Tuesday, April 12, 2022

How Computer Games ruined Leveling Up for RPGs (Intermission to the Player Motivation Series)

That part two about motivation is still in the works. It's going to be interesting, but also means some work, so it'll happen. It'll just take the time it needs. Easter, maybe. Anyway, now this occured to me while writing on be67 (and had been a lingering thought for a while, tbh), so I thought I should address it here in the blog as king of an intermission to the Motivation series, since it relates). The thesis is, of course, hyperbole. But there is some merit to it, so hear me out. Oh, and I'm all over the place with this one, so buckle up ...

Where does that come from, 'to level up'?

If anything, characters having levels they can reach through gaining experience points was innovative design at the time D&D originally came out. I'd even wager that it'd been an original design of D&D, at least in pushing the idea to it's limits. I'm guessing here, but it seems plausible that the war games D&D was based on bore the seed of this idea to some extent. Although the term isn't used in Chainmail, for instance, which is one obvious precurser of OD&D. 

OD&D itself has an illuminating passage:

"It is also recommended that no more experience points be awarded for any single adventure than will suffice to move the character upwards one level." (OD&D: Men & Magic, p. 18)
Close, but not quite it. In general, they'll be speaking about 'gaining levels' or 'advancing a level' in all the old D&D books I could get my hands on (OD&D, AD&D 1e, D&D RC ...). 

So the concept of 'gaining levels' is OD&D, for sure. How that was conceived is not public knowledge (nothing I could find by researching it online, that is). OD&D doesn't say 'level up' in any satisfying way shape or form. Same goes for B/X and AD&D 1e (1977). When D&D gaming culture seeped into the first computer games and consoles able to do anything with the concept, gaining levels became a successful trope and the SNES Super Mario RPG from 1996 already uses 'level up' casually, so it's already an idiom then.

It's interesting, isn't it? The term 'to level up' just appeared in the context of gaming* and made it's way into pop culture without anyone questioning it or even thinking about it twice. It's just ... there. Loaded with meaning. How come?

Your guess is a good as mine. My best idea is the popularity of Tolkien that lead to D&D to begin with (and why the game has hobbits!), because The Lord of the Rings, as we all know, has one of the most famous stories about character advancement out there: the change from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White!

The original Leveler? [source]

Aragorn levels up as well, actually, but not in the middle of the story, so it only counts a bit. The thing is, however, that character growth in LotR can be seen as a growth in power, which neatly applies to that famous shift from war gaming to playing individual characters in a skirmish context, which in the end lead to D&D. And that went viral (as much as things could go 'viral' in the 70s).

Furthermore, (fantasy) war games would already offer units with 'experience' as the differing characteristic (Warriors, Veterans, Heroes, stuff like that). So it's not a stretch to assume that all of that came together to form the idea that the limit of playing one character should allow for that character to advance over time ...

As I said, all guesswork. Fact is, the idea of leveling up originates in D&D to the degree that it was the source for all further innovations in that regard. And since D&D never, imo, explored the concept to its full potential, peak popularity of the term should be located with computer and console games as that's how most people today understand it. That comes with implications, of course.

Leveling Up in early D&D is BORING!

To gain a level in D&D wasn't understood as getting more powerful as soon as a certain XP limit is reached. On the contrary, from OD&D onwards all the way through to AD&D 2e there was an extra effort involved to actually gain that level when the xp for it are collected. It was all about playing the class properly or even getting teachers for certain skills (an idea we even can find in obscure places of the D&D RC).

As soon as one fulfilled all the criteria, the new level is gained. D&D also had a barely visible meta structure where gaining a number of levels should lead to a shift in gameplay (name level shifts to domain play which eventually leads to high level play ... but where that second shift is will stay a mystery, since it's never explained properly).

Barely visible, as it wasn't understood completely when the design was conceived (is my guess), which lead to people just playing the first phase and declaring that as the 'sweet spot' because the game starts to fall apart if the shift to the next phase isn't done properly (if you don't shift focus around levels 6 to 9, you still play the same game but it just isn't as satisfying a gaming loop anymore).

As I said, underdeveloped design. Level titles had been another great idea, but all of it was more about describing how the gaming world perceives a character and that has NOTHING to do with what a character experienced or gained. It is given to the character, but it carries no meaning that deepens the connection between character and player. Or only the meaning the GM is able to instill, which might very well end up being nothing.

If I have one main criteria when designing rules, it would be that a rule that isn't used doesn't work and needs changing. That's how I feel about leveling up in D&D. You gain HP, some powers, sometimes you hit better by +1, sometimes your Saving Throws improve, but most of it is marginal and, considering the range of levels the games offer, takes way too long to achieve.

Now consider computer games: you gain a new level instantly with a flashy animation of sorts, you get to chose some benefits for the character and (when done well) all of it seems "meaningful". You achieved something and get an award for it with a little celebration and then we move on with the game. Sometimes you'll even get new items (or item upgrades or pets) just because you leveled up and it's not even questioned where they come from (things just 'manifesting' is another one of those computer game tropes). The fact that you also get more powerful is almost secondary to the emphasis on offering some form of individual customization.

It's a very different approach altogether, but arguably the more succesful design. If a player knows the concept from playing computer games only, a Gamemaster will have a hard time explaining how and why D&D is different. And that leads, more often than not, to disappointment. I have seen this way too often. Character of a new player levels up in basic D&D and they look at me with eager anticipation what's going to happen next. They want bells and whistles and when I tell them they get 1d6 more HP (or whatever) they usually end up confused, asking "That's it? I played 4 sessions of this game to get ... 2 more Hit Points?". I agree. It doesn't meet modern expectations.


If nothing else, D&D (and other rpgs going by the same premise) using an underdeveloped system for leveling up basically forced designers into copying popular computer game design choices, which lead to neglecting the aforementioned meta structure and ultimately developed into a very bloated version of that first phase with lots of little powers characters can earn between levels. In 5e characters start with the classic D&D equivalent of 3rd level and never really advance beyond Name Level, even if they advance higher. The game doesn't shift gears anymore.

I'd say that's just as bad design as the original design is underdeveloped. But did it ruin leveling up for D&D?

Innovation should have split, maybe?

Computer games took the ball and ran with it, arguably shaping not only popular culture, but also changing what players like to see in a game. Not expect, but actually like. Leveling up is a fun experience in most succesful computer games I know. So much fun, in fact, that the concept ended up being a familiar trope in mangas and anime. It's even used in management circles to express progress ... The term is known and used, is what I'm saying.

The question is, does it translate to rpgs?

Well, in parts it does, in parts it doesn't. Depends on the stories you are telling. Or rather, on how you are telling your stories.

I can see three design approaches here:

  1. Using computer game concepts basically 1:1 (which we see all the time now with the big brands, especially in the advent of twitch streams and the necessity to design games with an audience in mind as well)
  2. Dismiss the concept entirely or at least down to an echo of the original system (levels mainly as flavor, basically, or hybrid systems where you gain xp but buy benefits and powers and it doesn't translate into 'levels')
  3. Innovate anywhere from the point of diversion (peak OSR was exploring that, imo, but didn't gain enough momentum to have a lasting impact other than ACKS)

Personally, I have nothing against making the D&D gaming experience as playful as computer games can be. be67 will feature concepts like that quite excessively, as a matter of fact (as you might have guessed, I started writing the chapter on character progression when the thoughts above occured to me).

What makes bad design, imo, is not the imitation of what's popular with computer games but doing so without understanding the original design to begin with. Add market incentives like popular twitch D&D games (or rather, theater play doing a theme park impression of D&D for an audience that has no idea what D&D is or don't care) and you'll end up with games full of design choices distorted by lazy corporate greed.

To be totally fair, why should big players like WotC care if you are able play their game for years? The game needs to carry the illusion of functioning for the first couple of levels and should be fun enough to summon the resemblance of its manifestations in popular culture. You can be like Sheldon playing D&D, even buy the t-shirt. Doesn't need to be deeper than that. If that. They are basically milking D&D tropes for money by morphing it into something akin to World of Warcraft.

On the other hand, dismissing the system altogether or going for a hybrid system works but means missing out on one big dimension role-playing games have to offer. Still, very much viable. It leads to shorter campaign cycles for those games (down to being nothing more than one-shots), but that can be a benefit as well. Actually, as far as scope goes, there's lots to explore going from the basic premisses D&D formulated back in 1973, not just campaign play.

And yes, I assume we are still exploring the implications of that first game.

As for the innovation part ... well, that is a loaded proposal, isn't it? Computer games are dominating to a degree that a direct comparison makes role-playing games look bad. Computer games you can play all the time, any time if you pay the moneys for it. You don't need others or can reach likeminded others easily. It's also a market so powerful that lots of money is spent on research and design (although with making money in mind, not necessarily with creating "good" games). Novelty is high with already decades of products worth exploring and more to come.

Actually, if things aren't taking a turn for the worse, we are about to see some genuinely mindblowing technological advances in the near future with ai in vr and ar ... That'll be that. For individuals, it is better gaming if it is considered to be the same.

So one could argue that the window of opportunity to have some meaningful innovation in all thing rpg is closed and done with, which leads to the question "Why even care?". Especially when the popular kids start defining what the game is and that would be something like "analogue computer gaming".

Which is where we end up with the original premise: computer games ruined leveling up for rpgs, because exploring where that would have led if computer games wouldn't have interferred, might not even be beneficial for the hobby at that point. It's gone too far, so it's ruined.

That said, this ain't my conclusion yet ...


For the big finish, I'd say we go and look at this from a First Principle perspective, asking: what can leveling up in a role-playing game do for you? The simple answer would be it supports the campaign arc of a game in a way that makes progress palpable by being part of an important overall structure:

  • Encounters that accumulate to
  • Sessions that accumulate to
  • Level Ups that accumulate to
  • Campaign Phases (name level & epic level gaming) that accumulate to
  • The Campaign

The original design offered campaign play for years on end. To make that work, every aspect of this needs to work flawlessly to elevate the gaming experience to the next higher part of the structure. You leave something out (or not working), the upper parts will fall short (the shortest form where you are still actually playing would be "Encounters that accumulate to A One-Shot).

But leveling up carries another important aspect of the game. This is the part where it connects to the Motivation Series: while all other parts of that hierarchy above are basically offered to the players by the game, leveling up is the only one that directly alters their characters in a way that allows them to manipulate the game on the system side of things. Characters get stronger and grow as a system response and not as something developing out of the narrative. It's where players can tinker with their character's system response, if that makes any sense.

Meaningful choices do matter ... [source]
What I'm saying is, if that's done well, it motivates players to invest the huge amount of time it takes to play an original campaign. And we can learn a lot from computer game design in that regard.

However, computer games work in cycles way smaller than what a proper D&D campaign would need, which has us end at an impasse, of sorts, as creating the demand for visually stimulating novelty-impulses in faster and faster cycles is another well working feature of computer games. So what's the take away?

For me it would be that if designers would not have bowed to popular demand and instead kept working on the original design, we might have now a proper representation of role-playing games in popular culture. Integral part of that would be a design for leveling characters up that helps carrying the social structure role-playing games need to have long campaigns.

Computer games had some neat ideas in that regard, but since playing computer games mostly seek way faster satisfaction cycles mostly for individual players (or with other players being abstracted to digital entities), it doesn't translate easily AND misses dimensions playing as a group in meatspace would add.

That means, for all we could learn from computer games (which is a lot), they also undermined role-playing games so profoundly that, paradoxically, the only thing that really could help role-playing games right now, would be to totally distance them from popular gaming culture. Make it a distinct experience, it's own thing. Put an emphasis on the social aspects of the game and give people some additional value they wouldn't gain from playing computer games (personal interaction and growth, for instance).

To go that way means designing and marketing role-playing games decidedly differently.

Because computer games ruined leveling up for rpgs ...

So what do you guys think? You see what I'm seeing? 


Still hustling this one: You can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3||, that rpg I wrote, right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm (still, but not for long) doing a sale on the game proper ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


* It was used earlier in social sciences to express a shift in social class towards a higher class, but meant that it leveled upwards in a hierarchy. Arguably, 'to level up' in a gaming context means upping ones level ... Or so the distinction is made.