Is D&D’s “XP Valley” Killing Campaigns?

A sneaky system design quirk may contribute to D&D campaigns fizzling out before they reach high level.

Is D&D a Low-Level Game?

Prevailing wisdom says that most 5th Edition D&D is played at the lowest levels.

Folks have plenty of reasons to feel this way:

D&D’s April 2015 Player Survey data suggested “most of you are still playing in the 1st to 6th level range.” Notably, that survey was only a month after the game officially released. Folks also cite DnDBeyond’s Campaign Level Spread data, which controlled for certain factors in an attempt to only capture played characters, but remains imperfect and suffers from sampling bias. Sometimes, folks point to the sales data of third-party content produced for Adventurer’s League and DM’s Guild, which still composes a small fraction of the player base.

It’s impossible to say whether this phenomenon is a sampling error, a self-fulfilling prophecy based on 5e’s capped adventure design, a quirky manifestation of Benford’s Law, or simply the truth.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume it’s true.

What Causes This Phenomenon?

D&D is a game about characters. While 5e’s rules framework is relatively light, the majority of its rules text is dedicated to different character options. Players spend a lot of time and energy away from the table theorizing, creating, developing, commissioning art, and talking about aspects of their characters. But, only play at the table can cause true character development.

It’s deflating for a player when they can’t develop their character. We joke that the scheduling monster kills the most campaigns. While that’s true, it’s an underexamined conclusion. Scheduling is less troublesome when players are motivated to return to the table with their characters. Is there an underlying cause? I say yes.

D&D systemically stunts player development at the levels campaigns start to fizzle out.

Level Advancement in D&D

It’s no secret that the first couple levels in D&D go quickly. If you don’t start your campaign at level 3, you’re likely to get there quickly due to the low Experience Point (XP) totals you need to hit to advance. This easy level progression tapers off as you progress, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that 5e’s level progression gets faster again at higher levels!

How can that be? Each successive level requires more XP. How could the level progression get faster?

Well, when you get stronger, you also fight stronger monsters. When you fight stronger monsters, you get more XP. We can see how this ratio changes at each level by asking the following question:

If you solo killed a monster with a CR equal to your level, how far would you fill your experience bar to the next level?

Since monsters give XP based on their Challenge Rating, we can measure how much XP a character would get towards their next level when killing a monster with a CR equal to their level. First, we take the XP reward for a creature equal to the character’s level. Then, we figure out how much XP a character needs to make it to the next level. Finally, we divide the XP reward by the XP needed. The resulting percentage shows us how much solo-killing the monster would “fill your experience bar” to the next level.

When we plot this out, we see an “XP valley” from level 4 to 10. After that, the rate of leveling picks back up, hovering between 50% to 60% all the way up to level 20. So, what’s the reason for the mid-level slog? Is it intentional? How intentional? Tough to say.

Stunted character development can sap player excitement and kill campaigns. While only a factor for tables using XP, this “XP valley” may contribute to D&D’s perceived low level focus. Perhaps D&D’s recent emphasis on milestone leveling is an attempt to address this issue with level progression. Even so, an adjustment to the experience progression tables could alleviate this pain point for parties using XP.

ThinkDM’s Revised XP Table

What do you think? Comment below or join the discussion on the ThinkDM Patreon. While you’re there, you can grab a hi-res copy of the a revised XP table without the “XP valley.”

24 thoughts on “Is D&D’s “XP Valley” Killing Campaigns?

  1. Very interesting post. I had absolutely no idea levels 5-10 were a nadir in XP growth. Personally I still think the perception of 5e as a low-level game has more to do with the DM preference for low level play (even back in 3.5 there were “hacks” that stopped character progression at level 5) but I can definitely see the XP Valley killing enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Almost every 5e game I’ve played uses milestone advancement, because XP based leveling just doesn’t work. And it all comes back to the challenge rating system, in order to properly combat a group of appropriately equipped players, or even just super smart and tactful players, you have to introduce higher CR creatures than recommend. This leads to more experience, and then higher levels, and then harder monsters and so on, and so on.

    Like

  3. Interesting analysis! I think encounter xp is actually limited by the daily xp budget (DMG 84), not the individual monster challenge rating. It could be good to see the same analysis based on how many “adventure days” are required to level. Just because a single cr 5 monster has relatively low xp doesn’t mean that the party isn’t fighting 2 of them at the same time.

    I think milestone leveling is kind of growing in popularity too because of this, and because keeping track of xp can be tedious. If you look at the recent hardcovers and adventurers league rules, they use milestone leveling and don’t even mention xp.

    Like

  4. I definitely didn’t realize about the XP valley but I think the big thing holding High level play is theme and scale. WoTC seem married to the mid tier adventuring party where the farthest they get is LoTR in scale. They need to change their thinking about high levels and realize at that point characters are closer to Super heroes and there even basic combats need to account for that!

    Like

  5. With all due respect, I’m going to disagree… milestone levels are more popular now than they ever were, and DMs who don’t want to wait can simply set advancement to the pace of their story. I think that the answer is, as it’s always been, that high-level D&D is simply clunky and not very fun. When people can’t remember all of their characters’ abilities, and a single combat can take several hours, it becomes less of a game and more of a chore (or more of a 300-level math course).

    Like

  6. I mean high level 5e has been pretty bad if you play RAW, so not the worst thing if mid levels take longer. Seems like new design philosophies with Fizban’s and Monsters of the Multiverse might improve high level play though

    Like

  7. From my experience with Tabletops, progression for leveling should be around 4 sessions per level across-the-board. The GM can address this, but for new players, this can be a real trap. I’ve not played high level 5e, but I’ve heard it has balance issue, perhaps XP valley is an oversight like not including prices for magic items

    Like

  8. How many groups still use xp nowadays? Maybe its a bias towards DMs who think a lot about the rules and how the game works and are active on reddit, but I’d guess less and less groups are using xp each year

    Like

  9. Yet another reason traditional exp is bad. Session or achievement experience are superior choices. Or just new game+ and make level 10 your starting level.

    Like

  10. If this is actually a problem, it’s the easiest thing in the world to fix. Everyone I know left behind XP-based leveling in favor of milestone leveling long ago and never looked back. Easy peasy.

    Like

  11. I can’t think of a single person who uses XP. The concept that one character at all was responsible for killing any monster has always been ludicrous. Someone healed them or distracted the mooks or used their abilities allowing someone else to have theirs available in the BBEG fight.
    So is it killing campaigns, fun or anything else? No. Not at all.

    Like

  12. One of the biggest reasons D&D games don’t go to 20th level is because WotC doesn’t support play at those levels. They did the same thing in 3/3.5e and 4e. According to them, nobody was playing it so they wouldn’t support or write for it. But if they don’t support or create for it, how are people supposed to play it? As much as I hated 4e, I had a campaign go 5 years and 30 levels because I found a terrific story from a 3rd party company (War of the Burning Sky by EN Publishing…it’s out on pdf for 5e now too). I had to go looking for something to play at high levels. It’s a truly-self fulfilling prophecy.

    Like

  13. I like the analysis but for my 20+ years of DMing from AD&D to 5e I’ve never done the XP approach. I announce level ups as they seem appropriate. I lean on concluding quests or milestones rather than combat encounters.

    Many years ago I did XP and the only part I miss is giving out bonus XP for clever play. Being able to give inspiration or advantage in 5e makes up for those instances.

    Like

  14. Wait, does anyone actually use xp to level any more? Milestone levelling is the only way I’ve run 5e, and the only way any of my friends, other dm’s in my game shop and others in my gaming discord do levelling.

    Milestone completely solves this problem by allowing you to have the players at the level you want when you want.

    More likely people don’t get past 6th cos many campaigns aren’t that long (the starter & essentials kit only go to 5th and 6th respectively, and dragon heist ends low-ish level too) or because groups can’t stay together long enough.

    Like

  15. This is a very skewed data survey… For one thing, despite the traditionalist outcry for XP based leveling, 5e D&D published Adventure Modules have always encouraged the Milestone Leveling model of play where the DM will notify the Players when they have Leveled-Up based on their current progression through the campaign/Adventure Module.

    The other side of this edition of the game from the Publisher’s standpoint is that they have by far focused more on diversified experiences and marketing books to both Players and DMs rather than one or the other in prior editions.

    Published Adventure Module books are far more fleshed out in the multiple adventure paths that Players can take to get from Point A, to B, to C, etc… and their pages are filled with multiple scenarios & locations that one group might never interact with, but could play through the same adventure at a later date with a completely different experience than the first go’round…

    What this results in are level-centric adventures that either encourage the DM to use them as entry points into the Setting by immersing them into the lore of the world and creating their own stories out of the unexplored narratives & PCs’ backstories and in-world interactions… or opting to mix & match a customized campaign out of multiple Adventure Modules.

    By far & away, one of the biggest complaints from Players is the lack of updated setting lore & world building in 5th Edition. Apart from the overhaul of the gameplay system mechanics in 4th Edition, we also saw a decline in campaign setting material start to decline there as well… 3rd Edition had publication-lines of sourcebooks for each Campaign Setting (and the community complained about feeling required to purchase every book in order to properly play the game in a setting…). 2nd & 1st Edition AD&D released multiple box-sets to flesh-out the different worlds… but, to be perfectly honest, I suspect that it’s the availability of information of the era of each edition.

    First & Second Editions of AD&D were released in a time when the only means of dispersing in-game information was to purchase the products and the materials included in them (apart from the several serial published magazines that were semi-canonical). Third Edition was a time when we wanted a diverse & complex world environment and it was released shortly after the licensing was purchased from founding parent-company TSR by Wizards of the Coast so it made sense for them to maximize their product line & potential returns on that investment (and honestly many people would call that edition’s lore the best outside of AD&D era publications, they’ll get no complaints from me on the matter…). Fourth Edition made the mistake of trying to make the original RPG platform into the MMORPG video game mechanical gameplay system to draw more players into the hobby from those market-bases (although the emphasis on tactical & strategic mechanics in the design was a whole new aspect of the game that we had never seen before 3rd Edition). Fifth Edition was a veering toward customization and modular & streamlined design that has made the game more accessible to new players than ever before… I can’t help but notice that the fleshed-out lore sections of the books have increasingly become more & more story-prompts than actual developed statements that frame the settings in established fact rather than encouraging you to develop them on your own and make the world yours… This is most likely due to the amount of information that is available to us in the form of the high-tech super-computers that we carry around in our pockets and have access to at our fingertips… 3e & 4e had that as well, but the amount of data that could be published to a website and hosted on a server has only grown exponentially and become cheaper & cheaper to source. Why pay for pages & pages from the printer to rehash information that you have already published when your audience has wiki-sites devoted to dispersing that information to anyone who is inclined to look for it…?

    Like

  16. “solo killed a monster with a CR equal to your level”?? What a metric. That’s not how you play D&D. That’s like when someone who complains about scheduling but then says that they themselves can only play on nights when the moon is cheese.

    Besides, how many tables in 2021 even use experience points still? I don’t think I’ve seen a single table like that for the past 5-6 years. It’s all about milestones etc nowadays where the DM sets the pace of progression based on feels.

    Like

    1. The purpose is to normalize the metric because parties run with different numbers of PCs.

      If you’re curious about the % in a specific party size, divide by the number of players.

      Like

  17. I think this is a feature, not a bug. The XP tables intentionally put you in the mid levels for longer, because that’s sort of the “sweet spot” where you have enough fun abilities and tools to play around with but not so many that character management gets funky (and that it becomes really difficult for the GM to challenge the party).

    Like

  18. I am currently running two campaigns, in one I’m using milestones, and in the other I’m using XP. Why XP, because the group is a large group where not every player plays on every session, so XP is a way to account for that. If the player plays fewer sessions, he is behind in level, if he plays more sessions, he attains more levels quickly, and the XP also balances that no player gets too far behind in levels.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s