Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How Fast Should Characters Level Up?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 7, 2012

Back in the (somewhat) earlier dice & paper RPG days, one of the key differences between skill-based RPG systems and class/level based systems (which have now married and have had lots of hybrid babies) was the pace of character progression.  In a skill-based system, you typically gained abilities, or points to spend on abilities, after every session / adventure. In the case of point-buy systems, you could often spend the points immediately on small gains, or save them up for more impressive abilities.

Class / Level based systems – of which Dungeons & Dragons was the role-model – were generally slower, with intermediate gains usually in the form of improved equipment. But then you got all of your gains as one package of bonuses, which felt great. In skill-based systems, the incremental improvements were not as noticeable, but suddenly being able to cast 3rd level spells in D&D was huge – on top of extra hit points, better chances of hitting, better saving throws, and more spells overall. Instead of a constant slope, you had a staircase, where each step felt like a significant increase. Unless you were playing a fighter, I guess…

But in earlier editions of D&D, those levels (if the DM was playing by the rules *) came pretty quickly early on, but came progressively slower. It was not uncommon to hit 2nd level after a single adventure, but going from 7th to 8th level might take months of weekly sessions.  One might argue that this was really too slow and would make characters feel stale and drag the game, and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, up through the 1st edition of Advanced D&D there was something of a “soft cap” around 9th level (closer to 6th level in the original), after which non-spellcasting class progression became really kind of meaningless. So around 7th or 8th level you were really entering the “end game” area, and at that point progression really became more about acquisition of equipment (and sometimes followers, and eventually even castles).

A few CRPGs (particularly those most closely adhering to D&D style rules, whether informally or via license) followed this slower progression rate. The Ultima games started with unbounded, frequent level gains, and then capped them at lower progression for the middle saga. The later games went more towards the skill-based progression.

One interesting approach (IMO) was Dungeons & Dragons Online, which by license used a system based on 3rd edition D&D,  but due to the limited level ranges really slowed down progression. In exchange, they offered small advancements in the form of ranks between levels – a more skill-based form of minor improvements.

But most CRPGs nowadays tend to keep progression at a pretty steady, rapid pace, slowing gradually.  For MMOs, I’m sure teams have it down to a mathematical abstraction of something like a level per 20 hours of average, active play or something along those lines. For action-RPGs, it seems like it averages closer to a level every hour or two. My own game, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, slowed things down a little bit with only around 10 levels of progression for an approximately 30 hour game.

Obviously, there’s no magic number for an “optimal” progression rate.  There are way too many variables. The player should be having a good time throughout the game, and whether that’s because of treasure hunting, achieving new levels, having a blast running through levels or being riveted to the plot – or any / all of the above, is immaterial. But it does seem that there’s an expectation of a more rapid pace of leveling in modern CRPGs than there was in previous eras.  Then again, people generally have less patience for the length of the older games, but I hesitate to make that any kind of blanket statement considering the length of some of my modern favorites.

Does slower character progression frustrate you, as a player? Or is that merely a symptom of a game being too slow as a whole? On the flip side, do you ever feel progression is too fast, and you don’t have the ability to fully understand or master your character’s new abilities before the next ones come in?


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • Yemala said,

    I think it really depends on how character advancement is handled.

    If you have lots of choices or lots to tinker with per level, slow advancement is great. Really, slow advancement is my preference regardless.

    If the levels are just ‘+1 health +1 damage’ or similar, they need to come fairly quickly, or be omitted entirely.

    I, however, am more and more in favour of level-less systems, both for pen and paper and otherwise. More in a ‘spend experience to upgrade whatever you want’ way than a ‘you spend 2 hours jumping up and down, jumping +1!’ way.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The problem I have with the skill-based incremental improvement (and I’ve played a LOT of those kinds of games, and the Hero System was my RPG system of choice throughout the 90’s) is that it’s such gradual improvement that it doesn’t feel much like a reward. While less realistic, the big bump you get from leveling – especially in a slow-leveling system – can be extremely gratifying.

    But that’s just my preference, sorta like my fuzzy preference for turn-based over action, though half my favorite RPGs could be called “action RPGs.”

  • Darius said,

    I’ve found that I tend to prefer a little bit slower leveling system with bigger gains on the levels. If a game grants skill points to be distributed at level up time I’ll often save them through two or three levels, so that I can get a bigger boost all at once.

    I really enjoy the anticipation of achieving new powers with a new level, and when there’s a little more time between levels it feels like that’s heightened.

    The one exception to this is when the game itself isn’t terribly engaging, then the only thing keeping me going is the excitement of the level up, and in that case they can’t come fast enough.

  • McTeddy said,

    While I prefer every level up’s that are occasional and game changing… I HATE slow leveling. I want my levels to come from playing the game… not wasting my time.

    If I am forced to grind to continue the game I will turn off most games.

  • Spaceman Spiff said,

    Slightly OT/related – One of the reasons Fallout 1 is one of my all-time favorites is because they capped the player’s level at 21. (it had a traditional slowing down/more XP needed for each level)

    That meant that out of the wide inventory of perks in the game, at most your character could only get 7 of them. It also set a max on hitpoints and statpoints which could vary a bit based on initial character configuration/stats.

    What this meant what that you could only make your character really strong in a couple areas before hitting the cap, unlike in many game where you can go off and grind to pad out your character’s various stats until you had a virtual super fighter/diplomat/thief/doctor/etc with more hitpoints than a tank.

    For me, that made the choices of how to play the game (diplomat vs HtH fighter vs Thief vs sniper, etc) something I had to think through more carefully, and overall each playthrough with a different character/style was more rewarding.

    Fallout 2 did away with the level cap, and it was possible to make your character a super badass at everything before heading to the later stages of the game.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I can imagine getting it right is a difficult thing to do. The benefit of skill-usage systems (Quest for Glory, Ultima Online) is that you can quickly see the benefit of your actions. I’ve found level based systems where I reached a point where the next level seemed so far off, it can seem like a grind to get there (as in some Final Fantasy games and similar).

    Of course making the levels easy to attain can sometimes be a curse in itself. One of my disappointments with Oblivion, Fallout 3 and New Vegas was that in an unmodded game you level up very quickly, and it can turn an already powerful character into an unstoppable super-hero very quickly, removing all challenge.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’m personally a fan of the skill system method of character advancement, especially if we are talking pen and paper systems. I always felt the level based system in D&D and other games made the gameplay a little stilted. A mage went from nearly useless to a heavy hitter in one single jump (4th level to 5th – God bless that 3rd level Fireball spell you had to be level 5 to get). I feel it makes things a little too “obvious”. In a level based system you KNOW what is going to be easy to deal with and what is going to be hard. Before D&D introduced templates and levels to monsters, you would know immediately if you were adequately leveled to deal with a certain monster or not.

    I like skill based systems because I feel they are more “realistic”. When I joined the Marines, I didn’t “level up” and get more resilient to being shot – or even get very much stronger. Instead, I got more skilled. Better able to plan, better able to shoot, better able to sabotage and outperform an enemy. In systems like Alternity or the Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines game you never really get more health or go against enemies that are massively more powerful than yourself. Instead, you get more options and skills to creatively deal with problems.

    I’m not saying our gaming group didn’t get creative when facing encounters in AD&D, but the level system tended to always encourage certain strategies. Is your mage below 5th level? Use magic missles. Group of enemies at close range? Burning hands. Then run and hide behind the group to avoid being slaughtered. Over 5th level? Fireball.

    In the skill based system of Alternity, I always found our group being much more creative. Everyone had time to adjust to the slow accumulation of skills and develop an interlocking strategy system with the group to avoid death. And since everyone was relatively equally bullet-absorbent, no one had to hang back out of the action for fear of being insta-killed. Or I should say, everyone had to deal with the fear of being insta-killed.

    Alternity was an eye opener for me. Our group in D&D had a tendency to rush into combat and crack skulls together, because we didn’t really fear death (unless you were a pre-level 5 mage). Our second “adventure” in Alternity, our player famous for loving to rush in and beat up the bad guys was going to rough up a bookie for info – and he suddenly restrained himself when the bookie was revealed to have a pistol in their belt. I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s how a person would act in real life.” I doubt in D&D a crooked NPC having a dagger would stop a player from attacking them, but the skill based system in Alternity meant a small cheap weapon was still a threat – you know, like a WEAPON. I saw much more realistic and reasoned approaches and thought patterns in our Alternity adventures than in our D&D campaigns.

    This relates to another failing I see in level based versus skill systems. The monster or enemy power creep factor. In a level based system you have to constantly keep pitting the players against more powerful opponents to keep things interesting. In a skill based system like Alternity, a bookie with a pistol can be equally as threatening to an experienced player character as he can be to a new character just created. The difference is the experienced character may be confident they can outdraw the bookie, or know enough martial arts to disarm him before he can fire. But if the player is wrong, a single bullet can kill them just as easily as in real life, so they tend to STRATEGIZE as if it were real life.

    To me this opens up more story-telling potential and scenarios without having to constantly follow the ramp up of monsters to dragon and archlich or demigod levels. It allows regular humans and enemies to keep being a viable threat practically forever.

    I found it a lot of fun to run one-off or short campaigns with a skill based system too, where players didn’t see a lot of progression, but were given a certain number of skill points to spend however they wished prior to the adventure. We might run an adventure where the party is a group of experienced federal agents hunting down a terrorist cell, or a group of space pirates making one final run to pull off a final heist to retire on. It encouraged more of what I like to consider “traditional” role-playing, in that they became a character with a certain skill set and used those skills to essentially solve puzzles or situations put together by the game master.

    I noticed we didn’t have as much of the “power greed” as we had in level based systems like D&D either. In D&D (especially before they “fixed” the way experience was given out), players were hungry to acquire kills for themselves, treasure, and anything they could to become a powerhouse. It was almost like racking up a score or accumulating points to be the “best”. With the skill based systems there was more focus on doing what was best for the story or acting realistically in character. Especially in the one-off adventures, players were more focused on the story goal rather than personal advancement, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice themselves to save the day or the group.

    Both systems have their uses, but I tend to find that a level based system has the adventure in service to advancing the characters, while a skill based system has the characters in service to advance the adventure.

  • Adorna said,

    I tend to enjoy skill based leveling a lot more – its the one thing that attractet me to Gothic – I hated the character and the storyline, but the skill system was enough fun, to make me play the game.

    I really do enjoy game changing mechanisms to be added lter in the game. A lot of games do this – not only RPG’s and many people seem to hate it to not have all features from the start but I love how you can concentrate on learning the basics first and changing the way the game works occasionally. This usually means stuff like summoning, teleporting beween towns, get your own home/stack, added minigames like fishing etc. or addictional classes, that get added later on.

  • Maklak said,

    I agree with LateWhiteRabbit. I prefer point-buy systems to levels and classes as well, for similar reasons.
    I find classes to be too artificial and restrictive. I’m fine with getting improvement points for levels, as it is an acceptable way of slowing down character progress, but I prefer getting IPs directly for quests.
    I prefer not to get combat experience, but just quest experience. That way I don’t feel as compelled to kill and loot everything to powerlevel and make the fights easier.

    If you want to have a feeling of “big reward every few hours” rather than slow tickle-down of improvement points, that’s fully doable in a point-buy systems too. Just have some cheap and some costly upgrades and give a lot of IPs for completing major quests.

  • Xenovore said,

    …a level based system has the adventure in service to advancing the characters, while a skill based system has the characters in service to advance the adventure.

    Agreed 100%. I much prefer skill-centric progression. When I play RPGs, I play to role-play in a particular world/story setting, not to power-game; I don’t need or want a “big bump…from leveling”. I also think it’s much cooler to see per-session progress (typical of skill-centric systems), than per-month progress.

    I started playing RPGs with AD&D and, while it was fun, it always bugged me; so ad hoc and arbitrary. When I discovered MERP/Rolemaster (a level/skill hybrid) it made so much more sense. Then I gave Cyberpunk (pure skill-centric) a try; now I have a very hard time dealing with pure level-centric systems. (For example, I’ve tried to play D&D 3rd and 4th edition and gave up on ’em; too “gamey” and still too arbitrary.)

    As far as CRPGs go, a couple of the best are Morrowind and Ultima Online; skill-centric, of course. I do prefer point-buy skill progression (like Cyberpunk; can’t think of any CRPGs with that) over use/practice-based, but both work fine for me.

    Back to the original question: slower or faster progression? Definitely slower, as long as it’s not too grindy. Actually, the more variety of interesting things to do (at the character’s current capabilities), the less progression even matters.

  • Grampy_Bone said,

    One thing I’d just like to point out is that the glacial leveling pace of Ad&d was actually a “bug.” Allow me to explain:

    The first version of D&D was very much a dungeon-looting simulator. There were no rules for towns, shops, economies, etc; and any reason given for exploring the dungeons was basically fluff. You were there to try to get as much loot as you could without dying. The whole game revolved around dungeons. So there were these ruins full of gold but nothing to spend it on.

    You want to encourage players to search for the treasure, but how to get them to risk their character’s life and limb? By awarding them XP for finding it. In the original D&D, you got 1 experience point per gold piece found. You weren’t supposed to level up from just bashing goblins but also hoarding shiny things. You’d kill stuff, survive the traps, escape with the loot, and level up based on how well you did. The leveling tables were based on kills + money found. That’s why an orc is only worth 35 XP and it takes 2000 XP to level.

    As the game evolved and became more complex, it moved beyond simply being a dungeon simulator. Along the way to Ad&d and then to 2nd edition, the XP tables remained the same but the “XP for Treasure Found” mechanic became an optional rule. It was thought that DMs who wanted something other than a loot-focused game could make up the XP deficit with quest awards or other styles of progression. The problem was the 2nd Edition rules were extremely vague and just did a piss poor job of explaining how to figure out things like quest XP. Giving XP for a monster kill is easy, figuring out how much XP a successful bluff or negotiation is worth is a lot harder question.

    The result was most DMs didn’t award loot XP or quest XP, or if they did it was grossly insufficient, and thus the super-duper slow-ass leveling of AD&D was born. This is why old-school AD&D based games tend to hand out massive piles of quest XP (Both Baldur’s Gate games for example). If you rely solely on monster kills for xp you end up with an incredibly slow rate of progression.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Grampy_Bone – EXACTLY! In fact, I intended to have that as a footnote in there under DM’s not following the rules, but apparently I forgot. (That’s why there’s an asterisk there). However, the XP requirement still doubled every level, while the pace of XP / treasure acquisition did not go up that fast, so things did slow down a lot after around 4th level.

    This is a bone of contention for me when people talk about D&D being based on pure body count for XP. That wasn’t the case at all. The treasure XP reward was as close to a “fair” version of quest XP as anything anybody would come up with for a good decade or so afterwards.

  • McTeddy said,

    I was lucky. None of the GM’s I’ve played with cared about counting XP. Instead, it was “You guys just killed your first dragon, I think you’ve earn exactly the XP you need for your next level.”

  • poopypoo said,

    Hey Jay, I like these questions. For your gane it’s especially tough, since it’s so closely modeled after dungeon crawlers it’s hard to imagine anything but big level-based gains. Skill gains are quite doable (obviously!) but they will feel rather trivial if the jumps aren’t big. This is why I feel the White Wolf/Ars Magica system is so much better, actually, for video games than for tabletop. The jumps are big and you’re sure to feel them right away, but because it’s a point buy system you get to really agonize over them and build an original character. Unfortunately they were not usually very well-balanced, but I believe it could be fixed. Their biggest flaw was probably that they were so simple that any two brawlers likely had the same exact stats – actually this depended upon the game but… yknow. And this flaw doesn’t matter in SP video games.

    As far as level advancement, I used to feel superior to the whole hand-holdy four levels in the first hour trend, but now I think I like it. Even for diehards, it can be a good way to clue them in early as to what the system is all about, and potentially provide better character definition earlier. Maybe a warning should pop up at like level five tho, “advancement gets a lot slower here” or something. I find building characters to be the most interesting part of most games, and so I enjoy levelling. I suppose the best system for me would be moderately frequent levels, with point allocation, and the option to save up for something big, or buy something cheap (self-imposed variation btwn major and minor levels).