Wednesday, November 16, 2011

No Level Up?

After fiddling around with Traveller on Sunday, a few blogs I frequent coincidentally mentioned the game in the past couple of days. Over at Lamentations, Crazy Jim considers axing the level advancement system from his game in the distant future. He considers classic Traveller's approach to character advancement: none.

You made your character. Your character is done. All that remains is to play the game. Your character might amass fortune, ships, equipment, and all that... but his skills aren't going to increase incrementally, nor are his stats going to gradually increase.

Part of Traveller's approach, I think, stems from the fact that starting characters have already completed one or more careers. Compare this to the default starting ages of AD&D 1st edition, where most characters were little more than teenagers who were just beginning their careers.

Ah, but I digress. Here's my question: is playing the game rewarding enough that you would do it without explicit advancement? If you didn't have little xp awards dangled on every little thing, if you didn't have the prospect of someday being able to fight a giant in single combat and win on the volume of your hit points and your hti probability, if you didn't get skill points and feats and spells at predetermined intervals, would you still find the game rewarding?

Think about it... advancement in the games, as they are often played, means relatively little except for scale. Your first level fighter is going to be swinging a normal longsword and fighting goblins and rats while dodging arrow traps. An ogre is a truly frightening encounter.
Your fifth level fighter has a sword +1 and fights bugbears and ogres, maybe some dire rats. He dodges falling rock traps. A hill giant is a frightening encounter.
Your fifteenth level fighter has a sword +4 and he fights hill giants all the time. He only worries when the purple worms and ancient red dragons show up. He dodges disintegration ray traps.
In almost every game I've ever played in, the bad guys and the world scale up with the players. The number gets bigger, even if game play stays fundamentally the same.

The "E6" and "E8" mods of d20/3.5 (originally posted on EN World) and the "Holmes basic as complete game" idea that I've seen floated around this corner of the internet present an intriguing middle ground: limited advancement. You can gain only a very limited number of experience levels. Imagine a world where 3rd or 6th level was as high as you could get. In such a world, a hill giant just isn't something a mortal man can fight in a head on combat, nor is a dragon. These foes require a cunning plan, a clever trap, or an army... mortal wizards are incapable of of higher level magic, though perhaps it could be found on scrolls. (This strikes me as especially Vancian)

In the end, a change like that might be too radical for a lot of gamers to handle. I have to admit I only like the idea in theory myself. It does make me think about playing RIFTS under Mindy, though. In RIFTS, experience levels mean very little. You get a d6 hit points (worthless in a game where Mega Damage abounds) and a few percentage points tacked on to your mostly vestigial skills. Every couple of levels you might get a +1 to hit or damage, but for the most part, everything cool you can do you do at level 1. (There are exceptions and I am oversimplifying this, but for me to say character advancement is very front-loaded in RIFTS is not an exaggeration) I loved the hell out of Mindy's game, even if my only reward was to get 3% better at cyber-surgery and to go from being instantly killable by 1 point of Mega Damage to being still instantly killable by one point of Mega-Damage... it was the advancement of the characters in non-mechanical ways that was most interesting to me, and the way we developed the world around us.

Just something to think about.


  1. I was very intrigued by Jim's post the other day. I would love to see the next version of LotFP have no (or limited) levels, and no Demi-humans. The Demi-humans seem out of place, and the levels actually seem to constrain the game to me. I have also played in games, like Traveller, that had little to no advancement and enjoyed them. I think that Traveller can get away with it because you feel like you are building your company/unit. The still has to be something there.

  2. I find that I really enjoy games with a slow advancement. When I'm slumped in my chair, regarding the futility of it all and listening to Joy Division, the World of Darkness comes to mind. I like the gradual progression of that system. And sadness. Lots of sadness.

    Barring that, any system that at least keeps PCs "mortal" by allowing them to get wasted with a few bullet wounds is fine by me. One of the things that bugged me about Pathfinder and 4e is that it felt, well, too super heroic to me. You really have to have bad luck or a determined DM for anyone to die.

    So yes, a game with limited to no character advancement is fine by me both as a player and GM.

    MDC for life,

  3. In the heyday of D&D people played campaigns, so advancement was also a major motivational factor in longterm play. This is the 'Hero's Journey' style of play, but with adults and modern life it seems game lifespans are shorter so a ready-made character would be more viable for a group that won't be playing together for more than a few sessions. I don't agree with no advancement rules at all - for instance, in Traveller, if you play a year of being a smuggler, shouldn't you advance in that career as well? At least incremental increases based on actual in-game actions seems like the minimum you'd need. Chaosium has always had that and Call of Cthulhu is, I'd argue, as popular as ever.

  4. In my experience players like leveling up, even when they get almost nothing for it.

  5. The lack of character improvement in Traveller and Twilight 2000 proved a big downer for me. So much so that I refused to play the games for many years -despite loving the setting- until I was old enough to release I could just use the setting with a different set of rules. By that time someone came across a set of house-ruled advancement tables and all was well.

  6. In the long-term games I dream of playing (hope springs eternal, right?), the characters eventually grow larger than the world, larger than life even, and they eventually shrug off their trappings and become legend. They fight for the gods, they pass on to new adventures in impossible places, they essentially leave the world behind when they become too big for it. Their adventures scale up, but the world doesn't.

  7. I like *some* kind of advancement mechanic for PCs. However, despite my deep-rooted, primal urges to return to D&D, I struggle to make sense of a world in which PC power (in terms of accomplishing tasks, not politics or economics) grows by so many orders of magnitude.

    WFRP does it well, for me - no mechanical EP awards, just GM judgement, with the possibility of developing characters that are at the legendary end of the scale. However, while, for example, a 'fighter' might top out at WS60-70, S6, A3, he comes up against an angry mob, alone, and he'll be beaten to the ground pretty quick. If he ever gets that far. I've been thinking of using the WFRP1e system for gaming in a high(er)-fantasy setting - something similar to Titan.

    I've just picked up a copy of Mongoose Traveller on the basis of its career-based character creation. And watching Firefly on DVD. I notice that there is a skill advancement mechanism, which should be sufficient.

  8. "I don't agree with no advancement rules at all - for instance, in Traveller, if you play a year of being a smuggler, shouldn't you advance in that career as well?"

    Four years of being a smuggler, maybe.

  9. Yes, I'm not sure I dig on the idea that characters never, ever get better. I am okay with glacially slow advancement, as I think a lot of game advance characters entirely too quickly.

    I only half remember the advancement rules in Mongoose Traveller. I recall they were serviceable, but not my favorite.

  10. It works out that a well developed starting character might easily have to put aside six months to learn a point in a skill.

    Which, of course, is still quicker than the rate that skills are acquired during character creation, with the exception of the basic training burst - though, as training time depends on the number of skills already known beyond level 0, young characters can learn new things in a few weeks.