The Nebulous Heft of Levels in TSR vs WotC D&D

One thing that weighs favourably towards TSR D&D rulesets for me is the different experience of character levels.

Character levels in TSR D&D just strike me as having far more heft to them, than levels in 3e onwards. 

I remember being much more proud of my AD&D fighter reaching 5th level than I ever was of reaching much higher levels in 3e or 5e. And it's not just due to nostalgia. The achievement felt more significant, as if 5th level in AD&D meant more than 9th level does in 5e. Not only in terms of my investment as a player, but also in terms of what that meant for the character in the world.

A 7th lvl fighter in B/X or AD&D setting is a big deal to my mind. A force in the world. A 7th lvl fighter in 5e strikes me as a somewhat more run-of-the-mill character. The AD&D 7th lvl fighter seems somehow further removed from 1st lvl than the equivalent 3e/5e character,

It's a nebulous impression that is hard to explain or justify. And I am partly writing this blog post to gain some clarity on this. At a glance, a level in 3e+ D&D ought to be more significant:

What's the difference between a 1st level fighter and a 7th level fighter in B/X?
6HD, +5 to hit and improved saves. That's it.

In 1e, at 7th level he would improved his attacks per round from 1 to 3/2 and gained another 2 weapon proficiencies on top of +6HD, +6 to hit and improved saves.

2e is the same as 1e, except the fighter would also have gained 2 non-weapon proficiencies if you use this optional rule.

What the difference in 3e?
6 HD and +6 to hit, an extra attack at +2 to hit. Improved saves, four additional feats and (2+INT)x6 ranks to buy skills with.

In 5e:
6 HD and +1 to Proficiency Bonus (improving saves, to hit and skills). Second Wind and Action Surge at 2nd lvl. Choice of sub-class at 3rd lvl which opens a slew of abilities. An ability score improvement at 4th (or a feat, if you use that optional rule). Extra Attack at 5th. Another ability score improvement or feat at 6th lvl. At 7th lvl another sub-class ability.

The WotC 7th lvl fighters have a lot more going on (even though the 5e fighter has only improved proficiency bonus by 1) at each level. They don't just become better, they become different as they advance in levels.

Yet, my impression of heft does not seem to come down to numbers. A 7th lvl 3e fighter would wipe out 7 1st lvl fighters much faster than a B/X equivalent fight. Yet, a 1e 7th level fighter would probably win much faster against 7 1st lvl fighters than a 5e equivalent.

5e Player Characters

B/X Player Characters

No, my impression of heft seems to be more to do with their standing in the world, the achievement inherent in gaining a level.  5e characters require 23,000 XP to get to 7th lvl. 21k in 3e. Conversely, a 1e fighter needs 75k. In 2e and B/X that goes down to 64k.

And here we begin to arrive at what heft is about for me. Levels are gained far more slowly in TSR D&D. Which also means they spend more time on each level. Levels in TSR D&D are more of a station, a place one remains at for a period of time, as opposed to a step one is currently taking towards the next level.

There is another element which I've blogged about before - The notion of character builds. This, to my knowledge, didn't exist until 3e, when multi and prestige classes entered the picture with requirements that basically required making planned choices in advance at lower levels in order to reach certain higher level goals later on. Character progression essentially became a mini-game within the game and builds charting out choices from 1st to 20th level to reach an end goal were suddenly everywhere online. 

Although 5e eased up a little on this, both in terms of less planning needed, but also of realising that one's build should be geared towards where you spent the most time (mid levels) rather than level 20, the mini-game is still alive and well.

And to me this fundamentally changes the tone of the game and how one approaches one's player character. Levels becomes more centred around realising a pre-conceived character concept than the adventures and achievements of said character.

In tandem with the quicker XP progression, it makes levels in WoTC D&D more of a means to an end, a transitory progression towards something else, as opposed to a recognition of one's current achievements, a base that one occupies and has adventures from.

The fact that character death is more common in old school games also gives more of a sense of achievement to higher levels to me than in WotC D&D. 

3e Player Characters
4e Player Characters
2e Player Characters

This feels like a big part of the answer. And yet - although with Into the Unknown I've exorcised this mini-game and gone with an XP chart that matches TSR D&D, still my sense of level heft in ItU does not match TSR D&D, even if it is a lot closer.

What makes the difference here? Is it just the intangible feel of different games? Its unavoidable mental association with 5e? I can't put my finger on it. But the heft is different. And, as intangible as it might be, it makes a qualitative difference to the experience of the game.


  1. I think character build optimization probably would have started in 2nd edition with the introduction and then proliferation of class kits. 3rd edition allowing you to make modification to your character as you go instead of having the whole package defined at character creation certainly expanded on that greatly, but I think it was just following through on an idea that 2nd edition had gotten rolling.

  2. Huge difference in implementation though.

    I consider kits basically one step up from backgrounds in 5e. And I always found it silly how charop guides have a section for Backgrounds analysis. There are no substantial gains to be had in choice of background.

    Sure, a few kits allowed for a bit of power gaming (mostly later supplements - Orcslayer, Bladesinger) at a time where giving bennies and countering them with roleplaying restriction was deemed perfectly fine, but it really is nothing compared to what came later.

    The biggest mistake 3e made was requiring you to plan ahead in order to enter prestige classes. Ie, you'd have to take ranks in something early on purely so you could enter another class later on. It changes the dynamics of the game drastically.

    And whilst 5e mechanics no longer explicitly encourages this, the mentality is still very much alive with various multiclass synergies at different levels (multiclass from paladin to warlock to gain short rest smiting spell slots. gaaah).

    1. Actually, B-singer was from the 3rd or so of Complete Someone's books. ;) Though, yes, the later ones were more heavy with such things. Rick Swan was particularly guilty afair, though to be honest, he did have some sense of style to go with that.
      Agree on the point about implementation of Prestige classes, though the idea itself did have merit (and was stolen wholesale from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying ;) - though there it was more predicated on roleplaying and situation - at least with competent GMs). As I said at the time "the 1st level Swordmaster is a bit of oxymoron"... %) Though 3e had some other flaws at the planning level to synergy with it.
      And yes, the mentality is quite alive - and I think that faster XP leveling is another thing which works for it, together with an effect playing various mmmorps has on many nowadays players...

  3. One of the other key aspects about the heft of character levels from pre-3e editions is the differentiation between classes: from an XP POV a 7th level fighter is not equal to a 7th level thief is not equal to a 7th level druid is not equal to a 7th level paladin.

    Roger E. Moore did a great analysis of character class XP spreads for AD&D 1e in Dragon #69's "Charting the Classes" and the disparity grows as the characters increase in levels. Well-worth checking out if you've not done so.

    I think that differentiation makes the experience of playing different classes and gaining levels in those classes through play one of the aspects of the game that encourages you to experiment more and to try out different character types. It also makes levelling-up something that's an individual reward, since the PCs don't all gain levels at the same pace.

    Playing a paladin is a slow, slow grind: my 7th level 1e AD&D paladin has 151,000-ish XP. That's sufficient XP to be 8th level as a cleric, fighter, or ranger; 9th level as an MU or illusionist, or thief (and just 10K shy of 10th level for the thief!); or 10th level as a druid. A multi-class F/MU would be 7/7. And I still have another 25K to go to 8th level :D


  4. This resonates with my own feelings on the matter.

    The whole concept of precharting a character's career would come to meet yet lower standards of debasement (experienced by me first-hand) in the form of item "wish lists" to be doled out by appeasing DMs at the appropriate time.

    Just more bricks and mortar of the compact of indemnity that the modern RPGing edifice is built from.

  5. Thinking more on this, I think another thing that affects this for me is point-buy and ability score increases.

    It makes 3e/5e characters more run-of-the-mill in the sense that they all more or less end up the same, the difference being made up by strategic choices. All high level fighters will be maxed out in STR/DEX and CON eventually.

    A TSR-D&D fighter will have to get there, by and large, with the rolls fortune favoured them with at character creation.

  6. Yes.
    Though some elements of "builds" were existing at the 2e time - look up Complete books series, with kits and fighter style specializations. However. These were again aimed more at what you (as a PC) are currently, not the goal you will surely reach by the level 12 which you will of course gain as PC deaths are BadWrongFun. ;)) Plus, of course, there remained the sense of Name levels as a specific point which few characters ever reach and where many who reach them just retire.
    One thing which MAY impact the whole impression is that when we were young ;)) the hobby was for young people with time enough on our hands to just generate a new character (and the process was fast enough!) and be okay with losing investment in the previous one. Plus, of course, again, snowflakes were absent in it! ;)) Now, as time begins to feel more as a rare commodity (and tabletop games must compete for it with Net discussions ;), online games and goddam kitten videos!) a character feels more of an investment (and remember, the generation takes longer now) AND authors of games try harder to pull people into their game as opposite to someone else's. Paradoxically (not), the game loses its cooperative aspect between tables. ;PP
    And I agree in many respects with Anders H - many elements added initially to be able to make each character more special ("let Bob the fighter be different from John the fighter" as Complete Fighter's Handbook formulated it at the time) in complex led to every character just being a slight variation on the same few types. Though some of instruments that 3e or 5e give seem being possible to use for role- (as opposite to roll-) playing purposes. But XP economy of 3e, no-death, and some other elements synergy works to prevent such frivolous uses...


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