On levels as a philosophical category; or, esse quam videri
Jovial Priest asks an extremely interesting question regarding his Universal Survival Guide project: Should character level lead to an increase in ability? with the addendum Are we creating rules for heroic fantasy or rules for the simulation of a world that obeys Earth laws? Robert Fisher responds; The “realistic” part is there to make the players feel more comfortable and to make the fantastic parts feel more fantastic. It also helps them to have a framework to judge their character’s chances. The fantastic elements are there to make the players feel (among other things) uncomfortable and to be interesting. Yup. That’s eminently practical and makes sense and anyway, how else would you run a game? Players gotta have a comprehensible, stable world in order to take meaningful action, make plans, take reasonable decisions, participate. Fine.
But where is “realistic?” What will your players will feel to be natural or appropriate? Which camels are they happy to swallow, and which gnats will strangle them?
Here’s the thing: levels are simply non-naturalistic and their presence in D&D is a huge part of the anti-naturalism of the game’s implied setting. This game takes your character from almost-hopeless shlub to as far up the god ladder as you want to go, and that is your character’s arc. But it’s still not simple heroicism. Because levels represent a very particular take on what makes a hero: one that’s these days quite unpopular among screenwriters.
Levels model experience, not talent. That’s important, because it explains competence in a particular way, which works for certain kinds of characters – like Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger or Yoda in Star Wars or Higgs in Girl Genius. These characters have been around a long time, they’ve learned the tricks, they’ve earned their levels. Their amazing actions come with an explanation – diligent hard work, discipline, heartfelt application. All very midwestern virtues. Levels don’t explain other characters (often the actual protagonists) in those same works, though, like young whippersnapper Zhang Ziyi or Luke or Agatha. For them you probably need GURPS’ “starting points” system. So in one way they seem “naturalistic,” rather than mythic, and people like or dislike them on that basis.
Except increasing HP or saving throws with level doesn’t really model increasing skill. The old OSR argument that “PCs become heroes through play” is really a kind of selection or confirmation bias; they’re heroes because they’re still here. They have high hit points because they’ve demonstrated they’re hard to kill. In other words, they’re mechanically mythic. What about the other not-obviously-learned benefits of leveling up, though? Why can higher-level MUs and clerics cast more powerful spells? There are 3 game design reasons – because novice players should have simple toys to master first; because usually the bigger hazards are not right next to the First Level Graduation Canteen, and that’s probably because sequels gotta get bigger; and because players love finding cheese. But is there an in-game reason? Sure, you can rationalise one: this spell is harder than that, or only given out by the Spell Angels to initiates of a certain standing, but look at the mechanics, especially of what MUs can learn/remember. They’re very mechanical. Your brain won’t absorb spell x until you’re level y.
Which brings me to the thing my inner munchkin loves and my inner book-reading, vicariously-thrilled child hates about levels. They tell you exactly how powerful you are. They offer a predictable, orderly progression of powers, like freemasonry or scientology or belt systems for martial arts. So they act as a ready explanation for anything extraordinary the characters might do – the characters aren’t really amazing or freakish, just high level. In a perverse way levels glue the gameworld together: they diagnose and contextualize their heroes, by giving the heroic condition a name and number. At the same time they make heroism mundane, obvious. Did you kill the dragon? Really? Oh, but it had 8 HD and you had 9. OK.
And they offer a kind of reassurance that non-interactive fiction, and quite a lot of RPGs, BTW, don’t depend on. Of perfect self-knowledge – of the impossibility of ever really being fooled. It’s the same neurotic reassurance that demands Charm Person be a trick, not a real friend-making spell. Because you shouldn’t be able to affect people deep down in their hearts, and that means you should know what’s down there, on the player/character layer. Levels reveal the character’s essence, their potential, who they really are, in a way that’s not just intelligible, but ironclad, unalterable, unmaskable truth. And they tell you what you can expect in the next n adventures. So they take away surprises – both the kind that destroy play and the kind that players might really enjoy. You can’t have that moment of divine realization, that puts you ahead of the villains at last, because the game is set up to dribble out power in known increments. The most you can hope for is to get your hands on some kryptonite. And you can’t learn that you were secretly someone else with different prospects because the character sheet does not lie to you. You might secretly be the lost prince of Captchaword but it won’t make a mechanical difference. Not because the DM’s hands are tied, as such, but because the structure of leveling would make all such moves look like “cheating:” betrayals of the expectations built into the system.
Don’t get me wrong, I see that levels provide a stability that’s useful in a game, for all the reasons Robert Fisher said. I see that they help players gauge threats and plan and understand what kind of game they’re playing. But right there in that knowability, that predictability, they do a pretty good job of destroying heroism.
Because of course you’re not going to take that dragon on, idiot. You’re third level!