Does Experience Gain and Character Progression Ruin 5E D&D?
At the crux of nearly every roleplaying game are the notions of experience and gaining levels. The Level Up appears in tabletop RPGs, video games and in the case of Evermore even a theme park! Even the term Level Up is ingrained into our vernacular. However, recently I was thinking about leveling up progression and experience and how the whole things works in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons and it got me to thinking maybe, just maybe, leveling up and experience are holding back our beloved 5E D&D.
Experience gain restricts narrative
Now before you start throwing large dice at me let me make a case for this. One of the chief complaints I hear from my own gaming group is really presented as more of a jest — the idea that after some arbitrary event you suddenly get better at everything you do, and you probably get a new special feature you never really worked on in character to develop. In short, the idea of leveling up shatters immersion.
Obviously when you’re playing a game there are mechanical elements that will never translate perfectly by virtue of the gamification itself. At some point you have to sacrifice reality for game play because you’re going to encounter minute crunchy aspects of reality that just can’t be codified elegantly into an RPG. But this doesn’t mean the way we currently level up in fifth edition D&D is sufficient either.
Countless articles, videos and other dissertations exist among gamers trying to get their players to focus on aspect of the RPG beyond combat, but what if I told you it wasn’t your players’ fault they’re a bunch of murder hobos?
Kill it dead!
As a game 5E D&D is structured around the idea of progression — level progression, item progression and story progression. All three of these are equated and orbit one another, at least usually. This is all well and good until you consider the widely assumed default way to gain experience in D&D is through killing creatures. (According to the rules the Dungeon Master may also award XP for neutralizing the threat posed by the monster in some other manner.) You then loot said creatures, taking their possessions for yourself, and this makes your character even more powerful through overall advancement.
I’ve had many DMs tell me they award experience for roleplaying or they use the milestone system, which is in fact a variant rule relying on story progression to gain levels. This works well and several official adventures include guidance for milestone advancement but none of it is nearly as supported or codified as progression for defeating monsters.
As a quick tangent I suppose the very notion of characters storming into creatures’ lairs and killing them after (or perhaps before) the creatures stormed the adventurers’ own homes is a poignant meta commentary on becoming the very monsters you oppose, but this is a heady dissertation for another time and place.
Ultimately, when playing a game focused on progression through violence and pillaging is it any wonder combat is such a focal point for players? Is there any wonder why the 5E D&D game we love seems to favor battle mechanics over all others so strongly?
It’s true — the game may have made us into bloodthirsty, greedy monsters but this doesn’t mean it has to ruin the game or the stories.
There’s a theme here
As I mentioned there’s an implicit narrative in the stories told by 5E D&D — a grand, overarching theme looming like a treant with roots burrowing and winding just beneath the surface, but plunging far deeper into the human psyche than many would care to admit.
True, 5E D&D revolves around the cycle of progression and it equates the cycle of progression to the cycle of violence, eliciting a primal and at times Darwinian worldview — the strong prey upon the weak. Thus, in order to survive the weak must become the strong. This is accomplished through proof by vanquishing creatures thought to be stronger.
Essentially, it’s the cycle of violence and progression lending to a cosmic exploration of what it means to be human and what it means to rise above our humanity.
In weakness, we are strong
It’s true the way a 5E D&D character gains experience is very often through brutality and hardship. By understanding their own weakness the characters play to their strengths, allying themselves with others who are weak where they are strong and vice versa. It’s only through working together with others who are fundamentally different from ourselves that we can be stronger than the shadows lurking in the dark and threatening all they hold dear. While rising above our adversaries may not be pleasant, it is necessary for survival and growth.
D&D’s focus on conflict, brutality and reward makes a bold statement about the way the world works on a philosophical level. It also tells us no matter how strong we become there will always be a foe bigger, stronger, more menacing and more deadly than anything we ever conceived before. Some settings, like Dark Sun, revel in the darkness, brutality and oppression of the world and present hardship as a thing to strive against. Others, like Eberron and Wildemount, focus on the ever present hope of a brighter tomorrow even at the expense of a darker today. Then some, like the Forgotten Realms, show us the truth of consistent change, a constant cycle that always changes and yet remains the same as in days gone by.
No matter how you spin the truths presented by 5E D&D, certain themes remain. Cooperation in the face of conflict, hope in the face of despair and heroism in the face of selfishness represent the positive qualities of conflict centered progression.
Time for a tangential soapbox!
With these themes in mind it’s no wonder the alignment system has remained a part of D&D as long as it has. The entire game feels like a dissertation on morality, mortality and humanity on the whole. What’s more, when broken down in the context of these lessons the alignment system makes a lot more sense to me.
A good character — and I mean truly good — is a person who remains kind in spite of the brutality of the world. A neutral character goes with convenience in the moment and a truly evil soul is one who pursues their own ambitions, devoid of regard for consequences to others.
A lawful character works with others, or uses them in some cases. A neutral character is loyal to friends or those who prove useful. A chaotic character values individuality even at the expense of the group or majority.
When considering these statements of character worldview and actions it makes a lot more sense as to why and how alignment remains a facet of D&D.
What can we learn from D&D?
Many alternative RPG systems boast different mechanics for progression. Many of them are fun and serve their own purposes in their own contexts but I don’t think that’s reason to dismiss 5E D&D’s experience gain and level progression systems.
D&D views the world from the perspective of hardship, conflict, and struggle — all themes that feel especially appropriate to our current day and age. However, its alignment system forces us to ask how our characters interact with the world within the context of these truths. Even more than this 5E D&D encourages us to remember all of us have strengths and weaknesses and only by allying ourselves with others whose elements of diversity complement our own can we hope to overcome.
So, do 5E D&D’s experience and leveling systems ruin the game? While I began this article intending to prove such systems were obsolete, I walked away from it understanding these core mechanics unfold a story all their own and address themes at the core of the game. In short, these systems are what make D&D special.
Other RPGs may rightly and successfully deviate from these conventions, especially as we enter this renaissance of RPGs, but I’d argue that for what it is 5E D&D needs these systems to accomplish what it sets out to do, and it does so beautifully.
What do you think?
What are your thoughts on experience and leveling progression in RPGs and 5E D&D in particular? Do you agree or disagree with these points? We wan to hear from you in the comments!