How often should PCs level up?

How often should PCs typically level up in your preferred version of D&D?


  • Total voters
    53

S'mon

Legend
For games with levels like D&D, how frequently do you think PCs should advance, given typical
play? How do you use the XP system to facilitate that, if at all (group XP, individual XP, level by GM fiat)?

I was just musing about how my 5e DMG suggests PCs should level up every 2-3 sessions, which seems very fast to me. I ran a Pathfinder AP (Curse of the Crimson Throne, converted) using Pathfinder Medium Track XP (party xp), the campaign went from level 2 to level 14, and for most of it the PCs were levelling up every 2 sessions on average, about 8 hours of play. This meant their power was doubling about every 4 sessions; I felt this rate really harmed the game, pushing the PCs up into the double digit levels where the system really breaks down. With my 5e tabletop 'Runelords of the Shattered Star' game (mashing up the Paizo APs Shattered Star & Rise of the Runelords) I'm aiming for a level-up rate about once per 5 sessions, or about 20 hours of play, about half the advertised rate. I think this should work well for long term play; I would like this campaign to run maybe 4 years, about 90 sessions or so, at 5 sessions/level that should take the PCs to 20th, though I'm fine if they cap out lower or we play awhile using the Epic Boon rules in the DMG. The default 5e system seems to support this sort of progression rate ok just by using mostly lower level monsters, using individual xp, and not being too generous on bonus XP; currently the PCs are level 5 after 15 sessions, with rapid progression to 3rd then slow thereafter.

Both those campaigns (Crimson Throne & Shattered Star) run/ran fortnightly. My recently resumed 4e D&D Loudwater campaign runs fortnightly, evening sessions so shorter, 3 hours or so, and the PCs (using party xp) have levelled up about every 4 sessions/12 hours for a long time - currently just hit level 27 after 96 sessions. 4e is so slow that we only get 1 fight per session and I have to give a good deal of bonus XP to hit that rate; it's still slower than the recommended 1 level per 10 hours of play, or 2.5 typical sessions - same recommendation as 5e.

I also have a couple weekly games:
The Ghinarian Hills is an online text-chat 5e sword & sorcery themed game with individual xp, I use standard monster xp and a fair bit of xp from other sources. After 74 sessions the highest level PC is 15th, so a bit over 5 sessions to level. The other PCs are in the 12-13 range. This rate works pretty well for online game, maybe a bit fast.
Finally there's my weekly tabletop Classic D&D Karameikos campaign. After around 13 months of weekly play the PCs are in the 8-11 level range, though the highest couple had been played previously in an earlier campaign and came in higher. A recently retired Thief PC who'd played from the start at 1st level hit 10th level. Typical advancement rate is about 1 level per 5 sessions, which is the recommended rate in the Rules Cyclopedia. I find this works well; I tend to get this through bonus XP rather than huge piles of treasure, though.

Overall I'm finding in my games that about 1 level per 5 sessions seems to work best, which fits with the norms in older games (eg Gygax recommended that a year of weekly 1e AD&D play should get a successful PC from 1st to 9th), a bit quicker with 4e. But this is about half the default rate recommended by the GM guidance in 3e/PF, 4e and 5e, which all seem to recommend 2-3 sessions to level and 20 levels in about a year of weekly play. What do you find? What works best for you?

Edit: I posted in 'General D&D Discussion' since this is not edition specific, but it occurs to me that poll result may be biased by this also being ENW's "old school/non-5e/non-PF" forum. Hopefully there'll be a mix of 3e, 4e and old school people reading. :)
 
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Dandu

Visitor
I can't say that there's a good answer to this. For me, it depends on the sessions: a session packed with combat and exploring is going to contribute much more to leveling up than one spent building political alliances, crafting weapons, and managing settlements.
 
It depends on the edition, and the campaign, and personal tastes, and a bunch of other factors. But I've found once every three sessions (regardless of session length) to be about right.
 

S'mon

Legend
I can't say that there's a good answer to this. For me, it depends on the sessions: a session packed with combat and exploring is going to contribute much more to leveling up than one spent building political alliances, crafting weapons, and managing settlements.
Me too, generally (a big political achievement should get decent XP IMO) - but think of it more as how many levels you'd expect the PCs to advance in 20 sessions, say.
 
I scraped the concept of XP a while ago while DMing 4e. Until a few years back I had a 4e campaign where I wrote down every single XP the group got from encounters, quests, skill challenges etc. When they were at a point in the story where I wanted them to fight against, let's say, Zombie hulks I realized they haven't been gaining enough XP in order to level up and the episode with the higher level zombies would have been too tough. So I tried to squeeze in some additional fights to let the group earn their XP. It felt very forced and the additional fights/encounters were needlessly hindering the party to move the story forward.
Now I just listen to my party and discern the right time to allow them to level up. Sometimes they wait 5 sessions for a level up, sometimes only 2. It also depends heavily on the story side of things.
 

S'mon

Legend
Now I just listen to my party and discern the right time to allow them to level up. Sometimes they wait 5 sessions for a level up, sometimes only 2. It also depends heavily on the story side of things.
If it's 2-5 sessions per level about even distribution then you should be averaging around 3.5/level over time.
BTW 4e is designed so you can level up or level down your zombie hulks to make a
decent encounter. :D
 
BTW 4e is designed so you can level up or level down your zombie hulks to make a
decent encounter. :D
Yes, that is one of many things I learned back then when I was figuring out 4e. :) It falls right into the same time when I realized that I don't have to be so strict about XP and don't have to worry so much about leveling and the proper amount of fights/encounters.

And sure: my average should be 3.5 sessions per level, you're right.
 

D'karr

Adventurer
For me it depends on the pacing of the game, and the theme of the game. There will be times when leveling should be really fast (once per session), and times when it should be really slow (once every 8-10 sessions. Most leveling happens somewhere in the middle (3-6) sessions.

I like real quick progression at levels 1-4 (1-2 sessions per level). Moderate and long progressions as the meat of the game is happening at levels 5-15 (3-10 sessions), and back to real fast progressions for the end cap at levels 16-20+ (1-2 sessions per level.

Mostly it depends on the particular campaign. I like that 4e was so adjustable and still allowed the DM to keep a "danger zone" for the characters no matter the level.
 

ccs

40th lv DM
The last PF game I ran I used the milestone method. Each AP has a chart in the front of the book that tells you the party should be x lv going into the next section. So I just used that & never counted a single point.

For our current Sunday 5e game I'm (currently) setting the advancement rate at # of sessions = to current lv.
The first few levels will zip by.
If I stick to this though the later lvs will take forever as we only play every other week.
 

Celebrim

Legend
100 4 hour sessions = 400 hours / 9 levels (highest a PC has obtained) = 45 hour, or every 10-12 sessions (every 5-6 if you have 8 hour sessions).

I actually hold to the belief that the time to level up should slow down as you get higher in level. I have no problem level up a 1st level character after 4 sessions or so, but going from 10th to 11th might take 25 sessions or so. This is partly because the pace of challenge relative to the level slows down as you increase in level, and partly owing to the fact that as you move into higher levels more and more of your characters adventuring time is related to things like politics, where the XP is earned more solely (in both game time and real time) than in combat.

In general, the pace of leveling should be such that a player gets an opportunity to explore the new abilities of his character before gaining additional abilities. That's part of the reason I think that in general, characters should get some tangible new ability every level - a new feat, a new spell, a new class ability, an ability score boost, an extra attack, a more reliable skill usage, or whatever. I can remember being in games as a player where my PC spellcaster leveled up so fast, I never got a chance to cast my new spell slots or spells before hitting the next level.

Another aspect of the ideal pace of leveling is that a high level character should have a sense of scale and history. A character should never reach 10th level and look back and say, "Do you remember when we were 1st level... Oh wait a minute, in game that was last week." A high level character should have the sense that a huge amount of living has transpired, and a lengthy series of adventures is now behind them, and that indeed something significant has been obtained.

There are other good reasons for adopting a slow pace of leveling. For example, D&D in every edition can be observed to have a 'sweet spot'. That's true of most other systems as well. There is no good reason for quickly leveling out of your system's sweet spot. If you find high level play a headache, why were you in such a hurry to get here?
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
Most times, my group used modules in their big campaigns.

As such, level up within was not possible, as it takes time/money to train. We do those between modules/stories as that is when a PC is in a town/city where one can get that training done, buy/sell/trade treasure/equipment, etc.

So depending on the module/story, we had some that was a 6-8 hour session to complete, while I had one that took the group ten 8-hour sessions to complete.

It also depended highly on what the PC's were doing during the sessions.

We had some where the players were more interested in just having fun that day, than worrying about if they will have earned enough XP to level up that session.

Of course, we also played where a character AGES during the game. So often I have been in games where the DM would hand out XP to the PCs, but not that the session/module took a total of x-weeks to complete PLUS x-weeks to train to level up/buy/sell/trade treasure and equipment, etc.

Having a 20th level wizard that is still 18 years old?
 

Janx

Hero
I think everybody hit good points. As Celebrim noted, maybe it should take longer to get to the next level, than it did for the last level.

I think the best answer should consider the pacing the GM wants to have, the time between sessions, duration of play, and elapsed in-game time.

A group that only plays 6 hours once a month should probably level up faster than a group that plays once a week for 6 hours. That's not intuitive. The reason for it is that the bigger the real-time gap in getting to play will increase the perception of lack of progress, and leveling up is the most obvious sign of progress in the game.

That's not to say that if Gygax suggested you can reach level 10 in a year, that if your group only plays twice a year (ex. holiday gatherings), you should gain 5 levels right then and there. But you should probably consider making sure the PCs level up once a year or per session in that extreme case.

The weekly players should slow the pace down. Getting to level 4 in a months' real time might be a tad bit fast, considering where you'll be in a year's time at that pace.

At the monthly rate or slower, I think there's a stronger case for advancing a level every session (or 2 sessions), just to reinforce the signal that progress is being made. It will help keep those interested in the numbers to see there's a payoff. You can imagine that after a year's worth of playing at 5 games per level, only being Level 2 is a bit pokey to a good many players. Whereas to the once a week crowd, that's a level every other month or so. You've got to keep the real-time clock in mind as it affects player perception.

I'd also raise the point that in-game, you need to run the clock as well. If you played D&D like the TV show 24, where each session followed onto the last with no natural break, with a fast leveling, a PC could go from peon to level 20 in a week's worth of in-game time. That's nuts, in my opinion.

So a GM should make sure some natural time elapses between sessions, days, weeks, even months as seasons change, wounds need to heal, etc. Set some basic guideline that maybe a week should go by in-game before the PCs should level up. Not a hard rule, more of a guideline that where possible, you should allow for time to go by in a non-intrusive or harmful way. At the simplest, unlike 24, don't make every moment be critical to not be wasted so that players aren't trying to rush to the next thing they have to do before time runs out.

Lastly, my first item on the list of criteria was GM's preference for pacing. Which means pick what you want, but I feel it should be more nuanced than that. I wouldn't be happy if the GM just decided "now you level up", or handed out "500 XP" because he know's that's half of what I need to Level 2. Personally, I look at the pacing I'd like to have, say 2-3 games per level. I then look at how much XP that would be. I then look at the mechanics of how I determine XP (say 300 times CR divided by number of players). I look at the amount of encounters I have and I see if that would align with the goal. If not, I adjust the formula I use for calculating XP. Probably a bit of work, but on the other hand, if the PCs lose all the encounters, the math gets them less XP which means the slower than expected rate is their fault. They get my expected XP schedule because they succeeded on earning the XP doing things I give XP for. That might also mean getting more than I expected for XP because they did more things worth XP.

I don't know that every GM wants to do all that forward and backward math, but I like having a system, and knowing if that system will meet the pace I'd like to have. That's better than desiring 2-3 levels per session, and getting 1 level per session because I didn't understand how the system works in practice.


If I had to make a list of guidelines I'd use:
never level up more than once per session (or 8 hour period if it's a marathon weekend session).
Require at least a week in-game time to elapse between level ups
Level up at least once per year, if not 3 months if you are infrequently playing
don't level up faster than once per month

I might consider a metric of # sessions per level = next level divided 2, rounded up.

So it only takes one session to get to level 2, 2 sessions for level 3 and 4. It will take 10 sessions to get to level 20 (from level 19).

Still to fast for some, but you can see where the idea could be tweaked to reach a desired preference and reflect Celebrim's idea that higher levels take longer.
 

S'mon

Legend
At the monthly rate or slower, I think there's a stronger case for advancing a level every session (or 2 sessions), just to reinforce the signal that progress is being made. It will help keep those interested in the numbers to see there's a payoff. You can imagine that after a year's worth of playing at 5 games per level, only being Level 2 is a bit pokey to a good many players. Whereas to the once a week crowd, that's a level every other month or so. You've got to keep the real-time clock in mind as it affects player perception.
Yes, I recently played in a 5e campaign with up to 3 months between sessions (nominally monthly) and levelling up about every 3 sessions there felt rather too slow, where it would have been fine with fortnightly play.
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
I think everybody hit good points. As Celebrim noted, maybe it should take longer to get to the next level, than it did for the last level.

I think the best answer should consider the pacing the GM wants to have, the time between sessions, duration of play, and elapsed in-game time.

A group that only plays 6 hours once a month should probably level up faster than a group that plays once a week for 6 hours. That's not intuitive. The reason for it is that the bigger the real-time gap in getting to play will increase the perception of lack of progress, and leveling up is the most obvious sign of progress in the game.

That's not to say that if Gygax suggested you can reach level 10 in a year, that if your group only plays twice a year (ex. holiday gatherings), you should gain 5 levels right then and there. But you should probably consider making sure the PCs level up once a year or per session in that extreme case.

The weekly players should slow the pace down. Getting to level 4 in a months' real time might be a tad bit fast, considering where you'll be in a year's time at that pace.

At the monthly rate or slower, I think there's a stronger case for advancing a level every session (or 2 sessions), just to reinforce the signal that progress is being made. It will help keep those interested in the numbers to see there's a payoff. You can imagine that after a year's worth of playing at 5 games per level, only being Level 2 is a bit pokey to a good many players. Whereas to the once a week crowd, that's a level every other month or so. You've got to keep the real-time clock in mind as it affects player perception.

I'd also raise the point that in-game, you need to run the clock as well. If you played D&D like the TV show 24, where each session followed onto the last with no natural break, with a fast leveling, a PC could go from peon to level 20 in a week's worth of in-game time. That's nuts, in my opinion.

So a GM should make sure some natural time elapses between sessions, days, weeks, even months as seasons change, wounds need to heal, etc. Set some basic guideline that maybe a week should go by in-game before the PCs should level up. Not a hard rule, more of a guideline that where possible, you should allow for time to go by in a non-intrusive or harmful way. At the simplest, unlike 24, don't make every moment be critical to not be wasted so that players aren't trying to rush to the next thing they have to do before time runs out.

Lastly, my first item on the list of criteria was GM's preference for pacing. Which means pick what you want, but I feel it should be more nuanced than that. I wouldn't be happy if the GM just decided "now you level up", or handed out "500 XP" because he know's that's half of what I need to Level 2. Personally, I look at the pacing I'd like to have, say 2-3 games per level. I then look at how much XP that would be. I then look at the mechanics of how I determine XP (say 300 times CR divided by number of players). I look at the amount of encounters I have and I see if that would align with the goal. If not, I adjust the formula I use for calculating XP. Probably a bit of work, but on the other hand, if the PCs lose all the encounters, the math gets them less XP which means the slower than expected rate is their fault. They get my expected XP schedule because they succeeded on earning the XP doing things I give XP for. That might also mean getting more than I expected for XP because they did more things worth XP.

I don't know that every GM wants to do all that forward and backward math, but I like having a system, and knowing if that system will meet the pace I'd like to have. That's better than desiring 2-3 levels per session, and getting 1 level per session because I didn't understand how the system works in practice.


If I had to make a list of guidelines I'd use:
never level up more than once per session (or 8 hour period if it's a marathon weekend session).
Require at least a week in-game time to elapse between level ups
Level up at least once per year, if not 3 months if you are infrequently playing
don't level up faster than once per month

I might consider a metric of # sessions per level = next level divided 2, rounded up.

So it only takes one session to get to level 2, 2 sessions for level 3 and 4. It will take 10 sessions to get to level 20 (from level 19).

Still to fast for some, but you can see where the idea could be tweaked to reach a desired preference and reflect Celebrim's idea that higher levels take longer.
For me personally it depends on real life time, not so much game time. Frequency of play sessions matters most to me - I want to see progress being made.

When we played once every month or six weeks, for 6 - 10 hours at a time, we leveled about once a session or every second session, and that felt about right. Now that we mostly play weekly (online for 2 hours), we still level about every four to six sessions (so, again, about a month or six weeks in real time). So that seems to me the time frame that suits us.

If I was leveling only every 3 or 4 months or more, it would be way too slow for me.

Having said all that - I REALLY like the incremental advancement rules from 13th Age - we use those in our current games every 2 sessions or so (being quick 2 hr sessions). This very much helps keep that feeling of progress front and centre.
 

S'mon

Legend
Update

My weekly Classic D&D Karameikos game is around 5 sessions to level, but I've pretty much gone over to arbitrary XP at this stage (PCs are 9th-14th level) so unsurprising.

My fortnightly 4e Loudwater game ended recently with the PCs at level 29 after 103 sessions, most of the campaign having been 4 sessions/level.

My 5e Runelords/Shattered Star game the PCs are level 7 after 25 sessions, highest PC nearly 8th. Using the rules as written it seems to be 5 sessions/level 5-10 but I'm a bit concerned the XP rules will take it to 3/level from 11th and that might be too quick.

My 5e online Wilderlands game, highest PC is 16th after 81 sessions, a session being about half a tabletop session.

I'm happy enough with all these rates, the one I wasn't happy with was Pathfinder Crimson Throne and seeing PCs level every couple sessions.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
I have typically found that once a month is a good rate, this speaking from an average of 3 sessions a month, average 6 hours per session. I usually use a milestone system, because I have typically strong groups who I have to run higher-XP challenges for, which tends to increase the rate of leveling to almost once per 2 sessions and that is way too fast for me.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Why isn't "adventure completion" one of the options?
I can't say that there's a good answer to this. For me, it depends on the sessions: a session packed with combat and exploring is going to contribute much more to leveling up than one spent building political alliances, crafting weapons, and managing settlements.
Ouch. That hurts.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Can't answer because the poll doesn't include the correct answer, namely, "There is no "should" for leveling up."

When you have the XP, you level up. If you an do that in 2 sessions? Kudos! If it takes you five months of games? That's all good too.

There is no and absolutely should be NO expectations of levels after "X" sessions or "hours of game time" or any other ridiculous, meaningless, completely arbitrary count/number when a player becomes "due" a level.

Get the XP. Level up.
 

Hriston

Adventurer
I require PCs to not only acquire enough XP, but also to complete the required training in order to gain levels. This takes one or two weeks of game-time in my campaigns.
 

joshinminn

Explorer
The DM ruining the 5e campaign I'm playing in has a unique way of having us level. If you attend and survive a session, you get 1 XP. Once your total XP equals your current level number (i.e., 2 XP at level two, 3 XP at level three), you level up. We play twice a month. So the first few levels went pretty quickly, but nope that we're around five and six, it takes a few months. Might get tedious soon, but it's working pretty well now.

Sent from my SM-G935V using Tapatalk
 

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