Thursday, April 26, 2012

What is a level?

A recent post by Mike Mearls regarding character levels in D&D Next has me thinking about what a level means as it applies the players' avatars in the game. I've been playing so long that this concept of level is just one of those things that I take for granted, never giving it another thought. Now I want to look at it again and see if I've chosen the right game for my setting.

At it's most basic, a level is a measurement. It is a benchmark that can be used to compare things. In this case, it is used to compare player characters (PCs) in the game to each other and to the setting and all elements therein. There is an assumption that all elements of the same level (classes, monsters, dungeons) are the same in relative power and effectiveness.

What that means is that every aspect of what makes a character tick is assigned a particular value. Increased combat ability is worth X and additional spell-casting ability is worth Y. If this is equally balanced, each character class uses the same scale and, as is the case in most current d20 games - D&D 3.5, 4 & Pathfinder, progresses at the same pace. The granular unit used for measuring this pace is the experience point, an abstraction of learning and interaction with the setting. The granularity of this unit varies from the extremely coarse (original D&D) to the micro-fine (most MMOs).

It never occurred to me how odd it is when a party of characters that is adventuring together all sudden becomes eligible for a level increase at the same time because they've they've been earning experience at the same rate - they've fought the same monsters together, divided treasure equally and overcome the same obstacles.

This 'party leveling' no doubt came as a response to the earlier approach where each class had a different cost for progressing to the next level - most original and old school d20 games including Lamentations of the Flame Princess. This approach is messy. Some character advance more quickly than others. It takes longer to get to the 'good stuff' in the character class. Being an old school player, I like messy, it feels right.

And then we have the idea of maximum level. How high should the class levels go? But what really got me thinking was the idea presented in Mike's article, that, even if there are infinite levels, he's trying to figure out when the game changes and what that change should be based on level. This has precedent in D&D in which certain classes are able to build a keep, castle or tower, or attract a large body of followers. This acquisition intrinsically changes the dynamics of play.

My feeling is that basing when a campaign should evolve based on level is silly. This assumption is based on a play style that may not be universally adopted. Why couldn't a campaign be based around the idea that PCs start with a keep, or are in charge of a large body of followers? The shift of game play should be organic. The PCs could be given control of a small area of the kingdom at a very low level.

LotFP de-couples the rules for ownership and followers from the concept of level. Just another reason why I'll be using this game for Icosa.


Follow Your Bliss,

1 comment:

  1. I love the question!

    Personally, I prefer level-less games and tend to treat leveled games as level-less in this sense:

    I don't mind party leveling because it indicates not that the characters have greater ability (they do), but that the stories about those characters are bigger. The early levels are the start of their careers and the "low-level" threats they face represent their building a reputation and valuable experience. As the story progresses, the story gets more epic as do the characters. They rise in level so the group can role play higher level adventures. I don't care if the characters level together per se (Rogues level faster because they're abilities are less effective, that's fine) so long as the party can always face the same kind of travails.

    I see nothing wrong with 1st-level keep owners. Nor is there anything wrong with starting characters at level 12 or whatever if that's the story you want to tell. And I certainly have no problem with keeping the characters where they started for the entire campaign (not all campaigns have to be long-lived, or think Superheroes), or leveling them up between "seasons" (which allows for passage of time and training we rarely take into account in play).

    Bottom line: Are the characters appropriate for the stories we want to tell? "Level", to me, is what must match between character and scenario to make it all work.