Friday, January 31, 2014
I attack the Sacred Cow! Huzzah!
I'm not a fan of levels. I think that the reward for playing D&D is the experience itself. It's fun! I don't need levels to encourage me to play. Rather, levels allow for character customization and evolution through play--but as a system of modeling the arc of an adventurer's career, it's a poor way to do it. The jumps in capability are too clumpy, and therefore arbitrary.
What this leads to is the fact that D&D essentially plays like several different games, in many ways, emulating several different subgenres within the broader umbrella of "fantasy" depending on the level of play. The first few levels play like a kind of gritty low fantasy, but as you get a few levels in, it turns into a more traditional sword & sorcery or high fantasy.
These levels emulate the type of fantasy that is most familiar to players of D&D from source material like movies and novels. And while there's a difference between the feel of them, they're still similar. Sure, a 4th or 5th level character can breathe a little easier and wade into a combat a bit more confidently than a 1st or 2nd level one, but still.
At some point, though, this starts to change. High fantasy and sword & sorcery can start to edge towards larger than life, and before you know it--usually around 9th or 10th level in d20-style D&D (when the fly spell is readily available, plus the rest of the package that comes with levels that high) the game isn't just larger than life sword & sorcery--it's actually over-the-top mythology. Characters may start out as Croaker, edge into Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and pass through Conan, but by this stage, they're Achilles, or Beowulf, or Gilgamesh. What exactly they have in common with their lower level versions of themselves is hard to see; and for that matter, the world has to change with them, or it becomes ridiculous. Goblins and orcs are scary at 1st or 2nd level, but at 12th or 13th level? You don't even notice them. The "canonical" example is when your fighter gets to the point that fifty armed guardsmen with crossbows trained on you doesn't give you much pause from insulting the king, because heck; you've got an AC of 28 and 150 hit points! You can mow through the entire company of guards without breaking much of a sweat.
By the time the game is getting into really high levels (15+ in a d20 type environment) you've gone even beyond this. Your adventuring party is now the Justice League. While it may make sense for a low-to mid level group of heroes to more or less represent Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and the three suitors for Lucy, it doesn't make any sense for an 18th level character to worry about vampires in the city. The only interesting challenge for them to deal with is stopping Galactus from eating the planet.
Obviously, this has major implications--although they are often implied, and frankly, I think shoved under the rug and not frequently examined by gamers--for the setting. And it explains the unearthly prevalence of "save the whole world" game elements--because if you really get into the higher levels, no other stakes are worth bothering with.
Of course, this doesn't even get into the fact that it's almost universally agreed that higher level play is extraordinarily complex, difficult, and fiddly in most versions of D&D compared to low level play. Or that there's all kinds of weird mathematical implications of system (such as the bonus being bigger by a factor of two or more than the entire range of the d20 roll.)
All that said, I'm not really here to condemn the very practice of levels. I think levels are so part and parcel of the system of D&D, that D&D without them doesn't feel like D&D anymore. It can be done, certainly--and other game systems like GURPS, or Storyteller or BRP don't use them. Even other systems originally designed by TSR (fond memories of playing Top Secret come to mind.) It does mean, however, that the implementation of levels has always been problematic in D&D. And that rather than fixing it, as editions have advanced, the problem has gotten worse.
Some market research that Ryan Dancey waved around back in the day suggested that most gamers rarely (if ever) actually played in higher level games. This may be because it was too difficult to just get a campaign there, even if the players all wanted to play from level 1-20, or whatever. But I also think it's true that higher level play has been actively avoided by many players of D&D, because of percieved problems with higher level play, and because of preference for the sword & sorcery or high fantasy of the lower to mid levels rather than the overt superheroism of the top two quartiles. I know that in my own games, I do specifically just plan on running campaigns that are never meant to get above about 8th or 9th level or so tops. The E6 system also specifically addresses this, by allowing ad nauseum play with the same characters without ever genre-hopping. Back in the very early days of the OGL, Ken Hood's Grim N Gritty Hit Point system was a modular add-on that curbed the runaway power curve of D&D as presented.
Ideally, a version of D&D would flatten the power curve considerably and make a concerted effort to keep the entire game more handily in the same genre, except for unusual corner cases. But I don't think that getting rid of levels entirely is the way to go.
I should point out then when running d20, I specifically add the E6 tophat to it to address this problem, or I just run shorter campaigns. When running m20, I've decided that instead of there arbitrarily being 20 levels of play, there's arbitrarily only 10.
Next up--another sacred cow: XP?!