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Worlds of Design: Leveling vs. Training

We previously covered why training systems were abandoned in D&D. Here's what replaced it.

We previously covered why training systems were abandoned in D&D. Here's what replaced it.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” ― Aristotle

Congratulations on Advancing, Pay Up!​

I’ve always thought one of the worst mistakes in AD&D (not repeated in later editions) was the requirement that when you reach enough experience points to rise in level you have to pay somebody an exorbitant sum to “train” reach that new level. I suppose these rules were an attempt to take excess money out of the game, but if applied as written it turned adventurers into mere money grubbers (much worse than treasure-hunters) in order to acquire enough money for training. I want a game of heroes, not money-grubbers, and I doubt that Gary Gygax wanted adventurers to be money-grubbers when he wrote AD&D.

As I discussed in the previous article, it was also wrong-headed because if you did the things that enabled you to survive and prosper then why would you need somebody to train you? You don't teach or even train people in order to somehow mysteriously activate what they already know/know how to do. You teach them in order to provide a substitute for real-world experience (If you're a good teacher, that is) People learn best from experience, and by talking with other practitioners in order to learn from them, and as you get more experience, you improve.

And then there's the chicken and egg question: where did the original trainer come from? There must be a way to learn these things successfully without being trained by someone else.

Fundamentally, we have two competing systems: a level-based system that uses the word “experience” to reflect characters’ development through adventuring, and a more monetary system that requires payment to advance.

The Devolution of Training in D&D​

Subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons gradually phased this requirement out, for good reason. I suspect the training rule was dropped in later editions because the designers realized it turns the most noble adventurers (including monks and paladins) into mercenaries, especially when experience points are given for gold. I didn’t need a rule to extract cash from adventurers. I do not give away big treasures, as treasure does not provide experience points in my games.

In AD&D 2nd Edition, training was relegated to an optional rule:
Characters must pay a tutor around 100 gp per level per week, with the duration based on the instructor's Wisdom score. The character must then pass a Wisdom or Intelligence check to level up, retrying each week until successful. The tutor must be a character of the same class and of higher level.
In D&D 3rd Edition, it was assumed characters practiced their skills during downtime, with an optional rule of working with an instructor at 50 gp per week. Skills took one week per skill rank and feats took two weeks. Class abilities and spells also required expenditure of time and money. By 4th Edition, training was removed entirely (with a reference to proficiency replacing training).

Why it Went Away​

There’s nothing inherently wrong with leveling up rules. D&D was intended to be relatively simple. Leveling is meant to be an abstraction in which characters are finally getting a tangible in-game benefit from their experiences that they would have achieved gradually in a real world.

This sudden jump up a level is similar to how hit points are treated in D&D. You don't lose capability as you accumulate damage, but when you get to zero hit points, you’re suddenly incapacitated. Later systems have strayed from the simple hit point approach to cause more nuanced damage, so that characters suffer different penalties than just hit points over time.

This waning effectiveness has its roots in wargames with unit “steps” (including many block games). Damaged units decrease capabilities in discrete increments, because that’s the best we can do with non-computer games. But some designers think that’s better than a unit being fully capable until suddenly it’s dead, as was true in all the older Avalon Hill games such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps.

More modern games reject this idea of leveling entirely, preferring instead to allow characters to focus on different skills from a pool and increase those as they see fit. It requires considerably more bookkeeping, which is why you see this style of advancement more often in computer role-playing games. Computers make it much easier to keep track of the minute details—and of percentages.

Stepped or Nuanced?​

If we were willing to accept the additional record-keeping and complexity, we could have gradual decreases in abilities with injuries sustained for RPG characters. Similarly, we could have characters increase in one skill or feat before they fully level up. And in some RPG rulesets that is the case, but not in intended-to-be-simple D&D.

D&D codified technical skill with the Proficiency Bonus in 5th Edition, a modifier that is uniformly applied to many aspects of a character’s capabilities. While not a one-to-one equivalent of a character’s level, the Proficiency Bonus replaces much of the fiddly bits of how good a character is at combat, or spellcasting, or avoiding damage by tying it all to one number.

Conversely, there are some rules that restore degrees of advancement or failure in between levels. 5th Edition reserves training for learning new languages or tool proficiencies independent of levels (250 days at a cost of 1 gp per day). Optional rules added further complications and costs in Xanathar's Guide to Everything.

On the damage side, 5E has exhaustion levels, which provide a separate track of penalties from hit point loss alone (and can still result in character death!). Speaking of death, there are now death saves, with three fails accumulating in the death of a character.

Despite the relatively simple approach D&D has to success and failure, it’s clear players crave more nuance in how their characters develop or die. We see this in more modern RPGs and in D&D’s gradual removal of training as a requirement for advancement.

Your Turn: What subsystems do you use for advancement or failure in your games?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
IIRC, you still train, but don't need a master. It's self-study. The cost / GP (in 1E anyway) is set by class.
Oh, ok. So yeah, yikes if you're a Druid or Monk. I'm lucky, when I played 1e, nobody (I played with) enforced training. Then again, I don't think any one (I played with) was using gp = xp either...when I heard about it, I was like "woah, Thieves would be awesome!" (turns out, no they wouldn't be, lol).


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
So...they level up when they get rich enough??? Some of my greedy players would love that! :)

Otherwise, where's the progress bar?
Well, they level up when they pay for the training, which yeah, would require being rich enough. Again, functionally it’s pretty much XP for gold, just without the middle-man of XP.


Community Supporter
Oof, that's a double whammy if you lose, the gold is gone, and so is (as I recall) half the xp!
The higher levels of AD&D definitely gave off a vibe of "there's too many of you and you got here too quickly." So you started to see rules like this where cultural constraints were part of the class (druids, monks, and assassins too!). Therefore, gold was also a "correction" to someone reaching that high a level.

Or to put it another way, there seemed to be a suspicion that wealth accumulation was unearned, and rules were put into place to flatten out the disparity to bring it in line with the character's power level. The assumption being if you're motivated to adventure for gold, high level characters won't go adventuring anymore.

D&D has never been fond of rich, low level characters (but is only too happy to have poor, high level characters)!


I think there are certain levels were the "instant leveling" makes more or less sense. For example, from 1st to 2nd, sure you are polishing some skills, gaining a few new insights, makes sense.

2nd to 3rd though is a major milestone for a lot of characters. They often get their subclasses, some of which are part ability and some are part "organization". It does seem weird to have this just happen in the middle of a dungeon. While I don't necessarily need to have "money payed" to level, I do think there are some levels where it makes sense to go "you don't actually level till you get back to civilization"

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Maybe. Or maybe leveling up has never made any sense at all. Think about it.

As you use your skills in real life, you get better at them, but only to a point. Some people struggle at different tasks and always will. Others struggle, but have an "epiphany" where it clicks. Others learn super easily.

D&D averages this out to have everyone advance at the same rate, provided they accomplish the same tasks (this wasn't always the case, see AD&D, though the rates the different classes advanced was completely arbitrary, with the class who fights good advancing slower than the class that was entirely devoted to learning the ins and outs of complex mechanical devices and physical skills, and the class that trended towards it's members having the highest Intelligence advancing the slowest).

Some classes seem like they really should require training to get new abilities, while others have such basic abilities that you could easily see them improving through use. Most of what the Rogue does should be the result of experience in the field, for example.

But the Arcane Trickster suddenly being able to cast 1st-level spells out of nowhere can seem suspect.

But what's really confusing is the xp system. So I can fight 30 Hobgoblins, and after completing the encounter where I defeat the 31st Hobgoblin, the game can decide I gain: more hit points, better proficiency bonus, a Feat OR ability score increase (meaning that working out at the gym to get stronger takes the same effort as gaining the ability to cast some cantrips and a 1st-level spell or becoming a skilled paramedic, or becoming a Michelin-star chef?), 2 new spells, a new spell slot, a class or subclass ability- all depending on what level it is.

And I don't have a choice in the matter either. If I'm a Fighter, upon hitting 9th level, I'm getting Indomitable. Do I want it? Would I rather have an ASI or another Fighting Style? Sorry, you don't get to choose.

Which yeah, I get it, this is for simplicity- D&D is a level based game, and doesn't allow for individual traits leveling on their own, nor am I saying it should (I happen to like how players can't accidentally spend their xp in strange ways or become crippingly overspecialized, like say in Vampire), but it is weird.

Very little about it makes any sense, it's all an abstraction. Every bit of it. And yet, time and again, people will notice one aspect of this process as not making sense, and want to fix it, or try and make it logical- you need training, you have to return to civilization, you must pay gold- any number of things that will never really do more than complicate the game, and not really address the differences in how classes gain their powers.

A Wizard needs to study scraps of arcane lore. But a Sorcerer doesn't. So does it make sense that both have to train equally? Or how about the guy who acquired Warlock powers after talking to a shady cultist in a back alley? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.

There is however, another way to look at this.

The old Kung Fu series showed our Monk protagonist on this epic journey across the Old West. As time goes on, he develops new abilities and overcomes new challenges as they occur. In a D&D sense, he is "leveling up". And through flashbacks, we are shown that he received all of this training as a child and a young man, but it's only by going out and doing, gaining real world experience using these skills, that he learns to apply these lessons.

So maybe, after completing their apprenticeship, basic training, or what have you, most of the lessons a character might need to use their class abilities have already been achieved, they just need to learn how to apply them in the field.

To me, at least, it would make a little bit of sense as to why their progression track is locked in "so when you reach level 9, you will learn Indomitable, because that's what you were trained to do long ago".

Of course, multiclassing throws that all out the window. Maybe. I mean, if your party has a Wizard, maybe multiclassing as a Wizard doesn't seem out of bounds. But if there's nary a Wizard in sight, then what?


Morkus from Orkus
Of course, and it makes sense.

You're not paying someone to train you in what you already know, you're paying someone to train you in the theory of what you don't yet know, which you then take out into the field and put into practice.

With the amount of treasure 1e modules tended to give out, characters not having enough money for training was rarely if ever an issue.

The real mistake was Gygax's dumb "rating" rules that were used to set the cost of training; not the training itself nor that it came at a cost.

Exactly - you teach them that which they don't yet know how to do. You've got it backwards; I think because you're ignoring that the cycle doesn't start with 1st-level adventuring, it starts with pre-1st-level training (which we never play through, we just assume it's already happened).

A fighter learns a new series of moves during training (mechanical impact: an uptick in BAB to use the 3e term) then puts that training to use during the next tour of adventuring.
That's not really how Gygax described it, though. He described XP as gaining progress towards greater proficiency, so as you get experience you are getting learning to do better. This is further backed up by the note on page 85 of the 1e DMG where Gygax says that getting experience would towards improvement would be more realistic if... and then describes a bunch of boring to play stuff. So he's definitely saying that the character is getting better as he gains XP.

The training was just some arbitrary cost tacked on. You didn't even need to train or pay for training if you performed in a superior or excellent manner during the level.
Adventurers are mercenaries.
Adventurers CAN be mercenaries. They often adventure for reasons other than getting paid by NPCs to do stuff.
I've never used xp-for-gp but still have training and still give out lots of treasure (and destroy lots too - easy come, easy go). :)
Did you alter the 1e XP tables so that PCs would level at the same rate? The vast amounts of XP needed to level in 1e were there because you were also expected to get vast amounts of gold to help you level up. If you relied only on XP from killing things and then kept the same tables, you were horribly gimping the players. Our DM didn't alter the tables and got rid of gold for XP, which is one of the prime reasons we never made it past 7th level.


Morkus from Orkus
Once they hit name level though they don't have to do training anymore. See Alzrius's paste of the 1e dmg page 86. I'd have to look up if there is an overlap of dueling requirements and pre name levels for them.
They don't have to pay for training at any level if they do well enough with the rating.


Morkus from Orkus
Oh, no, I totally get the narrative. But the fact of the matter is, it’s not an intuitive narrative for most players, and even if they do understand it logically, it still just feels bad. Psychologically speaking, it’s very satisfying to make progress bars fill up. But, that satisfaction is undermined when filling up the bar doesn’t immediately get you the thing it marks progress towards. You can explain logically why it makes sense until you’re blue in the face, it’s still just going to be viscerally, emotionally dissatisfying to the majority of players. Fortunately, if you just take the XP out of the equation, the gold that the players spend on training is just as effective of a progress bar. Training costs alone can serve all the same functions as an XP for gold system, without the drawbacks of having both XP and training costs.
@Lanefan's method doesn't make any sense from a realism standpoints. People get better through practice and doing. The fighter will learn from mistakes and improve in the field. He will see that if he takes move #2 and combines it with move #34 and gives it a zing, it becomes harder to block(+1 to hit for leveling up). And so on. If you don't get better or learn new things at all while in the field, but only after you get back to the classroom, it just doesn't make sense.


Morkus from Orkus
So all the xp. No bueno! Though, as was pointed out, you probably no longer need training once you have to start challenging higher ups to progress.

Say, didn't Paladins, Rangers, and Monks have wealth restrictions in 1e? Wouldn't that make training problematic?
For paladins...

"They will never retain wealth, keeping only sufficient treasures to support themselves in a modest manner, pay henchmen, men-at-arms, and servitors, and to construct or maintain a small castle."

Training costs would be part of the modest support.

Rangers had no wealth limitations other than "You can't have it if you can't carry it(mounts can carry things)" which resulted in every Ranger instantly converting coin to gems when they got to town.

Monks similar to paladins, could retain what the needed for modest support, which would include that training they need.

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