Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Leveling Mechanics – The Fairy Tale Secret Sauce

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 22, 2015

men-and-magicEvery once in a while I’ll hear somebody complain about the leveling mechanics in RPGs, usually about how you start as a nobody with a wooden sword and progress to becoming one of the world’s ultimate superheroes. In particular, the complaints seem to stem from the idea that you always start from such lowly beginnings.

This complaint even affects the hardcore. One of the comments in the (sadly, canceled – for now) Seven Dragon Saga Kickstarter video was that (I’m paraphrasing here) your characters wouldn’t begin as lowly farmers pressed into adventure – they’d be already super-powered “chaos touched.” For many of us, that was actually more of a turn-off than a selling point, if that was what they intended.

But there are a lot of virtues built into the traditional start-as-a-nobody leveling mechanic that make it ideal for video games (and pretty awesome for tabletop games, too).


First of all – the great-grandpappy of roleplaying games (before we get into the neanderthal wargaming / sports gaming evolutionary origins) – Dungeons & Dragons. The original. Quite literally, your starting character was something of a nobody. If you played a spell-caster of some sort rather then maybe had the chance to cast a Cure Light Wounds a couple of times, or Magic Missile and Light (at a cost of some survivability). But based on the wargaming roots, your character began as a nothing grunt. A footsoldier. You may have rolled some pathetic stats, making your characters life expectancy even shorter.

Eventually, around level 6 or so, your character would be the equivalent of a small army (or at least a squad) of soldiers on the battlefield or in the dungeon. But until such time, characters had a pretty high mortality rate (and even at level 6 or above, a far higher mortality rate than expected in modern role-playing games). Achieving such lofty levels of heroism was something of an accomplishment, often with a trail of dead characters marking the path. (Although it didn’t hurt that it took less than five minutes to roll up a replacement character back then.)

Tradition gives this style of gameplay some feeling of legacy that inspired old-school players. But that alone isn’t enough to recommend sticking with it.


I once heard an explanation of the difference between fairy-tale heroes (and heroines, as is often the case), and mythological ones was that the mythological heroes were born into greatness, propelled by destiny, while fairy tale heroes were ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. This is perhaps too sweeping of a generalization, but the explanation was used to suggest why modern, western audiences gravitated more towards the fairy-tale heroes than the mythological ones.

Now, fantasy stories often draw upon mythological roots, so you get a lot of “chosen one” storylines, but even then the subject of such portents comes from extremely humble beginnings – even if they were born under special conditions (like they are secretly the King’s son), they’ve been toiling away in obscurity.

But audiences can identify better with the everyman of the fairy-tale hero. In mythology, if you weren’t of divine birth, you’d better not dare mess with the gods or the supernatural, because mythological stories rarely end well for the poor normal mortal with delusions of grandeur. They are very authoritarian that way. But the fairy tale hero might at best be of noble or royal birth, but still just a plain ol’ person who finds himself or herself in extraordinary circumstances. And, depending upon the nature of the fairy tale, has about a 50/50 chance of coming out on top, especially if they are clever, respectful, bold without being foolhardy, and avoid being a greedy douchebag to strangers.

Anyway, this is a much more powerful character for audience identification, which gives it some benefits as to being a stronger tale. Both approaches work, and variety is the spice of life. Maybe it’s more of an American culture thing, but starting from nothing and then achieving greatness is the quintessential success story and has a strong vibe.

Gameplay Mechanics

Games with the strongest mass appeal gradually unlock (or allow the player to discover) skills for the player to develop and master as they play. In the standard platformer, you may start out by learning to move left and right. Then on top of that, you learn jumping, maybe shooting. Then climbing. Then running / dashing. Then the double-jump. Then on top of this list of basic moves, you begin to learn all kinds of special moves or ways in which these moves can interact with the environment or with each other. Mastery is developed as the player learns to combine these skills with precision and cleverness.

Interestingly, Dungeons & Dragons worked exactly this way. Yes, potentially, a player’s choice of actions were nearly infinite. But on a practical level, especially when every move counted (in combat), things started out a lot like that. You learned to move, and to attack. As a player gained in skill, he learned how to move and attack wisely, maximizing the chance of success. Perhaps she learned to take advantage of the environment, doing things like tipping over a table to provide herself with cover from the hobgoblin crossbowmen, stuff like that.

But as the characters gained levels and gear, new options became “unlocked.” Casters had access to new spells. Everyone had more access to magic items, which allowed them to break the rules in big and small ways. New (useful) actions unlocked, and kept unlocking. Even something as simple as a healing potion made a big difference – do you make another attack, hoping to end the combat in this round but risking death if you fail?

This is good, structured “learning” the game mechanics as you play. I suspect this is why RPGs have been (with ups and downs) a pretty consistently popular genre in the field. The growth of a character’s abilities mirrors the growth of the player’s own skill. But this suggests a few things:

#1 – Character growth absolutely should provide additional abilities, not just passive improvements

#2 – For replayability, a player should be able to choose a radically different growth path with new skills for the player to master

#3 – Character skills should require active player participation and skill to deploy effectively (or efficiently). A great example of this in turn-based tactical RPGs is the area-effect spell – knowing when, how, and where to cast it for maximum efficiency.

As a side note, I suspect that this is the reason that so many games in other genres have appropriated “RPG elements” to improve on their designs. Those elements are a perfect fit for the medium!


So in the end… yeah, I don’t want my characters all souped up with tons of abilities when I start out. I don’t want them to be superhumans beyond the mundane pale before the first adventure begins. I want my characters to be tyros in the great big world, as endangered by a vengeful low-level threats like goblins as anybody else. And from those humble beginnings, THEN I want them to grow into the dragon-slaying badasses by the end of the game. That’s good story, and good gaming.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • ogg said,

    Excellent points, though I’d still love to see a game that contains more than just my party badassly saving things. Most Western Rpgs I’ve seen don’t seem to actually have any role models to inspire the PC’s to heroism, at least not outside of fully scripted scenes. No AI knight’s errant, no mercenary armys, just “You and only You must save everything because the cutscene said so and you had to say yes to keep playing”. Also I’ve getting really tired of being the only news in Fallout 3. If you’re starting as alowly grunt, why don’t any other get up some gumption. If you can do it, surely there must be thousands of others on what is usually a planet who have. I know development limits and all, but It’s something I would love to try.

    Sorry to go of topic look forward to FK2!