Levels

I was going to post on another subject, but then Brian Green asked what we thought of levels. I have strong opinons. They have their place as a measure of troop effectiveness in the tabletop miniatures wargaming origins of D&D and as a “coming of age” proxy in the epic storylines of long D&D campaigns and single player RPGs. I also think that they are part of the problem in online worlds.

If you are playing a chainmail session, from which D&D was originally derived – or the later Battlesystem rules (which is simply an updated Chainmail); then levels are a simple and clear marker of the skill level and relative competence of the troops involved. They boiled down to the likelihood that it would put an opposing unit out of action when they were in contact. You had few knights, but the ones you did have were powerful; especially if you managed to hit that big phalanx of light infantry over there…

In campaigns; both the group PnP and single player CRPG variety, they play a valuable part of the narration. They add another axis of character development. There is the plot development. There is the character interrelationship development. Lastly, there is the slow growth of the character from someone who is sent to kill ten rats to a hero of herculean stature. This was brilliantly executed in Bioware’s Baldur’s gate series. Over the course of a couple of hundred hours of play, your saw how your character slowly moved from a sheltered teenager in Candlekeep into roles that he/she did not even know existed before and eventually even had the option to become a deity. All along the way, his/her grown in epic stature was noticed and noted by those around.

Traditionally, PnP Dungeons and Dragons has a population per level decrease that fits a power law function with an R Squared number ridiculously close to 1. What this means is that first level characters are by far the most common and the bulk of the population is in the first few levels. This fits the tabletop wargame scenario where those knights were few and it fits the long campaign scenario where the characters become someone special and cavort with kings and deities.

Now here is a problem. Take any world that uses level, does not have permadeath and has been operating for some time. Then look at its character database. From the anecdotal evidence that I’ve seen, actually doing such surveys on one world and seeing the data from such a survey on another, I’d be willing to bet that you will see a bimodal distribution. The first spike will be lowbie characters. Some will have been created by players who came, saw, didn’t like what they saw and left. Others will be concept characters who never really took hold of the player’s imagination, mules, etc. The population per level will rapidly drop down to a tiny fraction of this number and remain there… until the level cap. The level cap is where all of the sufficiently long-played mains will be. The only ways to keep this spike down are to have permadeath, or a sufficiently long and nasty grind that the natural churn of your playerbase will ensure that many players never reach the cap.

What this effectively means is that the long played mains are all at the level cap. That specialness that came from high level? It just went right out the window. Now if everyone is high level, then the designers have to gear towards high level content. Pretty soon, the high level content is the norm. It is almost as if that is the standard. Now let’s be clear about it. Bartle’s cliché about nobody being a hero if everyone is absolutely true. If everyone and everything is uber, then it becomes pedestrian. Except that in order to play the office space endgame – which is the real game – you have to go grind school first; starting from kindergarten. The level cap is the standard; then why the did I just do all this grinding to reach the level cap so that I can be like everyone else?

As they are usually implemented (no PD, cap can be reached in a human amount of time), levels just force you to do something that most players do not enjoy (though there is a certain type of player who actually enjoys grindng) just to “earn” your place in the main game.

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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5 Responses to Levels

  1. R. Schuon says:

    Well, what can I say? The whole point of gaming is to improve. In every scenario (even those with no levels per se), the characters learn and grow. Yes, they bump up against level caps, and yes, the top level characters tend to hang out together.
    However, they do that because they have shared adventures together, trust each other, and have fun in each others company. Some groups can be clannish, but not any group I would be a part of.
    Hitting the “Level Wall” is a limitation of today’s game mechanics. How far can you push the spells, creatures, etc.? Even PnP D&D really stopped after about level 30 or so, because it gets ridiculous. That does not mean that things end, just that the characters begin to head in another direction, many times toward more role play than hack n slash, which IMO, is a good thing. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was playing roles in campaigns rather than duking it out head to head.
    That is NOT to say levels are not important. Can you imagine two new players talking about saving the princess from the Ancient White Dragon? Be a bit silly. As life progresses, we gain experience and maturity, and in the game we do the same, but we quantify it for administrative purposes (which, I must say is better than real life, where many people think the quantifying is done with the amount of cash you have).
    Role play games simulate life, but are not real life. In real life, you would be 90 years old by the time you got to level 25 or so, and wouldn’t want to adventure anyway. The levels provide a visible and tangible goal for the player to aim for, so that they get the feeling of accomplishment by achieving them. Can you imagine a campaign with no levels? “I want to cast this spell.” “No, not yet.” A little later… “How about now?” “No, not yet.”
    I guarantee you that would be a short campaign. As for permadeath, the reason most campaigns do NOT use it is simple. It causes Player-DM-World conflict. Any player that is killed out will be upset and angry, and of course feel that “It wasn’t fair, dammit!”. And again, after losing a few hard-worked on characters, they will go elsewhere in search of satifaction. The few that are left will be the cautious ones that will do little or nothing, in fear of, guess what – losing their character!
    So, in an online game enviroment, the not-quite-permadeath has evolved. You are penalized for “dying”, but not to the extent of having to remake your character.
    And again back to levels. They are necessary from a pragmatic, computer-oriented viewpoint. How can a world supply an exciting adventure, if the system cannot figure out what conflicts are appropriate? Take our princess – Ancient White Dragon scenario. Is a player 2 weeks into the game going to be able to survive and adventure like that? Not a chance. So, the system looks at the characters level, stats, etc., and provides an appropriate scaled down encounter they might be able to handle. The art is providing encounters that can be challenging, while still doable by the player/party.
    BTW, no matter what you do, you will have levels. Even if it is “Ok, they have been playing for 3 months…” you just categorized and leveled them into “Player, 3 Months”. Otherwise, your encounters will be completely randomized, and I daresay few characters will survive beyond the early stages.
    Levels – maybe not perfect, but impossible to do without.

    M3C

  2. Dave says:

    You make some good points, especially regarding PnP and the sense of growth.

    >Well, what can I say? The whole point of gaming is to improve. In every scenario (even those with no levels per se), the characters learn and grow.

    I’d like to quibble with this point. A fellow named Nick Yee did some excellent research into player motivations as few years ago. He initially set out to see if the Bartle Types model for defining players was actually the case. What he instead found was that there were a set of motivations that correlated with one another and then another set which did not. He was able to then list a serries of “primary motivators”, where each was more or less independent from the rest. He did some refinement a year or so ago to determine the relative popularity of these “primary” motivators. Generally speaking, achievement and immersion don’t correlate. They are independent motivations.

    Only 4% of all players have roleplay is the primary motivator and 2/3 of them are female. For immersion in general, there is gender parity. For achievement and advancement, most are men. So there is a fundamental problem with building a world where players have to have both motivations. You are taking a minority selection from the achiever and roleplayer crowds.

  3. R. Schuon wrote:
    Can you imagine two new players talking about saving the princess from the Ancient White Dragon?

    Can you imagine two halfings, one of them a gardener, going on a trip to destroy a powerful magic item?

    Yeah, actually, pretty easily. It’s called The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf didn’t tell Frodo and Sam to go kill ten rats before sending them on progressively harder tasks before they finally got a quest to go throw the One Ring into the cracks of Mt. Doom. Now, the book isn’t a game, but the concept of a lowly person without any particular combat talents doing something tremendous isn’t unheard of.

    Of course, we’re not even talking about dragon-slaying and princess-rescuing for the most part. In a comment to my original post someone said they wanted to create a character that didn’t do killing, just wanted to do fishing in WoW. They couldn’t because they had to be a certain level to get fishing! You had to go slaughter some foes before you are qualified to get some fish.

    I don’t agree with the assertion that you can’t have a game without levels at all. But, at the very least, I think that too many game designs rely too heavily on levels as a crutch without really considering alternatives.

    My thoughts.

  4. Dave says:

    In the song of Roland, Roland is teh uber as he pwnz0rs teh n00b m00rs. Older literature had a tendency to be over the top and I’d argue that LOTR is a much better story than song of Roland. Aside from the writing, there is an element of tension throughout the three books of LOTR that does not exist in the medieval tale. Why? Because if the fellowship actually tried to fight the wights, orcs, etc. in a in a stand up fight, they would probably all die. A big portion of the story involves trying to avoid being ganked by more powerful foes. And yet these more powerful foes are not themselves invincible. The orcs can be fought if you are careful about how many you “aggro” at once. The spider could be dispatched with a single well placed and well timed sneak attack. The trolls in the hobbit could be kept out until daylight comes.

    Let’s take the Thief series as another example. The whole game is built around tension. You have to slip past X number of guards, any one of whom can kill your character. So you carefully plot your moves. You act patiently and you hold your breath when a guard comes near; especially when they are searching for you. The choices you make determine whether or not you succeed. Now if Garret and the guards had levels, things would work a little differently. Whether he slipped past any one guard would be a straight up level-vs-level affair and the whole drama of a session would evaporate.

    They way that they are usually constructed, a fight is only challenging within a very narrow range of levels. Too low and it is too impossible to even bother. To high and it is a cakewalk. There is a very specific point where it might get dicey, but the protagonist can pull through. The price however is that there is a dramatic loss of tension. There is no hiding from orcs. There is no catching the spider at the right moment after spending hours fleeing her grasp. There is no lucky shot between the dragon’s scales. You can either take them or not; period.

    Since levels remove tension from the designer’s repitiore, he can’t take the tension-punctuated-by-action approach. He has to have a pure action approach. If Darkfall’s hype is the believed, one of its selling points is that a newly rolled character CAN take down an older (“high level”) one if played well. There is tension. An encounter can go badly if you make poor choices and you can score an upset if you make good choices.

  5. Michael says:

    What about games that are more about skills and less about levels. In other words someone who is military trained and myself would be equally at risk from being stabbed with a knife. The key difference is that the trained person would either avoid the situation or else know what to do to maximize the possibility of survival. Me, I would cry and keel over. I didn’t need to know that he is a level five fighter, he just has the skills. He is not much more hearty than I. As a matter of fact I could be a fit individual that might have more “hit points” than the soldier. What really sets us apart is the training.

    In a way first person shooters give a good insight into this. Watch a group of people thrown into a server and you see quickly how the cream rises to the top. This is not to say that a newbie (eq. of level 1) can’t get the missile launcher and get a lucky hit on the vet and rub him out. In a level game this is nigh impossible.

    The closest I’ve seen this happening in an RPG was Fallout. You had skill progression as your real feel for “leveling up”. The great thing was that it rewarded you points for using the skill.

    Maybe the best of all worlds where you respawn is not allowing that wonder factor of can that person kill me. Even if I can respawn that is a pain in my neck and something I would like to avoid, if for nothing else then to avoid the ridicule of a newbie killing me.

    There are logic places you can take this argument, most of all how real do you need to make it. Take my FPS example above. Do you replace the level grind with the fact you have to play a ton of hours just to get good? When does it end feeling like a game and it becomes too much like a simulation/job?

    Levels are a crutch, I have no doubt about it. It sets up the arms race that leads to detente. While that’s preferable to nuclear war, it is not the end all and be all of RPGs. People understand levels, they expect them. The first group that comes out with a game that is copyable and removes levels successfully will be emulated from then on out.

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