How long does it take to play Dungeons & Dragons?
Several m0nths ago, James Malizewski observed that the Mentzer Companion Set effectively codified the much-needed “endgame” for Dungeons & Dragons. I respect James, but it’s not much of an endgame if it never arrives.
I’m going to say that Level 12 effectively qualifies as hitting the endgame. Under the Moldvay/Marsh/Cook version of the Basic Game, most classes need about 600,000 points to reach Level 12.
How long does it take to get there? For a game that’s been in play, in one form or another, for about 35 years, there seems to be very little hard data, though Maldoor made an early attempt.
I’ll take a guess based on a semi-official pronouncement. The Holmes Basic Rulebook states that it should take about six to eight adventures to level up. I don’t have my copy with me; I’m going from memory. Holmes, unfortunately, doesn’t explain whether this means six to eight sessions of play, or six to eight completed dungeon-adventures. (In any event the most helpful measurement would be points acquired per hour of play.) But let’s assume Holmes is talking about sessions of play. In that case it would take the player 72 to 96 sessions to reach Level 12–somewhere around three to four years if you’re playing twice a month.
Frankly I think Holmes’s math wasn’t intended to apply beyond the first few levels, which after all were his main focus in the Basic Rulebook. As an example, a Magic-User needs 40,000 points to go from Level 6 to Level 7. To do so in eight sessions would require earning an average of 5,000 points per session (maybe 20-30 thousand for the party as whole). That’s not impossible, but it’s a very steep pace to maintain given the adversaries you’d have to fight. I don’t have any hard data to suggest another rate of advancement, but presumably it gets a lot slower around high-level play.
But even at lower levels, Holmes’s estimate of 6-8 adventures to level seems way off for our group of players. Eric’s Principalities of Glantri game has been playing for about 20 sessions, and nearly all of the participants are still Level 1 (this is in large part due to turnover, both of characters and players). Tavis’s White Sandbox game has had about 15 sessions with a more stable (but larger) cast, and maybe 50% of the regulars have gained one level. Also, we’re playing with what amounts to double-XP-for-treasure rules, and Tavis is using the 100 XP per hit die of the enemy, so our advancement is considerably quicker than it would be if we were playing by the B/X rules. And we’re also playing using published modules (B2 and Caverns of Thracia).
To me this suggests that Holmes’s estimate is too generous by a factor of 2 or 3 (or it could be that the “adventures” he’s using as his unit of advancement are maybe 2-3 sessions in length). So that would mean hitting Level 12 would take anywhere from 144 to 288 sessions. Playing twice a month, that’s anywhere from 6 to 12 years.
So in order to reach the endgame of a D&D campaign, we’re talking about a time commitment of at least 3 to maybe up to 12 years. For a casual social activity, competing for attention with one’s professional and familial obligations, as well as whatever other interests one might have, it approaches absurdity.
Now, I’m assuming (1) that we’re playing from the low-levels to my arbitrarily imposed cap of Level 12, and (2) we’re advancing at a rate more-or-less as the rules intended. Either assumption might be wrong.
But to the extent that you’re measuring your game against some idealized mode of play where folks go from Level 1 dopes to Level 12 super heroes, that is a long haul. Maintaining your own interest, to say nothing of your players’, is going to be a serious challenge.