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I am trying to grasp the narrative feeling of leveling up as a character in D&D 5e.

Suppose at the end of a session a Sorcerer has enough experience points to level up. I am using the Sorcerer class as an example due to the innate nature of their powers.

How does that feel to them and how is learning new spells and abilities from one moment to another explained in a narrative fashion?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What edition are you asking about? The [dungeons-and-dragons] tag is specifically for questions relating to multiple/all editions of D&D. I'm not an expert on most of the older editions, but I suspect leveling up may have been substantially different in the first few editions vs. in recent ones. Also, are you asking what official lore/narrative information is provided for leveling up, or something else? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 14 at 8:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast A narrative approach on how the leveling system feels like to a character in a story does not seem to relate to any specific edition but does relate to a class. Therefore I believe the tag I've selected suffices. jgn's answer below is on point. I don't understand your confusion. \$\endgroup\$ – Valamorde Jan 14 at 10:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ The classes themselves and how they are described also varies significantly between editions... The answer could be different for each class in each edition (to the extent there is a singular answer to this question for a particular class in a particular edition at all). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 14 at 10:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Valamorde do you think this narrative justification/description is something which should already exist in the rules or text of the game and you want to know what it is/where to find it, or are you asking for ideas on how you could narratively describe or justify the mechanical changes caused by gaining levels? \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jan 14 at 11:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS No my argument is "nobody ever mentioned Gandalf's level, because Gandalf in universe doesn't have a level", it's a game mechanic that has no influence on the actual narrative world. But that's quickly becoming answer territory, which is why I'm trying to find out a way to better phrase the question for OP. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jan 14 at 11:51
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I like Theik's answer, though I'd like to propose a slightly different take on things.

You could view leveling up as those Eureka! moments that often occur with learning new things. They're the moments when something you've previously struggled with suddenly makes sense, when the movement you've practiced hundreds or thousands of times suddenly happens perfectly without you consciously thinking about it.

If you've ever done any software or web development, you'll be struggling with a problem or bug, then suddenly the answer will come to you and you'll understand the code better.

In the gym, when you've been struggling to put together various ques for a deadlift, rep after rep, chest up, back tight, hips down, sit back (but not too far), bend the bar, spread the ground, then you'll take a breath, empty your mind and pull a perfect rep.

In climbing when you try and same route over and over again, then suddenly something clicks and you understand you've had your body slightly out of alignment, your center of gravity off to one side, and that hold you couldn't grip becomes a lot more positive.

That moment in learning a language when you suddenly realise that you don't have to translate every individual word in your head to understand what's being said.

In movies, like The Matrix, it's the moment that Neo understands the matrix and sees it as it really is in it's pure form. Those moments of clarity when something suddenly makes sense, when during a fight scene the hero's opponent suddenly seems to be moving in slow motion.

In a fight in D&D, when the sorcerer suddenly realises that the spell he just cast at that goblin was instinctive, he didn't have to think about it, meaning he can concentrate on a secondary spell, secure in the knowledge that the first one is well learned.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any textual support you can cite for level ups being experienced this way by characters? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 14 at 17:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the community DH, this answer is exactly what I was looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – Valamorde Jan 14 at 19:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I don't I'm afraid. Though I have played in the past, I don't regularly play anymore; it's more that the question resonated with me so I tried to provide a more "in universe" way of looking at leveling up that makes a little sense. \$\endgroup\$ – Dark Hippo Jan 15 at 7:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Valamorde Thank you. I'll admit this is probably the only question I'm ever going to answer on here since I don't really play anymore. Do enjoy lurking though :) \$\endgroup\$ – Dark Hippo Jan 15 at 7:14
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It feels like nothing, because they are not aware of it

"Levels" in every version of D&D are a metagame concept, they're an abstraction of the characters abilities, strengths and flaws. Your Sorcerer does not wake up one day with a new level and is suddenly capable of casting a new spell, it's something that has been developing over time.

The thing is, the game can't exactly model this 'over time' process. A wizard is constantly testing new spells and eventually for the metagame itself, they have enough experience to level up and they get new spells. And to the player, it's exactly as if one minute the wizard had x spells and the next minute he has x+2, but as far as the Wizard is concerned, it's something they've been developing over the past X months and is unrelated to that 90th goblin they killed just now.

The problem with metagame information

D&D in all its iterations tries to help you tell epic tales like Lord of the Rings, but it requires some metagame properties to determine what you can and can't do. It'd be weird if halfway through Lord of the Rings, Frodo suddenly started throwing fireballs around, because it doesn't fit the narrative at all.

D&D tries to reinforce that narrative theming with metagame properties like AC, levels, HP, 6 second combat rounds, etc. It decides that Frodo is a level 3 Rogue (or whatever) and that he can't, in fact, cast Fireball.

But because characters develop over time and players like being able to progress, there needs to be an ability to get new stuff to work with over time. This is abstracted, out of character, as levels, but these levels have no meaningful relation with the actual narrative of the game.

And sadly enough, there's simply no way in these games to properly model the whole "I'm working on improving this thing, but I'm not quite there yet", and that's why at some point, you just "level up" and suddenly develop new abilities, which can feel extremely jarring.

Why did the Fighter suddenly learn to cast spells at level 3 in D&D 5E? Because his player opted to pick a class, something entirely outside of the narrative. Inside the narrative, that's something the fighter has likely been working on for ages.

The same holds true for, for example, multiclassing in 3.5. It was entirely possible to suddenly get entirely new and unrelated abilities by picking a new prestige class. That doesn't mean that in the narrative the character just woke up one day with a new ability, it means that the game somehow needs to model these things in a way we can understand.

Where you see a level 6 Sorcerer, the character inside the narrative might call themselves a hedge-wizard from the school of Hocuspocus. That has no overlap with the metagame information, but that's because that metagame information has no in-universe meaning.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think a key idea is your 2nd paragraph: real advancement is a gradual continuous process, but the only practical way to model that with pen and paper is with discrete steps that are hopefully small enough to look like gradual continuous advancement if you squint hard enough. (In math terms, imagine approximating a diagonal line with a step function.) \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Jan 14 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are some non-class/level systems where the actual rolls affect advancement. If you want to be better swinging a sword, swing a sword more often. If you want to be better at not getting stabbed in a fight, well... you're gonna have to risk getting stabbed in a fight. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jan 14 at 13:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll chime in here to say that games with a more granular progression system, like Shadowrun or WoD games have you upgrade skills, abilities, or attributes one at a time, and require a 'training time' to make the upgrade. So on the one hand, you get a more 'natural' feeling progression of your character practicing and training to develop a new (or improved) skill--but on the other, it can mess with pacing pretty badly if you keep not having the downtime you need to actually 'skill up.' \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Jan 14 at 13:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are there any textual sources you can cite to support the interpretation that characters experience development in-world in the way you're describing? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 14 at 17:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener One possible example would be something like the Wizard's Spellbook: "The spells that you add to your spellbook as you gain levels reflect the arcane research you conduct on your own, as well as intellectual breakthroughs you have had about the nature of the multiverse." \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jan 14 at 17:26
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What this looks like differs by class because each class's power comes from a different source

Experience points are an abstraction of the experience a character gains by adventuring. By becoming experienced enough characters gain some kind of increased capability. In real world terms, it feels the same as mastering any skill or going to the gym. You get incrementally better, and over time you can do new things. Except there is magic in D&D, unlike real life. This is how we play it at my tables, and it works great and is easily understandable.

Sorcerer's power comes from their bloodline or raw magic. To them leveling up may mean unlocking part of their magical potential, better using their abilities, and becoming more attuned and comfortable with wielding their power.

When leveling up the sorcerer's general abilities increase; their spell slots, hit die, proficiency, and sorcery points. They also gain new spells and abilities, unlocked from experimenting with their powers, new capabilities as a result of training, or clever manipulation of existing abilities.

You may want to break down each separate class feature if you are looking for specific explanations.

Let's run through a few example levels for the sorcerer in 5e

  • A sorcerer is created: One day while living a normal life as a mud-farming peasant you awaken with thin scales covering your back and feeling a throbbing heat inside your veins. After consulting the local witch you determine your draconian heritage has awakened, you learn some basic spells offhand and with a little guidance.
  • The sorcerer levels up to 2: After some time adventuring you grow more comfortable with your power. You discover how to better tame the roiling power within and reform spell slots. Thanks to your daily practice with your abilities you are able to learn a few more spells too!
  • The sorcerer levels up to 3: With your continued use of your abilities you figure out how to propel spells further and make them last longer, though it drains your energy. Your knowledge of spells continues to expand as you gain even more experience, now you can use spells even more powerful than before!
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any textual sources you can cite that demonstrates people in-world experience their development in these terms? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 14 at 17:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener No, I'm answering this question from a roleplaying perspective providing my experience in roleplaying leveling up. As I understand it this question is about the narrative feel of leveling up, not about trying to find examples (that probably don't exist) of canon characters leveling up. As such the flag doesn't really make sense. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Jan 15 at 0:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn Even when we're answering about in-world perspective, we expect answers to be backed up with citations so that we can have a demonstrably best/correct answer. I closed the question because of concern that our answers would just be opinion collection. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 15 at 10:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn We like answers of "Here's the best way to handle your situation, based on personal experience, which I will describe to show is the best way to handle it." We also like answers of "Here's what is factually the case, based on the actual text, which I will cite to show I'm correct." We don't like questions that merely collect "here's my personal opinion" (we close them as POB), and we don't prefer answers that merely express that. Drawing it on personal experience doesn't make it less-so just opinion, as opposed to "this is the best way to resolve your problem." \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 16 at 11:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Specifically for this question to get good answers would require textual citations about what is factually the case in terms of what characters experience in-world through level ups. Since there's no subjective problem needing solving, there's no best possible subjective advice, just different opinions/interpretations, which are not what we're trying to collect here. So, fact-based answers could work, opinion/interpretation-based answers have made the question reach a failure state. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 16 at 11:03

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