Sunday, May 14, 2017

Brass Carrots

Gentle readers, no doubt, will have heard of campaigns that eliminate level progression. It is argued that level progression is unnecessary to role-playing and character building, that it creates friction among the players, that too much focus is placed on advancement and that games don’t need level-advancement to be enjoyable.

So we beg the question, what value do levels have?

The title embraces the supposition that levels are a motivation. The characters want more power, so we have created a set of arbitrary plateaus, obtained through an arbitrary award system we call “experience,” which can be adjusted on a whim of the DM at any time by awarding more experience arbitrarily at the appropriate moment.

It is this capriciousness that creates friction. We understand the clear, simple notion that players would like more powers and abilities in the future than they have today. We can lately remember a time when we did not possess a given skill, a well-paying job, a prized possession or other milestone ~ evidence that we’re doing better, that we’re smarter, that our lives are more comfortable and so on. Level-advancement reflects this. The fighter hits a little better, the mage has more spells, the general character is made safer with more hit points and there is status to be gained in the form of titles and game recognition.

But the steps themselves ARE subjective. Why should a fighter advance at 2,000 experience and not 1,500? Why should a given dead monster be worth 100 experience and not 200? And if DMs can just wave a hand and award experience at a whim, they why shouldn’t they, right now, as we’re sitting around the table playing? The very fact that the DM won’t is proof that we’re getting ripped off! We only want what’s coming to us! All we want is our fair share!

So eliminating the level gets rid of all this subjectivity. The players will advance in level when the adventure calls for the players to be a higher level. The players will advance at the beginning of every fifth running. The players will advance when the quest is completed. These principles are still arbitrary, but they’re unilateral, affecting every character at the table the same, and they don’t require nearly as much math.

There is a major drawback, however, that many do not consider a drawback. These substitutions eliminate insecurity. We know we’re going to advance ~ there is no uncertainty about it. Advancement does not hinge on the choices we make, nor the effort we give, nor the risk we’re prepared to take. If we climb aboard, the train will arrive at our destination and the ticket will be stamped.

All the doubt is washed away, as is the frustration we feel as time between upgrades spins out and challenges our composure. We’re not driven to take a bigger risk, to make something happen that doesn’t seem willing to happen ~ and when the achievement is obtained, we don’t think of it as something we did ourselves, accumulating all that experience. We don’t get excited about things we think of as entitlements.

The carrot is a reward, yes, but it is also something we only get after a very long day of dragging a very large load at the expense of our comfort and our privilege. It dangles right in front of us, aggravating us, making our mouths water, while at the same time we can’t get it. In every sense, for anything but a dumb animal, the carrot is a kind of abuse, one we can’t ignore.

The brass ring is a reward also, but only because it is so damn hard to get. We miss it and miss it, leaning out further and further, risking a face-plant in the dirt, because it takes a big risk to win a big reward.

Experience levels work because they’re hard to obtain; and the arbitrary limits we create to put them further out of reach are there to make it very hard. We don’t appreciate anything that is easy to obtain. Naturally, we carp about it. Carping about a lack of something is a part of life.

DMs should not bow to that.

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  1. What if we better define the system? We use an award measurement that ties numbers to actions. We assign value to a character's skills. We expose the inner workings such that players can know how it's put together and, conceivably, can provide input toward making it better. Of course, there has to be a protocol for how we review, test and improve the system - never in the middle of a game, for example. But if we can improve things, and we do improve them, then doesn't the argument against a bad system go away?

    Or have we only treated the symptoms and not the disease? In other words, if the elimination of levels is a fix for arbitrariness and subjectivity, which is inherently unfair, does a better defined system also provide a fix? Or will the supporters of these "everybody wins" games just argue all the more adamantly?

  2. I think you can count on the latter, Ozymandias. Reading your logic through on your blog post, it isn't likely to ring as "common sense" to people who find it difficult to add 327 x.p. to 1,934 x.p. People will think you're pulling the wool over their eyes with a bunch of math which, because they don't understand, will assume it is a designed argument to prove a point you were already intent on making. [People without an understanding of math are more likely to see math as a confidence game than as evidence].

    Either way, what matters is the distance between levels, not the obtaining of the levels themselves. Whatever formula you create, it has to end in a construction that demands the players risk and have a chance of failing, while waiting, waiting, waiting for the next level to occur. If your math doesn't end in that principle, then you've undermined the benefit; and if it does support that principle, the exact numbers don't matter so long as the principle is maintained. So the numbers might just as well be arbitrary.


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