RPG Design: To level or not to level?

diceI am playing roleplaying games since about 1983 or 1984 (I started with the german red box version of D&D). Thus I was very early on introduced to the notion of level-based character advancement systems. Later on I also tried quite a few different paradigms, from point-based systems like GURPS, HERO and Mutants & Masterminds in more recent times to more storytelling like approaches like FUDGE, Storyteller or Castle Falkenstein. When designing my own rule systems I also tried all these approaches and at different points in my life preferred different styles. Nonetheless I keep coming back to a certain style and finally seem to have settled on my “perfect” style.

And – oh, the horror, – it’s level-based gaming. While many younger or “more modern” roleplayers seem to scoff at level-based systems I fail to see the problem and note more advantages than disadvantages.

The various arguments about levels being unrealistic are something I only scoff at. Come on, realism in games, where vampires walk the streets, swordsman defeat dozens of opponents and magicians roam the skies? Where dragons with wings much too small to support their size speed through the clouds, magical items are available at every corner and most injuries even of the most serious kind heal within weeks without leaving crippling and permanent wounds? Nah, realism for sure usually just seems to be an excuse for inventing more and more complex combat systems.

And the arguments about levels being limiting? I fail to see limits except if you go for completely freeform advancement systems that use no rules whatever to decide about advancement. In point-based systems the number of points available limit your advancement, in experience-based systems it’s the number of experience points, etc. One might complain that levels introduce a somewhat too coarse-grained step-based improvement system on characters – that I would understand. And respond that you might need to define more granular levels.

But let’s return to my initial point – why do I seem to prefer level-based systems. There are a few very simple reasons:

  • Level-based systems provide a sense of achievement and be it just for boasting purposes (“hey, I made 9th level last saturday!”). Boasting is not a goal in itself, it’s just one more facet of gaming. I never felt hindered by level-based systems in running extremely story-oriented campaigns where for days no dice were rolled. But they add a certain competitive facet that I enjoy from time to time, too. And that facet (at least as far as I am concerned) is not present in otherwise wonderful games like FUDGE and Castle Falkenstein when I crave them.
  • Level-based systems (when used by somewhat balanced rule systems) provide an easier way to estimate the dificulty of adventures and encounters as well as the power of player characters and non-player characters. This helps me as a GM to more quickly design adventures. I always found it difficult to measure the capabilities of e.g. vampires in White Wolfs Vampire: The Masquerade when planning a combat-oriented encounter because characters could be just to so extremely different despite a similar amount of experience. More realistic? Probably? More difficult to game? Yes. And I game for fun and relaxation – so I prefer easy measurements.
  • Level-based systems help inexperienced players in restricting choices a bit more by providing predefined points in time when things change. It seems to be simpler and reduce the question of what to do all the time with the small improvements possible.

So my decision definitely is not a universal truth or the attempt to spread such a thing. I just have come to the inclusio that I like level-based systems. I also like the attempts made by e.g. D&D 3rd edition to “let something interesting happen at every level”. While I e.g. really love Castles & Crusades that’s one of my major points of criticism with their game – there’s just not enough interesting stuff happening to have all those levels.

My latest RPG design (to be published in summer, maybe) thus will be using a level-based system. Does this also mean that it will use a class-based system? Not really. More on that in a later blog post.

13 Responses to “RPG Design: To level or not to level?”

  1. Tommi  on May 13th, 2009

    Hello Thomas.

    Can you share your design goals, style of play, or some other relevant data? Giving any sort of feedback is awfully difficult unless we know how your game is to be played and what design goals it has.

  2. Botched  on May 13th, 2009

    My opinion may be tainted in that i have used nothing but leveling systems for my entire gaming career. I find the level system to be useful in that it provides tangible bonuses to the gameplay and easily shows the advancement of your character. Of course you should never let your level tie you down to any particular difficulty, i’ve made encounters that were much to difficult for the party and with some brilliant maneuvers and luck they won in the end.

    I have to agree with having a level system for inexperienced players. Some people thrive in reading through the rules and building characters easily without the use of a template of class or level. However if your not one of those people the level or class system gives you a base for your first adventure and gives you a feel for the game before you begin customization.

    I look forward to hearing about your new RPG.

  3. Sithun  on May 13th, 2009

    Ive been roleplaying for several years now, mostly rpgs with no levels (the swedish rpg EON has been played alot), but a few months ago i actually came to the same conclusion that you have. While EON is one of the most rule-intense games ive ever played and led, i have found thaqt the rules, in particular the combat rules, do not add to the general satisfaction of roleplaying. Sure there is a certain amount of fun to “hurr, i hitted ‘im i da groin, durr…”, overall such advanced and time-consuming rules just takes time and energy from the actuall playing. To make a hit with a slashing weapon in that game, you have to roll 9 dices and check at least two “Hit-lists”.
    DnD satisfies me with just 2 rolls. 🙂

  4. Sithun  on May 13th, 2009

    Thaqt? That. 🙂

  5. Epythic  on May 13th, 2009

    I personally don’t like xp/level-based systems. Don’t like? “Hate” is more like it. Try to measure something as complex as character advancement on a linear scale? Fail, if you ask me.

    Wait, character advancement is not complex? You are doing it wrong then.

    Lets take something that we are probably all familiar with, ADOM. What does your level say? Nothing.

    Did you, dear Creator, know that ADOM can be won at level 1?

    Of course, ADOM is not a P&P RPG, but still I think I made a valid point.

    I’d go for a more… horizontal system. There are already too many level-based systems; time to try something new, don’t you think?

    While we are at it, why can’t we do away with HP and PP?

    [Hope this comment is not too provoking; no offense intended]

    • Thomas_Biskup  on May 14th, 2009

      Actually no, I didn’t know that you could win the game at level 1. How? (I’m talking about the roguelike game – for me there is no winning in RPGs, only having fun).
      And “hate” IMHO is a very strong word. Why do you feel wronged? What do you not like about them? And I think I never complained that character advancement ist too complex. The point I was trying to make is: New players and inexperienced roleplayers according to my impression feel pretty overwhelmed if they are having to take choices after each session about what to change and what to do. Naturally this is a consequence about my preference for systems that allow you to progress in small but continuous steps. E.g. in FUDGE you don’t have that problem. OTOH I personally e.g. get easily bored with my FUDGE characters because for me they feel too static. So the appropriate middle ground for me seems to be to have a level based system that allows a number of changes at predetermined times (e.g. when changing a level). With level-based systems you even can provide a check list about what to do when advancing (e.g. roll for HP, select a new skill at every odd level, increase a primary attribute every even level, etc.). HP and PP are a different point – I’ll get back to that in a future blog post. But they are – at least as far as I am concerned – mostly unrelated to the question of levels versus something else.
      BTW – trying something else is nothing new… even Traveller (and maybe even Starfaring?) as games from the 70s didn’t feature levels – so there is nothing innovative or exciting about non-level based systems… they are almost as old as the RPG genre itself.
      BTW, what do you mean about horizontal systems? Systems allowing you to improve whatever feature of your PC you like? I also like the idea of those systems but I don’t like the results for my campaigns because it becomes much harder to judge challenges and the general capabilities of characters… take Shadowrun for example… I love the general system (although not the dice rules – IMHO they are about the most stupid dice rules for the given genre one might be able to invent) but characters are extremely hard to compare. And that’s not very helpful for new GMs trying to run adventures because characters for reasons almost incomprehensible to them judge although they e.g. might fall into the same karma range or whatever.
      Thus I stay with my point: levels in a somewhat balanced system are a great tool to support both new players and GMs: New players are able to improve their characters in a more controlled manner, new GMs are better able to judge challenges.

      • Epythic  on May 15th, 2009

        > Actually no, I didn’t know that you could win the game at level 1. How?

        Extensive use of pets: let them do the killing, so that you don’t get the XP. The Improved ADOM Guidebook (IGB) lists it as the Titanium Man Challenge (see Appendix Q).

        I am still thinking about the rest of your comment.

    • Thomas_Biskup  on May 14th, 2009

      One more point about levels versus something else: Usually non-level based systems have a lot of controls in place to keep balanced stats. E.g. there are limits to starting skill scores (skill scores even might be limited by attribute levels) or just have a look at Mutants & Masterminds, an IMHO superb rules system changing D&D 3 to a very elegant point-based system. They have a vast number of checks in place based on the power level of a character. These checks are nothing but a hidden representation of levels. And they lead to more easily imbalanced characters because e.g. in M&M one power level 5 character might easily be able to mop the ground with a power level 20 character… depending on the choices the characters made when spending their points. While I personally find nothing wrong with that it proves my point of making life harder for inexperienced GMs and players because it is a lot more difficult to judge the capabilities of a character.
      BTW, even the venerable and much touted Storyteller systems has levels… in Vampire: The Masquerade they are called generations. So levels are almost everywhere around you… it’s just a matter of whether they are more or less obvious. I prefer the more obvious ones because they support rules usage.

  6. Al-Khwarizmi  on May 14th, 2009

    I have only played 4 or 5 P&P RPG’s, and I think all of them were level-based. But I have also played perhaps like a hundred CRPG’s with various systems, and I must say that my favourite kind of system for a CRPG is a skill-based kind of system such as that of Daggerfall. This is a kind of hybrid between level-based and non-level-based system, since it has levels but they are raised by means of skills and not of XP.

    The idea was:
    – You have attributes, skills and HP/PP. Skills are very important in practice (probably more than attributes).
    – No experience points or anything similar to that.
    – When you use skills, you advance them. Using a skill a number of times will give you points on that skill.
    – When you have gained a certain number of points on your total sum of skills (actually of a subset of skills called “major” and “minor”, that you choose according to class – classes are fully customizable, though); you gain an experience level.
    – Level is used to increase attributes (by assigning points) and increase HP/PP.

    This is the system I most like for a CRPG (and I have played a lot of them). Because it is really flexible, it lets you totally customize your character, that customization is according to your behaviour (what skills you use), and it is simple to understand.

    I don’t know if anything similar to this has been implemented in a CRPG, but I would like to see it.

    • Thomas_Biskup  on May 14th, 2009

      Yes, I think for CRPGs this works exceedingly well, perfectly probably when combined with some means to artificially train skills, too. For tabletop games I find this too annoying, although realistic. I do not like the bookkeeping and I do not like the fact that players start to use skills just in order to use them and probably gain experience points. Runequest and Call of Cthulhu are systems implementing this (basically all systems relying on the Basic Roleplaying System from Chaosium) and IMHo it takes a lot more than what those systems do to model a useful skill experience system. More than it’s worth (IMHO again) for a tabletop game. That’s another reason I always would go for simpler solutions like giving general experience points that either can be directly used to improve skills or improving skills by level (or a combination of the two).

  7. Newtkeeper  on May 17th, 2009

    Well. I don’t object to that decision. The level is almost one of the foibles of the roguelike- the sort of quirk that one grows attached to whether or not it makes any sense. It even has intrinsic use, giving the developer a good control over how things work.

    I must, however, object to one remark in the post- the disparagement of the use of “realism” as an argument.

    Realism defined as accuracy to the real world is obviously not a requirement for everything. However, if immersion is desired, the world ought to be “accurate in regards to itself”- by which I mean consistent. The game mechanics should make sense with the setting, and vice versa.

    If the setting of Jade works on a principle of “general competence”, with heroes and skilled folk being always well-rounded folk, well and good. If the setting of Jade includes heroes like ours (or Tolkien’s), with great bowman who know no swordplay, or silver-tongued counselors who can bend kings to their will yet cannot outfight a lone watchman, then there should be a specific reason if they are not allowed.

    Such reasons for not allowing them certainly exist- they make game balance bloody difficult. But the unrealistic nature of the world is not in itself a reason for “un-verisimilitude” in design. Force general competence, by all means, but don’t justify it by the dragons and wizards. They don’t have anything to do with it.

  8. jmeforge  on October 23rd, 2010

    Levels are necessary in order to provide character customization and giving the sense of power in games. It is also a reward mechanism.

    Levels are necessary in every game, not only rpgs. They give users an alternative goal to try to reach the max level.

    However higher level characters should fight higher level monsters in order to have challenge. It is no fun killing everything in 1 hit and taking 0 damage. It removes the element of battle and destroys the game.

    Some games balance levels in the endgame where they cap player level and force players to fight same level enemies.
    This is bad, as they provide balance only endgame. Previous enemies become unable to damage the player, and give no rewards for killing them.

    The best solution on this problem is to provide Symmetrical Leveling i.e when you level up so do the other enemies. This is better because you will always fight same level enemies no matter where you are (endgame or even in the beginning).
    Since you fight same level enemies, there is always challenge, rewards for killing monsters. This can encourage players to revisit areas the have already explored since they will still get rewarded.

    See more about comparison of Symmetric Leveling vs Asymmetric at http://jmeforge.blogspot.com/2010/10/asymmetric-leveling-vs-symmetric.html

    Symmetric Leveling vs Asymmetric