Sunday, July 18, 2010

How much does D&D need experience levels?

When I think about it, probably with too much naive 'realisticness' as the ideal, I'm dissatisfied with the increase of hit dice at each level up.

Think of a technically proficient guitar player--isn't he about as good as he'll ever be once he masters the instrument, say as a teenager like Clapton and Page? They might get wiser but are they going to play with all that much more technical proficiency?

So, if a guitar player is like our fighting man, isn't he 95% as good as he'll ever be when he sets out for glory as a strapping youth? Wouldn't it be even more glorious if he ended his career showering in golden coins upon a raft of his enemies' long bones, floating on the river of the blood of all the world's dragons, if he got to that point without all those extra hit points--if it was the treasures and storied arms he gathered in his adventures that made him great, not a game mechanic designed to make it easier for him to achieve greatness.

Wouldn't this make gold equal experience in an even more fundamental way?

Something new would have to devised to handle access to higher spell levels, and a skill system (which I guess is the way this concept is usually handled) would seem to be very appropriate in this form of the game.

This idea appeals to me. I'm interested in the opinions of the wise on this matter--though apparently not enough to pose this question in a forum where any of them will see it.


James Maliszewski said...

You certainly could go this route, if you want. It's more or less the line of thinking that led to RuneQuest's rules.

Aaron Nuttall said...

Thank you for the pointer to RuneQuest, James. I suppose I would have already known about it if I had kept up on your posts about that game. I won't let it happen again!

anarchist said...

If I was doing 'level-less D&D', I wouldn't have skills that increased numerically like RuneQuest.

Instead I'd have abilities, that you either had or you hadn't. You'd get one instead of levelling up, but they could be gained in any order (maybe different classes would have different possible abilities). So they'd be more like 3rd edition feats, without the hierarchy of prerequisites.

Thus experienced characters wouldn't necessarily be better trackers, but they'd be able to track AND be more likely to do critical hits AND be able to fight better in the dark, rather than just one.

anarchist said...

PS You could probably do spells the same way: make them all roughly the same power level, or have drawbacks for the more powerful ones, and characters get more as they go on.

PPS Someone else has a level-less version of D&D, at

Aaron Nuttall said...

Anarchist, thanks for the link to Heroes of the Mythic Age. I doubt I would ever seen it otherwise.

This morning I'm toying with the idea of doing traits a la Risus and Edges a la Clash Bowley. Or whatever the proper provenance is.

Mechanically I'm imagining that characters will have a 'lucky number' that when rolled enough times when a Condition is in effect to fill in a set number or check boxes, will grant that character an edge. This isn't my idea but sadly I don't remember where I read it.

Are we suposed to take notes and note sources when we're idly clicking about?

Here's a post from I Fly By Night o the subject:

Stephen Simpson, CFA said...

The example works well with warrior types, but perhaps less well with others.

While a guitarist may not get much better with age (and will decline at some point), a clergyman's faith may well strengthen with time.

Likewise, a wizard type could see their knowledge grow and multiply over time (as it does with many scientists).

And then you have thieves ... which could be a middle case. They may be as dexterous as they will ever be at age 16, but street smarts, know-how, and seeing new "tricks" could improve their skills up to an age where time starts robbing them of agility (or bestows them with common sense).

Erik said...

I seem to remember a long debate now... almost 20 years ago that ended with the following:

your HP at first Level are your... life (this is where organs and blood come into play

your accrued HP after this are a numerical representation of your combat knowledge and trained reactions

This opened the debate of what acts bypassed the fluff and directly impacted the base vital hp

To that the durability of armor was accounted for

So Vital HP (vHP) + Armor Points (AP) = the damage for a kill shot (surprise attack/assassin)

you need levels to motivate the mass consumer, Clapton was able from the start, but his technique evolved with every encounter/lesson/performance...
I would venture someone of his eventual skill crossed the threshold of 0-Level to 1st Level as a pre-teen.

But then again, I may be under the feeblemind effects of Googleplex....

Aaron Nuttall said...

Stephen, your points about class abilities connected to knowledge and the wisdom of age are well taken--I imagined that a skill system would handle that, so that only those things get better, instead of those things as well as your ability to survive wounds.

Aaron Nuttall said...

Yeah, I think I remember something like that too, Erik (and I think the DMG says something to that effect). But the lesson I take from it know is that the discussion of what later level hit point represent arose for me because the rules didn't sit right with me--and they still don't.

I'm happy to just stick with it, since it's served so well for so long, but I'm also interested in trying it a different way.

Stephen Simpson, CFA said...

Aaron -

Totally agree that a skill system could take care of that. But if you are then permitted to gain skill points over time, isn't that just XP in a new suit?

I actually don't mind contemplating non-XP systems (I think ShadowRun is maybe like that?), but I think a lot of players need the "reward" that XP represents.

I love to tinker with rules and just see what happens. Like, allow any mage at any time to *try* to cast any spell. A 1st-level trying a 7th-level all but certainly goes mad or gets ripped apart by the energies, but maybe a 2nd-level mage can pull off a 3rd-level spell on a lucky roll....

Tommy Smith said...

I started to write a comment about the scalability of hit points (ask me later if you're interested), but then I realized I was missing the point of your post.

Hit points are an abstraction to restrict access to monsters above your level, and that's pretty much it. If you're fighting monsters around your level, then they should be doing about the same damage, percentage-wise, or so DnD says. Realistically, I don't care how good of a fighter you are: if you fight a dragon, and take a fireball to the face, the only thing saving you is magic, not some diamond hard damage-soaking skin.

I think the rest of my response depends on what kind of DnD we're talking. If it's olde school, I think your guitarist is setting out for glory too late. He shouldn't have mastery of the guitar. He should have a couple of chords under his belt, and go off to challenge the local goblin tribe to a rock off.

If it's 4e, then he does already have mastery of his instrument, and, being already able to defeat any normal guitarist on the planet, will go off to seek other super guitarists, defeat them, and take their better guitars.

Aaron Nuttall said...

Sorry about the delay in responding to your comments, guys. I thought I was going to be e-mailed when new comments showed up. . .

Yeah, Stephen, gaining skill points would be much the same as experience, but there wouldn't be level gain. I like your idea of letting wizards attempt spells too. I can't wait until some cocky pointy-hat blows himself up through pure presumptuousness!

Tommy--my plan is basically to remove that contract, that your characters have enough hit points to fight the monsters you run into.

I will have to get back to you on the matter of skill-level at the beginnings of careers.