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What is in a Level?

Philip Bloom

Today I touch a topic near and dear to my heart. One which I have ranted on a few times in the forums and by now deserves a mighty ranting straight on the column: Levels in Role Playing Games.

What are these wretched things? Where did they come from and where are they going? Why do we keep to such archaic conventions? We should throw these things in the trash where they belong! We have newer, more modern ways of handling things! No, we should rewrite them, revitalize them! After all, RPGs have certainly changed, it's only fitting their mechanics change with them.

To change anything, first you should always know why it was there to begin with. What purpose does it serve? The act of a fool is to replace that which works without understanding how it works or what its purpose is. To that end, allow me to delve into the history of levels as I understand it, to touch upon the ancient start of these concepts and build up how they have developed and what purposes they has held. I do not claim in this to hold perfect knowledge or to have been covering it from the beginning, but this article contains the research and understanding I've garnered from years of observation on the subject.

Role Playing Games are a confusing paradigm. Folks have had trouble defining it since it began. This is largely because it was applied to far too many things. Going back towards the beginning, Role Playing (and its hundreds of variants grouped under the name) stemmed from two specific subcultures, both forming their own unique type of game under this name.

One culture was the acting culture. Seems rather obvious, actually, for such games to arise as a way for younger actors to hone their acting skills and develop their abilities as they prepare for the stage. When you look at many of the live action role playing cultures that exist today, they grew more from this than from the rule based culture that mirrored them later on. The primary example of the Role Playing subculture that arose from this can be seen today as re-enactments, done in all different styles and usually lacking many of the other culture of role playing. They also contributed to a degree to the modern day LARPs, which is the closest blend between the two cultures. Levels did not stem from this culture as they've never been of particular importance on the acting side of the game. I don't have much more to say on this half since it's never been of particular interest to me, but for completeness sake, I've included it.

The other culture was the table-top strategic-tactical war games culture that thrives even today and could, rightfully, claim a heritage spanning hundreds of years. This was not a culture of acting or storytelling. This was a culture of statistics, numbers, dice rolls, and strategy. From these humble roots, the modern table top role playing games owe their heritage most strongly. Dungeons and Dragons, often hailed as one of the founding games of the modern era, originally grew off of being a module for just these types of tactical strategy games. They grew out of answering questions such as the following:

"So, uh, yeah, this guy is like, the captain of the army and he has a magic sword...I think it'll be +1 or something for all the rolls here."

"How'd he get it?"

"I don't know. Probably bought it from a wizard or something or killed some monster for it. Anyhow, he's the captain so he has a magic sword!"

So some people got together and created a module. To answer these kinds of questions and provide a little setup for certain characters to have small adventures in when the whole crew wasn't around for the actual wars. A primitive form of levels were utilized to define different characters and their capabilities on the tactical war games playing fields. Here came the basic hit-points, the simple 'spell castings' and all these kinds of things. It was here that Dungeons and Dragons spawned.

It's difficult to understand the levels going back to the earliest and second edition version of Dungeons and Dragons from a modern RPGer perspective. They don't make sense looking at them from it. They're not primitive and unintuitive, though they do appear so. They're instead focusing on a different goal. They were, all the way through second edition, still built as a module for tactical strategy war games. When one looks and sees a fighter getting a small army, it isn't because having this generically defined in the rules fits for role playing well, but because it makes a superb setup for the types of save the world/conquer the world tactical strategy games. Levels here were used to provide measures of social status, wealth, and power based still strongly in the table top war games. It was the 1970s still.

In the 1980s, these had grown quite a bit, the subculture of role playing had developed from these humble roots, disorganized, rough, chaotic and ugly as it spun itself around, growing in every which way. It was around this time that some young entrepreneur thought it'd be awesome to make a computer do the hefty work of 'dungeon master', running the game for either a single player or a group of players. Needless to say, the 1980s computers were not up to the task, but several different variants of computer role playing games, as they called themselves, were a result of this. The primary three were dungeon crawlers, multi-user dungeons, and overhead strategy games. Each of these employed some variation of levels in their own fashion. Of the three, only the version used in multi-user dungeons is still employed today, most commonly seen in the treadmill MMORPGs where the level is not in fact intended as any kind of balancing tool but as one of many techniques to keep the player in the game for as long as possible.

It was a Japanese designer who provided levels as we know them today. Yuji Horii was picked up from a programming competition by Enix in 1982. Yuji was very intrigued by the 'role playing' games of America during this time frame, particularly the dungeon crawlers. He, together with close friends and notably more famous comrades Akira Toriyama and Koichi Sugiyama, began planning a new form of game inspired somewhat by these that would provide something never before seen on the market. It took him a year to iron out how it was going to happen before they put together Dragon Quest, a game that has since shaped thoughts on how levels work in RPGs far and wide since then and provided the foundation of the modern level.

In Dragon Quest, levels were used to provide a measure of balance. They were a tool to allow a less skilled player to progress through a story interactively even if they were unable to discern a strategy to beat a given opponent. It is to this end that the modern level exists as a tool for conveying of the environment and the story. By successful use, a designer may sidestep the problem of creating interesting and challenging conflict while simultaneously not blocking weaker players from enjoying the full scope of the game. By using it, they could provide a safety net against players having large portions of the important interactive content blocked off from them.

There you have it. The long and meandering tale of how we got to our modern level, how the concept is fundamentally used for benefit of the game design of modern computer role playing games. The understanding of how it is currently used is important in making decisions on changing and removing this, as a handful of modern games have demonstrated to their own detriment. Changing this for the sake of changing it and being different or more challenging tends to only invite problems into the system. Such simple things as adding scaled levels to make keep the enemies on par with the player wreck havoc on the elegance of the design from their lack of understanding on what levels accomplish.

Think first, then see if the system really needs to change. Levels provide a very important tool in the design process and, as can be seen from their history, have served a notable purpose in the modern RPG for twenty years. They aren't the be-all, end-all of system design but at the same time, it is good to understand what purpose they do serve from a game play mechanics point of view before going to change them or complain about them.

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