Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Level Are You?

I'm cogitating about something now based on a conversation I had with a friend, as well as a few RPG products I've read recently.  I'm thinking about level based systems and the logic behind them.  I've done this before, but it usually came down to "I want to take a break from level based systems for a while."

One way or another, though, level based RPGs are pretty emblematic of the industry.  On top of that, I've become much more convinced that looking for the "one engine to rule them all" in RPGs misses some neat rules here and there that can reinforce the feeling of a given genre or style of game.

I think in a lot of ways level based "kitchen sink" fantasy, being the grandfather of it all, doesn't so much emulate a genre so much as take a lot of elements and create it's own genre.  

That having been said, where my recent conversations and reading has led me is here:  how many levels do you need to still get the feel of level based kitchen sink fantasy?  

Early on, a lot of classes only really had major advancements through, say, 9th level.  However, there were classes, like the monk, that had progressions and abilities that spanned all the way to 17th level.  Third edition D&D spelled out a "core" experience that spanned 1st through 20th level, but added on "Epic" levels that could scale infinitely  (which was potentially confusing, since it made comparison a little confusing, with references to 99th level demon sorcerers, when the gods themselves seem to fall way behind this power curve).  

Fourth edition standardized all of this a bit by spelling out three tiers of 10 levels, for an "complete" game spanning 1st through 30th level.  Pathfinder has yet to touch "Epic" levels officially, but they included multiple advancement tracks for people that want to move up through the levels faster or slower than they normally would.

But I think this is all kind of missing the point.  My friend was discussing how he has to do a lot of padding to get his players from low level, which makes sense for them to start, to solidly mid level, so that they can survive more satisfying threats.  In other words, they aren't low level people that have to be very careful, but they are in that place where they can just kind of survive more of what used to be a challenge, and not something that is truly a "new level" of threat.

I'm starting to really wonder why we have so many levels in level based games that give us tiny baby step fiddly advancement, which almost ensures that there will be lots of padding over the course of a campaign.  I think that it's almost a given that people assume a level based system will have a low level, which means the characters are better than the average person, but can be killed by lots of dangerous stuff if they aren't careful; that there will be a mid-level where they can take on more serious "mythical" threats like vampires and giants; that there will be an "epic" level where players are getting closer to being like demi-gods or super-heroes, and surviving encounters with actual demi-gods and demon princes, if only just barely.

There are two things that occur to me in level based systems.  

1.  It feels like a cheat if you skip a level, or don't actually play through one of those levels between tiers.

2.  If you present the rules through a certain level, it feels like you should be able to use at least the majority of those rules at some point in time.

Which leads me to think about the following:

1.  If you present rules from 1st to 20th level, you shouldn't "know" that the game isn't much fun past 15th level, and if it's 1st to 30th level, you shouldn't get bored after 20th level.

2.  If you feel like you need to actually play each level, to know what that level is like, you shouldn't too many levels in a row that feel very similar with just minor changes in your ability to survive one more round or having one more ability to fiddle with.

This long winded set up brings me to an interesting paradigm that two very different level based fantasy kitchen sink games have arrived at.  What if, instead of spreading out the number of levels you have in the game, you actually contract them?

What if take a 20 level or 30 level game, and instead make it into at 10 level game?  The end game is in sight, the progression doesn't have to be fiddled with across multiple levels, and you have a much better chance of actually playing every level of your character class across the campaign.  

I know this isn't as important for every gamer.  Lots of people don't have a compelling need to "finish" the material in the RPG.  Lots of people don't worry as much about advancing on a regular schedule and don't see a campaign as a story arc so much as just playing their character as long as they have the same GM running in the same world.

Anyway, I'm really interested in finishing up the 13th Age material and reviewing the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules again.  There is something really compelling about feeling like you could "complete" the campaign at it's maximum level, instead of just knowing that there is a point at which the GM can't juggle the variables or that there are too many moving parts for the players to have fun.

What have we learned here today?  We've learned that it's Sunday, and ramble on and on about games, and there are dice and levels and stuff.  If you have made it this far, I hereby give you an invisible internet cookie.  Enjoy it in good health.


  1. I have recently started playing The Secret World, FunCom's new mmo. I absolutely love their level-less system. You can advance the abilities you enjoy and ignore the ones you don't. You can have multiple builds for different scenarios or just focus on one role. At the same time, you earn access to better gearing az you advance so that you can handle greater threats. The only table top I have looked at recently that is even vaguely similar is Black Crusade and maybe World of Darkness...but unless the storyteller gives away experience like candy, the costs are too high to really branch out in that game..

  2. I think the only character I would have played 1-20 is Grim. Read: O.N.L.Y.

    I find it funny that subsystems like E6 (3.5) or E8 (essentially e6 with Pathfinder) are popping up. Honestly, I like my campaigns to be around level one to about level 14 or even 15 for the retirement adventure. I have played an Epic d20 game, as well as GM'd one. Really, I think that those levels are the purvue of master villains and demon lords. But that's another story for another time.