5th Edition D&D: Mourning Low-Level Play

So far, my admiration for 5e D&D has probably been pretty obvious on my blog. I’m really enjoying the game I’m running and overall, my perception of the way the game plays is very positive.

But I do have, I suppose, one complaint. It’s a really personal complaint so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone… But it has been a stark moment for me.

My complaint stems from the seeming death of low-level play in 5e. Basically, I’m about to run my fourth session of the game this weekend and I expect – at the end of that session – my PCs will all make 4th level. First level just flew by, second level as well, and now we’ll be dispensing with 3rd level nearly as suddenly.

I’m not sure what the design goal behind shortening the low-level experience is. I could speculate about player desire for greater power, the deadliness of low-level play, etc. But it would just be speculation. There could be a million reasons they decided to set the level curve as they have for 5e. I just regret it.

Discussing this with one of my players, she said to me, “I don’t really feel like I have a grip on my character yet and we’re already gonna be 4th level.” This highlights for me a big reason why I love the low-levels of play in D&D but there are a lot of good reasons to love low-level play that I want to articulate a little.

Learning Curve
I feel like this is, perhaps, the most important and least important of all my reasons for loving the early levels. But while we are learning a new edition (5e) and trying out different character types, it feels like those early levels where you start to get a handle on the new mechanics, start to understand your role in the party, and how your powers work just flew by. We have second level spells and magic items, and all kinds of stuff before we even have a firm grip on the basics. For me, low-level is a time to learn and experiment. It’s low-stakes play – just coming to terms with what being a Monk is, you know?

Speaking of low-stakes – that’s another major advantage of low-level play. It’s very personal. It’s vital. Life is constantly dangerous and saving a village is exciting. Something that seems to have evolved as a conceit of D&D across 3rd and 4th editions (to me) is the idea that the scope of the game gets necessarily bigger as the game goes on. That is to say, you broaden your games beyond the prime material and explore the planes, you delve deep into the underdark. That sort of thing. I much prefer the older model (which doesn’t make it better, it’s just what I prefer) of basic dungeon-delving, which gives way to a certain amount of wilderness exploring, which broadens out to involve the affairs of domains, and the planes and gods and all that stuff is part and parcel of the whole experience rather than being relegated to an idea of “tiers” or expectations. Again, this is just my preference but I prefer the stakes in a game to be personal rather than broad. A good modern example of this is the Shackled City adventure path. You get the planar stuff, the wacky high-level stuff, but at the end of the day it all comes down to Cauldron and the people who live there. And I feel like the low-levels are where you build this, bake this, into your game.

Danger/Power Curve
I mentioned this already and I won’t belabor the point but this really hit home to me as I was planning out some monsters for my current game. I was populating a few dungeon spaces when the realization hit that my players have already far surpassed the basic dungeon dwellers. Three sessions, three levels. It’s downright mind-boggling for me. I realize that the “cool stuff” for 5e characters happens for them in that window of 2nd-3rd level when they pick up their “sub-class” and start to explore their unique powers but, for me, it still happens too fast for it to be comfortable.

Anyway… At the end of the day, I just like low-level stories. Maybe it’s the number of times I’ve gotten to start over with new groups. Maybe it’s a fondness for all the low-level adventures I played as a kid. Maybe it’s a fondness for the type of stories those adventures tell. But at the end of the day, I find myself mourning the loss of low-level as a time of bonding and exploration, and danger, and simple expectations.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

P.S. – I know that I can simply ignore the mechanics and stretch the low levels out a little when I run 5e again. This was just something that came up for me as I realized how quickly it had happened in the game I’ve already started.


14 responses

  1. I would have to guess that this is a function of the starter campaign material. The game is all new to you, and figuring out how it all works probably needs more time than the pre-made adventure gives. As, you say, you can pace things out slower, next time. Or, with your own material.

    1. I didn’t play the starter campaign materials. I pretty much run my own stuff and did so with this – converting an adventure I wrote a long time ago for this new party. It was interesting to work with the new system and it is all still very new to me.

      For me, I think I will definitely pace out the lower levels longer next time. I think a lot of the joy of the game for me comes from overcoming challenges and being involved in the adventures and I’m less concerned with “leveling up” so my fun may be more suited to games without level tiers. That said, I do still love D&D and I think I always will. It just works. And 5e is a good addition to the history of the game.

  2. […] to level up usually, it forces you to really pull off several heists. You have to master the game. With everyone generally leveling up once a session in 5e, you completely lose the sense of relief and accomplishment that a “real” graduation […]

  3. i’ve kind of had the reverse experience :D. my group has met for about 10 sessions (each session lasts about 4-5 hours) and we are still 3rd level. our pace is really slow but it’s not too bad (a wasted session here and there but overall we are running an encounter a session). i’m finding leveling too slow …dammit i want 4th level :D.

  4. That is surprising. We will be fourth level by the end of session 5 with six players.

  5. I think a big part of the low-level “feel” is in the nature of how you run the game. Obviously you can advance characters slower but even without doing that it’s about story structure, theme, and style. If your game tends toward numerous combat encounter per session XP is going to come quicker than a game focused on other things.

    The last 4E campaign I ran had a “low-level” feel from 1st to 15th level (that’s where we wrapped up). The entire campaign focused on one town and a couple of villages in an isolated valley. The heroes were protectors of the region and the valley became the target of the Dragon’s Eye, a group of hobgoblin fanatics sworn to Bane. The foes of the campaign did become more powerful as time went on but the “challenge level” was primarily dictated by the way I used the Dragon’s Eye. As the players twarted their lower level minions they began sending spies and gathering intel on the heroes. Soon they were striking at the heroes personally (they kidnapped one of the heroes family). Eventually the war with the Dragon’s Eye was a personal struggle against intelligent foes with a dedicated agenda. In the final months of the campaign the heroes were powerful enough (mechanically) to defeat any of the creatures of the Dragon’s Eye, however their enemy (the Dragon’s Eye) wasn’t just something they could walk up to an defeat. They needed to gain intelligence, pick off high ranking members, thawart components of their plan in order to chip away at the enemy.

    Ultimately what I’m saying is that for several months, and many levels, the heroes still felt as though they were small fish in a big pond because of the style and tone of the campaign.

    1. What you say is true… but there is also still a difference in raw scale in just PC abilities that begins to present as the level changes. Player expectation figures into this as well, I suppose.

      1. Player expectation figures into all areas of a game system that depends so much – entirely – on the players working together for the game to be enjoyed.

        I think the reason for the discrepancy between fast level ups earlier and longer level ups later is the corporate intention to attract both the WoW power gamer and the old school grognard player. At least that is what I remember from a review of 5e someone posted on LinkedIn.

        It was a marketing business decision that affects RAW.

  6. Agreed that going up that fast misses some of the fun. But it’s easy to explain why they designed it that way: because that’s the way the video games work. Leveling up became the objective in MMOs especially (where the actual play can be a “grind”), the love of the adventure itself was lost. Now it’s the same with 5e, it/s the destination, not the journey. Sad.

  7. I agree with the analysis but overall, there is still so much I do like about 5e that I’m willing to embrace a little homebrew spirit and just go with a longer curve next time I run it. It seems they learned a lot from their previous foray into an RPG that had a lot in common with an MMO (4e) and I hope this continues to show in the way they support 5e. Only time will tell.

  8. I’ve run into this problem as well. Levels 1-3 are deliberately designed to be “skippable” (Mearls even recommended experienced players just begin play at 3rd and be done with it), but I always find the early stages of a character’s career so formative that I don’t -want- to skip it! I don’t feel a need to “hurry on to the good stuff,” I make it all good stuff.

    -The Gneech

  9. You might be interested in WotC philosophy behind low level play in 5th edition.

    My understanding (and I wish I could find my source for this), is that levels 1-3 of 5th edition are supposed to be essentially “Level 0” characters if you were looking at a 3.5e scale. For instance, if you look at a level 1 character in 3.5e they have most of their class traits already available to them at level 1. In 5e, you are still acquiring extremely fundamental class abilities during the first couple levels. WotC has said that a level 3 character in 5e is “equivalent” to a level 1 character in 3.5e.

    For this reason I find it interesting that your player said they are still getting a handle on their character for the first 3 levels. One of WotC’s primary goals was helping players slowly settled into their characters instead of having to figure out a number of their abilities all at once. Consequently I suspect your player might have felt that way due to the new game mechanics, not the character itself. A level 2 character in 5e is significantly less complicated than a level 1 character in 3.5e. Heck, you don’t even get your first feat until you’re level 4.

  10. I was aware of the design philosophy though I too cannot point to where I got that from… but essentially, that is my problem. They consider it a feature and I think of it as a bug (well, maybe not a bug, just an unfortunate side effect). I’m less concerned about players figuring out their powers than figuring out their PC’s personalities, goals, plans, thoughts, etc.

    I appreciate the lessened complexity of 5e a great deal and I think it is mechanically very sound. It hits strong notes of old school gaming styles while maintaining some of what 4e and 3e did that was good.

    But I dislike the idea that low-level play is something to be hurried through (from a level perspective) and rush up to 4th where you are now actually “someone.” Considering the first three levels to be “Level 0” seems to indicate this is the case to some extent.

    I miss the slow climb out of 1st and 2nd level, which feel radically different when you are a first level magic user staring at needing 2500 xp (which you are also sharing with henchmen and hirelings!) instead of the quick turnaround of 1st to 2nd which happens in 5e.

    It’s not wrong or bad or anything such. It just doesn’t quite fit my expectation and thus leaves me feeling like it’s something I’d like to do differently.

  11. Have you considered a different system of leveling up?
    I thought of a way to have leveling up be part of the character’s personal story by setting prerequisites for leveling.

    You can have your players start at level 0 too if you really want to. For example, you have your paladin PC approach the organization to take their preliminary oath and start their path to their oath of devotion before they actually become level 1

    It’s a lot of extra work for you and takes some thought on the player’s behalf but i think it could be very satisfying narrative wise. I’d probably only use it with experienced players.

    I worked out prerequisite based leveling for paladins here if you want to take a look: https://docs.google.com/document/d/16ENiBkfCoCv1a5AfQx7OjLUi-Hvg5-Wm8U7REsQFhfQ/edit?usp=sharing

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