Exponential XP Supplies the Evolutionary Pressure for Character, and Player, Growth

Exponential XP requirements force player choices to evolve with character level, yielding dynamic gameplay.

Humans have a natural need to feel a sense of progression. Gamers understand this intuitively. Taken for a given today, no single game did more to proliferate this idea than Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D).

The game is the progenitor of character levels and XP as concepts. Since their introduction, these ideas have been continuously reimagined. Conditions on which XP is accumulated, maximum level attainment, and related mechanics have been redesigned countless times.

For Game Publishers, Dollars Equal XP

Traditionally, this experimentation came from a desire to engender the ideal progression experience for players. However, other objectives eventually arose, commercial considerations eventually becoming one of them. One could be forgiven for not noticing how odd D&D 5th Edition’s level progression is, since many Dungeon Masters dispense with XP tracking entirely (if articles like this and this are any indication). But, on its face, it’s strange.

This table takes 5th Edition levels and their associated XP thresholds (columns A and B) and breaks them down by how much more XP must be accrued before reaching the next level (column C). For instance, a character doesn’t need 900 XP to get from level 2 to level 3, but only 600 additional XP from the current 300 XP (900 – 300 = 600). It then further breaks down this additional XP increment by its percentage increase compared to the last increment (column D). To return to the previous example, the amount of XP needed to go from level 2 to level 3 (600 XP) is a 100% increase (i.e. double) compared to the XP needed to go from level 1 to level 2 (300 XP).

What we see in this chart that, for the first 6 levels, advancement requires leaps in XP. Then from levels 7 through 11, the steep slope flattens considerably. From there, advancement alternates between a modest increased requirement to no increased requirement--level 12 is actually easier to reach than level 11!

This seems strange until you factor in considerations external to the game. As 5th Edition designer Mike Mearls says here, the design team wanted to incentivize players to press on past the point where most games fizzle out. Why could this be? Likely because certain sourcebooks only make sense at elevated levels. If characters never get there, DMs have little reason to buy those books.

Exponential XP, Exponential Growth

Irrespective of this banal profit motivation, there’s a gameplay shortcoming with level progressions like this (of which D&D 5th Edition is only the most accessible example). Roughly linear advancement requirements like this don’t push players to adapt how they play their characters. Whether at level 1, 10, or 100, characters are incentivized to adventure, crawl dungeons, and fell foes. So is it any wonder 5th Edition players aren’t too interested after 10 levels?

The level progression in Revived addresses this dynamic while also being simple and consistent. Every level requires double the XP that the previous one did. This means that, from level 2, the additional XP over the previous level also doubles. As in most vintage/retro RPGs, in Revived, 1 gold piece equals 1 point of XP, with combat encounters conferring a paltry token amount of XP.

The first response to this scheme is usually, “It’s impossible to reach high levels!” Yes... at least if you keep trying to by adventuring. This is by design, and reflects the realism of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Each subsequent engagement in a given activity improves that individual’s skill at the activity by a smaller degree. An adventurer will learn more from their first encounter than their hundredth, and more from that than their thousandth. At some point, they learn barely anything at all. The Revived progression does precisely that.

But the high levels are there, so how does a character reach them? Such task bids them walk a new path. OD&D addresses this with rules on founding a domain, building a stronghold, and managing regional affairs, aptly referred to as “The Dominion Game”. By facilitating the swashbuckling of lower-level characters, higher-level ones essentially adventure by proxy at scale. Imagine how much more XP a character stands to gain by, as patron, taking a cut of ten parties’ spoils than a membership share of one party’s.

So what happens when this is no longer lucrative? That’s the beauty of it: the player gets the fun of figuring that out. Linear-ish advancement like 5th Edition’s never urges players toward the Dominion Game, let alone whatever the post-Dominion Game might be. The “rulings over rules” philosophy of vintage/retro tabletop RPG books like Revived give Referees the flexibility to handle players venturing into this unknown.


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