Levels Reassembled

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.

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Ardwulf Presents 6: The Lord of the Rings Online

This week Ardwulf Presents devles into LotRO for a look at the final quest leading characters to the Mines of Moria.

And yeah, I’m that gravelly right now. Next week’s episode will feature The Secret World.

To Khazad-dûm, We Come, We Come!

Of the iconic locales of The Lord of the Rings, few are as iconic as the Mines of Moria. For me in particular they have always held a mystique; it helps that I tend to strongly favor Dwarves as far as fantasy races go, but there’s also an element of the unknown and possibly unknowable, of vastness beyond one’s ability to delve. The scenes in Moria are my favorite in the first volume of LotR, and one of the very few old ICE MERP books I still have is their treatment of the place. My long history with tabletop RPGs have left me with the indelible notion that Moria is in some sense the Ultimate Dungeon.

I won’t exactly be an earthshaker if I tell you that getting to the Mines of Moria, LotRO’s first and by far its biggest expansion, has been a major in-game goal of mine since I started playing, and especially since I started playing regularly with the switch to freemium. Now, I haven’t been a very regular player — I’ve drifted in and out — but I’ve been inching toward level 50 and Moria for a good long time. Finally, not too far off five years after I first played the game post-launch, I made it.

Level 49 seemed to take ages, but level 50 went much faster with adventuring in Eregion, and major hurdles tend to come pretty fast once there, what with getting the first Legendary Weapon and potentially wrapping up some class quests. The Legendary Weapon makes a big difference. Wrapping up the beginning of Book II I had hit 51, and halfway through that I first ventured into the lost halls of Khazad-dûm.

I’ve heard people speak of Moria as a dreary and tiresome grind, but right now the new smell is still on the place. It’s vast — several zones each of which are pretty big on their own. The great Dwarf landmarks are all there: The Chamber of Mazarbul, the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, the Endless Stair… it’s really very well done. The word I thought of immediately was grandeur, something most dungeons frankly lack.

You can head for Moria around level 45, but in retrospect, I’d say to hit Eregion, the lead-up zone, around halfway to 49. Do most of the quests there along with the Epic Book II and you ought to get there right into 50, which is where you want to be. I’m not ver far into it yet but it sure looks like there’s plenty to do, even just sticking to the questing. I’m curious to see where it starts to drag for me; it’s my notion to do every last scrap of content in the place including the instances, but we’ll see if that sticks. For now, my Dwarf is, in some sense, home.

Out in the Universe

I’m in a spacey mood. I spent parts of last week (as much of it as I could,) playing EVE Online on the 5 free days. Having decided not to continue with that for the time being, I’ve since been dabbling with a couple of things.

One has been Sword of the Stars, which I snapped up on the cheap from Steam a while back. At $5 for the game and three expansions, it was a nice deal, and while not my ultimate dream 4X space game, it’s a solid entry in that field. I am mildy put off by a couple of things, namely the cartoony art style, lack of ability to customize the races

One thing that does irk me outright about it, though, is the similarity of its title to The Sword and the Stars, a fine old board wargame from SPI. That game along with other SPI sci-fi titles like Freedom in the Galaxy and Outreach happen to be favorites of mine. As far as I’m concerned Kerberos and Paradox are stepping on SPI’s toes here without so much as a thanks. I will slake my anger by not buying Sword of the Stars II and its inevitable expansions are $5 for the lot as well. Besides, they’ll have shaken out all the bugs and issues (said to be prodigious) by then.

Now, the game that just might be my ultimate dream 4X space game is Star Ruler, and I’ve been fussing with the demo for that and trying to figure out how well it reflects the current state of the full game, which by all accounts has evolved quite a bit, and the demo is said to not be entirely caught up. Star Ruler is mightily ambitious and has a learning curve to match, and the interface is none too elegant. Picking up the full game likely awaits the Steam sale in the near-certain future.

Also on the space front, I’ve been playing a fresh game of Mass Effect 2 since I installed it using Origin on the new PC. It runs flawlessly at maximum settings. This playthrough is a custom female Infiltrator Shepard that’s going all-out renegade. My first game was a custom male Soldier that went as heavy paragon as was possible. In both cases, though, I’m not resisting the interrupts of the opposing path.

I have my old savegame as well and now a large chunk of DLC that hasn’t yet been played through: Overlord, Kasumi, Shadow Broker and Arrival. Considering that on my original Shepard I romanced Liara and she plays only a token role in ME2 out of the box, I’m looking forward to playing through the newer content more or less in that order. The connection-crushing 4+ GB is downloading now. Mass Effect 3, due out in March, is one of the very few must-own titles on my docket for the next year.

Back down to Earth, I also hit level 49 in LotRO, having been inching along at it for weeks. At any time I can drop everything and finish up a huge swath of Volume 1 that’s yet undone. There is enough left in that end of the epic questline to get me to level 50 very easily. For right now I’m going to finish up the questing deeds in Forochel… and probably drop the +25% kill XP pocket item, since it sure doesn’t look like I’m in need of the boost. Then on to finish Eregion and finally see the shadowed halls of Khazad-dûm.

The Slow Walk Toward Moria

All plans to reach level 50 and Moria by the Rise of Isengard launch out the window, I am nevertheless making progress. This past weekend I even got to play for an hour or three, and gained a whole level. I had almost forgotten what it was like to sit down and focus for a whole session or more than half an hour or so.

At about three-quarters of the way to level 49, I’ve completed the questing deeds in Angmar and the Misty Mountains, although I still have a small number of quests in each zone to clean up. It’s my plan to spend the next little while in Forochel doing the quest deed there, then on to finish Eregion. Then Moria. I’m in no hurry, which is good, because it’ll take me weeks at my current pace just to finish Forochel. It’s too bad there’s no level-locking in LotRO, because I’d rather not end up at level 53 or so by the time I get there. I wouldn’t mind 51 or 52; as it is I’ll need to stay out of skirmishes for the next couple of levels.

Happy Birthday, Bilbo!

Today, September 22, is Bilbo Baggins’ birthday. And a Frodo’s, too, of course. In celebration, here’s the latest LotRO video dev diary for the Rise of Isengard expansion, this one about Isengard itself. It looks pretty cool.

Rise of Isengard launches, mostly, on September 27.

Recent Action: LotRO and Champions

This past weekend was rather turbulent for reasons I’m not going to go into; to be honest, the thing I did the most of by far was sleep. This would ordinarily be good, but I slept too much and am feeling leaden because of it.

Nevertheless, there was gaming to be had. I have been spending most of the less-than-ample time budgeted for gaming in The Lord of the Rings Online for the few weeks; I’m within reach of level 48 and splitting my time there between Angmar and Eregion. I’m planning on doing a round of skirmishes to take me to the next level.

I like LotRO’s skirmishes but don’t really play them that often; I find they’re most enjoyable run occasionally. If played constantly, like you’d do if you were using them as a primary avenue for leveling, I think they become tedious fairly quickly. Of course, if you don’t run a lot of skirmishes, you don’t get skirmish marks and thus your skirmish soldier becomes a bum as you get up in levels, and soloing at-level skirmishes becomes fairly difficult. Once you die in one you get a stacking debuff against earning skirmish marks, so a couple of deaths is a disincentive to keep running them. Some skirmishes are noticable much easier to solo than others, and this may vary by your class and build; I have good luck with my Guardian in Trouble in Tuckborough and The Ford of Bruinen, while the final boss encounter in The Icy Crevasse is a fucking terror that I have yet to complete at level.

My goal early in the summer was to get in and out of Moria and up to the level cap in time for Rise of Isengard, which I pre-ordered. Two months playing EQ2 and Vanguard almost exclusively kind of shot that in the foot, so at this point it would be nice to get to Moria in that time. I do plan to play through absolutely as much Moria content as possible, including the skirmishes and group content, so I’ll be taking my time with that. Come the 21st of this month I’ll be restarting classes for the Fall, which will limit my playtime even more than it is already, but that’s okay – I’m willing to play and advance at a leisurely pace.

I also managed to get some play in on Champions Online over the weekend. I’d been checking in periodically to pick neat stuff up with my points stipend and to check out new stuff like Hideouts or play with the character creator, but I hadn’t actually played in some months. I’d been wanting to check out the now-complete Comic Series 1, however, so I logged in to my favorite but not highest-level character, Sunstrike who was a measly level 16, and started the Aftershock missions.

I finished three of the six, and they’re pretty cool. Very story-driven, with cutscenes and even some puzzle-like elements. Aftershock is a follow-up to the Serpent Lantern Adventure Pack, which I haven’t played through, so all this is new to me anyway. The missions automatically tune to your level, so some of the boss encounters can be difficult; the fight against Despair Incarnate at the end of the second episode seemed impossible until I restarted the mission and realized that there’s a way to get help. With NPC companions I found it tough but winnable.

As I get the opportunity I plan to finish these missions up and maybe play through the older Adventure Pack content as well. I have multiple characters at sufficiently high level to do the content (which is repeatable anyway) and they start at the relatively low level 11 anyway. I did kind of expect the XP yield of the missions to be a bit higher than it turns out to be, but I haven’t finished the whole sequence yet either, so the jury’s still out on that. It’d be nice to get Sunstrike to level 20 so I can finally get his Nemesis set up.