Friday, September 25, 2009

No Levels

I sometimes wonder what RPGs would be like today if OD&D hadn't included the concept of levels or indeed any kind of experienced-based advancement system. With the exception of Traveller in its original form, I'm hard pressed to think of any RPG that doesn't include some way for characters to improve over time. I don't necessarily think any kind of improvement is an inherently bad idea -- obviously not, given my love for D&D -- but I do think that the idea of gaining "experience" through adventuring is one that's sometimes had a negative effect upon the development of roleplaying games, making them all, ultimately, about becoming more powerful over time, with "power" being defined largely in game mechanical terms.

In the aforementioned Traveller, your PC begins the game as skilled as he's likely ever to be. Acquiring new skills or improving existing ones is remotely possible by going to school, but it's a slow process, as in the real world, and it effectively takes the character out of play for long enough that very few people ever bothered with it. Consequently, "advancement" in Traveller was measured by the goals a character achieved, whether they be becoming a rich merchant prince, exploring a new world, or establishing a potent mercenary company. Players became better at playing their characters over time, but their characters didn't become mechanically more effective as a result of having played dozens of adventures. This made it a lot easier to create adventures, as there was no mechanical necessity to "ramp things up" when dealing with characters who'd been around a while.

D&D just wouldn't be D&D without levels and the concomitant increase in mechanical potency. I have no particular interest in changing it, but I do think many of the frustrations I have with, say, adventure paths, are a direct result of the rather stark differences between low and high-level characters in latter day versions of D&D. That's why I prefer versions of D&D where the rate of advancement is both slow and less steep; it keeps things closer to a "human" level and makes it easier to avoid the temptation to turn everything into an epic struggle. Still, I do wonder whether a RPG without "leveling up" in some form would even be able to capture an audience nowadays. Is the concept so integral to what people think of when they think of roleplaying games that they couldn't imagine a game without it?


  1. It depends on a person's exposure to RPGs. Improvement/advancement is a standard goal of play in many "traditional" RPGs, but it certainly doesn't echo the literary roots professed to be the basis for fantasy RPGs. Very few characters in lit (or film) start small and get big...Luke Skywalker being perhaps the only one that comes to mind.

    But whatever...the game is what it is. Other RPGs have been developed that do NOT include advancement as part of the goal of play (several games that support the narrative creative agenda come to mind). They simply aren't all that popular. And I would guess it's simple human nature...people love to see something tangible (experience "points," levels) come out of their efforts. It's a reward system....which is fine. As long as the behavior encouraged by the reward suits the game as imagined by the designer.

    Word Verification: joust

    An action only available to Name level characters.
    : )

  2. I think advancement would just shift to the accumulation of better "stuff." Without the talent, they need the tools. How else does the party of working stiffs take on the nasty archmage on the weekend? Fame helps little, money a little more, but magical equipment is particularly useful when adventuring... and easy to steal or destroy!

  3. There are some games that have experience systems that aren't really important. Champions comes to mind -- your character is probably worth 250 XP at the beginning of the game, you get a couple of XP per game... it doesn't add up to much, or at least it never did when we played. A new skill here or there, another D6 of energy blast; you were fundamentally the same character after 20 sessions as you were at the beginning.

    I also liked the XP system in the TSR Marvel Superheroes game, where they could be used either in the traditional sense or you could use them in-game as "luck points." Added an interesting dimension.

  4. In my campaign, I award XP only after significant periods of down-time have elapsed.
    After 10-12 sessions worth we take a break and years pass. It's during this time that characters get better at things or accrue influence

  5. I do not agree with JB: in literature like in movies characters always tend to get better, to gain "experience" trough the course of their "adventure".
    That is simply part of the traditional way of writing a story that holliwood movies as well as many fictional books use, and its called "The journey of the hero".
    The hero, during his journey, defeats his enemies and gets better. In the end he will no longer be the guy he was at the beginning of the story. So "levels" are something that permeates almost every story you watch or read.
    Just to give an example from the "roots" of RPG: Conan the barbarian. He starts as an adventurer and, story by story, he gets better until he become a king.
    Forgive my english :P


  6. I would love a FRPG without levels. It would be so freeing on the roleplaying side.

  7. Gamma World! Get better by getting bigger guns. If you die, chances are your new character may have access to them.

    Boot Hill! No levels, but every gunfight makes you better.

  8. I think lots of heroes in literature start small and get big, that's more or less the point of the "monomyth" after all. Heck, it's literally what happens to Merry and Pippin in LotR, but it's present in lots of pulp and pulp-influenced literature particularly ones where the hero from our world learns how to swing a sword or wield magic, as well as various new languages at the drop of a hat. I think stories where the protagonist starts as a bad-ass and stays that way without growing or changing except to claw his way up the ranks to wield more political power are rarer than not...maybe Conan, though even he learned things like sailing and troop tactics.

  9. Gamma World!

    GW 1e at least has "levels" of a sort. There's even an XP chart, with each new ranking giving a roll on a table that increases ability scores, combat chances, damage, etc.

  10. Most of the games I've played have been level-free but have included mechanics for advancement, I think as something like a philosophical necessity: the advancement was usually nugatory, but still not the same proposition as simply not being there. Arguably CoC is inherently degenerative, since experience (which does exist in the system) often comes with a high price. Maybe that's true of Moorcockian games, too.

    As for literature, arguably Gilgamesh and Beowulf decay over their adventures, Frodo discovers strengths he had within him all along but is essentially used up by the end, and Flash Gordon, John Carter, Doc Savage and superheroes in general appear functionally static in their effectiveness (they can always do what is needed, even if that doing sometimes involves developing new abilities).

    I think if we want to understand the pervasiveness of leveling up we probably have to look at adjacent hobbies - at least as far as Space Invaders - and maybe into the hierarchical structures of military organisations as they relate to wargames (or corporations as they relate to deals, or other structures of social power). It makes a certain sense, narratively, to expand a military campaign game with ever-greater encounters, and those match the size of commands given to ever-higher ranks: repeated victories lead to promotions, which lead to larger commands and more complex contests. It also makes sense in terms of teaching the strategies of the game: you start small and simple, with the elemental units of interaction, and then learn to build ever more complex patterns out of them. In the end I think the impulse in games may come, primarily, not from our fund of heroic narratives but from our understandings of the work of life and the responsibilities of growing up.

  11. Just to clarify, in case there's any mistake on this point: I like levels and experience-based advancement. I don't have any plans to eliminate them from games that have them. I'm just musing on what RPGs might be like without them, since it's rare to find any that lack the concept in some form.

  12. I will say that in video game parlance, "role-playing game" has actually come to be defined by levelling/advancement of characters.

    "A key feature of the genre is that characters grow in power and abilities, and characters are typically designed by the player... Role-playing games have a tendency to become extremely in-depth and complicated with their levelling and skill systems...."

  13. Spirit of the Century has no real advancement system--although you can make adjustments to things like skills between sessions. Not using your investigations skill? Swap it out for another that's more useful.

    It makes sense for the pulp genre though--I mean did the Shadow and Doc Savage become more powerful with each adventure? It seems to me that certain genres don't really fit well with the idea of leveling up. Superheroes, in particular, come to mind.

    Also: I'd totally forgotten that Traveler didn't have an advancement system! I need to track down a copy of the original game.

  14. Arguably, D&D would never have become a full blown fad without leveling. XP rewards are an easily-grasped term-of-victory, and the XP economy is a brilliant little reward cycle that encourages players to come back for more. Abstractions that develop over play, like communal narrative and secondary world exploration, may be more sophisticated but they don't offer the immediate hook for newbies that XP rewards and leveling up does.

    I do wonder though where the idea for XP and levels came from, since I know of no clear precedent in the wargaming field. Troops could be rated in degrees of combat experience, but a fixed scale of advancement seems unique.

  15. @ E.T.: I believe the idea comes from the idea of battlefield promotion, especially with regard to medieval "page becomes squire becomes knight" idea; or in the case of Gygax/Arneson "flunky becomes hero becomes superhero."

    @ Marco: the journey to become a hero is more one of personal knowledge and accomplishment...NOT an increase of effectiveness. Heracles is always strong and bold, Odysseus is always what do they do with it? Howard's Conan stories are not written in chronological order and there is very little "growth" that happens in them besides Conan growing from a youth to an adult (and heading towards an eventual decline a la Beowulf).

    Again though, D&D is one particular game. The game involves leveling...that's the deal. It wants to emulate that rise from apprentice to wizard (or master thief or whatever). It is the game's great fortune that this act provides a visceral reaction from players which CONTRIBUTES to its popularity (though that's not the only reason!).

  16. IIRC, the 1976 Metamorphosis Alpha game has no levels, no experience rules, and no character improvement.

  17. I never considered this before, but D&D is structurally optimistic, isn't it? That which does not kill you can only make you stronger.

  18. @richard: "I never considered this before, but D&D is structurally optimistic, isn't it? That which does not kill you can only make you stronger."

    Hello, Mr. Wight!

    Per JM: "the obligatory wight encounter -- nearly every introductory module includes an encounter with these undead, it seems"

  19. Regarding Gamma World, as others on this thread have mentioned.

    I ran a level-less version of Gamma World for a couple years, and found that the "figure out the artifact" tables became a gateway to a sort of ersatz skill system. Character roles kind of grew around what tech they could operate. As others have said, it became about what your character learned and what gear you could get your hands (or other appendages) on.

    My gaming group at the time really enjoyed it, precisely because you didn't have to worry about levelling. Your character was an awesome mutant freak to begin with, and it became more about having adventures and organically developing your character.

    I'm cool enough with levels, but I like level less systems too.

  20. Fighting Fantasy and similar game books, as well as boardgames with RPG type elements generally do not have any sort of leveling / advancement between "games".

  21. IMO levels are an essential component of D&D's market dominance, along with classes and hit points.

    These mechanics are just better and so many games run away from them, for no better reason than "we want to be different from D&D".

    But in fact, they are key advantages of the game system.

    Games where you start off as good as you're going to get, even games I love like Gamma World and Marvel FASERIP are ultimately unsatisfying for long term campaign play.

    They also don't match most fiction. Luke Skywalker is noticeably better in ROTJ than he is in Star Wars.

    The Spider Man of today would wipe the floor with the Spider Man of 1970.

    Very few novels or TV shows focus on static characters. Their abilities increase over time, they get better.

  22. They also don't match most fiction. Luke Skywalker is noticeably better in ROTJ than he is in Star Wars.

    True, but Han Solo is not noticeably different.

    The Spider Man of today would wipe the floor with the Spider Man of 1970.

    I think that has more to do with changes in style between stories and writers than a change in the character during a single "story" or even series of stories.

    Some characters begin experienced while others are novice and must learn the ropes... but once they get up to speed they don't usually continue to constantly build up in power.

    Levels and increase in power in RPGs is a reward to the players -- if you remove it you need to consider what other rewards you're going to replace that with. (Not suggesting that's a necessary thing to do)

  23. @Delta: Hello, Mr. Wight!

    Zing! Well, sure: there's always a special case, and there's any number of discouraging nasty fates and magic items to which a character can succumb. In general, though, the pattern is either your character advances or they die and you roll up another one (generally placed just a short distance behind where the rest of the PCs are at that moment). For the player it has some of the sunny prospect enjoyed by the stereotypical Samurai: you'll either succeed or die, and both outcomes are honourable.

  24. Well I think that the absence of the concept of XP would have vastly improved most of the MMORPGs on the market by eliminating grinding and forcing another mechanism for determining "success."

    Also, with regard to Marco Torre's comment, the classic idea of the Hero's Journey (as proposed by Campbell) isn't about personal improvement. Rather it is a loss of naivety and assumption of the hero role in order to enter the dungeon and slaw the dragon at it's heart. If you take a look at the general run of heroic stories the protagonist already has the skills and just hasn't applied them.

    But one thing that people who want to emulate this sort of quest in an RPG tend to forget is the final stage: "The Return" (as defined by Campbell), where the hero returns to his community bearing the Treasure rescued from the dungeon and receives the rewards for doing so. D&D and it's XP system is a classic case of this, perpetually trapping the character in the first two stages of the Journey, and losing a lot of mythic significance thereby.

  25. There are genres that downplay heroic advancement - for example, an episodic TV series. While there may be changes and characters may develop, it's relatively stunted. Another would be superhero comics - you can make arguments about Spider-Man having gotten better over the years, but it's a glacial process at best, since he's very powerful when he starts out. This is contrasted by many Japanese comics, where the characters' advancement in power is a frequent plot element.

  26. I’m honestly not a huge fan of XP, levels, or much of a “power curve”.

    On the other hand, it also bothers me if there isn’t any way for a PC to change (not necessarily improve) post-chargen.

    So, I’m currently thinking that my ideal is something like “experience” in classic Traveller or the Marvel Super Heroes way† or a hybrid.

    (†You can spend karma points to improve your character mechanically, but we generally hoard them to use to improve rolls instead.)

    One thing I noticed when I ran classic Traveller, though: When you do a lot of travelling—with a week per jump—time passes quickly. While advancement was far from D&D speed, it was quicker than the impression just reading the rules had given me.

  27. Just to clarify, in case there's any mistake on this point: I like levels and experience-based advancement. I don't have any plans to eliminate them from games that have them. I'm just musing on what RPGs might be like without them, since it's rare to find any that lack the concept in some form.

    Well, there are many non-mainstream games that have no such mechanisms. (I wanna say Over the Edge lacks such mechanisms? Never mind stuff like My Life with Master and such!) But the 'mainstream wish-fulfillment RPG' paradigm does tend to require character advancement.

    Which makes me think: Part of the point of playing RPGs is to 'do' something you can't normally do in life (kill the dragon, fly, meet elves, travel far afield, fight well, etc.). But so many players can't think of their characters except in the same terms - i.e. you 'become' a half-elf spellcaster because that's this impossible, desirable thing, then you immediately impose a second layer of impossible thing, e.g. 'being able to hit this very impressive Armor Class every time.' Yet as you've depicted 'old school' gaming, James, it seems to involve much more exploration and player-ingenuity-driven rewards...and levels don't seem to have anything to do with that.

    Indeed, the logical endpoint of old-school player-choice/player-reward gaming would seem, irrespective of hobby history, to be XP/level-free gaming, with basically subjective (or more likely consensual) adjudication of advancement/growth. But that's at odds, again, with the wargame-derived 'fire levels' nomenclature from which D&D springs. Again, this is arguably an example of the roots of the form having nothing to do with the (revealed) strengths of the form - or perhaps working against them.

    It makes sense for the pulp genre though--I mean did the Shadow and Doc Savage become more powerful with each adventure? It seems to me that certain genres don't really fit well with the idea of leveling up. Superheroes, in particular, come to mind.

    Hence the crassness and boredom of the 'Death of Superman'-type comic book events. I'd note that Buffy the Vampire Slayer played with this 'power creep' problem in interesting ways - cf. the episode in which, before going off to fight a god, Buffy meets a single back-alley vampire who doesn't recognize her, and kills him in quiet sadness, realizing that she can't actually return to her Season One state of innocent anonymity (i.e. 'level 1 fighter').

  28. Like I said before--levelling up turns a game into several slightly different games at diffferent stages.

    Many games include "experience"- type mechanics, yet don't really seem to use them to change the game--Call of Cthulhu being the most obvious.

    Other games have them but you kind of wonder what you'd do with a high-level character other than fight more of the same enemies at once--like, say the Robotech RPG.

    Some games are in-between: in Marvel Super Heroes the characters could get better over time, and therefore could change from a "street hero" to a "cosmic-hero" over time, which doesn;t really emulate the genre but it does keep things interesting if you play for a long time.

    I think levels are good IF they give the game variety, otherwise, there doesn't seem to be much point.

  29. I still love the original Traveller game, it's the only edition I play. I never really saw or felt the need for character "improvement" in terms of game mechanics. Equipment, money, power, influence, character accomplishments, all of those were enough player motivation for me. I'd love so see more of that. OTOH, my players, while always willing to play Traveller, always agitate for a means to improve their skill levels.

  30. The way I see it, players have an understandable desire for some objective measurement of how they're becoming bigger and bigger figures in the game. The acquisition and improvement of the characters' innate abilites is one such measurement, but certainly not the only one. As Traveller has shown, acquiring stuff is another possibility as long as there's some sort of stuff to acquire that's actually special - like a big, improvable spaceship as opposed to dime-a-dozen pistols. Another such "carrot" would be the chance for the character to leave a permanent mark on the gameworld by becoming king or somesuch.

    I think one of D&D's great faults is ignoring such alternative yardsticks and sticking to the "power up" method - even though they actually had the groundworks laid down by the whole stronghold and followers shebang. That was a really promising idea that the game failed to follow up on - once you're ten times as powerful as you were in the beginning, you don't go on to become twenty times as powerful; you go on to participate in politics and warfare and the expansion of civilisation. In fact, the Mentzer series of books included rules for doing just that sort of thing, which is its greatest highlight for me.

    Unfortunately, the Classic line sort of became perceived as second fiddler to the main star Advanced D&D; and the latter has failed to address this matter abysmally. I believe that if Gary had skipped a dozen fun but ultimately useless tables like Random Prostitutes, Alleged Properties of Precious Stones and Nomenclature of Polearms and instead filled those pages with a few rules and pointers on managing your strongholds and putting your followers to good use, the subsequent history of RPGs would have been different and now there would be no reason to lament the lack of alternative improvement systems.

    But of course, that was not meant to be. Designed to be the "official tournament ruleset", AD&D largely decided not to concern itself with stuff outside the scope of tournament play. After all, the sort of "political" game I'm talking about is hard to present as a published module; it's easier and more profitable to ignore such interesting possibilities and just keep cranking out "kill things and take their stuff in dungeons" adventures.

    Not that I'm dissing Gary, TSR or anyone in particular for doing so, it was good business practice. But looking back from today, I can't help thinking that on the long run we would have been off the other way around.

  31. I always saw the whole “MUs and clerics can’t use swords” thing and such as primarily to control which magic items each class could use. (Gary didn’t want the MUs and clerics fighting with the fighters over who got the magic sword.) This was important because, from the beginning, stuff was as important as levels.

    The “endgame” of becoming a political figure in the game world was also there from the beginning. The stories of the Greyhawk campaign show that it actually happened, so it seems the game never needed more support for it than it provided.

    In fact, I think Mentzer D&D with it’s 36th level progression encouraged leveling over the endgame more than AD&D ever did. In spite of the domain and battle engine subsystems.

    No doubt that—in the end—leveling has become more dominant than gear and the “endgame”, but both were on fairly equal ground with levelling in the beginning and even in my experience with AD&D and B/X.

    Although, for me all of those things are still secondary. It’s the actual experience—that can’t be measured in points—that has always been my own primary reward/motivator.

  32. Well Gamma World 2e didn't have XP but rather Status Points which generated Rank instead of Levels, which I think is neater. It emphasizes the "endgame" aspect and encourages sandbox exploration to find both cool stuff and allies and also role-playing to win over those allies and get access to more cool stuff through said allies.

    That's why you have all those Cryptic Alliances with special rules for joining them and why 2e comes with a sweet sandbox full of tribes, monasteries etc.

    But as you say James, lower level games are more fun - more challenging.

    And yeah I also agree D&D probably wouldn't have become as popular among teenagers without that levelling up, increasing power levels aspect for the same reason that superhero comics are popular among the same demographic -ie. a young person's sense of powerlessness (or wish fulfillment, as Wally puts it). And I'm not knocking that because I was a hardcore RPG and comic-book nerd back then =) Only now I'm getting back into both because I'm more interested in jamming crazy stories.

  33. I never liked Classic Traveler specifically because the character you start with, which is randomly determined, is your character.

    The one time I played, I spent about 30 minutes generating a character that was pretty much worthless.

    Everyone in the group was better than him at something, except for gambling.

    I was ok with this until I realized this was how it was going to be forever.

    That's not good game design imo.

    But your mileage may vary.

  34. RPGObjects_chuck, I pulled out my old 2e Paranoia rules last night which had the following suggestion:

    "Note: If your character's attribute scores total up to less than eighty, he's pretty darn wimpy. It is suggested that you whine and pule until your gamemaster allows you to roll up a new one. (If he refuses, don't despair: just get your character killed six times once play begins. This can be done in seconds)"

    : )

    Or you could just play a wimpy character for a change. A good DM should give bonuses every now and then for great ideas and good role-playing IMHO. That kind of thing should be encouraged.

    BTW has anyone ever advanced past Red security clearance in Paranoia? That's doing it wrong, right? :P


  35. With the exception of Traveller in its original form, I'm hard pressed to think of any RPG that doesn't include some way for characters to improve over time.

    Erick Wujik's Amber RPG had no meaningful experience advancement. It was a diceless system where players bid for relative ranks to one another. You could hold new biddings if you want, but since all actions were resolved by relative differences, there was no point.

  36. Richard said: "That which does not kill you can only make you stronger", which neatly captures the gist of the matter. Namely, that D&D is a Nietzschean power fantasy.

    We have "Thus spoke Zarathustra" to blame/thank for D&D as much as Jack Vance.

  37. While I have no issue at all with exp and levels I can easily see dungeon crawling games don't need a built in advancement system beyond hunting down better and better equipment. A Fighter with a +2 sword, +3 Mithril Plate and a +3 Tower Shield is probably more experienced then a fellow with a leather cap, quilted jerkin and a club.

  38. Of course, my opinion on this matter is also colored by my opinion and experience that the player is more important than the character. Or perhaps I should say...than the character’s stats.

    The way I play Traveller (influenced by the way my first gaming group played), skills are useful bonuses and sometimes required for specialized tasks, but generally not all that important. We always treated a cT character with no skills as generally competent at most things. Besides, bringing ideas to the table is often more important than skills, and with any plan, there’s often roles to play that don’t require any particular skill.

    Despite all the rolls during chargen, I’ve also been surprised by how often I end up with a character who is generally what I was shooting for.

  39. Levels do something else besides provide a self-justifying power incentive to keep playing-- they make the one game into many games. Fighting giant spiders with little more than your arguably superior wits, while knowing that just one bite will kill you one way or the other, is a lot different from chasing down a powerful wizard in a large city while minimizing civilian casualties, and where the most present danger is not to your person, but to your reputation as a hero. (And then, at the highest levels, jousting.) I've played D&D games where the "hero" status isn't earned. (Everyone rolls up a character and gets 20,000 XP). It's not my favorite approach but it highlights this function of levelling.

    But I guess those who know better are suggesting that you can get this "a-thousand-games-in-one" effect without levels. In the abstract that sounds like it would have similar drawbacks and less variety: kill the monster with the +1 sword so you can fight the monster with the +2 sword?

  40. True and Gamma World characters start of with heinous mutations so it balances out that way, I guess.

  41. I also dislike the fact that games with little character advancement (or no character advancement) leave a lot up to chance.

    If you roll a terrible ability score in D&D, or even several, you can overcome that.

    On the other hand, a terrible character in Marvel FASERIP is a terrible cycle.

    You can either suck for a LONG time, hoarding your karma to try and advance, or you can blow it all in battle to try and stay competitive.

    That said, Marvel FASERIP is the only game with poor character advancement I enjoy, as long as you use the "character modeling" method of character creation detailed in the advancement rules.

    If character creation isn't random, little advancement seems less onerous to me.

  42. One game that is overlooked in the discussion is the RuneQuest. It has no levels, but the characters grow through inxcrease in their skill competencies and by learning new skills and improving their abilities.

    I think that LEVEL has been a defining characteristic of D&D - Spell, Monster, Character, Dungeon level. In a way it has been an artificial yardstick by which to balance the game, two things to consider in addition.

    Western military and civi service are level-based organisation. You start off as an E-1 to E-3 enlistedman (deoending on your level of education) and progress to a level E-6 (staff sergeant) or up into the upper management up to level E-9 Sergeant Major of the Army (the most senior enlisted man in the whole US Army). What is rhe so-called "name" level in D&D? 9th level? Which came first, the army enlistedman structure or D&D? Each level brings about higher rank, higher pay and higher responsibility. I think that most wargamers at the tiem were military buffs and Gygax has consciously or subcosciously imitated the military enlistedmen's structure.

    The second issue is the character advancement in literature. The idea that somene becomes a different person as a result of their experience (say, going to war), is relatively new to literature. If one to assume that the mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is among the earliest works of fiction known to men, then the model of lietrature in which characters change by the end of the story is drastically new, dating back to say, around 1860's. As a matter of fact, whether there is any charcater transformation in the story is one of the criteria by which modern literature is defined, and the literary sritics started looking at character development in literature only from around 1960's. So, the idea of character growth through expriecne levels was also pretty new and radical, given 1973.

  43. @Brooze: Skill-based systems where you still advance are effectively just a refinement of the leveling system so that you "level" one small part of the character at a time instead of the character as a whole. The vast majority of RPGs on the market today use such a system instead of "character level".

  44. This comment has been removed by the author.

  45. I'd love a fantasy version of Classic Traveller. Even toyed with some mechanics. The primary draw for me is the lack of an advancement scheme.

    While level advancement makes for an interesting time, I think a game with no character advancement could be just as good. Instead of constantly thinking about advancing, how to advance, etc. the players would be free to consider broader goals within the setting.

  46. Is what we are really talking about here two different approaches or attitudes toward game play? I tend to agree that level-free rules systems like Traveller (a favorite of mine) might help to encourage characterization over leveling / power-hungry advancement, but I have observed that often these dynamics are determined by certain players in the group. I know some players who are involved in this hobby because they totally thrive on character advancement; they memorize exactly which new feats and abilities they will get at the next level and spend much of their time obsessing over that (instead of, say, focusing on the wonderful details of the campaign setting lovingly recounted by the referee). I think whatever system you placed these guys in, they would be advancement-mongers, though certain systems fulfill their desires better than others do (for example, one such player I know is so pro-4e that he more or less refuses to play any other system right now, much to my chagrin).

    Obviously, I am of a different stripe, someone who vastly prefers "jamming weird stories" (to quote Chris T) than to think much at all about game mechanics or character advancement through levels. I too prefer experiential and material rewards for players and characters, and to encourage role-playing over rules-mongering. But couldn't an advancement-monger type player as easily find ways to obsess over character improvement in Traveller or OD&D as s/he could in the more hierarchically focused systems like AD&D, D&D 3.5, and D&D 4e? In short, when it comes to role-playing vs. advancement-obsession, is who we play with more important than exactly which rules system we use?

  47. 1 of 2
    I think in the real world there is BOTH, the level and skill based advancement. To learn a skill all you need is a teacher. You find a teacher, you learn the skill, say hunting for D&D. pat a certain point you can improve as you go along while practicing this skill, but as you approach high competency/mastery, you again need a teacher to guide you to high mastery. Rune Quest simulates this very well.

    Then there is level advancement. By definition, and LEVEL has been defined by the HR management/training types: each level includes all the job skills of the previous level and also brand new skills, which make the NEW LEVEL drastically different from anything before. To keep with D&D frame, let's take the skill of a carpenter. Under the old Guild system (currently employed by the Unions as well as the world's military and civil service hierarchies), you have an Apprentice, a Journeyman, and a Master Craftsman. There is also the title of the Foreman. A layman might know how to chop wood and hammer a nail. Apprentice starts learning carpentry under a Master Craftsman. Apprentice can only work under direction. Apprentice learns the trade, but s/he is still a trainee. When an Apprentice learns to make his own tools, select and work with wood, and be a self-reliant worker on a job site, he becomes an independent Journeyman. S/he becomes a Foreman as s/he learns to direct others, plan work and to stat building from scratch (something that Journeyman couldn't competently do). As the skill of the Foeman is recognized and as he pays the dues of the guild, at the apex of his career the journeyman gets accorded the title of a Master: He can appraise the work to be done and figure out how much to charge in accordance with guild policy, s/he can develop new designs and new methods, s/he is also allowed to take on apprentices, teach them, and exploit their labor. Each level of guild advancement includes new skills and duties absent from previous levels.

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    AD&D does a decent job simulating level advancement. Level is defined by new abilities and new spells for spell casters grouped by level. Where AD&D falls short is that character advancement is independent of any organization. In general. Hierarchies invest training and character development in exchange for commitment and loyalty. Both, to the hierarchy and do specific leaders through character playing politics to advance their career. Nothing new, but this dimension is completely missing from AD&D. this is only briefly hinted at in AD&D with the advancement of Druids, Monks and Assassins, where at certain levels the player has to defeat the NPC Master at the level above. Top show the missing dimension in AD&D, let's take the level advancement of the Thief character class. Their thieves' abilities improve with each level, that's good, but not enough. First three levels are okay as is, at 9th level the Master Thief is responsible for his or her own guild and an area of operations. Thief loses his guild/stronghold, s/he will likely be blamed and held accountable by his or her guild. Think of play possibilities there. As player advances through levels 4-6 s/he must establish close working relationship with NPC thieves from the guild who will further train him or her. here thieves might have running rivalries into which they will try to draw the player character, they will involve the player in the activities of guild to further alienate player from local society and test his/her loyalty to the guild. At level 5-8 thief will have to become more active in the running, money making, and the politics of the guild, thief will have to get acquainted with leaders of larger guilds to whom the local guild answers, s/he will have to compete against other guild members and former friends to advance to the next higher level (if the player so chooses). The biggest drawback of the AD&D is not the character classes (adventuring professions) or levels (a historically accurate feature of real world hierarchies), but the fact that AD&D leveling up remains abstract and separated from the world in which the player characters adventure and a world in which they players ought to be playing dues and jockeying to advance their careers. The issue is mot the munchkin power players who memorize their character level charts, the issue is with DM who do not MAKE PLAYERS PLAY/ROLE PLAY their character advancement and development.

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  50. Superman got more powerful over time. For example he was initially able to "leap tall buildings with a single bound" but not fly. See for example

    But the increase doesn't seem to have been acknowledged: it was 'retconned' that he'd always been that way, at least once he reached adulthood.

    In role-playing terms, maybe Superman's progress is comparable to the alleged increase in power between editions, rather than to a character's increase in power by levels.

  51. That's still an incremental increase and not a true level change. How many angels fit on the head of a pin?

  52. It would be Wanderer (the Fantasy supplement) designed for Traveller.

    Seriously, D&D without levels could be quite fun. As I always see skill advancement as part of the story. In my AD&D 1e campaigns, characters merely did not up a level when the XP hit the right number, they had to seek out Guildmasters, Sages, retired officers, etc. to get training. And, then their XP was reduced to zero. This had a damning effect on PCs making it harder to advance levels actually stimulated better play and a determination to really hunt out those big monsters and go on those great quests.

  53. When we played Traveler back in the day, I loved that there was no character advancement. Our characters spent all there time working to increase their stats. It took 4 years to raise them 1 point temporarily and 4 years to make that permanent. People had to make aging rolls every 4 years, to avoid them dropping, so the idea was to try to break even, so no real advancement.

    The group I ran also had there own ship, and had made like 100 million credits, ny tading, pretty early in their careers. They went on adventures they wanted to go on. They played because they wanted to play, not because they wanted some kind of advancement. It made for a great time, and put the lie to the old wisdom about keeping your players poor, or they won't want to adventure anymore.

    There are some adventures/plot hooks that only work when your poor or have limited mobility, it seems like ½ the adventures published in magazine started with the characters broke and stranded in some star port. Or had some quest reward that my group would not care about. Ohh 4 high passage tickets. But there were many adventures that were made possible by their ship and money so it's a wash.

    The last thing that came out of that experience was after you get used to no advancement, I began to resent games that had advancement. You begin to see how much of your time and effort is tied around that, rather than doing the things you think would be fun. I also realized how much of my non-playing time, when I thought about the game revolved around thinking about how to advance or get certain items. In Traveler that time was spent thinking about setting up the new smuggling ring, or detective agency or mercenary group. It was very freeing. Ultimately you don't get better anyway, since most of the stuff you face gets better as you do.