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Suppose a 5th-level human wizard (let's call her Morgan) is subject to true polymorph, and the spell becomes permanent. While polymorphed, Morgan remains with the party and contributes to adventures. Does she get experience points? When the party, now all 15th level (having each gained around 160,000 experience points), can finally manage to dispel the true polymorph, what level is Morgan?

This might depend on what Morgan was polymorphed into. Here are some possibilities:

  • Morgan is a Giant Scorpion. She has an Intelligence score of 1, doesn't have anything resembling a bipedal body, and doesn't have opposable thumbs or any kind of speech organs.

  • Morgan is a Xorn. She has an Intelligence of 11, but is now a completely alien elemental being.

  • Morgan is a Minotaur. She has an Intelligence of 6, but can handle weapons and fight with them. Minotaurs could gain levels as (say) barbarians or fighters.

  • Morgan is a Lamia. She has an Intelligence of 14 and has inherent spellcasting abilities, but although she can assume a human form, she isn't human.

There are two aspects to consider. First, can Morgan improve while she's polymorphed?

If Morgan has a form that can't speak, hold things, and isn't intelligent enough to learn, can it improve in any way? If Morgan has a form that's not organic and doesn't age or get stronger, can her hit points and attributes improve? If Morgan has a form that's a member of a different class, where do the XP she earns go? And if Morgan has a form that can cast some spells, can she somehow leverage that to improve as a wizard, or to improve her form's innate spellcasting?

Second, what happens when Morgan is returned to her normal form?

If Morgan had an Intelligence of 1 while she was polymorphed, can she have improved as a wizard during that time? If Morgan was a member of another class for that time, does the experience somehow "transfer" to her Wizard levels?

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The spell doesn't prohibit the gaining of experience, so it doesn't… at least not automatically.

You bring up some examples where it might make sense to not gain XP though: the sub-human intelligence giant bug and the alien-minded elemental. A DM might look at those and decide that the former is incapable of learning, and the latter is capable of learning but their normal mind would be incapable of applying those learning experiences later to their true form's life.

The other two examples (the minotaur and the lamia) might inspire the thought that experience gained is still useful, but not fully applicable to their true form. A DM might think that maybe they should earn XP, but not the full amount…

And maybe a DM might think that gaining XP while effectively being a member of a different class should… have an effect? Maybe it can be handled by multiclassing once returned to true form, or just wiped out, or transfered at a reduced rate…?

A DM could have all kinds of useful thoughts about these situations, which the book doesn't answer for them.

Fortunately this doesn't have to be complicated, because it's a rule that the DM can make such rulings according to what makes sense and is best for their group's game. It's their job within the game to make decisions based on real game contexts that the rules don't or can't foresee. The DM at the table is far better equipped to make choices that are best for their game than a designer far away and years in the past, anyway.

So if you're the DM: decide. If you're not the DM: ask your DM.

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Do keep in mind that a ruling other than "you gain XP as normal" is very problematic from a party-balance perspective -- asymmetric XP gain at a table has the potential to suck, hard. – Shalvenay Feb 19 at 2:14
@Shalvenay That's received wisdom in 3.x and 4e, but it is not true in 5e. 5e is designed to be OK with level gaps in a way similar to how 2e and earlier are. – SevenSidedDie Feb 19 at 4:53
While I agree with you that 5e is more tolerant of level gaps -- I have been underleveled WRT the party for my entire 2e experience, and it still is a major drag. – Shalvenay Feb 19 at 5:17
@Shalvenay There's a difference between "I don't like it" and "doesn't work" though. Every group gets to decide whether they like it or not, since it works. As the answer says: this is the DM's territory. – SevenSidedDie Feb 19 at 5:29
I was mentioning it as a caveat anyway – Shalvenay Feb 19 at 12:49

Short Answer: Yes.

Nothing in True Polymorph says anything about denying a character experience. D&D rules state what you can do, they do not tell you what you can not do. If the spell restricted you from gaining levels, it would explicitly state it.

Consider a wizard who's entire goal in life is to experience what it is to be other creatures. Every casting of True Polymorph would give the wizard more insight into each of those creatures, enabling that wizard to further expand on his/her experiences.

Also consider that experience is based on what you experience, and that intelligence is not a factor in it. Barbarians with an INT of 8 don't receive less than a Wizard with INT of 20. Also consider that the spell does not state that you retain no memory or lose all your memories either. This means anything you did in any of the forms you selected above would be retained, and as such would qualify as experience.

Finally, consider a scenario in which your party is battling a dragon and your wizard has exhausted all of his spells. If the wizard were to act as a distraction, bait or even activating a siege weapon in an effort to chase the dragon off, would you deny this wizard experience because none of his actions were magical in nature?

The bottom line is that there's nothing that states a character ceases gaining experience due to polymorph, true polymorph, wildshape or shapechange.

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