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Do PCs understand the nature of the leveling system and its experience requirements? For example, suppose a PC is just below the XP requirement for a level and is planning to undertake a major quest. Would it occur to the PC to consider undertaking a side quest to finish their next level attainment before taking on the major quest or do PCs perceive experience in a more real world, linear, continuous fashion?

As an analogy, one could consider "leveling up" in DnD to be analogous to real world standardized test score cutoff points, pay grades, military ranks, certification levels, athletic awards, martial arts belts, or academic degrees - practice math and reading long enough and one can get another 100 points on the SAT and qualify for admission to a slightly more prestigious college (or one could decide that it would be better to finish up their Second Degree Black Belt before entering that real world fighting contest), or one could consider XP to be an OOC abstraction of a fundamentally ineffable concept that PCs can barely understand, let alone quantify.

This question is not the same as How does a character know when she's leveled up? because that question is asking specifically about PC's recognizing that specific event when they have leveled up. This question is about whether PC's are aware of the concept of leveling up. It could be compared to the difference between a person recognizing that they have received an academic degree versus them understanding the concept of academic degrees and what one must generally accomplish to obtain them.

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Not really, but that doesn't leave them entirely in the dark

The concept of experience points is an abstraction. As said in the 5e basic rules and on dndbeyond (emphasis mine):

As your character goes on adventures and overcomes challenges, he or she gains experience, represented by experience points. A character who reaches a specified experience point total advances in capability

As noted, experience points are the representation of the knowledge and skills the characters develop over the course of their lifetime. A PC in-world doesn't know about experience points, and they don't all of a sudden gain new abilities when they wake up one morning after killing a bunch of stuff. In world, the characters have been training, practicing, or otherwise gaining strength/skill as they go adventuring. What we call a level-up is the point where the character is confident that they can pull off their new skills consistently and accurately.

That being said, characters still have a sense of their skill level

Just like you or me, a character in the game can have sense of where their skills are relative to where they want them to be. A character close to a level up is basically on the verge of a breakthrough; they are almost confident enough to use their new capabilities, but they just need a little more progress. With that in mind, It's entirely plausible that a character would want to take a less dangerous side mission to practice their new skills before needing them in a dire situation, but at that point it's a roleplaying opportunity for how the player perceives their character would act.

Long story short, characters have an approximate idea of how skilled they are, but they don't have a concept of XP or level ups. A character in game would say something like "I'm so close to pulling it off, I just need a little more practice!" not "I'm only 200 xp away from my next level!"

What if I don't use XP in my game?

The Dungeon Master's Guide page 261 offers variant rules that don't keep track of experience points. If you are using one of these rules (or any homebrew rule that avoids XP), nothing about the interpretation I have provided needs to change except for the scale by which we determine how much practice/experience our characters in-world have gathered.

For session-based advancement, the more play sessions a character sees, the more experience they gain in world. That is, we assume that they're practicing and and getting more skillful each session and after some number of sessions, we say out of game, "The character leveled up," and the character in-world says, "Yeah, I can do this reliably now."

Similarly, story based advancement assumes that the characters just keep on practicing all the time, and we say that they have enough practice to pull off their new talent after some story beat chosen by the DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure I agree with this interpretation. The rules and books don't specify if characters (whether PC or NPC) are aware of exp or levels. Just because experience is represented by experience points doesn't preclude the fact that they are aware of their amount of points. It should be up to the flavor of the campaign on how to interpret these values. \$\endgroup\$ – Doc Aug 22 '17 at 0:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Doc As always, it should be up to the DM and the group, but it seems to fine to me to accept that the default interpretation is the one that does not break the 4th wall in a role playing game. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Aug 22 '17 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree. The only times I can see an alternative RP element to this is if a character is taking their first level in Warlock, Sorcerer or (at a stretch) Cleric, at which point the power can be bestowed suddenly and potentially with a character defining event. \$\endgroup\$ – Anubis Aug 24 '17 at 2:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I've added a section to that end. But it doesn't amount to much more than "It doesn't change anything except for the scale by which we the players measure how far along our characters are in their training" \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Feb 21 at 22:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Beauty, that makes for a very thorough answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 21 at 23:47
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The rules don't say.

Specifically, let's note that "Beyond 1st Level" (PHB p.15) is really inconsistent in whether it's addressing the character ("increase your ability scores," your hit point maximum," &c.) or the player ("your character gains a level," "your character's class description," &c.).

It's impossible to parse those paragraphs and decide whether it all was intended to refer to how characters view their own capabilities or how we (players) codify them.

That said...

I'm going to blockquote an answer I give elsewhere, where it was asked whether characters know the "underwater combat" rules:

My tables: the characters know [matter from PHB] just as well as the players.

My interpretation--and this is just one man's thinking--is that anything in the PHB should be considered fair game for character knowledge. It's been my interpretation for decades, and has worked out well at plenty of tables.

The fundamental process is "GM narrates environment, player describes actions, GM narrates results." But we go deeper than that every time we play. We want to go deeper than that. We want there to be a world, not just the local environment. We want our characters to have histories, and backstories. This-all implies a lot of knowledge and experience on the character's part beyond just what's on the character sheet and what's been narrated at the table.

The PHB reflects all this assumed-common knowledge. At my tables the character knows her standing long jump is 6', even though she has no idea that she has a strength "score" of 12. My bard knows that he's only going to inspire someone X times per day, no matter how rousing the song. And all characters know that piercing works better than slashing or bludgeoning underwater, because they've spear-fished as kids, they've heard stories from their granddad, they've told and re-told in-universe myths and fairy tales that inculcate such knowledge. Jokes even. "Why'd the dwarf drown with his club in his hand? Because he couldn't beat his way out of a rain-barrel! With a club! Because it does bludgeoning damage!"*

In my experience, anything less than granting characters all the knowledge in the PHB quickly turns into a game of "mother, may I?" And that's not "the world's greatest roleplaying game."


* - I didn't say it was a good joke.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to contest that rain-barrel joke. Every stout folk worth their ale knows it was all due to the great tree conspiracy. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Aug 22 '17 at 10:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that it's the players handbook, the intended audience would seem to be the players (ref para 1). That said, I still like this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 19 at 17:23
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It is entirely up to you

Levels and experience points are a game mechanic like hit points and proficiency bonus - they are part of the rules of the game and you are asking about the rules in the game. It is analogous to asking if a Chess bishop understands that it can only move diagonally.

The question is dangerously close to a category error: the prototypical example is of a visitor to Oxford. The visitor upon viewing the colleges and library asked "But where is the university?" - the mistake being that a University is part of the category "units of physical infrastructure" rather than the category "institution".

One part of the category error here is in thinking that the statistics on a character sheet are objective facts about an imaginary but "real" person. "Real" people do not have experience points or levels that can be measured but of two different people it is possible to say that one is more skilled than the other: either generally or in a particular field.

The other part is in translating the mechanics of the game into the narrative of the game. This is the part that is up to you - different groups treat this differently.

They lie on a continuum from:

  1. The mechanical view is that yes characters have levels and hit points etc. and those things are objectively real things within the game world. When a character is hit by a sword, there is no blood, instead drops of hit points pop out of the wound.
  2. The players know but the characters don't. When a player decides to get a small amount of XP to level up, the character is thinking "I just need a bit more practice to hone my skills before I go on the quest."
  3. Neither characters nor players should be concerned with such things and should act as though they don't exist. If the quest needs doing, it needs doing now!
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 #1 is a pretty common theme in video-game-based anime, and tends to be pretty amusing. #2 is probably typical in most groups. #3 leads to a more dramatic game, but I feel probably requires the most DM experience (uhh, no pun intended?) to pull off convincingly. \$\endgroup\$ – phyrfox Aug 22 '17 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ You say that real people don't have levels that can be measured. But we have things like reading levels, education levels, martial arts belts, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Aug 22 '17 at 0:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Xavon_Wrentaile these are in formalised training situations. Fighting goblins in a dungeon doesn't seem to have a standardised test. \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Aug 22 '17 at 1:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Xavon_Wrentaile all of which are arbitrary divisions on a continuum based on arbitrary assessments of a subset of the skill on a particular day at a particular time in a particular place with particular physical, mental and emotional states of the participant, their collaborators/competitors and the examiners. To what extent are they measuring something "real"? \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 22 '17 at 1:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for mechanics <--> narrative spectrum. Mechanics are necessary (evil), but how that plays out is up to the DM and group. I was kind of thrown back when Vin Diesel's character called out a "14th level warlock" in the Last Witch Hunter, but then I imagine that's just a "1" in your continuum. \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Aug 23 '17 at 17:38
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Focus on effects of the level, not the level itself.

The character's won't know their XP/Level... but they will know what skills and feats they've mastered. Generally when you level up your character will gain some pretty discrete improvements... Another spell, a feat or ability score improvement. If you want the desire for a side quest to be in character, tie it to the improvement, not the level.

Let's go deal with the Orc Raiders before we hit the Dragon, I've nearly mastered a new ice based spell that I think will really help but I need more time to figure out how to cast it properly.

This kind of metagaming isn't inherently bad, you just have to focus on finding appropriate in game reasoning. No character is going to say they want to reach level 4 before the big boss fight, but saying you want to master Dual Wielding before the fight is totally believable.

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Assuming a world in which the rules-as-written dominate throughout, a smart one could figure it out in-universe. Vancian magic systems in general are very subject to reverse engineering, and it wouldn't take that long to draw parallels to similarly gated skills in other player classes. It also flies in the face of any sort of "steady progression" proposition. The magic system just plain doesn't work that way. You can't successfully half-ass a fireball. Spells have levels, you get them in order, they exist in discrete quanta (spell slots), and everyone responsible for spellcasting seems to know this in-universe as a necessary condition of preparing spells.

I think experience can be played more under the covers. As noted in other answers, an intuitive sense of being near a breakthrough might make sense. If you presuppose knowledge of levels in general, a PC might be able to put two and two together there. I personally would find it distasteful for a PC to be counting out encounters or, worse, encounters at a particular difficulty, but then we're back up against the problem where generations of adventurers really could have figured this out in-universe.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would love to see an rpg setting where exp is a quantified real thing. maybe killing monsters causes their residual soul energy to invigorate the adventurers who kill them. \$\endgroup\$ – Jonathan Sep 12 '17 at 19:37
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Healthy practices

  • PCs know they're getting more powerful with level and gear
  • PCs can easily compare their power with other characters when the level gap is relevant
  • PCs know if other characters are injured or healthy, not the total health
  • PCs can differentiate strong items from their weak counterparts
  • PCs know their class/alignment as if it was a profession/personality respectively

Unhealthy practices

  • "I earned one level today!"(PC)
  • "This monster is level 5, but I'm level 9!"(PC)
  • "The boss has 40 HP"(GM)
  • "I want to sell my +1 sword to buy a +2 one"(PC)
  • "I am a Lawful Good Barbarian!"(PC)

PS.: There is no real rule, the book is a reference, you can play however your group wants, the characters may know their level in some kind of "parody adventure that breaks the 4th wall" if that's what you want.

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Playing role-playing games is about making informed choices. The adventuring party chooses how much, if any, information they will gather in order to make game decisions- decisions about how to approach a haunted castle, which lead to take in a mystery adventure, or which fork to take in a dungeon complex. But statistics directly related to your character should be very clear; this is the baseline for strategic choices you will make regarding combat, exploration, length of your adventuring day, even whether you will attempt to persuade, intimidate, or sneak past a guard to get into the palace.

Essentially, anything that's on your character sheet (which includes experience points) should be factored into play by the player.

That being said, it seems unfair (aside from being practically impossible and possibly not fun) to make a player pretend that his/her character doesn't know something that he/she DOES indeed know. This forces characters into intentionally making bad decisions that could easily be avoided and would grant the PCs an advantage.

One could easily make an argument that characters shouldn't talk about mechanical things in specific terms for the sake of immersion. But even that is probably better left up to the specific table.

All of that to say yes, characters are aware of their levels because the players themselves are aware; the distinction between player and character shouldn't be so distinct as to make it difficult or confusing during play. Deciding whether to charge into a new adventure or to wait and level up should be a strategic choice with consequences the players are aware of.

Here is a great article by the Angry GM that discusses the player-character dichotomy and where the line should be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure this answer is aiming at the correct problem. The question isn't whether players should act on mechanical knowledge, the question is whether the level mechanics are “reified”: do the characters know about the existence of levels and XP, are they a real thing in their reality? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 23 '17 at 17:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSideDie thanks for the note. I will edit to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen Aug 23 '17 at 18:43

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