Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thinking Way Too Hard About Leveling Up

Warning: This post rambles quite a bit.

The necromancer Vektar sat on his throne, overlooking the armies of the dead standing between him and the great doors to his inner sanctum. He allowed himself a phlegmy chuckle. Surely the heroes who even now approached those doors were doomed! Then, a moment later, the great doors were blown from their hinges and smashed down onto the front ranks of the necromancer's servants. Framed in the doorway was a gray-skinned figure, his eyes glowing beneath his cloak, his hands still crackling with energy. The necromancer recognized his former apprentice, Kazrel, whom Vektar had banished for refusing to sacrifice a maiden for a dark ritual. As the undead horde, oblivious to their comrades' recent fate, surged forward, the a massive figure stepped forward form beside the Kazrel. The necromancer stood from his throne at the sight of Wulfbeorn, the black-haired barbarian prince from beyond the steppes. Vektar had heard that Wulfbeorn had left his clan to regain his honor, though the dark servant who had brought that news had known nothing more.

Wulfbeorn, his muscles bulging beneath his simple fur garb, strode forward, his great two-handed blade cutting a great swath through the necromancer’s forces. Kazrel followed behind him, weaving dark energy around him as he walked, sometimes unleashing it when the mindless forces of Vektar threatened to overwhelm the brave warrior who strode before him.

Finally, they reached the throne. Wulfbeorn was covered in a dozen wounds, and blood dripped from his mighty form onto the black stone of the courtyard, yet his eyes were still bright and his strength undiminished. Vektar stepped forward, hissing a black word from behind yellow teeth, and magical energy in the shape of gossamer bones reached for the mighty warrior. Kazrel stepped forward, however, and with a word caused the deadly magics to dissolve. Now the two sorcerors were locked in battle, and soon the air stank and crackled with the power passing between them, as their dark chants caused even the stalwart Wulfbeorn’s heart to tremble in his chest. Nevertheless, the tireless warrior kept the necromancer’s intact minions from interfering, and soon a pile of bodies lay before him.

Then Vektar’s tongue slowed. His joints moved painfully, and his breath came short. He had reached his limit. Kazrel stepped forward, pointed a finger at the man, and spoke a single word. A moment later, the only thing remaining of Vektar was a pile of gristle and shredded robes. Instantly, the dark army, which had a moment ago seemed on the verge of overrunning Wulfbeorn, collapsed into dust.

“It is done,” said Kazrel.

“I feel stronger,” replied Wulfbeorn.

The gray-skinned wizard turned to his companion, glowing eyes questioning. “What?”

The barbarian shrugged. “I can’t explain it. I feel like I’m a better fighter now. Like fighting all those guys taught me new moves.”

“That’s ridiculous. What could you learn in this ten-minute fight that you didn’t learn in your years of training on the steppes?”

“I dunno. Don’t you feel stronger, though?”

The mage was silent for a long while. “You know those spells I have been trying to master? I feel like I should give them another try. Maybe now I would have more success in learning them.”

“Also, I think I can lose more blood before passing out, and survive falls from greater heights,” said Wulfbeorn as they walked away.

“Now that’s just stupid,” said Kazrel. “But yeah, me, too.”

Leveling up has become such a big part of games these days that we've all started taking it for granted. These days, even first-person shooters have characters that gain skills and abilities, and nearly every RPG has some method for leveling up. In theory, it's meant to represent the process of a character going from a starry-eyed youth full of enthusiasm and ideals but with little to show for practical experience, to a battle-hardened professional who has survived hardships and learned from them. In actuality, it serves as a carrot dangled in front of players to constantly keep them interested. Sure, you're just a Goblin-poker now, but just imagine how much ass you'll kick when you're a Dragon-smiter! Right now, you're pleased as punch to drop a Bubba's Discount Singeing, but play for another few months, and you'll be hurling Merlin's Meteor of Fiery Armageddon Death.

So part of the problem is that leveling serves as a way to promise future ass-kicking, rather than simply handing it to players. I think that this is a lot like the FPS Pistol Syndrome I described in my review of Painkiller: game developers, whether they're making an FPS or an RPG, seem to feel like gamers won't appreciate kicking ass unless they're forced to spend an appreciable amount of time being weak as kittens before they're allowed to start stabbing giants in the face.

This is bull. Conan might not have started out as King Conan, but right from the start he could take on three hard-as-nails barbarian dudes and kick their asses hardcore. Elric of Melnbone starts his books as an expert sorcerer. Aragorn can fight off Ringwraiths before they party even gets the backstory for the campaign in Rivendell. And, as Bluefish once pointed out to me, Luke Skywalker didn't have to kill worrts before he could use the damn Force.

One possible explanation for this is that the characters really did have to go through all that, we just didn't see it. Conan trained with his tribe of Cimmerians, Elric studied in the libraries of Melnibone, and even Luke bulls-eyed womp rats in his T-16 back home. It all just happened off-screen. Well, my response to this is that there is a good reason it happened off-screen: because it's boring!

The only time starting a player at such a level is justified is if that player is unfamiliar with the rules, and you're easing him into it. Most RPGs start the character off with just a basic attack, for instance, and special attacks, spells, and items are gradually introduced to the player as the character learns/gains them. This makes sense, but should be optional. If the player already knows how to play, why not skip the toad-stabbing and get right into it?

My other problem with leveling up is how, for whatever reason, characters tend to get better all at once. Suddenly, not only do I become better at stabbing faces, but I also become harder to hit, better at blacksmithing, and able to take more arrows to the chest and fight on. I realize that this cuts down on bookkeeping, but it immediately takes me out of the game. The whole point of RPGs is to think of your PCs as characters in a story, rather than as stats on a sheet, and the minute the DM says, "Okay, good job. You all gain a level," suddenly the spreadsheets and rulebooks come out and instead of thinking, "How did my character grow as a person when he killed the man who betrayed his clan to their blood-enemies?" I'm forced to think, "Would I rather be able to cleave through armor like butter with my broadsword, or scramble my enemy's intestines with my throwing daggers?"

The other side of this is that, when I level up, I worry that I'm taking the wrong abilities. Will I need to be able to move heavy objects with the Force, or should I instead learn to jump insanely high? Jumping isn't going to help me much when the giant idol crashes down in front of the tunnel we have to get into, but moving heavy objects is going to suck if I have to chase down the bad guy's speeder as he gets away. Even worse is getting to a high level and finding a cool ability or prestige class that fits your character perfectly, only to find that you didn't take that ability or skill two levels ago that you need now, so you're stuck being a Horse Patter for another few levels when you could have been an Ogre Smiter if only you'd treated your character as a statistic instead of a person.

Well, if I'm going to think way too hard about something, I should at least come up with an alternative. Ideally, I think it should be up to the Gamemaster when players gain skills, abilities, and spells. When the GM notes that a character has spent a lot of time fighting duels, for instance, that character may gain an ability that gives a bonus when engaging enemies one-on-one. Or when a wizard has spent enough time in the chaos lands beyond the veil of sleep, the wizard's mind may be opened enough to comprehend the next powerful spell.

The problem with this is obvious: players are going to gripe. Some might grow in power better than others. A player might prefer a different ability to the one the Gamemaster gives out. Worse, a lot of players like to plan out exactly how their characters are going to progress when the character is first generated. The character's progression then has nothing to do with what the character does in the campaign, but everything to do with which abilities the player wants to use and thinks are the best.

A good compromise might be to use a leveling system like the one seen in the World of Darkness, where a character spends experience points to get better bit-by-bit. First an attribute may go up, then a skill, then another skill, then maybe the character will gain some resolve. It feels a lot more organic than everyone suddenly getting better at everything all at once. In my perfect, happy world, where all GMs are wise and just and all players are just so excited to be playing that they go along with what the GM says, the GM would be the one deciding how the experience points are spent. In the real world, the player and the GM should have a serious conversation about what the character learned and how it should affect that character's stats.

And, for the love of Gygax, please don't make me start by stabbing roaches. Because that's just no fun at all.


bluefish said...

Well said, sir. Well said. And you didn't even get into players complaining that their character isn't as strong as someone else who put all of his points into some ability. I must admit that the Star Wars RPG has this fault with Jedi and using the Force. And it's definitely a sad truth that too many video games now employ this system. It reminds me of Soul Calibur, where you level up your style, but it serves absolutely no practical purpose.

My criticism of your proposed system of the GM giving out things is that it puts too much pressure on the GM. It also takes a lot of creative control away from a player. If that particular storyline didn't have much hacking involved, but the player wants to play a tech-savvy netrunner, he shouldn't have to take assault rifle proficiency and technical expertise just because all he could do for the party was shoot a gun and open a door. And it's too much pressure on the GM to make sure everyone gets a chance to do what their character wants to. In light of that, the Storyteller system really is best, but the D20 system and its variants do work for ease of use.

But that's just my two cents.

Lord Admiral said...

That's a good point. I agree that it puts a lot of pressure on the GM, but that's why I said my solution was for the ideal world.

If a netrunner isn't doing a lot of hacking, how is he getting better at hacking? If the player wants to play a master hacker, but all his character is doing is opening doors and shooting things, he's not going to magically learn how to hack networks based on that experience.

And I don't think my Jedi was as overpowered as the rest of you thought he was. He was unarmored, only had a close-combat weapon, and he couldn't touch technology without it exploding in his face. This definitely opened up a lot of possibilities for party members. That's before you even take into account roleplaying considerations, such as my Jedi being unwilling to use underhanded means that might be available to others.

Kawaika said...

As incomplete as Dragonspawn is, I still like that system the best. You only level up the skills that you use.