Advancement in Classic D&D

Graph trending up

We frequently marvel at how sketchy the advice was in Original D&D (and other early editions) was for the number of monsters, amount of treasure, and expected rate of PC advancement in the dungeons.

There are a few semi-secondary sources that give estimates for advancement rates -- and it's rather remarkable how widely they differ. This is even though they all date from a time post-OD&D-Supplement-I, when in they're all using basically the same monster XP chart and treasure tables.

Gygax in The Strategic Review Vol. 2, #2, p. 23 (1976)

It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.

Note that on average this suggests about 60 games in the first year of play to achieve 10th level (i.e., an average of 6 games/level; but there's no reason to think this is a uniform rate over the ten levels). The data points afterward suggest a subsequent rate of about 2.5 levels gained per year of play. Obviously: that's an enormous number of games by modern standards!

Holmes in Basic D&D, p. 22 (1977)

As a guideline, it should take a group of players from 6 to 12 adventures before any of their characters are able to gain sufficient experience to attain second level. This guidelining will hold true for successive levels. Note that it is assumed that the 6 to 12 adventures are ones in which a fair amount of treasure was brought back — some 10% to 20% of adventures will likely prove relatively profitless for one reason or another.

On average, this works out to 9 adventures per level -- 50% slower than Gygax's general estimate (prior to name level).

Moldvay in B/X, p. B61 (1981)

If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure. If most of the players have reached the 3rd level of experience in this time, the DM should consider cutting down the amount of treasure, or increasing the "toughness" of the monsters.

On average, this suggests around 2.5 adventures to gain the first level-up -- over 50% faster than Gygax's general estimate.

Is it surprising how much those estimates vary? The one thing I might point to as a difference is that Gygax's play in OD&D/AD&D awards (some) XP for acquisition of magic items, whereas that's never suggested in the Basic D&D lines. Hypothetically that might explain why the Holmes rate is slower, but certainly not why the Moldvay rate is faster.

Can you think of any other obvious mechanical differences in those rules that would explain that? Which rate best matches your experience at the table? Which best matches your desire as a DM at the table?


  1. That weird how close it is to my own games. In old school games I usually end up at about one advancement every six sessions. If I want a fast game I level them up every 3 sessions and for a slow game I aim for every 10.

    Could the difference between Holmes and Moldvey be related to the expected number of PCs splitting the XP? I know that some early editions assume loads of players or players with multiple PCs.

  2. I think the big caveat is assumptions on what constitutes an adventure or how long a session is.

    1. Note though that the editions already tell you what "an adventure" is, in terms of size and XP.

      If it takes 2,000 XP to level, and the guidelines say 5 adventures to level, then those adventures average out to 400 XP each. There's your budget, work backwards from there.

      How long a session is, on the other hand, is certainly much more fuzzy.

  3. I fixed it. I'll write it up and post a link to it tomorrow.

  4. Given that we only have the time to play about 2 sessions a month, I've opted for a more Moldvay-esque pace in my home game. Our highest level characters are 5-6, and we're on session 30, but as it's an open table not every character has played in every session.

    I think ideally I'd like characters to get to 3rd level by their 5th session or so, and for levels above 5-6 to be increasingly hard to come by. So far that appears to be working.

    1. I think this makes sense myself in the modern era (and several of our top Wandering DMs Discord DMs have said the same).

  5. Gygax's original campaign (which is described in his Strategic Review article) was composed of children and friends, playing (presumably) in evenings, after dinner, prior to bedtime. Very similar to my own campaign these days. I think it's probably the most instructive of the three texts as the latter two are both BASIC rule sets and do not address the long-term campaign and planing off that occurs at high levels.

    I find that with regular play by "fair" players is probably a tad slower than TSR's specifications...but then even Gygax is offering hypothetical numbers (he stated it was POSSIBLE to get to 20th level over five years but 14th being the max level obtained). This makes perfect sense to me, considering deaths, boredom (i.e. wanting to retire a character and start a new one), energy drain, and the potential for PCs being lost in ways that can't be salvaged (teleported to moons or other dimensions, for example), and racial level restrictions.

    [makes one wonder if level 14 (the top end of B/X) was considered a "practical cap" for B/X style play (i.e. after 5 years, players will be ready to graduate to the Advanced game, if not sooner)]

    The question of "advancement rate" was recently brought up on the (new) Classic Adventure Games Podcast, and even those long-time players had little definitive answers to what might be appropriate. They pointed out (rightly, I think) that rate of advancement is only really a "problem" when it's TOO SLOW. One can usually tell when advancement is too fast if character effectiveness is outstripping player knowledge/ability...and DM's can back off the throttle (usually by decreasing treasure intake). But if you go weeks or months without advancing, that's rough...especially during those first nine or ten levels.

    1. I believe that Gary was working from home a lot of this time, and that he would DM e.g. for Rob Kuntz while he worked. And of course there are summers and weekends and cons... And I think he did DM fairly open tables pretty often... I don't think his DM schedule was probably much like "DMing for kids and friends in the evenings".

    2. Perhaps you're right. Certainly one could ask Ernie or Luke to get a better idea.

    3. Lot of good stuff here. Admittedly my impression of Gygax's games was that D&D was such a novel hit he had a crazy number of players showing up at his house every night of the week. I dug up one quote for an answer over at SE RPG, e.g., "For about six months the typical number of players in an adventure session in my basement was 18-22 persons packed in. That was when I asked Rob Kuntz to serve as my co-DM." Link.

  6. > Which rate best matches your experience at the table? Which best matches your desire as a DM at the table?

    You know, that's something I never gave a whole lot of thought to, because I figured the rate of advancement is up to the players, in how they direct their energy. They know what brings them advancement, but if they get their enjoyment out of doing things that aren't XP generators, then I'm cool with that.

    My desire is that as they advance, I'll be sufficiently able to challenge them with more advanced scenarios! As versus a desire for them to move up at some specific interval.

  7. For new, inexperienced players I like to see survivors get into the 70% range (party average) towards level 2 at the end of the first session if it was a lengthy game i.e. a few traps, a few puzzles, 5 or 6 encounters, a chase, etc. Sometimes it helps to keep interest in making it to the next game if the 2nd Level is possible the next time delving. So many competitive distractions these days.

    After 2nd level the difficulty increases almost

  8. It's addressed directly in 2nd Edition AD&D

    "The AD&D game is intentionally very flexible concerning how slowly or quickly characters earn experience--in general, this is left to the discretion of the DM. Some players prefer a game of slow advancement, allowing them time to develop and explore imaginary personalities. Other players like a much faster pace and a definite feeling of progress. Each DM and his players will likely settle into a pace that best suits their group, without even realizing it.
    There is only one hard and fast rule concerning advancement. Player characters should never advance more than one level per time experience is awarded. If a gaming session ends and a character has earned enough experience points to advance two levels, the excess points are lost. The DM should give the character enough experience to place him somewhere between halfway and one point below the next highest level.
    An average pace in an AD&D game campaign is considered to be three to six adventures per level, with more time per level as the characters reach higher levels. However, it is possible to advance as quickly as one level per adventure or as slowly as 10 or more adventures per level. The DM should listen to his players."

    1. "Player characters should never advance more than one level per time experience is awarded. If a gaming session ends and a character has earned enough experience points to advance two levels, the excess points are lost. The DM should give the character enough experience to place him somewhere between halfway and one point below the next highest level."

      I always preferred this rule to the 1e one, which freezes xp as soon as the character has crossed the level-up threshold (DMG, p. 86)

    2. @ Nathan:

      That makes it pretty easy, and works mainly because of mandatory training (which I *think* 2E did away with...?).

      @ Dan:

      Does 2E bother to define what an "adventure" is? When they say "three to six" are they talking game sessions (as Moldvay defines adventure in B/X)?

    3. For what it's worth, I believe both the Gold Box and Infinity Engine games allowed xp up to the threshold for a second level to be gained. So if a 2nd level fighter were awarded 30k xp, he'd be capped at 7,999 (or whatever is one less than needed for 4th level), and remain stuck there until he took the levels (by leveling up, which he could do immediately. The remainder was lost. This seems to correspond with the 2e rule, which makes sense given the time period in which those games were released.

    4. @JB Level training is an optional rule in 2E, and has some altered parameters - duration based on the instructor's Wisdom score rather than the DM assigning letter grades to the PCs, a couple of dice rolls to determine if a PC is suited to be an instructor, and a suggested price of only 100 gold per level per week.

      As for the definition of an adventure, it basically boils down to "an adventure module," or an equivalent self-written scenario. The examples of what constitutes a successful adventure are "Rescue the prince, drive away a band of marauding orcs, cleanse the haunted castle, find the assassin of the late queen, recover the lost Gee-Whiz wand... " but also indicating that player-driven goals count as well, so something like clearing land of monsters for a fighter to build a castle and claim a barony is also an adventure.

      There's a slightly more detailed example in the following section on awarding experience points. Cutting out excess details: "Delsenora and Rath, along with their henchmen, have been hired to drive the orcs out of Wainwode Copse. After some scouting, they spring several ambushes on orc raiding parties. By the third shattering defeat, the orcs of Wainwode decide they've had enough. Leaving their village, they cross the range of hills that marks the boundary of the land and head off for easier pickings elsewhere... Rath and Delsenora have accomplished their mission of driving out the orcs, making them eligible for the XP award for completing a story goal." Per the prior section, receiving a story goal XP award is what happens when the PCs complete an adventure.

      Something like the above or a straightforward module like T1 can easily be done in one night, though something more expansive like B2 might not fit into a single play session - particularly with inexperienced or unfocused players. My guess would be that's why the lower end of the suggested rate is adventures, since if they're longer adventures that might represent six or so sessions.

    5. Correction to the last paragraph: "why he lower end of the suggested rate is three adventures." Not sure why I can't edit my post... I haven't been on Blogspot in a long time, but I could have sworn you used to be able to edit your comments.

    6. @JB «Does 2E bother to define what an "adventure" is? When they say "three to six" are they talking game sessions (as Moldvay defines adventure in B/X)?»

      2e doesn't directly provide much of a definition, but when it says "three to six adventures per level" then the math says an adventure provides sufficient XP to progress one sixth to one third of a level.

      With an party average XP to level at 1st level of 2,000 (say), and a pace of five adventures to level, then those adventures would be worth about 400 XP each.

      That's the budget to work with. In 2e the story reward would normally be no bigger than the amount of XP from monsters for that adventure, then one could reason that 50% is from overcoming monsters and 50% is from the story reward. (I like to count the individual awards as bonus XP, for faster advancement and simpler math.)

      Given that, a 400 XP adventure for a party of 5 adventurers means 2000 XP to be shared, with 1000 XP from monsters. With goblins + leaders + wargs + maybe a bugbear merc or two .. that's about 30 goblins, 3 worgs, 1 bugbear, and a leader or two. Split that into a few encounters (a patrol, a sentry pair, a couple of rooms, and a final showdown) and you have an adventure.

    7. @Garumoo See my above post for more info on the implicit definition of an adventure. As for the mix of XP, I find that it skews more than 50/50 since it's rare for the PCs to actually fight every single monster in the adventure. If they evade or simply never encounter half the monsters, for example, then roughly 67% of the XP would come from the story award.

    8. "Adventure" is one of those fuzzy terms with multiple levels of abstraction and definition, just like "setting" and "campaign".

      PCs don't need to fight every monster to defeat or overcome them. Sneaking past a sentry counts as defeating them.

      Point taken on "never encounter" though, that'll mess up how much XP gets awarded.

      So yes, the 50:50 split is a gross estimate .. I also side-stepped including the individual rewards into the budget because it was messy and complicated to calculate — that could make up the missing 17%.

  9. Allston in the BECM RC suggests 5 sessions/level, I'm not sure if this is taken from Mentzer (maybe in the Companion Set?). That's a rate I find works very well. Running Curse of the Crimson Throne in Pathfinder I found the PCs levelling up every 2 sessions felt much too fast. The 5e suggestion of 1 level/session to 3rd then 2.5 sessions also feels too fast to me.

  10. We play where I painstakingly calculate and award XP based almost exclusively on monsters, GP at 1:1, and magic items. Our sessions are 5-6 hours long.

    We come nowhere CLOSE to that rate of advancement. Fortunately the players are happy with with it. They'd oft spend time deliberating instead of acting. Less XP, but it works.

  11. Chance of surviving double figure adventures at first level is slim. Give XP for other things suggested as well by Gygax etc I think.