added advantage there is a higher probability that with that added bonus the players level up, so you can handle the changes to the characters between adventures. To me that always made more sense than learning a new power in the middle of a dungeon during a rest period.

So, with the xp for roleplaying issue solved via quest xp, the different types of non-combat encounters give out as much experience as a combat encounter, that is about 10% of a level per encounter. A long adventure with 20 encounters gives 2 levels. And I think that my players will be able to do at least 2 encounters per play session, and at most 4 (Your mileage may vary, we are a bunch of middle-aged guys, not power gamers.) So my 20-encounter adventure should last around 7 play sessions, or about 3 months, for 2 levels gained. I think that is a good speed for us. I'd even say that the 10 encounters per level speed is good for D&D in general, although of course other groups will play more frequently, and/or get more encounters done per play session.

Is anyone playing the official D&D Encounters that WoTC organizes as weekly games in various game shops? I'd be interested to hear how fast you level in these. And of course if you have thoughts on leveling speed in D&D from your own campaign, feel free to comment.
If your completely deciding the leveling speed, there really isn't much point doing all the pokey math. May as well just say they level up when it feels on the night for them to level up. And many do, no doubt.

Leveling speed based on what they do, rather than a speed the GM decides, makes the math of XP adding up worth doing.

Is anyone playing the official D&D Encounters that WoTC organizes as weekly games in various game shops?
I played them for about a year. They'd take you to level 3 and I can't quite remember the exact number of sessions (it may have varied as well). I think it was around five to eight sessions.
As I commented on a previous post, in our group levels are awarded by the DM when appropriate, generally at the end of a "chapter" and almost never mid-session. We don't award XP per encounter, quest, etc. We play once a week and level up about once a month on average.
Heya Tob! Just wanted to ask if you plan to (mostly) foucs on AD&D and similar stuff. I really like your blog but it looks like you're really into pen'n'paper stuff now, and that's really not my area of intetrest at all :-(

Let me know!
Your D&D posts are all a little bit strange to me. I dont know the new rules cause I stopped playing pen&paper rpgs a few years ago but when we played it was never about the numbers. All I see is rules and lvlingspeed and numbers when I read your posts and this feels so strange when its about pen&paper games. The p&pscene here in germany was realy strong when I played and I was on alot of conventions and it was allways the same. Numbers and dice were mostly used for combat and some other random shit.

We played everything out... why should I roll some dice when I want to bribe someone or something like that? It was allways about the roleplaying never about some stupid lvlups or new shiny items. I mostly played Shadowrun and there were some shootouts... but even in Shadowrun it was more about the setting and the roleplaying then the rules and some numbers. I guess this changed thanks to mmorpgs.

Dont you talk about whats going on? Dont your players make stupid things to keep the story alive? Like not rolling the dice and just say they didnt pass the check?! For our groups the GM/DM/whatever didnt have to do much... we did most of the part for him. We didnt play against him (Paranoia left outside). We tried to keep things interessting for ourselfs and him... it was much more sandboxy if you can say that. Oh... and we never used those maps and counters and things like that. Just some paper and some dice.

I think I have to visit some convention this year to take a look at what changed in the "scene". Lucky me germanys biggest con is about 20 minutes away from where I live. I hope some of the guys from back in the days are still playing.

Sorry for the bad english.
Just wanted to ask if you plan to (mostly) foucs on AD&D and similar stuff.

Hard to say. I write about what I am currently playing, and as I have kind of lost interest in MMORPGs and am currently in a phase where I am very much interested in pen & paper, that is what I am writing about now. No idea what I'll write tomorrow, depends on what catches my eye.

I think I have to visit some convention this year to take a look at what changed in the "scene".

Back when I played 2nd edition AD&D, there was a lot more free form play, even in combat. But 3E, 3.5, and 4E moved D&D very firmly back to its "Chainmail" roots as a game with miniatures and squad-based combat played on square grids.

That doesn't mean that there is no roleplaying any more, but the roleplaying is the part I make up on the spot, while the combat encounters and numbers are things I have to prepare, so that the play session isn't bogged down with me having to look up that stuff.
In most CRPGs, players gain levels rapidly at first, but then slower. The earliest levels are often basically tutorials. As players gain power (from their level and acquired items) they have more options in what they do (mostly combat of course) and the pressure to advance and get more powers decreases, with the focus switching more towards using the powers they have.

Is it so different in PnP? Of course the game is less about combat, but still, if levelling affects non-combat events more in PnP, the same things should apply.

I have never played a PnP game, but if I did it would not surprise me if it took 1 session to gain the first level, two more to gain the second, three more (six in all so far) to gain the third, and so on. That sort of rate. Of course it would not need to be as mathematical as this.
P&P games can be about having a nice evening and entertaining each other with interacting narratives in a imaginary place that is fun to explore.

They can also be a 'game' with clear rules which restrict the players from reaching clearly defined goals and thus force them on journeys that are 'fun'.

They can also be about gathering, collecting, achieving things and growing the numbers of something the players care about (usually their characters).

But most P&P games, just like MMOs, are something in between. I have to admit that Tobold seems to be way too much focused on the goals and achievements parts, for my taste. But that'S just this: my taste.
As a GM, I frequently run games where levels are simply granted "as appropriate". I hand out the levels when it feels like time; this is usually after the players have accomplished something solid, though sometimes it's when enough small things have happened that it's time because the players are getting antsy for new abilities.

In my last Pathfinder game (an offshoot of D&D 3.5), the players requested this over tracking experience. Since you cannot spend experience on anything but leveling (unlike 3.5 where you spend it to make magic items), the players don't really care about the specific numbers.

Early on, it's probably 2-4 sessions (playing weekly). I like to slow down approaching 10th level because I don't like getting much past that point because of how different the gameplay feels.

Ultimately, do what's right for your play group. Is getting a new level every other session what is going to make them enjoy the game? Do they want something slower? Get feedback. You have to adjust it to your GMing style, but ultimately as long as everyone at the table is having fun, the formulas don't matter.
One of the interesting mechanics in Skyrim is that the player is not forced to level up. Once they've accumulated enough skill points to increase their level they can choose when to move up.

There is some gaminess involved since increasing level restores all health, magicka and stamina and the player can even level up in combat.
My DnD crew has been playing together off and on for about 5 years. We play every other weekend like you, and as DM I've found that leveling up every other adventure gives a decent sense of closure. Each adventure is typically 2-3 sessions, which means a new level every month or so, depending on how busy everyone is. We like it because it's long enough to get a feel for the level and its powers and such, but not so long that it feels like you're stuck at that level.
why should I roll some dice when I want to bribe someone or something like that?

Why should everyone else be forced to not roll in whatever RPG they play, just to ensure you'll never have to roll?

In some games you roll for bribing. In some you don't. If you wander into the former then complain why should you roll, it lacks personal responsibility.
I've run D&D Encounters in the past, and characters there level up every 4-5 weeks. Each week is one encounter, so that's actually accelerated leveling.

In my own campaigns, I've long since ditched tracking XP, instead leveling the party when it's appropriate. This tends to be every three sessions or so (sometimes two, sometimes four). I've been much, much happier with this approach, as the players don't worry that they're missing out on advancement if they spend a lot of time doing something other than fighting monsters.

Thx for your answer, well I hope you will go back to your "roots" in the next future :)

Cheers and good blogging man!
@callan cause dicerolls give players informations they shouldnt allways get... like thats something going on they shouldnt know about. If you are a diceroller... then roll dice without anything that needs a roll just to confuse them. The players shouldnt know if they passed a check. If you have to roll dice than do it as the DM/GM not the player and dont show them if they passed.
I've never actually played DnD, my brother and I tried on a couple of occasions, but it never really took off. I did, however, follow a couple of Story Hours that documented DnD Sessions on a site called EN World back in the day. One of the posters, named Piratecat, had a terrific sounding home grown campaign whereing his characters levelled very slowly, and had to take time to do so. So no leveling in the middle of a dungeon, they had to get to a logical break in the action and take some campaign time off to advance in level. This kept the encounters easier to plan for the DM, and it provided a wealth of story hooks as the players went about their own business for a coupleof months of "Game Time". I always thought that some version of that system would be the best for a campaign that you planned to run for a long time.
cause dicerolls give players informations they shouldnt allways get

Why shouldn't they?

Again, in some games, as the game is designed, they aren't to get that information from getting to roll.

In others, they are to get that information. Or even they are to get that info but its a co-operative game so they use the information in a co-operative way.

Dice rolls aren't alien to RPG's. It depends on how the RPG has been designed.
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