Even folks who have never looked at fourth edition have probably heard that 4e balances the experience table with the monster experience table so that each character will gain one level from every ten encounters. Maybe I’m just slow but it never occurred to me to do anything like this and I thought it was an interesting idea. After seeing it, I applied something similar to my game but tonight I got curious how the numbers actually worked out in first edition. In other words, I wanted to find out how many encounters (on the average) it took to gain a level in 1e D&D.

It turns out that it’s a far more involved question than I first imagined. First off, remember that every class uses a different experience table. Some follow an extremely different progression. I forgot just how extreme the difference was. For example, it takes a bard 200k to hit 12th level while a paladin needs 1.4mil. I decided to ignore the differences and just use the average of all the experience tables.

Next, I needed to know how much experience characters get per monster by monster level. Monster experience has a base value by level. To this is added a certain amount per hit point. For each special ability and extraordinary ability the creature possesses, the monster’s experience goes up further. It’s easy enough to use the average number of hit points per hit die but the number of abilities varies drastically. By now I had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t interested enough to do the amount of research necessary to come up with any level of exactitude. I just want to determine a reasonable estimate. I decided to assume, for purposes of this exercise, that each monster possessed one special ability and one extraordinary ability. I realize that this stretches the definition of “reasonable estimate” almost to the breaking point but I needed a quick and dirty alternative.

Lastly, in 1e, characters also gain experience for treasure. This is perhaps the greatest hurdle yet. Each monster entry lists a treasure type and it’s not too hard to determine the average value of each treasure type (if you are not including magic). However, checking treasure types for all the monsters, separated by level (even excluding magic) would involve far more effort than I intended to put into this. Adding magic into the mix though adds far too many variables. I’m sure there aren’t many DMs that give out a +5 sword (for instance) from a low level encounter just because the random tables say it’s so. There is a lot of adjudication involved. Determining an estimate for the value of treasure by level (even if I were to exclude the value of magical items) would be a daunting task.

So a stuck in a simple progression. For a great many things, I use triangular numbers (1, 3, 6, 10, 15, etc). If I need a steeper curve I use pyramidal numbers (1, 4, 10, 20, 35, etc). If I need an even steeper curve, I use the third progression in the series (1, 5, 15, 35, 70, etc). That’s what I decided on here (multiplied by 100). Not realistic at 1st and 2nd level but not too bad, imo, after that. Keep in mind that I’m trying to include an estimate of the value of magic items to some degree.

Now I just had to plug in the numbers. It turns out that with the above assumptions (many of which I more or less pulled out of a hat) I had a very interesting result. At 1st level I had a very anomalous 13 encounters required to reach level two. From there, characters required five encounters, rising steadily to seven encounters at level 10 though 14, and then dropping steadily back to four encounters per level at levels 18 through 20.

Certainly, my estimates for treasure are questionable and the assumption that every monster had one special ability and one extraordinary ability is absurd, but I do have a very general ballpark.

After a very brief analysis, I wouldn’t find it too unreasonable to expect characters, on the average, to level once every ten encounters. I have to say that I’m more than a little surprised.

If you are looking for a point to this though, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you. I was simply curious, did a rough estimate, and thought I’d share what I found. I would add, though, that a great many newer DMs seem to like to run experience-less games, where instead of tracking experience they simply have their players level after every ten encounters. It’s not a play style that I would enjoy, but if I did, I think the one level per ten encounter system would work as well in 1e as it does in any other edition.