Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Level-Limited Loot

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 12, 2015

Diablo_GPotWIn principle, for single-player role-playing games, I’m against the idea of having level minimums on items. This is a thing that came up in multiplayer CRPGs years ago, primarily because experienced players could “twink” a lower-level character with their high-level hand-me-downs and completely wreck the math and balance for the less experienced character.

That’s a special case where it’s somewhat more understandable. But in general, if it can be avoided, I think it should. There are two main reasons:

#1 – Even in games that are level-based, “level” doesn’t really mean anything concrete in the setting – it’s simply a game rule construct. It’s an abstract concept of character development. Why would a warrior not be able to wield a particular sword until he’s defeated six more monsters? What is that supposed to represent? Some magical level of renown or worthiness?

#2 – My general design philosophy is that if you earned it, you should be able to use it. With some noteworthy qualifications and exceptions. But if you were powerful enough to defeat the guardian, you should be powerful enough to use what it was guarding.

Neither are hard-and-fast rules. Again, conceivably the concept of “level” might exist outside of the rules. And I’m not quite so dogmatic (yet) about an item being outside of a character’s field / expertise / understanding / physical ability. ┬áIt makes sense that a 98-pound weakling might not be able to wield a top-heavy two-handed sword. Or that a warrior without a high-school education might have trouble using a scientific calculator.

But hey, if a 3rd level thief is able to sneak into the elder dragon’s chamber and make off with a super-powerful ring of artifact level that has can also render him invisible… hey, more power to him. Enjoy.

Now how about multiplayer games? This kind of rule irritated me a lot when playing the Borderlands series, since it felt like I was always looting stuff a level or two too high for me. But it was always potentially a multiplayer game, and thus twinking was an issue. Not only would a level 50 gun in the hands of a level 3 character make most of the fights boring, but it would also make all other loot you’d find the next 47 levels pretty close to meaningless.

I’m not saying there aren’t better solutions available, just that it’s *a* solution to a problem.

But I still don’t like it.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    This is an issue of creating another problem when solving a problem and making the problems and fixes cascade.

    I dislike the idea of very big difference in starting and ending power of characters. 3-5x is fine, but 2 orders of magintude (doing 5 damage at level 1 and 500 at level 99) is ridiculous.

    In the kind of games that do it, there is very often a simple mechanic of armour subtracting from damage and weapons adding to it. So a +2 weapon works at level 1, but it has to be at least +80 at level 99 to make a difference with 5-10 upgrades in the middle. This is very gamy.

    To “fix” the problem of low level characters with high level equipment, those disgusting level caps are introduced. They pretty much kill any sense of realism for me… although that didn’t bother me much in Diablo, I guess, mostly due to the fact, that almost all equpment I got was below my level.

    Ultima Online had around 30+ skills, 0.0-100.0 (technically up to 120.0 with a skill scroll) and 700 skill cap. A few starting characters could kill a veteran (well, after a few hours of training anyway). Best equipment was wearable by everyone, but not that much better than the common stuff. Great game. It still managed to make monsters progress in their challenge rating.

    Another issue I have with RPG equipment is that you get to kill hundreds or thousands of people, but their posessions disappear on death. TES solved this reasonably with people having cheap clothes and weapons, which don’t sell for very much, so it is more profitable to do alchemy or something rahter than “farm” soldiers.

    Most games (FK included) are lazy and just leave 1 random weapon or armour per 5 dead (which to add insult to injury is often different to what he was using while alive) plus some cash. I guess you could kinda-sorta justify it by saying that “drops” are the interesting things and clothers and other vendor trash would be sold anyway, so the game just converts them to cash behind the scenes (Dungeon siege even had a spell to convert items to cash).

  • Mephane said,

    You know what is really infurating? When a specific category of equipment as a whole is level-locked. Like, “you can’t use spears at all until you are level 5”. What?

  • Burt said,

    Yeah I’ve always found level-locked gear annoying. And player-locked gear, in MMOs. I don’t even really care for character levels. They kinda seem like a cheap trick to string players along, particularly in MMOs. A carrot and stick to keep players feeling like they are accomplishing something, keep them playing to achieve their next ‘ding’. Rewarding the rats with pellets.

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree completely. I don’t approve of level locking items, stages, or anything else. It’s a clumsy way of “solving” balance issues that forces you to grind.

    The closest that I’ll accept is when weapons have stat requirements to use at full power. You can still use any weapon you find, but that fancy high level blade is hard to use properly. Big penalties if you try to use it otherwise.

  • JTippetts said,

    I seem to be in the minority in this here, but I am fully in favor of level-gating equipment, and full-fledged, off-the-wall power creep as you level; for certain games, at least. For me, games like Diablo and its many spiritual descendants are all about the journey: how do I maximize survivability and damage output at the current level? What combination of stats, equipment, talent points, etc… should I try this time to improve my performance over the last attempt? When any game like this is released, there inevitably follows the stage where people determine the best builds, the min-max character templates that other people follow. For me, the greatest time of the game is during this stage, when the min-max builds are still being determined. When you stumble upon a combination that just works like crazy, and you can post the build on the forums for others to critique. I’m as happy as anyone to fire up a spreadsheet and start crunching calculations to determine if that 15% increased casting speed node outperforms that 12% increased critical strike chance.

    Allowing low-level characters to equip high-level equipment blows the whole progression scheme out of the water. Why worry about the difference between the two low-level mods, when I can equip the L80 sword with +150% increased casting speed AND +98% increased crit chance, and just LOL my way through the first six hours of replay content? In this case, the equipment overshadows any other minor progression choices I can make, and in worst cases can “hide” mistakes I have made that manifest once I get to high level and the equipment is no longer a supremely over-powered crutch.

    I’ve never felt the need to have “realism” come into play in these games. If I kill a small cobra and it drops a magically enchanted set of holy chainmail, I don’t care. (Well, I DO care, if it’s GOOD chainmail; always on the lookout for a decent upgrade!) If I kill a zombie farmer and he doesn’t drop his dirty linen trousers and the rake he’s carrying, I’m 100% okay with that. I prefer to leave the “realism” for role-playing games. (And my argument here is that most games where this kind of equipment is involved really aren’t RPGs, despite the RPG part of ARPG. You don’t play Diablo 2 in order to pick-pocket keys from the pockets of guards, talk your way out of an arrest warrant, or romance a lovely princess. You play Diablo 2 to smash stuff with extreme prejudice. And that’s OK.)