Worlds of Design: The Price of Advancement

In AD&D, there was a training requirement to advancement that didn’t reflect how people actually learn. In this column I’ll talk about how the real world works in this context.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” ― Pablo Picasso

To Train or Not to Train?​

One of the more notable abandoned rules in RPGs is the training requirement, originally of AD&D:
AD&D introduced detailed training rules in the Dungeon Masters Guide (1e) (1979), p.86. The full rules occupy almost a full page and involve multiple formulae to calculate the exact amount of time and money the character must spend to level up, based on several factors including character level, class, the DM's judgement of how well the player acted in keeping with their character class and alignment, whether or not a tutor is available. The character must spend 1,500 gold pieces times their current character level per week, with high level characters spending from 1,000gp/level to 4,000gp/level depending on class. A character who qualifies for a level cannot gain any XP until they have gained a level.
It doesn’t reflect at all how people actually learn something like adventuring, and turns adventurers into mere money-grubbers. Moreover, it failed from a game design point of view. It disappeared from later editions of the game.

In the rough and tumble world of adventuring, few characters are scholastically trained. Originally, bards attended bardic colleges. It was always implied that wizards learn their spells through some form of formal education, separate and distinct from the later sorcerer and warlock who received their magic from other sources. And although clerics are presumably a member of a religion, education is oddly separate from it (perhaps to further distinguish wizards from clerics), even though religious institutions were traditionally a place of higher learning.

Add all this up, and it’s more likely that heroes advance through real life experience than reading about it at a desk.

How Realistic is It?​

As a retired college and graduate school teacher I recognize that a good teacher can convey their experience to enable someone to avoid the lessons of the “school of hard knocks.” I also recognize that it’s possible for someone to do something over and over but to do it poorly in a way that does not lead to improvement—though if you did that as an adventurer, you’d soon be dead. Despite that, once they start working, most people who are good at practical disciplines become better primarily through experience, not training.

Computer role-playing games approach training differently. A column in PC Gamer magazine written years ago expressed a preference for computer-platform RPG skill-based development systems in which players improve in the capabilities that they use, rather than allocate experience points to whatever improvements they choose. It made much more sense that you improve in the things you actually do than those you train for.

This approach is a rejection of Dungeons & Dragons’ leveling up, in which characters hit a plateau before advancing all their abilities at once. It’s a compromise between having “grades” of advancement, much like higher education, and collecting real life experience that gets you there. No wonder games set in modern times traditionally discard level-based advancement for skill development systems.

Schooling or Experience?​

In today's world, schooling is often a substitute for experience, and a way to acquire knowledge when someone wants to enter a discipline but knows little about it. But it's just the start of a career in that field, a minor component for actual practitioners who want to become better at their discipline.

It is not an uncommon assumption that formal training is the only way to learn a craft or trade. Not surprisingly, this is propagated by institutions responsible for that form of training. Certifications and licenses help regulate an industry and bolster confidence in customers who might hire someone in a skill. Some disciplines require a lot of education before you can gain experience by doing. Law, History, and other academic disciplines come to mind.

But adventurers don’t often live in such a formal world; more likely, they learn by doing. In some cases, what they do is unique enough that there are no teachers; in others, it’s dangerous enough that few people survive long enough to teach others.

We can find “untrained” people in many disciplines who excel in spite of their lack of formal education–for example, Hans Zimmer is one of the great composers of our time and completely self-taught. Game design itself is one of those fields: GMing is a discipline where we learn from experience, either as player or as GM. I certainly never had the opportunity to take any game design classes, but I do pretty well at it and know enough about it to write a well-received book on the subject (which I finished in 2011; I know a lot more now).

Training certainly has its place in games, particularly in large institutions in which navigating the rules is as much as an adventure as fighting monsters. But D&D has traditionally been less about large institutions, who lurk in the background, and more about personal advancement and experience. Forcing training on characters feels artificial because it means heroes need to be certified and licensed to do what they do best. No wonder later editions of D&D minimized training requirements for advancement. We'll discuss what replaced the AD&D system in the next article.

Your Turn: How do you handle training in your games?
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


The big problems I ran into with using training rules was that PCs would have enough XP and not find someone or need to stop the adventure to level up. Also PCs used to advance at different rates so the fighter would want to go train and by the time the adventure continued, the magic user would need to go train. This led to pre-training rules and more patches on our end.

I feel now we just assume it goes on in the background. If the PCs are in town, the fighter may be talking with guards or another fighter passing through and they may show each other a few moves or the wizard may find someone who sell components and they can show the wizard how to unlock the spell in their book to be able to cast it. It kind of hand-waves the whole thing and is not the best, but seems to work. This method does add some roleplay to the game when I ask a player to describe a NPC they met in town and can tie them to a hook or even something as buying a free meal and give them a bit of news about the road ahead.


For a little over 20 years, I ran a game where characters created their character, and I created their mentor in conjunction with them. As they leveled, and outpaced their mentors, new mentors appeared that were informed by where the characters were heading, storywise. In that way, the old rules were used as a vehicles for introducing cool NPCs that they bonded with and loved and occasionally grieved.

Regarding the cost requirements, there were quite a few times where the treasure included XX amount of gold, XX amount of silver, a few gems and some jewelry...and also enough additional money to cover the cost of training. That kept the game better balanced and allowed for folks to focus on playing their characters.

It required communication and trust, but it kept the same players coming back, session after session for a long period of time.

We ended because the group, now in middle age, were separated due to work. We picked up again during the pandemic, via Roll20, and we quickly realized that elements like the old training system were a little too cumbersome over the virtual tabletop. We now follow the 5e system and levels are gained via milestone, without any sort of training. We enjoy it, mainly because it fits our current lifestyle and the demands on our time and limited brainspace.

Like most of those old rules, I think the reality is a little more complex than "bad design" or "prototypical design." The "good" or "bad" of it has more to do with the playstyle of the individual table. We absolutely LOVED it, and never regretted it, or experienced any sort of cognitive dissonance over it. BUT, when we got older, had kids and a number of promotions at work under our belts, suddenly we just didn't have the time or energy for that many fiddly bits in something we were doing for fun. And, now we're having fun with the opposite system.


Having played since 1E with training rules, I have since rejected them. For DND or other level based games, I describe most characters as having had training or practice with whatever it is they do. When the character gets enough xp to advance, I only require a long rest or good night's sleep for them to advance the next morning.

This is because having played 1E where a character, or characters, gained enough xp to advance in the middle of a dungeon and want to take everyone back to the city, not the closest town but city, where they could train derailed the whole adventure. Sure, some players today might want to immediately rest to gain the benefits but understand having to wait a bit.

I see all characters having passive downtime to practice, whether spells or arms, and I do see it as a progression, even if the game has it happen all at once. The other reason is that I have played a fair number of skill based systems (mostly Alternity, Shadowrun, and WoD games) and found that players felt like their characters were static when skills only progress one point/level/rank at a time. It took me doing the same combat we did, as a mock exercise, to show them how much better their characters were seven months into playing. They were shocked how much easier that fight was.

Speaking of skill based systems, I do try and keep players focused on their concept. If they learn skills within that concept, I don't have them require training. (Most skill based systems seem to lean to modern and SciFi not that I haven't used Alternity for fantasy.) If they can explain a new skill in the context of their concept, I might require downtime of a few days or week to learn the new skill but no cost just time. It's only when they try and take a skill completely outside their concept and they haven't tried to set it up in play that I would require training costing time and money.

I agree with @Chaderick in that now we are older, the systems handle things better. Back in 1E/2E DND when it was discouraged to have magic shops and for characters to find magic, they didn't have much else to use gold on. I think training was just the designer's way to keep their wealth down as well as someplace to use gold. Now that characters (at least in my PF1/LU) games can make items and have costs there, they have reason to get gold and things to use it on, so we don't worry as much about training.

Notes: As I wrote this and thought about it, I'm almost sorry that the (PF1) Barbarian doesn't have the next lower BAB progression with class bonuses in weapon groups that make up for it. I see them as raw fury, while the top BAB does indicate training to me.

Thanks for the good article and discussion!


Just kill the tutor requirement, and the rest of "training" works. In this case it assumes the character is spending time & money during their downtime practicing, researching or otherwise improving their skills.

However, I myself long ago abandoned "training" to gain the next level skills. Though I wish there was a better way to replicate research and training to improve skills and abilities during downtime than the current rules. I've had PCs discover and read a few tomes about magical theory, history and the like at PCs in my game and there isn't any good method to reflect the PC's gained knowledge in a skill check for Arcana, History or the like. Playing a character with a Sage background was exceptionally frustrating - my character's supposed breadth and depth of knowledge never translated into any sort of mechanical skill check.

Experience may be the best tutor, but its not the only one, and I wish the game would reward PCs for out of the ordinary or exceptional training and the like.


I've always just gone with the assumption that characters are training constantly during their down time, and never required them to find a tutor - back in the old days, they just spent the gold to advance with the assumption that they'd used that gold for training expenses over time rather than all at once.
One thing I used to do, however, was that, if they weren't quite at the XP necessary to attain the next level*, I'd allow them to seek out a tutor and spend GP=XP to advance to the next level, representing the advantages of working with a tutor.

* You'd need to have at least 3/4 of the XP needed to advance.


I haven't found a satisfactory answer to training in D&D. I came into the game with 2e AD&D fresh out of the presses so train-to-level-up is not a thing I ever used or was imposed on. The closest I ever got to it was in the Elder Scrolls series, but even at the time I moslty saw it as an artifact to explained why high-level NPCs were scattered all over the Forgotten Realms. My bigger problem is more like if you spend two years in downtime training, what experience do you get?

Today's training is pretty disassociated from work. You get into a trade school, graduate, then find a job elsewhere. Most of the training in pre-industrial world was done by companionship. Master artisan would get one or more apprentices, "graduate" those who had the potential to live up to their name as companions and kick the others out. But the trained artisans were expected to work with their mentor until they themselves became masters or were sent to more famous or influential patrons. Guilds also worked similarly offering both training and employment but expected exclusive membership (and professional secrecy) out of their trainees.

Adventurers should work the same; established adventurer takes a young apprentice under their wing, or perhaps bring them to one of their adventurer friends. Then the older adventurer would die or retire, and the cycle would continue. Kind of stable-boy to page to squire to knight under the same suzerain. That's how it's done in many works of fiction too. But In D&D and RPGs in general, you don't want to play the young adventurer lurking in the shadow of a much more powerful and experienced NPC, and there's this band thematic that is also less compatible with companionship.

So yeah, I still don't know.

Argyle King

I would agree that "schooling" isn't always the best way to learn. I would further agree that, for many disciplines, it is a rather poor way to learn.

I went to (American) college, and -despite learning some things- I was far less prepared for doing an actual job than I had thought I would be. It was a good social-networking opportunity, and I have a few dance moves from the art requirements attached to electives, but it was overall a rather poor way to learn a career.

However, there is a such thing as "hands-on training" (what some places now call "experiential learning") that would be relevant to adventuring.

In contrast to my college experience, I was also in the military. I retained more information from the 16 weeks of initial training than I did from years of sitting in a classroom. Even today, I can still disassemble and reassemble most AR-style rifles while blindfolded.

Later, it was also extremely valuable to have instructors for things such as air assault, land nav, advanced marksmanship, and various other things. Learning the small nuances of high-level skills from more-experienced members of those particular fields was literally a lifesaver (and is something which I believe to be comparable to adventuring).

Sure, there are a lot of things I learned through trial-and-error. I might even go so far as to say I surpassed the skill of people who were once my instructors due to now having more actual experience than some of them. I learned a lot of things through experience (deployments) which were not the commonly taught way of doing things (but worked better). Even so, having a solid foundation of basic skills learned from more experienced "adventurers" definitely helped me to survive a lot of hostile situations. I'm not sure I would be here to type this out now, without the skills I learned from instructors.

I've also found that maintaining high-level skills require more daily maintenence. For example, championship chess players and UFC fighters put a lot of time into drills and exercises to maintain their spot among the elite levels of their respective professions.

I imagine that training to adventure is less like a college classroom and more like the go/no-go stations involved in military training. Wizards and clerics likely have a little more bookwork involved to learn spell formulas and such.


I assume characters are effectively training and learning all the time as well without a tutor. However, they also almost always level up during breaks in the action which may mean weeks or even months. But that's more just because of story elements and I don't want PCs to go from 1 to 20 over the course of a few weeks in the game world.


I dont do training in my games. Advancement is all mechanical and kept under the hood. I understand that is hard for some to do while reconciling the narratives, but I'm very capable of separating the two. That said, I certainly wouldn't say no to trying out a training system of some type to spice up a campaign. Perhaps the likes of a Paizo AP experimental supplement. As long as its additive to the overall gaming experience and does not become a chore. YMMV.


Another problem with leveling and needing to be trained is that a lot of the campaigns are on a rapid pace to save the world and the PCs do not have the days/weeks needed to properly downtime. Maybe more true in the published 5e campaigns than in some home games.


A suffusion of yellow
I have the players linked to a faction/organisation and create at least one PC patron who might act as a mentor. Practicing skills and honing abilities are then assumed to be part of Downtime.

As a bonus though if a PC actively roleplays seeking out training I will allow them to acquire proficiency in a new skill or a even a new Skill Feat.


AD&D was meant to facilitate a different experience than 5e. That was by the designer's intentions. 5e wants to tell epic stories about heroes, leaning heavily on the Combat and Social Interaction pillars, and as such as rules (or not) to support that. AD&D was at it's heart a risk/reward system for treasure seekers and adventurers, leaning heavily on the Exploration pillar. You can't independently judge AD&D's rules outside of that context. Things that would make no sense in 5e (for example, XP for loot), make perfect sense in AD&D.

It's funny, the comment "turns adventurers into mere money-grubbers" is EXACTLY was the AD&D system was designed to do!

I also disagree that learning and refining your skills shouldn't take training into account. A good example is professional athletes. Even those athletes at the very top of their respective professions practice daily, and work with experts who help them continuously improve. I think one of the misconceptions about training in AD&D is that you needed someone more skilled than yourself to learn from. Again, using sports as an analogy, that's clearly not the case. Take for example Tom Brady. His position coach is Clyde Christensen. Christensen never played QB in the NFL. There's no chance he could out perform Brady on the field. But he can help Brady identify ways to improve, based on his expert knowledge of the fundamentals of the position and his experience learning what worked when he previously coached Peyton Manning. I believe the right answer is you need both... experience AND knowledge/coaching, to reach your maximum potential.


Biological Disaster
I find using a mentor system works a lot better when the players are encouraged to make connections with various NPCs and avoid the "lone wolf" archetype. Investing interest in the world that surrounds them should pay back in dividends, whether that's trainers, experts in specific skills, or just people to share in a bit of humanity.

For my game, I do use training time and cost, but set it up so having a trainer can reduce both the cost and time required, allowing the character to spend more of their downtime on other things. It helps that the downtime between adventures in most of my campaigns are weeks at a time, so my players usually have the option to divvy up their downtime in various pursuits like crafting, research, improving social circles, things like that.


Thinking more about this... the biggest problem to having training in 5e would be adventure design. Most of the 5e hardback adventures have you constantly on the move, and often isolated for good periods of time. Some you could do it (Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, Rime of the Frostmaiden) but others like Descent into Avernus, Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Out of the Abyss, and Tyranny of Dragons... good luck.

Of course, this isn't a "problem" per say, as there's no reason to expect adventures to cater to training when it doesn't exist in 5e. :)


Victoria Rules
Another problem with leveling and needing to be trained is that a lot of the campaigns are on a rapid pace to save the world and the PCs do not have the days/weeks needed to properly downtime. Maybe more true in the published 5e campaigns than in some home games.
That's straight-up a problem with the adventures as written, not the system. It's also a problem if one is running a hard-railed AP rather than anything bigger; but if you're running a hard AP that's its own kind of beast and might need variant rules.


Victoria Rules
I find myself largely disagreeing with the OP; in that IME there's two parts to learning a skill or ability: the theory, and the practice.

The theory comes first - you sit in a class or lab and are told or shown some of how things work or what to do when, etc.

Then comes the practice, where you're turned loose in the field to put that theory training into use.

Then, once you've demonstrably mastered that round of theory by successfully putting it to actual use, it's back to the classroom for the next round of theory. Lather rinse repeat.

During my career I did many rounds of sales training and it used this model - successfully - every damn time.

In a D&D setting the "classroom" could and would often be a practice field for warriors and monks, a temple for cleric types, maybe a back alley for rogue types, and an actual classroom or lab for mages and bards. In the fiction, levelling up just means you-as-character realize one day that you've mastered the last round of training and are now ready for more.

As for the fact it takes in-game time and money to train, all I can say to that is "Good!", for a few reasons:

One, downtime allows more opportunities to engage with parts of the setting that aren't adventure sites, and people in the setting who aren't either direct allies or direct foes in the field.
Two, it forces a slightly more reasonable (i.e. takes from ludicrous down to merely excessive) speed of character advancement when compared to the in-game calendar - instead of going from 1-20 in two months, now it might take two years.
Three, it sometimes forces interesting choices on to parties in the field: do we keep going with some of us untrained, or do we bail back to town and get 'em trained up, or do we send just one or two people back while the rest of us either wait here or keep going.
Four, it's a money sink.

Now, all that said, there's still one huge glaring problem with the way 1e does its training; that being the stupid DM rating system used to assign how much it costs. One of Gygax's worst ideas, that one, but easy enough to ignore in favour of just making the costs roughly the same for everyone.

Thomas Shey

I've never been a been a fan of training being mandatory for advancement; I either prefer it to be a slower and more expensive but more reliable alternative to learning-by-doing, which works much better in skill based games.

But then, I'm not sure all games need it; its just a rationale for experience expenditure of certain sorts in superhero games and some other stylized ones, and I don't exactly see it doing any harm.

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