Is there any reason given to why characters in D&D get experience points and level up? Is there a background reason given in any of the campaign worlds or rules anywhere?

Is there any description of what actions are actually worth of experience apart from the adventuring characters overcoming threats, story goals, etc.?

For example, that 5th level expert Smith, can we assume there was 5th level experience of story goals in the Smith's life or did the Smith get it from a 5th level worth of production of horseshoes?

To be clearer - I am not asking if XP is canon to D&D or how much your character should get. I am asking if there is a background reason that this character improvement happens. I understand it is a game and this is a game mechanic, that is not the question. There are lots of places in the class tree where characters just get better at stuff or gain 'gifts' like abilities. Is there a reason this happens or is it just campaign fluff and up to the DM?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I understand that progression is part of the game. The question is is there any reason give for why. For example the gods give gifts to mortals. It is the intrinsic movement of emery from the positive to negative plane. I can come up with a myriad of answers. The question is there anything anywhere in the many books that give us a reason. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bucket
    Oct 18, 2022 at 13:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be interesting if, instead of leveling up, characters leveled down. You start at level 20 and your adventures slowly drain your XP until you achieve level 1. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Azon
    Oct 18, 2022 at 13:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think Bucket's asking if there's a narrative/lore/in-universe reason given for leveling up... though some of the wording in the body of the post muddies that a bit. (It mentions concepts – like XP, and character levels themselves – that are primarily game mechanics, which may or may not be reflected by the narrative in the first place.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Oct 18, 2022 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe See here for the latest news on design intent questions. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18, 2022 at 21:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Then I suppose a more focused version of this question might be: "Is there an in-universe justification for a large amount of levelling/power gain in a very short (potentially instantaneous) amount of time?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Alexander
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:28

3 Answers 3


Fundamentally the answer is, it's a game and players find it fun to run characters that become "more powerful" as they play.

However, in AD&D (1e) leveling up required dedicated in-fantasy time and resources. There are rules for costs in the DMG (1e DMG pg. 86) that relate to the time, from one to four weeks depending on how well the player portrayed the character's class and alignment, and cost, 1500gp per level per week, that needed to be paid in order to accrue the benefits of the higher level.* So going from 1st to 2nd level required, at a minimum, paying out 1500gp and spending a week of game time completely dedicated to developing the new skills. This training was often conducted under the supervision of a higher level member of the same class as the PC and most of the cost went to them. In cases of self-study the cost derives from equipment or other expenses related to the training. The fiction is that the character is doing intensive training -- praying/studying, exercising/training, researching or otherwise practicing their skills at this time. So, at least in this edition, in-game, the characters were quite consciously and explicitly "honing their skills" -- character activity which then shows up mechanically as an increased level.

AD&D 2nd Edition switches this to an be an optional rule. There are still similar time and money leveling requirements, but this version also incorporates some skill checks into the process that affect how efficient the training is. (2e DMG pg. 49)

* In fact, no additional XP could be obtained until the character had completed their training.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: 1e also explicitly gave xp 1:1 with acquired gold, so you could (in theory), get the xp required to level your character by stumbling across some bandits' hidden treasure. Also, it was really difficult to level without a substantial portion of your xp coming from gold... about 5 xp split 4 ways per orc killed meant a lot of orcs to get everyone the 2000 xp needed for 2nd level... \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18, 2022 at 16:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SarahMesser I suspect that the training costs were set so high so as to drain gold away from the PCs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Oct 18, 2022 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dave yes, yes they were. 😉 \$\endgroup\$ Oct 19, 2022 at 3:52

Characters level as a meta-system to provide a tangible way to measure players' progress.

I may be misjudging your question, but it seems to me as though you're thinking of levelling as an in-universe phenomenon. While this certainly seems the case at times due to people talking openly (and often in-character) of level requirements and/or perks, I don't think this is any more than an unintentional byproduct of convenience. The actual adventurers probably wouldn't describe their bard friend by saying "He just got to level 3, so now he can pick which college perks he's going for".

Some video games will lean on the 4th wall in this way, with tongue-in-cheek references like "Press the X button... whatever that is!". But unless you're veering to parody, I don't think D&D systems have literal in-universe explanations.

As far as the metagame reason, that really boils down to time-old player incentivisation. If you ever need a reason to believe incrementing a simple number can be all you need to motivate people, one need only look at Cookie Clicker. It generally makes sense that people get better with experience, and thus the concept of doing X to unlock more Y has become second-nature in more than just D&D.

Regarding your clarification: I think the main point here is that Leveling is an example of gamification: simplifying things by formalising them into a gameplay system. It is a representation. So a character gains this trait or perk by getting to this level as a way to represent the actual process of, for example, "going on a daring mission, fighting lots, learning some new tricks, coming home, reading up on things, chatting with an old friend and figuring out how something worked..." etc, you get the idea. It's amalgamating it into shorthand: "he got a level, which means he can do more stuff, game rules say what fairly those could have been".


Leveling up has its roots in wargaming

The original D&D evolved out of the tabletop battle wargaming tradition ( for a more detailed treatment, refer to one of the genre's histories, for example, Of Dice And Men, Playing at the World or the Shannon Applecline's Designers & Dragons: the 1970s).

In these games, normal units had one d6 of hit points (one hit die), while special units could have more (heroes had 4 hit dice, for example). When the innovation was made to have each player play just play one miniature, instead of a whole army, these characters by default had 1 hit die. From the very start, there was the idea that the characters could improve over time to progress to be more powerful, like a hero, from their adventures (back then experience was mostly given for looted treasure). This was expressed in gaining additional levels.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth mentioning that at 1st level fighter was originally a "veteran" -- someone who had seen enough combat to distinguish themselves from the regular level 0 soldiers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Oct 18, 2022 at 18:59

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