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:
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.