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.