Worlds of Design: The Destination, Not the Journey?

Leveling is an integral part of fantasy role-playing games in all its forms RPGs, but it wasn't always that way. How did we get here?

"Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome." - Arthur Ashe

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Video Game Levels​

Computer role-playing games (CRPGs) have their roots in tabletop games, as established by the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. The concept of leveling up was just one aspect of D&D, but you wouldn’t know that from playing CRPGs, where leveling up happens frequently and continuously throughout the game.

Much of this comes from Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, that are often RPGs, such as World of Warcraft. A new expansion comes out that lets characters rise to a new higher-level limit, and many players scramble to get to that limit ASAP. After all, acquiring experience is the gateway to more powerful characters. Some players bring this expectation of steady leveling up to their tabletop games.

But wait a minute … aren't RPGs about adventure, not about ticking off another box?

Leveling Up Your Tabletop Game​

Most of the changes from AD&D in later editions have increased the focus on leveling. Obviously, not all RPGs are going to have this orientation, but I use this example D&D is by far the most influential game simply by virtue of numbers of players.

The prominence of leveling up isn’t an accident. First Edition and earlier D&D play becomes more challenging to manage at double-figures levels, so there aren't many levels to level up to. Players focused on the adventure, not on leveling up, because leveling up didn’t provide nearly as much variety in a character’s development. Second Edition continued this trend. This has certainly been true in my experience, in which we’d sometimes not bother to add recent experience to our total, then added it up and found we had gone up a level some time ago, but not noticed!

All that changed with Third Edition. Third Edition, 3.5, and Pathfinder massively expanded the number of options available to characters, and many of those options were only available through advancement. Creating a character concept became not just playing a role, but plotting out the character’s ability to achieve that role through the right combination of race, class, and levels.

In Third Edition you are supposed to rise a level after about 11 encounters, and could have several encounters in one adventure. The number of encounters and leveling options contributed to a focus on leveling as the objective rather than the adventure itself. You can see this change in focus when converting earlier characters to Third Edition: when I set out to convert some existing First Edition characters to Third, the first thing I did was double their level to be at a near-comparable place in progression. The game was also designed to scale up to 20th level (and later 40th), much more than First edition could handle, so there are many more levels to attain.

Fourth Edition D&D streamlined some aspects of earlier editions of D&D while emphasizing teamwork. Characters had many powers that only helped other people in the party. Individual characters were very hard to kill, but didn’t necessarily have a lot of offensive capability. One of the criticisms leveled at Fourth Edition was that it felt more like a MMORPG (like World of Warcraft), with level advancement one of the aspects that they had in common.

Does This Matter?​

The focus on leveling is a play style choice that can affect how players play the game. If the entire group is aligned with the goal of becoming as powerful as possible as quickly as possible, this isn’t necessarily a problem. But when only one player is focused on leveling up, experience points matters more than playing a role, which is how we got the “murder hobo” archetype of characters that care less about being well-developed characters and more on killing monsters and taking their stuff.

Fifth Edition changed course with “bounded accuracy,” which means while the fast progression is still there, there are limits to the benefits of that progression. Characters don’t die nearly as easy in First Edition, but the focus has shifted somewhat off straight advancement. We can see the callback to the earlier style of play with milestone advancement, where leveling happens after a certain number of sessions or after a significant story-related event in the campaign.

Leveling up can certainly be a goal for a group. But when it’s the goal for just one player, teamwork breaks down (see my thoughts on the importance of teamwork in D&D in my article, “How D&D is Like American Football”). And that can be lethal for a party or a campaign.

Your Turn: How much do you focus on level advancement?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

aco175

Legend
We can see the callback to the earlier style of play with milestone advancement, where leveling happens after a certain number of sessions or after a significant story-related event in the campaign.
I switched to story leveling in 5e myself. I found that I was partly doing it anyways with giving out adventure bonuses to XP. Maybe the PCs earned 500xp and I would give another 250 for defeating the bandits and another 500 for stopping the threat of the orcs joining the bandits. I found that I was scaling the bonuses to bump the level when I wanted anyways.

I also have a group that likes lower levels. One of the players likes to start a new campaign when the players reach levels 5-8 and finish one of the first main plots of the game. Last campaign they finished the Essentials box at level 6 and I had the follow on Leilon adventures planned, but they wanted to stop. Using story advancement is a tool I can use to slow play and keep the group in the level 3-6 longer.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
We stopped XP levelling after 3e (and even then we used it only because it was a huge shared world with scores of adventurers from 20+ players being run by 6+ DMs, and we needed some impartial way to keep all that afloat and consistent). We don't even use Milestone levelling, it's just ad hoc when the DM or the players think that it's the best place for a little change of pace, and characters able to do a few new more varied things.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Leveling is an integral part of fantasy role-playing games in all its forms RPGs, but it wasn't always that way. How did we get here?



Video Game Levels​

Computer role-playing games (CRPGs) have their roots in tabletop games, as established by the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. The concept of leveling up was just one aspect of D&D, but you wouldn’t know that from playing CRPGs, where leveling up happens frequently and continuously throughout the game.

Much of this comes from Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, that are often RPGs, such as World of Warcraft. A new expansion comes out that lets characters rise to a new higher-level limit, and many players scramble to get to that limit ASAP. After all, acquiring experience is the gateway to more powerful characters. Some players bring this expectation of steady leveling up to their tabletop games.

But wait a minute … aren't RPGs about adventure, not about ticking off another box?

Leveling Up Your Tabletop Game​

Most of the changes from AD&D in later editions have increased the focus on leveling. Obviously, not all RPGs are going to have this orientation, but I use this example D&D is by far the most influential game simply by virtue of numbers of players.

The prominence of leveling up isn’t an accident. First Edition and earlier D&D play becomes more challenging to manage at double-figures levels, so there aren't many levels to level up to. Players focused on the adventure, not on leveling up, because leveling up didn’t provide nearly as much variety in a character’s development. Second Edition continued this trend. This has certainly been true in my experience, in which we’d sometimes not bother to add recent experience to our total, then added it up and found we had gone up a level some time ago, but not noticed!

All that changed with Third Edition. Third Edition, 3.5, and Pathfinder massively expanded the number of options available to characters, and many of those options were only available through advancement. Creating a character concept became not just playing a role, but plotting out the character’s ability to achieve that role through the right combination of race, class, and levels.

In Third Edition you are supposed to rise a level after about 11 encounters, and could have several encounters in one adventure. The number of encounters and leveling options contributed to a focus on leveling as the objective rather than the adventure itself. You can see this change in focus when converting earlier characters to Third Edition: when I set out to convert some existing First Edition characters to Third, the first thing I did was double their level to be at a near-comparable place in progression. The game was also designed to scale up to 20th level (and later 40th), much more than First edition could handle, so there are many more levels to attain.

Fourth Edition D&D streamlined some aspects of earlier editions of D&D while emphasizing teamwork. Characters had many powers that only helped other people in the party. Individual characters were very hard to kill, but didn’t necessarily have a lot of offensive capability. One of the criticisms leveled at Fourth Edition was that it felt more like a MMORPG (like World of Warcraft), with level advancement one of the aspects that they had in common.

Does This Matter?​

The focus on leveling is a play style choice that can affect how players play the game. If the entire group is aligned with the goal of becoming as powerful as possible as quickly as possible, this isn’t necessarily a problem. But when only one player is focused on leveling up, experience points matters more than playing a role, which is how we got the “murder hobo” archetype of characters that care less about being well-developed characters and more on killing monsters and taking their stuff.

Fifth Edition changed course with “bounded accuracy,” which means while the fast progression is still there, there are limits to the benefits of that progression. Characters don’t die nearly as easy in First Edition, but the focus has shifted somewhat off straight advancement. We can see the callback to the earlier style of play with milestone advancement, where leveling happens after a certain number of sessions or after a significant story-related event in the campaign.

Leveling up can certainly be a goal for a group. But when it’s the goal for just one player, teamwork breaks down (see my thoughts on the importance of teamwork in D&D in my article, “How D&D is Like American Football”). And that can be lethal for a party or a campaign.

Your Turn: How much do you focus on level advancement?
The claim that leveling wasn't important in AD&D 1e or 2e or even before seems to need quite a lot more show that you've done here. Levels added more hitpoints, which were scant to start and so very sought. It added spell slots and spell levels to casters, which was a massive source of power and capability (there's entire discussion trends on linear fighter, quadratic wizard). Rogues got better at their shticks. Fighters increased their THAC0 charts rapidly with level. ALL classes improved saving throw tables with levels. The idea that there was less available to levels in earlier editions seems to be glossing quite a bit and outright ignoring the incentives built into the game! Did 3.x and further changes things a bit by scattering class abilities across the levels while early editions frontloaded? Sure, but it didn't mean that leveling was less of a focus in earlier editions than in later ones.
 

Oofta

Legend
I stopped using XP quite a while ago. I don't want the motivation and goals of the party to reflect the motivation and goals of the PCs in world, not some meta-game concept.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Players have always craved levelling up. Gygax used to complain about groups flying up too quickly and would admonish DMs in the pages of the Dragon magazine to resist the urge. And every old timer has stories of players wondering if they can get xp from killing chickens!

I think it was far too slow in the old days and too fast now. I personally use story base levelling and have for years. This way I control the pace and players quit asking for their xp totals.

I don't think bounded accuracy has mitigated anything. Players now just want the ASIs instead of hit bonuses. And new abilities of course, which is fun and a dooemine hit, which is why levelling remains popular.

I know of some tables that level really really slow, and some very fast. It depends on the needs and desires of the group and tables will even vary the pace from campaign to campaign.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Also, thinking about it a bit more, I think I might answered beside the point, at least partially. We don't level for power (we know it's artificial because we will just face - DM's scenario or just intelligent thinking and decision from players - more powerful adversaries. But we level to transform the game, make it progressively more heroic, making the adventurers able to survive in dangerous places and environments, fly, teleport, go to other planes, defeat armies.

So it's also about making the game more varied, and transforming it as part of the hero's journey.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I think it was far too slow in the old days and too fast now. I personally use story base levelling and have for years. This way I control the pace and players quit asking for their xp totals

Although we do it that way too, the speed is very relative to the wishes of the players and the DM. I've had fun campaigns in 5e where we levelled very slowly (maybe once every 8 adventures), and some where we went up one level every session, and finished the campaign at level 20 in 20 sessions. Really depends what you are looking for and your preferences, and nothing else.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Also, thinking about it a bit more, I think I might answered beside the point, at least partially. We don't level for power (we know it's artificial because we will just face - DM's scenario or just intelligent thinking and decision from players - more powerful adversaries. But we level to transform the game, make it progressively more heroic, making the adventurers able to survive in dangerous places and environments, fly, teleport, go to other planes, defeat armies.

So it's also about making the game more varied, and transforming it as part of the hero's journey.
Yes! Or just wanting some fun ability. I remember my dwarf bard from 3e desperately wanting to get Leomund's Secure Shelter cause it was fun. Beds, a full larder, a hearth! He was so happy when he got that spell.
 

Von Ether

Legend
Leveling has always been subjective I played an AD&D game where we leveled up to 20 in just a year. We got XP by the bucket loads. In hindsight, it's clear the DM wanted the campaign to be a year long, mountains of XP or not.

And back when 3e was coming around, I had a chuckle about the 2e fans postulating their settings would be overrun by "20th Level Commoners" after a few wars leveled up the NPC levies. But yet when Eberron created rulers of nations with low/NPC levels. Concerned GMs predicted high level PCs would commit serial regicide across the continent.

Some player say they feel cheated with milestone advancement because it wasn't "earned." I think the love of counting up XP to get to a level ties into the same love for hit point systems. Even if it is a very small amount, you can see you are always making progress to a goal. It's probably also why level drain was one of the most hated monster abilities.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Although we do it that way too, the speed is very relative to the wishes of the players and the DM. I've had fun campaigns in 5e where we levelled very slowly (maybe once every 8 adventures), and some where we went up one level every session, and finished the campaign at level 20 in 20 sessions. Really depends what you are looking for and your preferences, and nothing else.
Oh yes. it varies depending on player desires and campaign style. I'm never tyrannical about it. 😊 Sometimes we go faster or slower. Should have said, "We like to control the pacing."
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
The focus on leveling is a play style choice that can affect how players play the game. If the entire group is aligned with the goal of becoming as powerful as possible as quickly as possible, this isn’t necessarily a problem. But when only one player is focused on leveling up, experience points matters more than playing a role, which is how we got the “murder hobo” archetype of characters that care less about being well-developed characters and more on killing monsters and taking their stuff. . .
The infamous murder hobo focuses on killing while migrating from place to place to do it. I believe it's the murder looter who focuses on killing and taking stuff 🤓
I stopped using XP quite a while ago. I don't want the motivation and goals of the party to reflect the motivation and goals of the PCs in world, not some meta-game concept.
But more importantly, the murder hobo problem doesn't arise from the existence of eXperience Points. It comes from the standard practice of assigning fixed numbers of XP rewards from the defeat (death?) of NPCs. (I believe the murder looter was much more prominent back when D&D awarded XP for the value of acquired treasure). Regarding Oofta's issue, in-game motivations can better match meta-game motivations when you dangle XP awards over character goals instead of dead monsters.

When I'm role-playing, I don't really focus on level advancement because I want the immersion, not the game theory. The exception is when my character's goal requires what leveling-up provides, like more hit points or the ability to cast a particular spell. In that case, I'll try to ignore the meta-game aspect and see it instead as a sort of Rocky-training-to-beat-Drago type of situation.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The claim that leveling wasn't important in AD&D 1e or 2e or even before seems to need quite a lot more show that you've done here. Levels added more hitpoints, which were scant to start and so very sought. It added spell slots and spell levels to casters, which was a massive source of power and capability (there's entire discussion trends on linear fighter, quadratic wizard). Rogues got better at their shticks. Fighters increased their THAC0 charts rapidly with level. ALL classes improved saving throw tables with levels. The idea that there was less available to levels in earlier editions seems to be glossing quite a bit and outright ignoring the incentives built into the game! Did 3.x and further changes things a bit by scattering class abilities across the levels while early editions frontloaded? Sure, but it didn't mean that leveling was less of a focus in earlier editions than in later ones.
Levelling was less of a focus in many* 1e and nearly all 2e groups for one simple reason: it just didn't happen very often.

Therefore, and quite logically, the focus turned to the day-to-day adventuring and story; with level-up relegated to an occasional pleasant side-effect. IMO this is and always has been the best way to approach levelling, though (sadly) I seem to find myself in the minority on this.

* - i.e. all the tables who dropped the xp-for-gp rule.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Some player say they feel cheated with milestone advancement because it wasn't "earned." I think the love of counting up XP to get to a level ties into the same love for hit point systems. Even if it is a very small amount, you can see you are always making progress to a goal. It's probably also why level drain was one of the most hated monster abilities.
This.

Further, individual rather than group xp allows the DM to reward the characters who do stuff and take risks (or at least try to) and not reward the characters who don't do stuff and take risks. Thus, characters are mechanically incentivized to do stuff and take risks rather than hang back.

In larger parties this can be a big deal. In a party of four if someone hangs back it's immediately noticeable, but in a party of nine someone can hang back all the time and simply ride the coat-tails of the risk-takers; and as a dyed-in-the-wool risk-taker I despise this sort of character with a passion. Group xp or story-based/milestone advancement plays right into the hands of these hangers-back.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Hah, my ideal levelling pace would be... no levelling at all during adventures, level up only during long breaks between sessions, and once every few years of in-game time.

No more players thinking about future upgrades instead of playing the game.
No more metagaming "we need to level up before facing the BBEG".
No more ridiculous forced random encounter attempts to grab the last missing few xp.
No need for useless training rules trying to represent how/why characters improve.

...and more adventures that actually becomes harder as you progress instead of easier (because the encounters get stronger but you don't), which is something that you would expect from any good adventure story.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Hah, my ideal levelling pace would be... no levelling at all during adventures, level up only during long breaks between sessions, and once every few years of in-game time.

No more players thinking about future upgrades instead of playing the game.
No more metagaming "we need to level up before facing the BBEG".
No more ridiculous forced random encounter attempts to grab the last missing few xp.
No need for useless training rules trying to represent how/why characters improve.

...and more adventures that actually becomes harder as you progress instead of easier (because the encounters get stronger but you don't), which is something that you would expect from any good adventure story.
Of those four points, the only one that really annoys me at the table is the first one.

I'm a big fan of training rules - the characters get the theory taught to them, then go out into the field to put that theory into practice (or die trying). Then, having mastered that, they come back for more.

I also don't mind PCs in the fiction knowing when they're close to bumping: "Guys, I feel like I just need that one more foray in the field and I'll be good for another round of training! What say we go hunting tomorrow?"

And characters in-character might very well think (rightly or wrongly!) they don't quite yet have the chops to face the BBEG. To fix this they might hire some extra recruits, or go out adventuring to find/acquire better gear, or realize they simply need to get better at what they do, or any combination of these; all perfectly explainable and narratable within the setting and fiction.
 

niklinna

Legend
One of the reasons I quit playing MMOs was because no matter the game, I found I was leveling up faster than I wanted. And then the game shops started selling XP and level boosts, or instant-max boosts, and the like. Not once did I see an MMO offer a "suspend XP gain" feature. Maybe somebody has, by now.
 

Leveling is a core feature of Dungeons and Dragons and one of the things that makes Dungeons and Dragons different from most tabletop RPGs (and it's something that CRPGs have taken and run with). So if playing D&D it is a significant focus because it's part of what makes D&D stand out.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
Your Turn: How much do you focus on level advancement?
I think the summary of AD&D is very true. I remember when you leveled it was typically either no big deal (oh, a few more hp) or HUGE (my THAC0 went down, my saves improved, I picked up some proficiency slots, and even some more spells!).

As DM the vast majority of the time, I tracked the PCs XP, so the players could focus on the adventure. When they "got back to town", the PCs who earned enough XP would be told they could train to level.
 

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