Last Updated on January 22, 2023
I’d say most people are aware of how leveling up works in at least some context, be it videogames or some prior experience with roleplaying games. If you don’t, that’s fine, the basics of it all are that as our characters accomplish more they gain the ability to learn and grow.
‘Leveling up’ is a way to define a benchmark where your character learns new skills and becomes more powerful.
Levels After 1st
The next question most of us ask is how do you define more powerful? The following is a list of the many ways leveling up can affect your character.
- Hit Die / Hit Points – Each time you gain a level, you gain a new hit die which is used to increase your overall hit points.
- ASI – Ability Score Increases come every few levels to give you a bonus to your ability scores, either +1 in two abilities, or +2 in one ability.
- Feats – Instead of taking a bonus to your ability scores, you can pick up a feat. A feat is a feature that is not tied to class which shows your expertise in some specific area.
- Proficiency Bonus Increase – Your proficiency bonus, which you add to any ability checks made with a skill you are proficient in, increases as you level. Your class table will show you which levels your bonus increases.
- Class Features – Each class gives out features at new levels. These class features represent the skills you gain through the class you have chosen.
- Subclass Features – Depending on your class, you will choose a subclass between 1st and 3rd level. This subclass, and the features you gain through it, represent a specific archetype of skills within the broader main class.
- Spellcasting – Many classes gain the ability to cast spells, as these classes level up, they gain access to higher level spells, and are able to cast more spells before replenishing spell slots on a long rest.
- Multiclassing – Each time you gain a level, you have the ability to multiclass, or take a level in a different class.
How Do You Level Up in 5e?
There are actually a few ways that our level increases in 5e. It largely depends on how our DM runs our campaign, and what kind of campaign we are playing in.
While the Basic Rules talk about experience-based progression, there are different ways to gain experience. Additionally, many published adventures will provide a milestone-based progression system to utilize.
In RAW (Rules as Written), experience is typically gained through combat. Each monster has a different challenge rating, which equals a certain amount of experience that the players gain.
A goblin, for example, has a challenge rating of ¼, so the characters will gain 50 XP (experience points). This XP is typically split among the players sitting at the table.
When we accumulate a certain amount of XP our level increases. In order to advance to 2nd level, we need 300 XP.
|Experience Points||Level||Proficiency Bonus|
The character advancement table shows us how much XP we need to advance to each level. In RAW, these amounts of XP to gain a level are absolute, rather than accumulated.
Simply put, once we’ve advanced to 2nd level, we only need 600 more XP to move on to 3rd level for a total of 900 XP. The table also shows us the proficiency bonus advancement, which is consistent for each class.
Before we get into milestone progression, let’s talk about other ways to gain XP. While the final decision with XP lands on the DM, it’s important for players to discuss their wishes with a DM in a session zero.
The three pillars of adventure, as described on pg 8 of the PHB, are exploration, social interaction, and combat. The DMG goes on to specify six types of activities different players enjoy in the Know Your Players section on page 6.
I’m pointing all of this out to make a point, right? Combat is just part of what being an adventurer is!
Since rewarding XP for social interaction or exploration isn’t something explored in the core rules of D&D, there are a lot of interpretations of how to go about it.
Some DMs reward XP for successful ability checks, others have challenge ratings for the traps and puzzles they set out, and others still will dish out XP whenever a character does something innovative.
All of this brings us nicely to the last method of leveling up we’ll discuss. Milestone progression is something many published adventures use to increase characters’ levels after certain events occur.
The Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure included in the D&D Essentials Kit uses this type of progression. Player’s gain a level for completing starting quests until they reach third level.
After that they gain a level after every two follow-up quests they complete. And finally, defeating the namesake dragon results in the characters gaining a level.
Setting a clear milestone progression at the onset of a campaign is a great way to include XP for roleplaying, while avoiding any subjectivity that comes in when trying to define ‘good roleplay.’
Hit Points at Higher Levels
That heading should look familiar to anyone who’s looked at a class in the PHB. One of the most important things that happens as we level is that we gain more health. While I’m sure there’s a ridiculously optimized Wizard build out there who could survive at twentieth level with 6 HP, I don’t think any of us want to do that.
So, we gain health when we gain a level. The way we do this is with hit dice. Each class has a type of dice used to determine their health. The cleric for example, gets a d8.
When a cleric levels up, they roll that d8, add their constitution modifier, and then add that total to whatever their maximum hit points was.
Crag, the warforged cleric, has 11 HP at first level (8 + their constitution modifier of 3), once they gain 300 XP, they get to roll their new hit die or take the average rounded up (5). Let’s say they roll a 6, now their HP maximum increases to 20 (previous HP + Hit Die roll + CON modifier).
Hit Dice can also be used at the end of a short rest to regain health. A player can roll one or more of their Hit Dice, up to their maximum amount, to regain HP. When a character completes a long rest, they regain their Hit Dice and all of their HP.
Choices at Higher Levels
Onto the exciting part! It’s time to do some decision-making! It’s okay, it’s not that scary, and the more you prepare the less daunting the decisions have to be. We also have an ever-growing list of guides aimed to help make these decisions a lot easier. So let’s get to it.
One of the best parts of gaining a level is getting to turn your character into something that feels really special to you. After building our character, with the exception of a few classes who choose their subclass at first level, your subclass is one of the most important decisions we make.
Each class has a few subclasses, with more being added to the rules each year in various campaign settings and supplemental rule books. Each of these subclasses has a list of features that distinguish us from the regular class.
An eldritch knight fighter gains access to spellcasting that any other fighter wouldn’t, a circle of spores druid gets access to deadly spores and some necromancy powers, and a college of swords bard is far more focused on combat than any other bard.
When we pick our subclass we sign up for a lot of cool abilities. We should familiarize ourselves with which levels we gain new subclass features at so we know what to expect.
ASIs and Feats
Every few levels, characters gain access to ability score increases. Most classes get five of these, with rogues getting six, and fighters getting a whopping seven increases.
When you reach a level that grants you an ASI, you have three choices: get a +2 bonus to one ability score, get a +1 bonus to two ability scores, or gain a feat.
Increasing your ability score as you grow makes a lot of sense, you get stronger, wiser, more dextrous, etc. as you train and experience more. It’s important to note that you can’t increase a score above 20 using this method, although you can get an ability score over 20 through other methods.
The barbarian’s primal champion feature for example increases your strength and constitution scores by 4 for a maximum of 24.
When your ability score increases, your modifier is also subject to increase. While you can view the chart in the PHB or in the basic rules for how modifiers work, there is a simple way to remember.
Start with remembering that 10 is in the middle, so it has a modifier of 0. Then, for every even number above 10 add one to the modifier, and for every even number below ten subtract 1.
Each odd number just has the same modifier as the even number below it. So, 12 and 13 provide a +1, 6 and 7 would be a -2.
If your modifiers increase, make sure that’s reflected on your character sheet anywhere that your modifier is used. Passive perception, initiative bonus, hit points, attack bonuses, spell save DCs, and more are all subject to change when the appropriate ability score modifier increases, and we don’t want to forget about those.
Feats typically have nothing to do with ability scores but are another option you have instead of an ASI if you want to show the expertise you’ve gained through your experience in another way.
They are a customization option introduced in the PHB, and more options have been introduced through other sourcebooks.
Feats give you access to special abilities, from being incredibly aware of your surroundings to being able to use telepathy. Some feats have prerequisites, either access to spellcasting, some existing proficiency, or a minimum score in an ability, and these really just exist so that you don’t end up with a useless ability.
In each of our subclass guides we talk about the feats that synergize best with the class. Feel free to check those out or come to your own conclusion on which abilities make you the most excited.
As an example, I’m always going to be excited by the telepathy feat and the telekinesis feat no matter what class I play, because who doesn’t want to be a jedi?
The stereotypical D & D player, at least on TV, is someone sitting at a table dressed in a blue wizard hat with stars all over it and a cloak, wearing a big gray beard to match.
While I definitely haven’t done that before, cough cough, I love what it says about our culture. It says that we can become fully immersed in a magical world.
What makes our world so magical, you ask? Well, magic. Spells are such an important part of D&D, even going back to the beginning when the three classes were cleric, fighting man, and magic-user, two of which had access to magic.
Today, 8 of the 13 classes have an automatic access to a spellcasting ability of some sort, even if the methods are different.
There are ten different levels of spellcasting. Cantrips, which you can cast whenever, and have an unlimited reserve of energy for, and 1st through 9th level spells, which you must extend a spell slot to use.
When spellcasters gain a level, there are a few things that can happen:
- Spell Slots – Spell slots are the reserve of energy you have to cast spells. Spellcasters can expect to gain more spell slots at each level, which simply means they can cast more spells.
- Access Higher Level Spells – In addition to gaining more spell slots, you can gain new spell slots. When you gain a new level of spell slot you gain access to the spells of that level for your class.
- Learn New Spells – Each class has a different method for learning new spells, and rules on how to do so. In general, you choose a predetermined amount of spells to add to your roster.
When you gain a new level you can choose to take a level in a new class. Sounds a bit confusing right? Well, you don’t have to just stick with the class you start off in.
When you gain enough experience to increase your overall level, you can select a different class to take that level in.
Let’s say you’re a 4th level bard who’s just gained enough XP to move onto 5th level. But you really want access to some cleric spells right?
Well, instead of becoming a 5th level bard, you can become a 4th level bard and 1st level cleric, so long as you meet the prerequisites to multiclass.
The prerequisite for multiclassing into another class is an ability of score of 13 in whichever score or scores are essential to that class.
There are plenty of rules on multiclassing, and we go into those in our Basics of Multiclassing article. Essentially though, this presents an option to really make your character stand out in a crowd. If you’re looking for that next level of customization you should definitely check this out.
Now that you know how leveling up works, head on over to your class or subclass guide to learn more about the specifics of leveling up within that class.
Make sure to keep a close eye on the level progression so you can have some idea of the decisions you want to make as your character grows ever stronger.
As always, happy trails adventurers!
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.