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.