Levels have an important function and heritage in RPGs. They are a feature disliked by many and dismissed without understanding the reasons why they are looked on favorably, and without articulating why they are objectionable. The use of level as a measure of character power harkens back to Dungeons & Dragons, of course, from which all RPGs in whatever media ultimately spring. Even early on, however, there were games that did not feature them — 1977’s Traveller and Chaosium’s RuneQuest spring immediately to mind — and their use or disuse has driven many a controversy and feud over the decandes.
Detractors say that a level-based game makes certain assumptions about the nature of starting characters that might be undesirable; if you try to model Elric in D&D at first level, for example, he’s going to not only be very weak, but a key element of his character is neccesarily going to be absent. Thus too with Conan, the Gray Mouser, Gandalf and other classic fantasy characters. Similar characters built in systems without levels might be no more powerful but at least the conceptual barrier of making such a character “at 1st level” is torn down.
Proponents of levels point out that they provide a balancing mechanism which can be handy if implemented well, and that they provide convenient achievement benchmarks to feed players’ sense of accomplishment. And when we start talking about fantasy RPGs in particular, it’s hard to dispute that, no doubt at least in part due to the example and expectations set by D&D, the game just doesn’t feel right without some kind of ordinal advancement ranking. Level-less FRPGs have historically gained very little traction in the tabletop marketplace unless they are very specialized, like White Wolf’s Exalted — and even that has indirect leveling in the form of the Essence characteristic, which has a heavy effect on overall character power and tends to be increased in a fairly predictable way by players.
I’ll stipulate that fantasy games ought to have levels in some form, but not necessarily in the form proferred by D&D, while games in science fiction and other genres can get away without them, and may in fact be better off doing so. But let’s break that down and take apart where levels really come from.
In the D&D model, shared by numerous tabletop games and virtually all fantasy video game RPGs, you get some kind of currency as you play, typically called “experience,” and when you’ve built up enough, you level up. This brings with it some concrete benefits that increase the character’s power; more and better abilities, additional endurance currencies such as hit points or mana and increased success chances are all typical. There are also less quantifiable benefits, in that you can accomplish things at a higher level that you couldn’t at a lower level, and have added a pip to the Brag-O-Meter.
The actual specific mechanism of advancement and the benefits of additional levels aren’t important here, and of course there are also achievement metrics like money or reputation that exist strictly outside of the leveling ladder, the value of which varies from game to game. But then you have the offbeat example of the Elder Scrolls series, in which leveling is an elective process that you can in principle skip, as indeed in Oblivion you were indirectly encouraged to do. But for that very reason the series provides an interesting example, in that some metrics directly relevant to character power are tied to level, but not all of them are.
I do not think there is any a priori reason why one could not extend this idea to its logical conclusion by making levels irrelevant to character power at all, as Lethality suggested in a comment on the last post. But that displaces one of the primary reasons for having levels at all, as mentioned in the proponent’s argument above, as useful method for the game or the game master to judge character power for balance purposes.
However, a different approach might be to make levels the result rather than the cause of character power. You don’t level to improve your abilities, you level because you improved your abilities. This is sort of how things work in Skyrim, for example, but in that game there a number of things that still increase or are attained because of level, namely health/mana/stamina and perks, and those have a large tangible impact. In the mechanism I’m talking about you would have some kind of formula based on total skills or average skills or wharever, possibly with some other factors involved as well, and when that calculated figure hits a certai point, you level to a fanfare or back-slaps or something. (I’m especially fond of the White Tree animation you get when hitting certain levels in LotRO.)
One could in principle graft this kind of system onto any level-less game like Burning Wheel or GURPS or whatever, but you would need to mechanize it very carefully to minimize ways in which you could increase your character’s power without also increasing the challenge-increasing metric of level. This is exactly what occurred as the result of a halfhearted implementation in Oblivion, for example. You might also want to hide the details of the calculation from the players, or possibly include some randomizing factors that would vary leveling time by some degree. This all sounds like a big pain in the bookkeeping ass for a tabletop RPG, but a programmed or program-assisted game could do it for you.
This is, I think, part of one potential solution to the problems common to many RPGs, MMOs that suffer from the additional hindrance of finite content in particular. I’m hashing out ideas here rather than writing a manifesto, though, so if you have feedback to offer, I’d love to hear it.