Behind the Smoke and Mirrors: D&D’s Level-Up Treadmill

01 Sep

A while back, someone on an ENworld thread mentioned how 4e disillusioned him to D&D advancement. It cleared out the smoke and mirrors, allowing him to see the level-up treadmill. If you already know what the level-up treadmill is, skip the next three paragraphs.

What’s the level-up treadmill? For example, take a 1st level PC. That PC goes adventuring with his party, kills a few orcs, takes their stuff and then levels up. During level up, he gets a few more hit points, and another bonus or two. Maybe he identifies his first +1 weapon amidst the orc spoils. Now he’s a 2nd level PC, and he goes on another adventure to fight hobgoblins.

Despite his improved combat ability, the PC isn’t any better at killing hobgoblins than he was at killing orcs, because the hobgoblins also have a few extra hit points and another bonus or two. Essentially, he’s fighting orcs with hairier costumes and a different label.

The level-up treadmill isn’t unique to 4e, but the 4e dev team went out of their way to make monster stats fairly uniform and more importantly to make monster design transparent. The 4e DMG is the first DMG that takes an honest stab at monster-writing guidelines: a DM assigns his monster stats based on what he wants the monster to do, and then adds 1 to each of those stats per level. In this way, a monster can be made more or less challenging simply by adjusting numbers up or down. That’s an oversimplification, but it demonstrates the fundamentals of D&D monster design, and the level treadmill — no matter a PC’s level, he’s essentially using the same numbers to fight the same monsters.

Back to our disillusioned ENworlder: I was actually surprised when he explained his problem to us. Not surprised that the treadmill exists, but that he never recognized it until the 4e DMG pointed it out, and that the treadmill is a problem for him. Maybe I’m more tuned in to what lies behind the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of game rules, but I recognized the treadmill not long after I started gaming in my 2e days. (The dragons I fought got older and bigger, but weren’t all that different when it came down to rolling dice.) I’ve always assumed that most D&D gamers recognize the treadmill too, and enjoy it. (Or accept it, at least.) After all, fighting bigger and meaner monsters is a simple way for DMs to give their players a sense of accomplishment and advancement within the game world.

So my question is: have I assumed wrongly? Did you already know of the treadmill, or have I just shattered your blissful ignorance? Is the treadmill a feature or a problem? And is it a mistake for game writers to make the treadmill clear for all to see?


Posted by on 01/09/2011 in Dungeons and Dragons


4 responses to “Behind the Smoke and Mirrors: D&D’s Level-Up Treadmill

  1. dragolite

    01/09/2011 at 10:21 pm

    I saw the treadmill but I never believed it or used it. I have always tweaked my monsters and sometimes I tweak them in a way as to kill PCs. I don't do this because I want to kill them, I don't. I do want there to be risk and challenge beyond what the numbers are. I think that the treadmill is a bit of a problem, and many of my players would feel the same way. There have been times when we have doled out more xp because of role playing than monsters. I don't think it is a mistake in Type IV that they did this. IV is designed as a tactical game about killing and leveling, so the clarity makes it easier for DMs to create those battles.

  2. Vil-hatarn

    02/09/2011 at 1:26 am

    I think the key thing to note is that the treadmill is not the sole means of advancement in D&D; in addition to pure numbers, most characters gain new and varied abilities as they level up as well, and I think it's the abilities that really give the sense of a more powerful character. That said, I personally find the numerical range of the treadmill a little extreme, so my houserules de-emphasize pure numerical gain in favor of expanded abilities.

  3. Tequila Sunrise

    02/09/2011 at 2:01 am

    The treadmill isn't D&D's sole means of advancement; very true! There's new powers and spells, there's non-combat stuff like gaining allies, titles and land. There's also plot advancement.Maybe it's because there are no rules for most of the other advancement stuff, that it's hard for some gamers not to focus on the level-up treadmill?@ dragolite, what do you mean you saw the treadmill but never 'believed or used' it?

  4. Jake

    17/07/2015 at 5:07 am

    I think there’s a good reason that that poster noticed it more in 4e. This is why I think it’s a problem that 4e is overly balanced, because there’s nothing to be done but accept that your numbers are keeping pace with your opponents’. In 3.5 leveling up is an invitation and an opportunity to outsmart the game. There’s (more than) enough wiggle room in character competence that a well built character will improve faster than – and have more clever solutions to – appropriate cr enemies.

    Eventually when fighting cr appropriate enemies there’s basically no challenge, which feels like a kind of victory and an escape from the treadmill. The DM can keep you on the treadmill and keep up the challenge by throwing higher cr enemies at the players, but then we’ve expedited the leveling process and therefore at least are in some sense gaming the system. Either way this feels like a reward for building well. Likewise a poorly built character will either constantly die and be losing a bunch of con (or the player will be constantly rerolling) or the challenge will have to be toned down and progression will grind to a halt. This then is a punishment for building poorly.

    If the system is overly balanced then this incentive structure can’t materialize and the whole thing will feel like pointless tedium. “Oh this fight is exactly as evenly matched as the last one but the numbers everyone is saying are bigger? Why did we even bother leveling up and changing our numbers?”

    Of course any enemies with character levels will be appropriate challenges with reasonable cr if the DM is able to make characters that are as good as the players’, but unless the DM is spending a huge amount of time preparing that has to be the minority of fights.

    But it’s also true (and very important) that if you have a good DM then you’re engaged in what your characters are doing, why they’re fighting a gauntlet of enemies of ever increasing strength, and of course all of the conversations you get to have with both the people giving you your quests and the bad guys (before you kill them.) So continuing to play the game isn’t all about the mechanical progression, though I’d be tempted to say that if you’re playing rpgs exclusively for the story than at this point there are a lot of options out there that won’t make you sit through combat you hate like D&D does.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: