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This is not a question about enforced limits but about plausible NPC reactions, to the PCs and how they explain other NPCs to the players. (Minimums more than maximums, since all a character has to do to stay lower level is not adventure.)

If an NPC can gauge a human sorcerer's level, and meets one that is 25, and the expectation is that most start adventurers at 18 and go up a level generally once a year:

  • a 2nd-level one spent most time doing things other than adventure
  • a 5th-level one spent a fair amount of time doing other things, or had many encounters with little experience
  • a 7th-level one has adventured steadily
  • a 10th-level one has hit some amazing adventures with much danger and experience
  • a 15th-level one has had nothing but amazing adventures (or is a fraud, or the apparent age is a factor of illusion or de-aging magic)
  • a 20th-level one is certainly a fraud or using magic to de-age or appear younger

These can be widely off, of course, with the 2nd-level one having been the victim of aging magic or the twentieth level one having had to start adventuring young and had some amazing adventures, but they are accurate enough that NPCs would not find such assumptions -- an innkeeper saying that the sorceress staying at the inn isn't the real adventuring type, or a high-level wizard commenting that another wizard has certainly gotten far for his age -- blowing up in their faces often enough to discourage estimates.

Is a year a plausible? Six months? Two years? Or would variation be too much for NPCs to form expectations?

The setting is one that does not require training to go up in level, and in which there are plentiful known dungeons where adventures can be had and with routine supplies near enough to not require travel. Unusual supplies or moving to a new dungeons takes weeks at most, usually days. So, characters who want to can adventure with minimal down-time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. What makes you think a character's age corresponds to level at all? Also, what makes you think NPCs are aware of character levels? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 9 at 1:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Because going up in level takes time. And because NPCs can notice what characters can do -- what sorts of spells, how many, or how easily a retired fighter can throw troublemakers out of the bar. \$\endgroup\$ – Mary May 9 at 1:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or is reputed to do -- hence the suspicion of fraud if you hear someone claim to be the person who killed the ancient red dragon when looking about eighteen \$\endgroup\$ – Mary May 9 at 1:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ While "what should NPCs think about people in this setting of mine?" may be a bit too opinion-based to fit neatly into the Q&A format of stack exchange, I do think something along the lines of "how long would it take a typical adventurer to gain levels?" should be quantitative enough to be answered. Possibly if you edited the question to focus on this aspect (and leave the matter about NPC's opinions as a side note) then it might get re-opened. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast May 9 at 4:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ "If...the expectation is that most start adventurers at 18 and go up a level generally once a year" That's a big if. Generally speaking, the players get to choose their starting age. And in my current campaign the PCs started at level 2 and are now level 6, after about a month of in-game time, which I think is actually probably slower than average! \$\endgroup\$ – DM_with_secrets May 9 at 9:17
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There are no strictly defined rules for this.

Unlike earlier editions of the game, D&D 5th edition has no rules for starting character age. To quote Player's Handbook, p.121, ''Other Physical Characteristics'':

You choose your character's age and the color of his or her hair, eyes, and skin.

As for aging, Dungeon Master's Guide, p.126, "Campaign Tracking", suggests that the DM track the passage of time to improve realism and track seasons and important events, but does not say that specific timekeeping is necessary.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything, p. 123, "Downtime Revisited", suggests that remarkably quick campaigns are the norm, and campaigns lasting decades are an optional variant:

By engaging the characters in downtime activities that take weeks or even months to complete, you can give your campaign a longer time line—one in which events in the real world play out over years. Wars begin and end, tyrants come and go, and royal lines rise and fall over the course of the story that you and the characters tell.

Scribing a scroll of, say, a fifth level spell under the rules in Xanathar's takes four weeks of work, and a 9th level spell takes 48 weeks. Months of downtime between adventures might not be out of the question, such that your characters

In my personal experience, the DM in a previous long-term campaign decided that four years had passed between levels 1 and 20.

Earlier editions

In D&D 3.5, age could be generated the same way as weight and height (3.5 Player's Handbook p.109). Your character could age during a campaign, eventually suffering physical infirmity with old age and even death by natural causes.

The rules for this were approximately as follows:

  • Your character's starting age depend primarily on race. They are assumed to be a young adult or adult; for example, a human has a minimum of 16 years old.
  • Typical starting level was higher depending on class, depending on how much formal training the class is assumed. For example, a human barbarian, rogue or sorcerer starts between 16-19; a bard, fighter, paladin, or ranger starts at 16-21; and a cleric, druid, monk or wizard starts between 17 and 27.
  • Your character ages at the passage of time, but time is largely arbitrarily decided by the DM. You gradually gain increases to mental stats and decreases to physical stats.

The drawback to this is that your character can be weakened unheroically and somewhat arbitrarily by the DM's determination of the passage of time. This can occur as early as 30 years old for a half-orc, meaning that a twenty year long campaign could see melee-oriented characters age out of their physical prime.

Since D&D 5th edition doesn't have these rules, it's entirely possible to have characters conveniently remain in their physical prime regardless of age. This phenomenon occurs in some long video game series like Metal Gear Solid and Yakuza, where the story eventually dictates that the character must have aged out of their prime, but for gameplay reasons this is ignored or written up to the character's legendary status.

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It takes approximately 450 encounters to reach 20th level

At an average of 6 encounters per day you could do this in 75 days or two and a half months if you work weekends.

Given this, age and level do not correlate.

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