Dungeon Mastering 101: Tiers & Levels

Adventurers in D&D range in level from 1 to 20. As they gain levels, they become increasingly powerful, accumulating features that become increasingly significant not just to the campaign, but to the world in which the characters exist. To help players and DMs understand the meaning of the different tiers and the intended scale of adventurers that happen within them, we’ve written the following guide that examines the different tiers, offers real-world analogies to help contextualize them, and provides some insight into how you can best make tiers work for you in your game.

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What is a Level?

It is helpful before we begin to consider what a level actually represents.

Because most adventurers gain levels while out killing things and it is narratively appropriate for characters to level up after major confrontations, it is easy for players to leap to the erroneous conclusion that level is a reflection of how many things you’ve slain. Rare is the day we don’t see someone joking about how wizard universities in D&D shouldn’t teach the fundamentals of magic, but rather the most expedient way to kill a goblin so that they their graduates can skip the long hours of studying and rigorous practice and just automatically accumulate their advanced knowledge and proficiency after murdering a malignity of goblins. Some of these individuals even conceive farfetched and flawed powerlevelling schemes whereby they slay a powerful foe, then revive them with 1 hit point in order to slay them again.

Understanding level means accepting that it is a reflection of an individual’s capabilities, not a determinant. A 3rd-level wizard is classified as such because they’ve become capable of casting 2nd-level spells. A 2nd-level fighter didn’t get their Action Surge and bonus hit points because they levelled up, but because “2nd level” is the appropriate description for their level of competence. Challenging oneself can certainly push one’s limits and lead to faster growth—hence why adventurers will typically get better faster—but the growth always comes from within.

This is why most people in D&D worlds don’t have a level per se, as they haven’t accumulated the kinds of skills and abilities that fit into the classifications through which we, as players, interpret the world of D&D. And this is where we need to accept that, in order to actually use examples from our world to interpret the different tiers of D&D play, we need to consider modern professions as the equivalent of character classes. Instead of wizards, we’re talking about academics. Instead of fighters, we’re talking about athletes. Instead of clerics, we’re talking about theologians. Instead of bards, we’re talking about musicians.

FLAMMARION (1888) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

Tier 1: Local Heroes

This tier, covering levels 1–4, includes those starting out their adventuring careers. Characters in this tier are often young and inexperienced, such as newly anointed knights, fresh graduates from a mage or bard college, and recently avowed priests. Nearly two thirds of all games never go beyond this tier, and it probably represents 99% of the world’s population—including the innumerable folk who perform unskilled labour and have little to no combat ability.

In our world, such a person is probably a recent college graduate or licenced journeyman. They’re competent within the broad scope of their field and have an idea of what they want their true specialization to be, but they need to apply their knowledge to different situations in order to test the limits of their abilities and figure out where they still have to grow in order to excel. They start out uncertain and are likely to forget what they’ve learned when under pressure (hence why more 1st-level adventurers die than any other level).

As they reach 2nd and 3rd levels, characters finally master the fundamentals and begin the process of developing advanced techniques—if there are any to be practiced in their profession. By 4th level, they’re at the upper bound of average, such as an independent contractor with apprentices of their own, a doctor (Ph.D. or M.D.) working in a local institution, or perhaps even the state wrestling champion who might make it pro if they quit their day job and practiced full time.

A typical D&D adventure in this tier is very small in scale, likely concerning only a village or small region.

Tier 2: Heroes of the Realm

Second tier, covering levels 5–10, is where true expertise is revealed. Only about 1 in 10 games progress beyond this tier, and most who achieve the level of competence that qualify as this tier—not to mention the corresponding accomplishments—are considered to be well off. Of the 1% that transcend tier 1, only 1% transcend tier 2.

Tier 2 is where, in our world, you find record label artists, nationally renowned surgeons, Olympic athletes, and even C-list Hollywood stars. People of this level of skill are known names in their field and sometimes even beyond. They attract sponsors and the interest of elite organizations ranging from major league sports teams to special ops units. They’re established and in demand, often with their pick of opportunities to apply their specialized skills.

The difference between a tier 1 and a tier 2 individual is usually equal parts hard work and opportunity. Anyone with sufficient motivation and training can achieve the level of competence that qualifies as this tier, though the bar can be quite high and most simply lack the dedication or support to reach it.

A tier 2 D&D adventure typically involves resolving threats to cities or even kingdoms.

Tier 3: Masters of the Realm

Levels 11–16 are called tier 3. These folks are among the greatest of their generation. Words like “genius” and “prodigy” start entering the vocabulary in discussion of these individuals, and they make meaningful contributions to their fields.

Tier 3 individuals in our world are aggressively recruited by think tanks, world-class outfits, billion-dollar sports clubs, and other illustrious or influential organizations. They earn prestigious awards, lucrative sponsorships, and high-profile book deals, and are invited to appear in preeminent talk shows, conventions, and symposiums. People show up when they deliver keynote speeches and line up to attend their seminars. If they practice some form of art or sport, they are frequently sought out for friendly competitions and are likely get inducted into some kind of hall of fame during their lifetime.

The difference between a tier 2 and a tier 3 individual usually involves a touch of natural talent. While it’s possible to get here through hard work alone, most often these individuals have an innate aptitude that others simply lack which makes it easier to practice and grow. Of course, to say it’s all talent is dismissive of the tremendous hard work it takes to reach this point—there’s a balance.

A tier 3 adventure likely confronts threats to entire continents, and perhaps even the world.

Tier 4: Masters of the World

Levels 17 and above are called tier 4. It is the highest tier of gameplay, and fewer than 1 in 20 parties will make it here, and such people are the proverbial “one in a million”. They are so far outside the norm that their performance often forces experts to reconsidere the entire scale they use to determine what normal means.

Many people, often misguided by the way their DM narrates damage in combat, tend to believe that individuals in this tier are some kind of demigods, or at least superhuman. Certainly, you can choose to interpret high-level play in that manner, but it’s helpful from a worldbuilding perspective to remember that characters in D&D are always treated as being mortal. Even the power-levelling travesty of a system that was fourth edition D&D Tactics (Tabletop) didn’t let you become a demigod until 21st level.

Individuals in this tier are the most talented and typically the most accomplished people in an elite field, eclipsing nearly all others in it for decades. Their names often become synonymous with their trade. Marlon Brando, Bruce Lee, Luciano Pavarotti, Albert Einstein, Pelé, Chuck Yeager, and Garry Kasparov are all great examples from the 20th century, consistently innovating and pushing the limits. Fifty years after these people retire, doctoral dissertations are still being written on just how exceptional they were.

Reaching tier 4 requires even more natural aptitude than tier 3, and a hell of a lot more effort. Most people only reach this tier late in their career, after years or even decades of practice to hone their ability and build their knowledge and techniques.

Tier 4 adventures are truly epic in scale. Adventurers of this level will likely resolve threats that extend beyond the world itself, and possibly fight for the entire multiverse.

Applying This To Your World

Now that we’ve considered what each of the different tiers means, we can consider how you can use them to build your world.

ARMIES

We can already see traces of the implied expertise of different individuals in the stat blocks provided for various NPCs. While NPCs are under no obligation to follow the Player’s Handbook (hence why it’s called the player’s handbook), their abilities are often inspired by features from the classes they emulate. Spellcasters are given a spellcaster level and a class to determine their spell choices and spellcasting ability; skulk-type NPCs get many of the same abilities as rogues, including sneak attack and evasion; and certain melee-oriented NPCs have abilities similar to a Battlemaster’s manoeuvres, such as Parry. They don’t exactly follow player progressions—for instance, a knight has two attacks like a 5th-level fighter, but only a +2 proficiency bonus instead of a +3, as the knight’s proficiency bonus is based on his challenge rating—but there’s enough to draw a fair comparison.

JEAN-JOSEPH DASSY (1850) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

In a standard D&D world, the vast majority of a nation’s army (that is, when the king puts out a call to arms) is tier 1 soldiers, likely using scout statistics (professional archers and arbalesters) or bandit statistics (those hardy peasants who have some martial training that prompted them to answer when the region’s governing noble requisitioned local soldiers and who hold the pike line1).

Tier 2 units have a specialized role in the army. Most are heavy troops such as knights and veterans, who are either landed lords who brought their own retinues to join the army or are part of mercenary groups, and who typically join in the cavalry charge or form the core of the shield wall. The other tier 2 unit that one typically will find are mages, who are likely central to the defensive strategy. Such individuals are generally deployed within the army’s back lines where they utilize large-scale evocation magic such as fireball and wall of fire to break the cohesion of approaching cavalry charges before they meet the pike line.

If units higher than tier 2 are present, they likely become central to the army’s strategy. An army accompanied by an archmage is likely more mobile, having much less need for siege equipment and heavy cavalry when they have someone in their number who can shatter a castle wall or scatter an enemy army by dropping meteors with pinpoint accuracy from a mile away. An army led by a warlord from Volo’s Guide to Monsters is likely there more to ensure he doesn’t get overwhelmed than because he needs help beating anyone in single combat.

How The Characters Fit In. It’s worth pointing out that the structure of fifth edition D&D doesn’t really support army warfare. There are some third-party supplements out there like MCDM’s Kingdoms & Warfare that offer additional rules and systems for this kind of play, but in general characters are best suited to special missions rather than serving in the regular army ranks. What their precise mission would be depends on their tier and that of the opposing army’s threats. At low levels, this might involve attacking the army’s baggage train (destroying their supplies, including their food). At higher levels, this might involve countering the major threat around which the opposing army is based, such as a dragon or even the warlord themselves.

MAGIC

What spellcasters of different tiers are like is heavily dependent on the scale of magic in the campaign.

The prevalence and power of magic in a world is completely up to the DM. Perhaps the world is like the Forgotten Realms, where magic is supposedly uncommon but practitioners have unfettered advancement, so that so many arcane spellcasters encountered are archmages. Or perhaps magic is relatively common but increasingly difficult to master at higher levels, so that virtually everyone knows two or three low-level spellcasters but seeing someone about a 6th-level spell generally involves waiting three weeks for an appointment.

KARL GEBHARDT VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

If the former is the case, then many arcane spellcasters would have the patronage of wealthy individuals, aristocrats, and even royalty, even if they aren’t yet all that advanced in their studies. Their rare skills would be valuable regardless of their level of expertise, and individuals of means would seek to secure their loyalty early before they outgrow the need for friends. The only difference between a higher level mage and a lower level mage in such a world would be the station of patron interested in sponsoring them.

If the latter is the case, most mages would largely have to make their own way. Royal and imperial academies might be established to ensure a minimum level of competence among professional mages, but only exceptional individuals would be offered a place in the service of a country’s highest levels of authority. In such worlds, magic would be its own industry, and tier 1 mages could be found operating their own practices in every town, forming local guilds to ensure they don’t undercut each other out of profitability. Those talented enough to develop their specialization and gain a reputation can move up to major cities. As a result, most major settlements would have continual flames lighting their wealthy districts, permanent teleportation circles connecting them to other cities, readily available curse removal, and other obvious signs of magic.

Also important is the prevalence and scale of divine magic. Are most miracles wrought within the vicinity of sacred altars or at the whispered prayer of a supplicant, with clerics themselves rare saints in the making, or is there a vast pantheon of gods who maintain multiple temples in any given town where the faithful can congregate to have their ailments cleansed and sins cleared? Is divine magic limited to minor miracles that are differentiated from random chance only by faith, or is disease and death all but unheard of thanks to the abundance of temples with generous clerics?

How The Characters Fit In. A spellcasting character in a low magic world likely has a wealthy patron who can offer quest hooks into the larger adventure, while one in a high magic world will more likely receive their hook from their guild. Whether in a low magic or high magic world, spellcasters who gain the ability to cast 3rd-level spells attract attention for their skills and might find themselves pressed into performing certain tasks for important individuals—whether by the carrot or the stick. Those who gain the ability to cast 6th-level spells quickly find themselves on the magi-dar of powerful forces—good and evil. Few capable spellcasters will simply be left to go about their own business in the long term; their skills are too valuable to different organizations and powerful figures. This needn’t threaten the opportunity for characters to go adventuring, however. There are plenty of expeditions to be led in dangerous ruins and many lost artifacts to recover from far-flung locales or eccentric collectors with dangerous quests that need to be completed by capable individuals.

Divine spellcasters in particular are likely to be involved with a larger organization. Because gods choose to bestow their power on their followers, it follows that if the gods are an active force in the world then their faithful will be led by those with the greatest amount of their favour, and the party cleric would easily advance through the ranks of their faith. Only in a world where the gods are distant might one expect the power of divine spellcasters to grow separate from the hierarchy of the church.

THREATS

It’s one thing to design a world with a full of threats for many different tiers of adventure. It’s quite another to do so in a way that won’t cause the players to unexpectedly stray into the territory of something that will eat them for breakfast. There are some simple and a few clever ways to do this.

Option 1: Just Don’t Tell Them About It. It can be common knowledge on the part of the characters that there’s a deadly dragon in yonder valley—a beast so dangerous that it’s considered suicide to go into its territory. The world is a very, very big place and there are many, many other valleys for the characters to explore, so the easiest way to avoid sending your party to meet an untimely fate is to simply not tell the players about this. The existence of the dragon can naturally come up much later in the campaign, when a quest hook involves the party venturing into the region on an unrelated task.

JOOS DE MOMPER THE YOUNGER (c. 1620) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

When the time is right, all the DM really needs to do is explain, “The valley is the well-known hunting ground of a mighty dragon said to be large enough that a knight in full armour can charge his horse straight down the beast’s gullet. A few years ago, the famed dragon hunting company known as the Order of the Black Talon set out for the valley. None returned, though hunters have since seen the creature from afar. For obvious reasons, it’s been a place to avoid thus far in your travels.” This option is best if you have a low magic world and prefer to downplay the prevalence of high-level individuals.

Option 2: Hic Sunt Dracones. The second major option DMs can try is to force the most dangerous threats to the periphery of the map. This was very common in the middle ages, when cartographers would include supernatural elements tucked between continents and far-flung islands. Sea serpents and strange maritime abominations decorate the empty spaces of the map, and a pair of famous globes in 1504 famously summarized it as “HC SVNT DRACONES” (hic sunt dracones, ‘here be dragons’).

OLAUS MAGNUS (1539) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

This type of embellishment was as much to fill the empty space as to declare where potential dangers of unknown origin were believed to exist. Such creatures were, of course, disproportionately placed in oceanic waters, where ships would mysteriously vanish during storms, pirate attacks, or ill-fated mutinies, leaving those ashore to wonder after their fate.

If your world embraces high fantasy, it’s more than reasonable for highly settled regions to be well protected against dangerous threats. As powerful as a dragon is, a conclave of archmages working together with highly trained units of mercenaries can force them to seek other territory. Intelligent monster factions such as hobgoblins and lizardfolk may even establish frontiers to coordinate defence against human encroachment. Such factions are likely led by powerful entities, and may even serve as a buffer against even more powerful entities. As the party gets stronger and leaves behind the safety of highly settled valleys and coastal plains, they are more likely to stumble into regions under the dominion of ever more dangerous threats.

Option 3: Keep Them Near, But Hidden. Eden Phillpotts once wrote, “The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper”.2 In the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, this is true in the most literal sense, and experienced travellers would naturally develop the necessary expertise to engage with the supernatural. One particularly underutilized example of this is planar crossings.

EDWARD ROOKER (c. 1763) VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

Not every journey to the Feywild or the Shadowfell needs to be done through the plane shift spell. Rings of toadstools in the forest might grant access to the Feywild under the light of the full moon. A remote mountain lake might allow one to enter the Elemental Plane of Water. The deepest shadows in a graveyard might allow one to pass to the Shadowfell on a moonless night. These were the paths that planar travellers used to obtain the materials needed for plane shift (e.g. a tuning fork), and they are the paths that adventurers can stumble into when they’ve outgrown or grown bored of fighting the region’s usual monsters.

Putting It All Together

Growth is central to good storytelling. As characters gain levels, their skills and expertise grows by increasing amounts, as do the challenges they face. At early levels, adventurers are only just coming into their own but, by the time they near the end of a high-level campaign, they’re world-class experts sought out to resolve the greatest threats. Throughout their adventures, they will venture further abroad and deeper into danger, engaging with the world on a larger scale. Depending on how prevalent magic and divinity is in the world—as well as how quickly they advance in the story—adventurers might find themselves occuping positions of greater significance in society as they gain levels.

By increasing the scale of adventures and threats along with the level of your characters, you ensure not only that combat remains challenging and players feel the story’s drama grows appropriately to their abilities, but also that they are making a meaningful impact on the world. When players feel that their choices are important, they are invariably more engaged and get better enjoyment from the game. Tiers are a helpful way to simplify this by grouping levels together in relative terms of scale, reducing the game’s twenty levels to four general categories. If you’re stuck on where you want to take your characters next, consider what kind of threats or opportunities they’ll meet within their tier.

  1. In medieval warfare, the cavalry charge was one of the most dangerous tactics and the one most army strategies worked to counter. One effective counter was a pike line, where several ranks in the front of the army would hold reach weapons in front, as horses won’t charge into such a formation. In practice, this turned many battles into a game of chicken. On the one side is a fully armoured knight astride a 2,000-lb warhorse. On the other is Willy, who has been a soldier for all of 10 minutes and just wants to go home to his farm.
  2. This quote, in edited form, is sometimes misattributed to the famed Irish poet W.B. Yeats. In fact, it comes from Phillpotts’ book, A Shadow Passes (1919).

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