Sunday, September 19, 2021

Leveling is a Disease

Leveling is an Abomination 

This skreed probably won’t be long. But I’ve been wondering what could happen if we bucked the trend that a vast majority of RPGs follow. As far as I know, may only a few games don’t have leveling outside of the storygames (Powered by the Apocalypse’s decendants these days?). I think Traveler doesn’t. But maybe it should, let me promise to get back to that thought and then break the promise. 

 So, what’s so bad about leveling? Well, it kinda makes the game about getting better. The game becomes about the game? Eh, it’s not so bad. Well, anyways, I want to challenge myself to see what could be good about gaming without levels. 

Imagine, if you will, a different kind of campaign style. The DM emails her nerd crew with a message like this:

 Dear dorks, 

Congratulations on your theft of the 39 girdles. Everybody roll your Luck, and if you pass, your fence has not gotten tortured to the point where he sells you out and you are not in jail during the next leg of the campaign. 

Now onto the next adventure. Rumor has it that a gnome has been subtly probing patrons at the Howling Grognard Tavern & Cockfighting Ring. Seems the gnome is looking for some bad enough dudes to infiltrate the Baron’s Mistress’s cousin’s boudoir and make off with a specific necklace. There may be turtles involved, and a few theify types might be good for this one. What characters heed the call? 

So now the players have a choice: Do they make a brand new character--something that some players do on the regular to pass time anyways-- or do they bring an old character, risking one of their favorites? See, in a game without levels you don’t get new HP, you just get scars. And maybe an ignominious end. 

But there are plenty of nominious ends out there too. See, without levels, a character is kinda freed up to have an arc and and a well-earned retirement. They don’t have to worry about finally gaining the level where they learn to punch three times instead of two. Leveling is not particularly realistic. Which is fine, I mean, we are talking elf games here. But maybe without HP and ability inflation gumming up the mechanics, the players can actually experience some dadgummed stakes? 

And the DM doesn’t have to think, “When my players gain a few more levels, I can finally run them through The Tomb of Whores.” I got news for you, players don’t want to risk their level 11 characters. They’ve grown too attached! Nah, you can have your PCs face anything in a game where there are no levels (the trick being to use rules that give them a fighting chance) and the PCs are a rotating ensamble. So, how bout it?

Ah, so wait, the post is over, but I remembered what I heard about Traveller. Without levels, things get a bit dull. Reportedly. But I think the way of doing campaigns I described above would work well for that. Or imaging playing Star Wars without levels! Each mission could let a different person play a Jedi (everyone wants to be Jedi when you Star the Wars). One other aspect that is a bit of a fix to the traveller issue is having the achievements be in-world as opposed to on the character sheet. This is not the campaign style I’ve been thinking of, but gaining land, money, and spellbooks could be a fine play style. ----
Share good posts with good goblins. Claytonian at the gmails.


Spwack said...

Ooh levelless systems, my favourite!

There are options other than "levels vs. no levels". The most involved "levelling" system I've made would be Die Trying (version 2 coming soon) where every individual part of the character sheet can be individually improved by accruing Xs on it. This generally results in characters become weirder, stranger, more flexible but generally not a whole lot more powerful (unless they specifically improve their hitpoints and constitution!)

In Finders Keepers, XP is accrued but can *only* be spent during character creation to gain new items or abilities. Which means the death of a favourite character has some sting taken out of it, and players are encouraged to develop rosters of characters. All of the advancement that a character can acquire must be through gameplay, not watching a number go up.

Finally, SNAFU. An optional rule, squad-members that survive a session (and they are almost all meatgrinders) gain a bonus ability. Quite a few are related to survivability, like "avoid death once". However, squad-members can only ever get one advancement, so there's not too huge a difference between a veteran and a fresh recruit. Plus, there is just something about beloved high-stat veterans that makes the dice hate them... headshots ahoy, whoops!

Yochai Gal said...

My game (Cairn) has no levels.
I write about it here:

thekelvingreen said...

What I'm always told about Traveller is that the progression-dopamine-hit in that game is the acquisition of resources and material within the setting. Your character's skills don't improve, but their financial and social positions do.

I'm not sure if that's true, or even if it is, if it's desirable, as I've never played a classic Trav campaign. The standard starting point of "you have a mortgage on your second hand ship and you need to pay it off before the space-loansharks break your space-legs" looks more like desperation than dopamine to me.

Paul C said...

I really enjoy the idea of being able to swap out characters or having new ones appear without any fuss whatsoever. It would allow the players to try out new characters as well.

I think something like the renown system from this post would be a pretty good adventuring incentive for a game without levels though:

I would have it so that the the adventures need to be increasingly cooler at certain thresholds. No curb stomping orc babies for an entire campaign to earn a keep!

A Wizard in a Bottle has the Heroes of a Mythic Age hack for Labyrinth Lord which keeps things permanently at third level:

One idea I enjoy from it is using experience point to level up ability scores instead of having levels. So "advancement" stems from becoming more erudite and gains, but a new character can still show up and adventure with an older crew without any problems.

I think both that and a no level approach would work really well with a DCC style magic system. You could have wizards permanently with a couple of spells that they roll to cast. Higher level spells are now magic items and rituals. Gaining intelligence would help with it but they would still have the same number of spells. Wizards would be valued for their spell sets and thaumaturgical competition would surely brew!

I would personally recommend doing something like this because of the idea of giving more flexibility to the spell caster: