Designing Games at a New Level

A common mechanic found in roleplaying games is the Level.  A level provides a means to measure the approximate power of a character.  Levels are usually designated by a number that begins with 1 or 0 and progresses an integer at a time.  However, Levels could also be designated by keywords such as novice, trained, and expert.  The use of keywords to designate Level is usually referred to as Rank.

Levels are keyed to another mechanic, usually Class, or Experience, or both.  However, level could be associated with Skills or other Traits that can be increased through play.  Though, most gamers tend to associate level as an encompassing attribute that measures a character as a whole rather than individual traits.


The obvious (but usually overlooked) advantage of Levels is that it provides characters with the ability to increase power over time.  It is a common expectation of roleplaying games, but it is not a universal trait shared by all RPGs.

Another advantage of Levels is reduced bookkeeping.   By tying character statistics to a Level, it decreases the amount of values that a player needs to maintain.  Having Level drive the effectiveness of abilities is a great method of simplifying the game.

The other advantage of Levels is the ability to determine the chances of character survival in against specific challenges.  This allows Game Master (as well as publishers) to more easily create adventures and scenarios that are matched to the characters’ ability.


The primary disadvantage of using Levels, just like any controlling mechanic, is you add a layer of inflexibility.  Levels place constraints on character Traits and story gamers may not like to play games that have levels because they feel it limits their roleplay (“Why can’t my level 1 dude take out a level 30 dragon?“).

From a design perspective, you also need to decide how much of the other mechanics are limited by level.  A designer can trade flexibility for record keeping by allowing more traits to be unhindered by level (which increases bookkeeping).

Example Systems

Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most recognizable roleplaying game that implements levels.  Third Edition used Character and Class Levels, and every character advances Levels at the same Experience values.   Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had Classes that advanced at different Experience rates.

HARP uses Levels as a method of distributing Development Points that can be used purchase Skills, Talents, and Stats.  Levels are obtained by gaining Experience.

Mutants & Masterminds uses Power Levels to determine the amount of Power Points a player can spend on a character.

Echelon Decisions

With Echelon, I made the decision that I wanted Point-buy and with Powers that have Rank.  Anyone who knows the Storytelling System will find this underpinning familiar.  However, I wanted to break from the Storytelling System mold by providing a character Level (as opposed to the Levels of Power that are already there).

In Echelon, Levels are tied strictly to Experience.  Once a certain amount of Experience has been achieved, a character gains a Level and all Level dependent Traits are recalculated.  Some Traits or Powers may require a certain Level as prerequisite.

The character level will also provide a means to determine a base modifier that will be used in most Tests as well as providing a multiplier to increase the effectiveness of certain Traits (Mana & Vitality, which will be covered in a future article).  Levels will help provide some built-in balance, even though my design principles maintain that balance is firmly in the dominion of the game master.

Listening to: Faith No More – Angel Dust – Caffeine

9 thoughts on “Designing Games at a New Level

  1. One of the first RPGs I ever played was Marvel Super Heroes. It was geared towards a younger audience who was already familiar with the most popular character in comic books. The one thing that I really liked about this system was that it didn’t have classes or levels. You were Spider-man and that was that. He didn’t improve or advance, his powers and abilities were clearly defined and there you had it. In this situation a level-based system wouldn’t work. If I could “advance” Spider-man by giving him new powers or making him stronger he would no longer be Spider-man as I knew and loved him. Although levels help keep players, monsters and encounters all around the same power-level, there is something to be said for throwing that mechanism out the window and just focus on having fun.

    Ameron’s last blog post..More Than Just Minions

  2. @Ameron: That brings up an excellent point. Having levels in games that are set in an already established mythos (like comics, movies, or novels) may destroy expectations. Many superheroes have a static power level that does not change over time, and playing one is more about creating fantastic stories than power accumulation.

  3. You might find the leveling system in a computer game called Mount & Blade interesting. It uses a combination leveling and point-buy system, combined with derived stats. The demo is free, and allows you to get up to level 7.

    In terms of the “base modifier” that is adjusted by level, how are you going to address the “can’t fail” issue? Most systems with improving base modifies get to the point were the bonus makes standard-difficulty tasks unmissable. DnD has generally addressed that by scaling difficulty up as characters level (resulting in fun things like “slipperier ice” or “even more unpickable lock”.

    The storyteller games go with dice pools, botch mechanism and scaling levels of “success”, combined with the contested check mechanic. That has some issues with it too, of course. I’ve found that this problem is common to a lot of systems, so I’m curious as to how you’re addressing it.

  4. @Wickedmurph: I’ll have to take a look at Mount & Blade, thanks for the reference. As far as the can’t fail issue goes, it will always be possible to fail or succeed. It is more of the purview of the dice mechanic, which I plan on posting about later.

    We (oh yeah, I’ve brought some other people on board, but more on that later) are currently hammering out the details on that, but we are actually looking at a mechanic that produces a normal distribution, but again that is a discussion for another article.

  5. One thing that might not be immediately obvious with the Mount and Blade leveling is that the main stats point provide bonuses to the derived stats point when you get them.

    For example, you get 1 stat point, 1 skill point and 10 weapon skill points by default. But if you use the stat point on Intelligence, you get 2 skill points, or if you use it on Agility, you get 15 weapon skill points. Points spent on the other 2 stats flow over into other derived stats (damage dealt, weapon weight limits and overall party size) which also provide passive bonuses.

    The thing I like about that point-buy system is that, although you level to get the points, nothing else is level-dependent. I’ve always thought that the “must be level 5 to use” rules you see in some rpgs (more commonly crpgs) were very artificial – too much so.

    Ultimately, any good rpg mechanic should provide interesting choices for advancing your character somehow. I player Marvel Superheroes as well, and it was a neat game, but it lacked long-term appeal for me because my character felt static. I feel that some sort of reward/advancement mechanism is valuable in a system, but you have to be careful – the difference between fun and onerous is a thin one, which I felt 3e of D&D crossed. The storyteller system was better, since you could get points from things like good role-playing and was fairly simple to use.

    I look forward to more of your Echelon posts.

    wickedmurph’s last blog post..Psychology and "Enchantment"

  6. I’m not so sure on reduced bookkeeping aspect of levels. I think that it often increases bookkeeping, in the manner that you always have to check your level against something or use your level as a reference. Although you can also make sure the numbers are correct for your level, in d&d for example, but that can be true of non-level games as well. Calculating your chance of survival via level can also be tricky. To do so correctly, the GM must understand the system more than the numbers. In 3.x, Dragons were more powerful than their CR to make them a tougher fight. In contrast, there are some CR 5 monsters that can be taken down by level 2-3 groups without a lot of trouble.

    I agree with you on inflexibility being the main disadvantage of the level system. It has a lot of baggage that easily comes attached with it. However, I would think that the question of “Why can’t my level 1 dude take out a level 30 dragon.” would be more of the system in questions issue than levels in general. Again, the baggage of a level system is easy to mount up.

  7. @Wickedmurph: I look forward to posting more Echelon stuff (heh, maybe this homebrew project will eventually get finished!).

    @KingSpoom: The way Levels can decrease bookkeeping is by:

    1) Pre-determining when a class recieves a feature (as opposed to a player being able to purchase a power whenever they have enough points)

    2) Keying major values off of Level, such as attack = Strength + Level (as opposed to attack = 3 ranks in Melee + Strength + Weapon proficiency + etc.)

    Of course, the more mechanics you add to any system, the more complex it gets. I also still stand my statement that Levels can help determine chances of survival, if the system was designed well. D&D presents a unique case where there are so many variables that it becomes very difficult to determine the exact chances of survival. But still, if you have a group of 4 1st level characters, I think it is a safe bet that they can’t handle a CR6 encounter. So it still works as a rough guide in D&D.

    I enjoy it when I get some challenging comments, thanks for commenting!

  8. @Mark: That sort of reminds me of Savage Worlds (Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic). Thanks for the letting me know about the Guts system.

  9. The Guts system (mostly used by Wessex Games and mostly used for skirmish wargames but also quite handy for RPGs) uses points buying but each character has a level of sorts based on the number of points invested in a characters Stats. There are only four levels: Green, Normal, Experienced and Veteran but, surprisingly, thats actually enough.
    .-= Mark Caldwell´s last blog ..The Danger of Difficulty Despair – With Graphs =-.

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