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

Hussar

Legend
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.
There's the kicker though. That whole "dropped the xp for gp rule". I'll admit, I never saw that when I played. So our experience largely matched what Gygax mentions in the 1e DMG - name level after a year or so of regular play. That's the pace I cut my teeth on anyway. When 2e came along with it's much slower advancement, I simply found that I picked certain monsters from time to time for the sole purpose of bumping the PC's up in XP. Demons and devils were fantastic for this. 2e demons were giant bags of XP, where even tiny ones that were minor threats were still worth thousands of Xp each.

So, to me, the whole level pacing thing has never really changed in any edition of the game. About 1 year of regular play (weekly, 3-5 hours) gets the party to about 10th level. Give or take. Sadly, since my campaigns rarely last two years, we almost never see the highest of levels - generally campaigns for me end about 13-15th level.

And, @lewpuls points to MMO's here. But, there's a rather lengthy list of CRPG's that pre-date MMO's by quite a lot. Final Fantasy came out in 1987 and was 100% geared around leveling up. Content in the game was gated behind levels. Ultima was released in 1986 and, again, was about as D&D as it could get at the time and gated the game behind levels. Heck, even D&D as written gated exploration behind levels. If you made the mistake of going too deep into a dungeon, you were going to die because you weren't high enough level.

So, I'd argue that leveling was a primary focus of D&D right from the get go. At 1st level you couldn't explore certain areas without dying. You were expected to stick to this or that area until you leveled up enough to go to that other area. Even the modules were gated behind levels. You wouldn't play the G series of adventures with 1st level characters. If you wanted to use certain adventures, your group had to be the appropriate level.

Focus on leveling up isn't solely the issue of players. Leveling affects the entire campaign. I can't use certain monsters (well, I could, but, they'd be instant death sentences) until the party gets to a certain level. If I want to do a "hunt the big dragon" scenario, I have to wait for a while as a DM. This is one thing that 4e did rather well. Because the math in 4e was so clear, you could generally use encounters +/-5 levels of the group and it would work quite well. It meant that you weren't quite so restricted by levels in the adventures you could create.

See, this is one aspect of 5e that people don't think about. Because 5e characters are so much more durable than in previous editions, you can get away with a much broader range of adventures than you could before. 3e, for example, was very level restricted because the monsters gained so much power between CR levels. A CR 6 creature was a LOT more powerful than a CR 4 creature. Which meant you had to be very careful not to stray to far above the party's level when designing adventures. AD&D was a bit more forgiving, mostly because combat was so much less lethal than in 3e. AD&D's lethality generally came from save or die effects, which weren't particularly level dependent. 5e goes the other way. It's not easy to kill 5e characters - which means I don't have to wait for double digit levels to throw a bunch of giants at the party, like I would in 3e or use giants that are easily killed like in AD&D (42 HP giants anyone?).

In any case, leveling has more impact on the game than simply what toys the players get at what level. From the DM's perspective, levels have a HUGE impact on everything a DM does.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There's the kicker though. That whole "dropped the xp for gp rule". I'll admit, I never saw that when I played.
Where even back in the day I never knew anyone who kept xp for gp in the game.
So our experience largely matched what Gygax mentions in the 1e DMG - name level after a year or so of regular play. That's the pace I cut my teeth on anyway. When 2e came along with it's much slower advancement, I simply found that I picked certain monsters from time to time for the sole purpose of bumping the PC's up in XP. Demons and devils were fantastic for this. 2e demons were giant bags of XP, where even tiny ones that were minor threats were still worth thousands of Xp each.
Where 2e's advancement pace pretty much matched what we were already used to.
And, @lewpuls points to MMO's here. But, there's a rather lengthy list of CRPG's that pre-date MMO's by quite a lot. Final Fantasy came out in 1987 and was 100% geared around leveling up. Content in the game was gated behind levels. Ultima was released in 1986 and, again, was about as D&D as it could get at the time and gated the game behind levels. Heck, even D&D as written gated exploration behind levels. If you made the mistake of going too deep into a dungeon, you were going to die because you weren't high enough level.
Parts of the game can still be gated behind levels, it just takes longer to get to and through those gates in a slower-advancing system.
So, I'd argue that leveling was a primary focus of D&D right from the get go. At 1st level you couldn't explore certain areas without dying. You were expected to stick to this or that area until you leveled up enough to go to that other area. Even the modules were gated behind levels. You wouldn't play the G series of adventures with 1st level characters. If you wanted to use certain adventures, your group had to be the appropriate level.

Focus on leveling up isn't solely the issue of players. Leveling affects the entire campaign. I can't use certain monsters (well, I could, but, they'd be instant death sentences) until the party gets to a certain level. If I want to do a "hunt the big dragon" scenario, I have to wait for a while as a DM. This is one thing that 4e did rather well. Because the math in 4e was so clear, you could generally use encounters +/-5 levels of the group and it would work quite well. It meant that you weren't quite so restricted by levels in the adventures you could create.
I find 1e is quite forgiving in this way as well, with a few obvious exceptions e.g. throwing monsters that can only be hit by magic at a party with no magic is not a good idea. It was 3e where the window of viability for any given monster was so narrow.
See, this is one aspect of 5e that people don't think about. Because 5e characters are so much more durable than in previous editions, you can get away with a much broader range of adventures than you could before. 3e, for example, was very level restricted because the monsters gained so much power between CR levels. A CR 6 creature was a LOT more powerful than a CR 4 creature. Which meant you had to be very careful not to stray to far above the party's level when designing adventures. AD&D was a bit more forgiving, mostly because combat was so much less lethal than in 3e. AD&D's lethality generally came from save or die effects, which weren't particularly level dependent. 5e goes the other way. It's not easy to kill 5e characters - which means I don't have to wait for double digit levels to throw a bunch of giants at the party, like I would in 3e or use giants that are easily killed like in AD&D (42 HP giants anyone?).

In any case, leveling has more impact on the game than simply what toys the players get at what level. From the DM's perspective, levels have a HUGE impact on everything a DM does.
Indeed, in both directions. If I used the levelling rate expected by 3e-4e-5e in my game they'd all be 83rd level by now, give or take 25. That's not what I want, and I'm not alone in that.

To me it's a part of the commercialization of game design - the publishers are going to sell more material if people are starting new campaigns every year or so than they are if people make their campaigns last ten years or more. The cynic in me says that's what WotC wanted to find in their 1999 marketing survey - that campaigns were short - and so they excluded responses from the older crowd whose campaigns were likely much longer on average. Then, they designed each edition since then to cater to that short-campaign market, and in so doing made short campaigns the expectation rather than the exception.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
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.
Bingo. It didn't happen that often and past mid levels it took ages to happen. "Gosh, only 60,000 more xp and I go up to 9th level..." I didn't get rid of the xp for gp, I just reduced it. I use silver (rather than gold) as the basic coinage for prices, treasure, etc. I kept the 1 gp = 1xp though. Cut it down to 1/12 of the old xp (I use 12 sp = 1 gp). It let players go up from the low / vulnerable levels to mid level and kept higher levels more remote. I've always thought the middle levels were the sweet spot for adventuring.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Count me as another old gamer who blinks in disbelief at "players cared about the adventure, not levels, in 1E/2E." Next, you'll be telling us that old-school players didn't care about all that silly loot and just adventured for the pure joy of playing...
As the player who in our group played the character who pioneered the true NG alignment - Neutral Greedy - it won't be me telling you that. :)
 

Hussar

Legend
To me it's a part of the commercialization of game design - the publishers are going to sell more material if people are starting new campaigns every year or so than they are if people make their campaigns last ten years or more. The cynic in me says that's what WotC wanted to find in their 1999 marketing survey - that campaigns were short - and so they excluded responses from the older crowd whose campaigns were likely much longer on average. Then, they designed each edition since then to cater to that short-campaign market, and in so doing made short campaigns the expectation rather than the exception.
See, that's the thing though. Like I said, we're of an age, so, it's not really an age thing. The notion that older gamers have longer campaigns isn't really all that easy to prove. I've never even heard of these multi-year campaigns outside of EN World. And, Gygax's own game wasn't this multi-year sprawling game either. It's not like it took ten or fifteen years for Mordenkainen and co. to hit name levels. Again, it's right in the 1e DMG that the expected speed of leveling is name level in about a year or so of play.

Now, lots of people slowed that down, I'm not denying that at all. But, I don't think it's an age thing at all. It's just a taste thing. And, honestly? I think that WotC just discovered that short campaigns were always the expectation. So few people have a stable enough life to sustain a campaign like that. Certainly not people in their 20's and 30's.

But that's the thing. The game was never designed for these sprawling 15 year campaigns. The fact that you had to change the rules in order to achieve that shows that it's not really a thing. Short (as in 1 or 2 year) campaigns were always the expectation and not the exception. I mean, good grief, @Lanefan, every single poll for the past twenty years on En World has shown that. Over and over again. There's this huge number of campaigns and then a massive drop off after 2 years or so.
 


Hussar

Legend
"there aren't many levels to level up to" seems blatantly false, as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and the original game, didn't have a level cap, the levels just went up as long as you were getting enough experience.
Well, yes and no. Considering the XP requirements at higher levels, the level cap was basically time. It would take a REALLY long time, if you actually followed the D&D rules, to level to say, 25th level. Never minding the absolute ridiculousness of it by that time. XP for GP meant that about 2/3rds of your XP was from GP (and sometimes higher). So we're talking characters that would be able to buy kingdoms (plural). It would just get rather silly.
 

Joe Pilkus

Villager
I've DM'd for nearly four decades and I remember my players wanting to advance quickly to receive more hit points...only to face things that were much stronger, as well. I've enjoyed my plays of 5th edition but my heart and soul for D&D rests with 3.5 as it includes about a dozen items that we had made as house rules which finally became canonical many years later, such as max hit points at 1st level, combining many types of weapons for fighter proficiencies and of course, allowing more spells for Wizards (Magic Users back in the day) based on a superior Intelligence score. AS to levelling-up, my recent campaign has the party at around 9th level after three years of play. This story arc will end as they reach 12th-13th level.
 

MarkB

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.
MMOs are all about retaining players for the long term, so they try to do two things - one, keep offering regular levelling to maintain the momentum of that sweet reward-based gameplay loop, and two, provide endgame content that requires maximum level and is marketed as being the real meat of the game, to encourage players to keep progressing.

But in terms of D&D, only maybe a quarter of those are 'real' levels, that gain you new abilities rather than just boosting hit points and stat bonuses.

I've recently got back into Star Wars The Old Republic, and yeah, levelling is so fast that I have to skip the side missions on every second planet just to not level out of them. But I've also never really felt the need to just grind to the endgame. I put months of playing into the game when it was first released, and yesterday was the first time I got a character to the end of the game's original main storyline, because I tend to frequently switch between different classes and play out each of their stories.
 

I think what happened was less 'levels became more important' and more 'people kept wanting more levels'.

I went back through 1974 little-brown-back OD&D a little while ago for a different project, the earliest possible version of D&D after it evolved from Chainmail miniatures. Levels are very much a part of the reward structure of the game that far back, with characters who level up getting more HP, better attack chances, more and better spells, etc.

However, what you saw with D&D and later with MMORPGs was power creep. You stat out 6 levels of spells, so now people want levels 7, 8, and 9. You make the rules for the first 15 levels or so in the B/X version of BECMI D&D--so basic D&D went up to 36 and later beyond with the Companion, Master, and Immortals sets. They would try to cap it at various level limits (most commonly 20), but then were able to sell 'epic level rules' or the like with more powerful monsters, spells, and rules for divine ascension.

You see the same dynamic in MMORPGs as initially stated, with new levels being added on to attract new players.

There have been games, often aiming for genericity, like GURPS, Savage Worlds, and FATE that avoid levelling in favor of skill improvement. Vampire didn't really have levels, though I guess if you went with diablerie you might lower your generation, but you did increase your disciplines, and Mage had Arete and Werewolf Gnosis. You even have games like Call of Cthulhu with its Sanity stat where characters get less powerful with time and eventually go insane (Vampire's Humanity stat kind of worked the same way). But you have to be willing to tell a tragic story, and I suspect that's less appealing to most people.

Life sucks. As time goes on you get older, decrepit, and die. Your assets might increase over time if you're upper-middle-class or higher and don't catch any bad breaks like a long illness or divorce, but that's not the case for most people these days. But at least your characters can keep growing and gaining.
 

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