Level Advancement (5e Variant Rule)
From D&D Wiki
Way, way back in the early days of D&D, characters did not advance in level simply by collecting xp. No, back then, once you had enough experience, you had to spend time and money to earn that increased level. In this way, classes operated a little bit like a real-life apprenticeship program, but without being subservient to your master the way such was done back in medieval europe. You gain experience, go for training, come out with an improved title and new skills, and repeat. A lot of people mostly ignored this aspect of the rules, mainly for two reasons. First, and most important, the financial requirements were absolutely insane, requiring most characters to adventure long, long after they'd earned enough xp. (That was somewhat assumed at the time, but pretty much nobody wanted to play that way) Second, roleplay was not quite as big of a deal back then (remember, this is a time when there were D&D competitions and multi-session mega-dungeons) so a big fluffy rule about long-term social interaction with a fictional environment that exists to be looted wasn't exactly coherent to many players. As a consequence, when it came time for 2nd edition, the details of what a level really is and how it works were dropped, and they became a complete abstraction of gaming, and it's been that way ever since. The loss of the context behind character levels has had a pretty big impact on the RPG hobby- a lot of smaller-name RPGs exist solely because their authors responded negatively to the arbitrary nature of the level system!
Today, however, we now have an edition of D&D which actually has a sturdy system, balanced numbers, and a pre-existing mechanic that can bring this old mechanic back to life in a way that is both functional and entertaining. In fact, they have already implemented this as an optional rule in the DMG on pg.131! Unfortunately, I feel that version of the downtime activity is pretty bland- it is so cheap as to be irrelevant to play- you might as well not even use such a rule, and just hand out less downtime, considering how little impact it would have! The whole purpose of being forced to train to advance in levels is to emphasize how big of a deal being high level is. Under such a system a level 20 character should be a jaw-dropping living myth... Not some guy who spent a month and a half whirling his sword at his shadow while sleeping on the streets because it's cheaper! This variant of that downtime activity aims to make it much harder to gain those upper tier levels, even putting them out of reach for characters who simply aren't legendary and haven't made an effort to become so. It starts out with similar numbers to the original rule, but those numbers quickly ramp up, along with the difficulty. This rule may be contrary to the values of some DMs and players. In particular,
- This rule does not assume that characters or their players deserve to increase in level by virtue of time played or adventures completed.
- It also does not assume that regular level increases are a given.
- Finally, it does not assume the party should necessarily share a common level, or even be within a few levels of one another.
- Under this rule, levels are not a rightful reward, they are an earned priviledge.
If you do not desire these things in your game, this rule probably isn't for you or your group.
Replacing Standard Level Advancement
Because this is a downtime activity which allows you to increase your level only after obtaining enough xp, its use implicitly replaces the standard process of level advancement. Players should not be able to gain levels normally, then spend their downtime to gain even more levels just because they want to.
Under this rule, your class is nolonger an abstract representation of things that you happen to be good at. Rather, it is a literal professional career choice, and it is possible to find adventurers who will happily call themselves "barbarian", "monk", or "rogue". Furthermore, there is a formal apprenticing structure to the profession, under which individuals are classed by their level, representing how much they have been taught in their class, and again this is a very real thing, which people may even refer to you by. Once you have obtained enough xp to gain a level, you stop accruing additional xp. In order to gain a level, you must spend downtime searching for a master to apprentice yourself to, and additional time and money undergoing training from that master.
The amount of downtime granted to the players at a time can have a massive impact on how this rule will play out in-game. A DM who gives out very little downtime, or gives it out very rarely, will see PCs needing to choose very carefully whether they care more about leveling up or pursuing other interests all the time, and some PCs may choose to hold off on gaining levels, continuing to adventure at a lower level for far longer than is usual... Some PCs may give up on any type of downtime activity at all, aside from level advancement, simply because they are so impoverished for time. Meanwhile, a DM who provides lots of downtime, or awards it frequently, will find that this rule has very little mechanical impact, and primarily only influences roleplay, with PCs simply spending their excess time on other pursuits, up until they reach the difficulty wall of level 15+.
The Downtime Activity
First, the character must spend time searching for a trainer of the appropriate level. To find this trainer, the PC may use any social method they wish, as an intelligence, wisdom, or charisma check to represent their methods. If the character is proficient in any skill which would be relevant to their methods, they may add their proficiency bonus to the result as well. The DC to find such a person is equal to 10 + the level you will be gaining. (IE: If you are to be gaining 2nd level, the DC is 12.) The PC spends one downtime day to make this check. Each time the check is failed, the character may choose to continue or simply give up.
Once a trainer has been found, the PC must spend adequate time to train under their master, paying for any materials needed for the training, and also providing lifestyle expenses for their trainer as well. The lifestyle the trainer requires is based on their level tier. A first tier trainer requires modest conditions, a second tier trainer requires comfortable conditions, a third tier character requires wealthy conditions, and a fourth tier character requires aristocratic conditions. The amount of time it takes to complete your training is ten times the level you will be gaining. (IE: For level 2, it will take 20 days, and will cost 20gp in trainer expenses, while level 10 will take 100 days and cost 200gp in trainer expenses, and level 18 will take 180 days and cost 1,800gp in trainer expenses.) In addition, you must pay an up-front apprenticeship fee equal to one hundred times your current level in gp. (IE, level 1=100gp, level 5=500gp, etc.) Once this is complete, the PC gains a level.
Level 20 does not work the same way, as it is a degree of mastery that no single being may teach. Instead, the character must go on a personal journey of self-discovery, spending their downtime to travel far and wide, or meditating in seclusion. For 10 downtime days, the PC may make a single check, without modifiers, with a DC of 20. If they fail, they may give up or choose to continue. If they succeed, they are awarded an epiphany that will show them what they must do to unlock their maximum potential. This takes the form of some grand quest or adventure which should significantly change the character and/or their world. Upon completion of this quest, the character comes to full realization of what their limits truly are, and may undergo the regular training process, paying only for their own needs, as there is no trainer. Upon completion, the character attains level 20.
Some Key Notes
This system relies on ability and skill checks. The DCs can reach as high as 29. Without a relevant skill proficiency, it is impossible for a character to reach anything higher than level 15. A character may need to use the training downtime activity in order to obtain such a proficiency, but creative roleplaying may allow a non-social proficiency to apply. (IE: Using your talents as an athlete to attract public attention, and then using word of mouth to spread that you are looking for a master to train you in your class.) Additionally, without at least +3 in an applicable ability score, it is impossible to reach level 19, which is the last level where modifiers matter. One key impact this will have, is that it makes multiclassing a much more practical choice, as the DCs to find an appropriate trainer will be lower, and thus more attainable. A character may very well find themselves trapped, mathematically unable to gain any higher levels in their chosen class, and be forced to multiclass instead. It also makes the mental abilities and their related skills insanely valuable, as any player aiming for level 20 in a single class will need at least +9 to that last series of checks.