Level Up! pt 1

Friday, March 14, 2008 - 11:03 AM

Levels are a common way to designate degrees of power in RPGs. How levels are interpreted, and the size of the power difference from one to the other can vary, but if levels exist, there are some questions lurking in the background.

What is really the difference between level 1 and level 5? How many people of a given level are there? If earning a level is a more or less permanent thing (barring undead exposure or temporary death), then why is it most people never get past level 1? Surely a level 1 commoner racks up experience points enough to become a level... 5 commoner during the course of a full lifetime.

'Leveling up' means more skills, more powers, more hit points, and occasionally more spells. A higher level person is simply harder to kill, and when you use your average in-game scale for damage ratings, anyone beyond level 5 is practically superhuman. A level 10 character fades next to the earth-shaking power of level 15. And before anyone scoffs and points out 'omg, but look at all the level 20-30s', I'd like to remind them that realistically (if you can use such a word here), 95% of the game world's population is going to be level 1.

Perspective, please. Level 10 means, to the average joe, you are unstoppable. You are a mighty hero (or terrifying villain, or just powerfully indifferent). How high levels are depicted in an RPG is a topic for another day, but we'll touch on it briefly here.

I've noticed a fair amount of neglect in showcasing just how significant higher level characters are in the world. Part of it is that most GM s keep to the basic strategy of 'Can the PCs do this?' At high level play, the tagline shouldn't be whether or not they can, but whether or not they Should. This is particularly important in games like White Wolf's Exalted, where the system guarantees that the PLAYERS shape the story, regardless of what the GM might have in mind. A GM who tries to do the usual dungeon-crawl-and-faceoff-versus-powerful-bad-guy tactic may find themselves a little overwhelmed. In DnD the power scale runs a much wider range, with a higher degree of uncertainty in the mechanics. But the significance of a high-level character's actions should definitely be made plain.

Again, the question of 'should', rather than 'can we'?

My brain locked on to the reasons why, precisely, a high level character became so powerful. Why weren't there so many of them? How hard is it, really, to level up? The system of experience points converting to levels is a very abstract concept, and one that has seen a fair amount of parody.

So, I created a cosmology to explain it. This was the spark that eventually generated the default campaign setting that I use, which I simply call Destined (yeah, fine, shoot me, it's what I've got at the moment).



At March 14, 2008 12:27 PM, Blogger MCHossman said...

First I think you have to look at the nature of the game. DnD is obviously a hack/slash game so in order to show just how powerful/influential a character is, the number of hit points needs to be increased to give the player character more bleeding time. Games like Exalted tend to put there emphasis on other aspects of the story, the mythical deeds and abilities so they drop the hid die mountain and instead concentrate on the powers and abilites to show how much more "evolved" they are than the every day commoner.

Either way, you are sort of arbitrarily embracing a means to reflect how capable the characters are in a story. A soldier having spent 3 years in the military and entering into combat might catch the first bullet and kill him. He might be the most trained soldier on the field, but luck or other factors take him out effectively (a level 10 vs. a level 1 let's say). That probably isn't the case if you take Joe Schmoe off the street and put him in the octagon with an ultimate fighter (a level 1 vs. a level 10).

I see your point,I agree that gaming or roleplaying should have some sort of greater level of play. The hack and slash routine will eventually become mundane and repetitive where the person running the game has the only option of coming up with bigger and badder creatures to throw at the party/person. The issue of consequence (should the characters do 'X'), as I see it, will only work for gamers/participants that want to get that little extra something out of their game.

No one is ever really impressed about hearing about anothers gaming exploits. They all end up sounding sort of fake and 'munchkiny' whether they were or not - and this, as I see it, will keep any real change from happening. At least in the DnD genre - hopefully you can prove me wrong but the masses of gamers are a tough current to alter.


At March 14, 2008 12:33 PM, Blogger MCHossman said...

Also, one note I forgot to mention. One thing that most games ignore is the de-evolution of a hero/heroine as they age, hang out at bars too often, relax a bit longer in the summer cottage or whatever. Take an ultimate fighting champion, should he take off 6 months and do nothing he'll get creamed in a fight against an opponent he might have easily beaten before he laid up on the couch and stuck to watching Jerry Springer.

For a RPG there is no going 'backward' because going backward means that you are losing and no one wants to imagine or waste their time 'losing' a game.

It's one of those reasons, I think, why so many players hate short spanned campaigns. They want to keep going because as long as their character is alive and progressing they are still winning and therefore the time they spend playing the game is not wasted.

I don't know, just some random, off the wall thoughts


At March 14, 2008 5:14 PM, Blogger Ian said...

I consider it a game evolution that more recent games includes concepts of high level / low generation / whatever characters being naturally removed from active game play. Otherwise, I think the only choice is to have the whole universe have some sort of justification for being a dynamic, subjective experience, or deal with the realities of a static environment.

I've tended to favor the static environment in games I've run over the last few years. A good deal of the story planning stage of the campaign is to decide what powerful creatures and groups are in the area, and what they are spending time and resources on. This creates some mandatory player education in the "Yes, I'm serious, there is a dragon over there. Your choice..." arena.

The game I'm currently running is a reset of a former campaign run by other gms, that ended in a massive loss by the players to an invading force. This resulted in a hard reset of the world, with the current campaign assuming that the players are the stars and powerful people, with no one inside their civilizations to truly match their skills.

This has created a massive set of problems from a story perspective. We are bordering on running the "which foreign land is pissing us off this week" variant on the monster of the week problem.

I think levels and levelling systems should just be an abstraction system. If/when I run another tabletop game, I am inclined to use a Riddle of Steel or Shadowrun style Priorities system, where character level is one such variable to be set. I think it'd make better story if there was an older veteran, a young person with a mythic but undeveloped talent, an everyday person who has been taken over by a powerful magic item, etc. Assuming same power levels strikes me as an artificial control on ego and challenge.


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