Are Dead Levels a Bad Thing?

Cover the the D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook from Wizards of the Coast
Cover of the D&D 3.5 PHB

The exact meaning of a ‘dead level’ depends on who’s talking. I’ve heard a number of different definitions:

  • A level where the only improvement the character benefits from is increased HP. Typically used for oldschool games, since I don’t think a level like this ever exists in D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder.
  • A level where nothing improves about the character save for basic numbers stuff, such as HP, Saves, and Base Attack Bonuses.
  • A level where the character does not receive any new special abilities, though they may increase their HP, Saves, BAB, Ability Scores, or number of feats.

Here, I’ll be using that last definition, since it is the one which is most relevant with regards to the changes made between Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and Pathfinder.

Back when I started playing tabletop games, around the advent of D&D 3.5, I often felt as though my character’s progress was painfully slow. I was excited to become more powerful, and nothing was worse than leveling up and realizing that very little had actually changed for my character. Dead levels were a serious frustration, because at that time planning out my character’s mechanical development was important to me.

When I originally read the Pathfinder rules, I praised them for the way dead levels were eliminated from the game. It meant players could spend less time waiting, and more time improving their character’s build. And I was right. Pathfinder does allow players to spend more time working on their build.

This is a good thing, because a big part of the appeal for RAW 3.5/PF is building your character. If the players are playing to build characters, and they almost never get to do that, then the game isn’t providing a satisfying experience. Dead levels are a huge issue, and should be eliminated.


I no longer enjoy building my character. I’m not interested in playing a tabletop game where this is my goal, and I’m not interested in running a tabletop game where this is the goal of my players. Such gameplay is perhaps better suited for a video game or board game, where rules are more clear-cut and easy to enforce. In a tabletop game where the rules ought to be flexible and players are owed a logical explanation for any limitations placed on them, I don’t feel that it works.

So in the type of game I like to play and run, what is the point of leveling at all?

Improvement can be valuable without being the focus of attention. It can even be an important goal for the players without being the focus of attention. My goal is to provide my players with a game where they feel as though they can work towards any skill or goal diegetically. The advancement granted them by their class should be simple and easy to record & remember. More individualized character improvement can be sought out through gameplay, regardless of whether the character has leveled or not.

Dead Levels are only a problem if leveling up is the only means of improvement your characters have available to them.

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7 thoughts on “Are Dead Levels a Bad Thing?”

  1. Great Article! As a player, I tend to focus on developing my character. I can do this mostly through role play and leveling and I find that as a GM I want my players to embrace a similar focus while I lead them along. I find that most people are spoiled by MMORPGs and other video games focused on leveling because they are taught to see leveling as the only method of becoming greater and more accomplished. “I defeated the evil Warlock and brought peace to the land, but did I level because otherwise I’m unaccomplished and no better than I was before”

    1. I don’t know if I would necessarily say people are spoiled. Video games *should* have a greater focus on leveling, because computers don’t have the capability to run the kind of open-ended, anything-goes game system that we can achieve with a tabletop game.

      It is true, however, that people who come to tabletop games most likely do so having played video games in the past. They have certain expectations of what the experience will be like, and it’s the job of their game master to show them the differences between video games and tabletop games. If the game master is skilled, then those differences will be mostly positive ones.

      Also, thank you for your comment! Nice to see a new face ’round here.

      1. Thank you for the hospitality, I just found your site here and I’m loving the Theorycraft work you do.

        Great points made. I easily forget the disparity between the mediums.
        I’d be interested to see a game that is more focused on character improvement outside of simply leveling. That article on Pathfinder Feat Slots you wrote a few months back was a great idea, maybe things like that could be implemented to draw players out of that level focused mindset. I feel like somewhere in here is a nice balance of mechanics and role play that makes leveling still feel as great as it does in games like Pathfinder, but still engages players between them.

        1. I’m working on something now where players can spend gold & time to purchase “proficiencies,” which serve both as the primary way to customize their character, and a level-independant progression.

          Courtney of Hack & Slash has done similar stuff.

          1. *gets super excited about Rocksfall*

            That sounds really darn cool. I would not at all mind helping out with any more playtests…

  2. This makes me wonder.. Have you looked up the D&D Next playtest yet? You should check out the Lagends and Lore “This Week in D&D” articles. They have some interesting ideas concerning feats. They’re trying to move away from 3/3.5/PF feat bloat and towards a really nifty idea.

  3. This thing had me thinking for quite some time and when starting on my setting that I intended for free download, I even did quite some amount of work to come up with custom classes that throw out a lot of the luggage that is really only there so you get the appearance that the character got something new without really changing how the character plays. In the end, I returned to using plain Pathfinder with limited class selection and a lower maximum level for the sake of compatibility.
    But I think that dead levels aren’t just not a problem, but actually a good thing. I want the players to improvise and do stuff that seems cool to them, not to to work towards unloking new maneuvers and such. Simple is always much better, and that’s the one point where almost all d20 games go entirely wrong. (Except Star Wars Saga Edition.)

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