Wednesday, August 24, 2011


So...shit, do I even want to write this?

Ah, well.

Tell me true, gentle readers: would it kill you (or your players) if the whole of D&D game play was compressed into less than half-a-dozen levels of experience?

Let me explain EXACTLY what I mean, just to make sure my question is clear. In B/X, the whole of player character experience has a maximum potential career of 36 levels (for human character classes); less if one chooses to ignore levels beyond 14 (the final levels detailed in the original Cook/Marsh expert set). In D20 characters were capped at 20 levels of experience, which is considered the "effective max" in 2nd edition also, if I'm not mistaken (and excluding supplemental "epic play"). In AD&D and OD&D most classes had no maximum level, unless one chose to play a demihuman character, but even those could reach 8th or 10th or higher levels depending on class and ability scores.

Lots of levels. Lots and lots of levels. And "high level" generally not considered until PCs reach the double digits, at which point truly cool adventuring can be expected to occur: the GDQ modules, not to mention endgame scenarios like building castles, conquering territory, and exploring paths to immortality.

Okay, so...given that THIS is what D&D is kind of all about, in its current (myriad) incarnations, how do y'all feel about the idea of compressing that entire career into, say, 3-5 levels? Or more specifically, 5 levels for human characters and fewer (than 5) levels for demihumans?

I only ask, 'cause that's what I'm doing.

[I've also compressed the class list down to 3 (total) with a potential "bonus type" (about the same as rolling psionics...except not psionics). And no, there are no "skills" at this point, nor any plans for the inclusion of skills]

Now understand this isn't terribly original...the idea comes from DCC (whose level titles are compressed down to 5 levels) and Holmes Basic (and the idea of playing HB "straight"...with 3rd level being the maximum level in a world that still has trolls and vampires and purple worms). I have some ideas for putting a twist or two on the concept, but the end result still remains: player characters' progression in an adventuring career is limited to no more than 5 levels.

Anyone have a problem with that?

I mean is there a particular reason characters need to go to level 10 or 14? If you want "drawn out" play, you can make the XP gaps between levels larger (or the XP awards for monsters and treasure smaller). Why make attack and save progression every 3 or 4 levels when you can make it every single level? Heck, you could have PCs roll 3 dice for hit points every "level up" instead of one die if you wanted to keep pace with the original D&D design (I am NOT doing that, though I have other thoughts on increasing character durability).

Granular spell progress? I'm already changing the magic system based on player wants; it probably won't resemble the Vancian system (or DCC, for that matter).

Granular thief skills? Leaving aside whether or not there will be a "thief" class at all, I find this one of the weakest aspects of the Old School D&D anyway.

No, I'm pretty sure I can make stuff work with 5 levels. To give you an idea, the degree of character effectiveness roughly maps like this:

1st level = 1st through 3rd (Basic level play)
2nd level = 4th through 6th
3rd level = 7th through 9th (Expert level play)
4th level = 10th through 12th (Name level)
5th level = 13th through 15th (Companion level play)

The main question I have is: do people hate that they can't have an 8th level or 19th level or 42nd level character? I mean, World of Warcraft has 80 or 90 levels of play, and people really seem to dig on that. I want to make the game less like a video game, but still with a method of "measuring power." But I know Americans like high scoring games (basketball, football) more than low scoring ones (soccer)...they like the feel of constant "progress" and accolades and awards. Maybe they prefer multiple, less effective levels.

Mmm...actually, I don't care if they do. My game, my rules. I guess the REAL question is not "do you hate the idea," but:

A) How much do you hate the idea? and
B) Are there other reasons for including a multitude of levels that I am not considering?

Thanks for your input.

[now, back to jury duty...]


  1. Overall, I think I am liking more and more some sort of accelerated character advancement. I've been getting more and more pensive when I think about all those levels looming above my player's heads (and my head by extension). As a kid we rarely finished what one would consider a cohesive campaign. We would start off at level one and just run characters for a few levels, then for whatever reason we would start over again. Now that I've really gotten back into the hobby, I find myself wanting to get to higher-level play sooner rather than later.

    By the way, did you see this post:

    I might do the "only odd levels" thing in my C&C game that I'm running at the moment.

  2. This is an interesting concept. I've thought on something similar since reading about "HB straight" and the level system for the basic game in Dragons at Dawn.

    The major problem with that do you deal with experience? Do you simply remove one or two zeroes for numbers, or make it arbitrary, or what?

    And on that note, how exactly do you scale things? I'd be interested in seeing how you tackle all this. Looking forward to a write up down the road!

  3. do you still advance from 1st to 5th at the same rate, though? If you need the same xp to get to second level as you would have needed to get to 4th level, then the players don't get the satisfaction/reward/feeling of achievement of leveling up often enough. There's a very carefully studied reason that WoW has the leveling rate/frequency they do.

    If instead what you're saying is that you'd compress the whole campaign into roughly five levels worth of playing time, that seems more in line with modern, grown-up schedules, although maybe a little TOO abbreviated. Neckbeard is currently at 4th level, iirc, and feels like he's just getting started.

  4. This has been done with the 3.5 set, with something called E6, with the level cap at Level 6. I can see it working, but it seems to me that you'd need to rework a lot to make it worthwhile. You mention you've going to approach magic differently, how so?

  5. I thoroughly approve of a more condensed and abstract approach, so I'd have no problem with it.

  6. Ha! My jury panel just got recycled, so I have time to blog some more...yay!

    @ Drance: I did see that article...AFTER I posted mine (I started writing last night around 10pm and didn't finish up till this morning). While it's irritating to once again have my thunder stolen, I think that this idea is one that is steadily coming around due to the reality of the "modern, grown-up gaming schedule" (as Iron Goat calls it). I wouldn't be surprised to see MORE of a movement to this kind of thing across ALL level-based games.

    @ Silent Jud: How I am handling XP is it's own topic. Right now, I'll just say it is NOT based on the traditional (Old School) method of handing out XP. Neither is it based on "show up for a certain number of sessions and level."

    Regarding scaling: monsters are pretty much the same in my heartbreaker as in B/X. Guess what? A dragon or giant or ogre is ALWAYS a serious threat to life and limb. But high level heroes have the methods for taking them down (if they're willing to risk the fight).

    @ IG: Yeah, I grok what you're saying which is why I'll be using a different XP system (and definitely NOT one based on the WoW "addiction strategy"...people aren't paying ME a monthly fee for my games!).

    Under my current plan, a character like Neckbeard would be 2nd or 3rd level at this point in his career. Mapped onto a weekly game play schedule it would take more than a year for even the most ambitious player to reach 5th level...and hopefully there would still be "room to play" after that.

    That's one possible consideration of the original game designers: with unlimited levels, play can extend as long as one wants (i.e. until you get bored with your character) with always "something to look forward to." I'm not sure that's what I want in the game...though probably some type of End Game is desirable, to have an "overall goal" players can attain through the life of a campaign.

    THAT I will have to ponder awhile.
    ; )

    1. About always having something to look forward to in the game, the BECMI rules had a clear win condition, but one almost impossible to attain. You had to become the most powerful Immortal twice with the same character. I write more of it here, as it's a bit long for a comment:

      At least it's a goal other then reaching level 80, or some such ;D

  7. @ Simon & Kelvin: Sorry - cross-post.

    @ Simon - still working out the kinks for magic; not quite ready to post it. However, if/when I ever get back to discussing DCC and ITS magic system, I'll probably have a few words to say.

    @ Kelvin - Right on.
    : )

  8. This is interesting. I'd be curious to see how it plays out when you get more concrete stuff done. I don't use most of what I read on the internet, but I do like the thought-provoking nature of a lot of it. This, though, might get me biting a bit more. I think the longest running campaign I ever had stopped just shy of name level, followers, and the "end-game." It might have taken a different dynamic if they leveled differently.

    Ultimately, what it makes me consider is an old saying I heard in the Army:

    If it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid. This looks like it might work.

  9. I’d certainly OK with it. My highest level character so far has been 9th. (Not counting a couple of one-offs that were “born” at higher levels.) For that matter, I started with classic Traveller, which had limited character advancement. (And my original group never even used those rules.) I’m happy with the rewards all being “in game”.

    That said, I’ve played with people for whom “leveling up” was their favorite part of the game. I can’t say, however, that conversations about this ever got me to really understand.

  10. The concept of compressing the range of levels down is interesting... but, as a player, I would want to see how level progression broke down.

    Would "1st level" PCs have more competency (more HD, better Saving Throws, higher attack rolls/THAC0/combat matrices) right out of the gate? Or would there be a serious leap in competency from "1st" to "2nd"?

  11. if you are just compressing the number of levels why don't just let them jump levels (going from 3rd to 6th or whatever) so you don't have to convert monster

    if you are instead looking for a different game then I would use a little more levels, one problem can be that levelling could be overwhelming (think of going from 7th to 13th level for a mage....

  12. @ Higgi: Thanks for the encouragement!

    @ Robert: And wouldn't it be fun to try that 9th (Name) level stuff sometime? Assuming one had created a background through regular play prior to reaching that "lofty" level?

    @ KP: A 1st level character would be equivalent to a 1st level character: a tidy bit above the Normal Human, but still a goblin-fighter. However, a few new twists to the game may make the characters a bit more durable in the fighting of those goblins.

    At 2nd level (and every level thereafter) one would start to see differences...without the "filler levels" between, each individual level becomes its own breakpoint. 2nd level spells at 2nd level, 3rd level spells at 3rd level, saves increased at each level, attack progression increased at each level, etc.

    @ Fabio: I don't want to jump because I want monsters to stay threats without adding extra stuffing to 'em. I want a 5 HD mummy (or a 3 HD wight or a 4 HD ogre) to be a beast even against a high level character. I want players to say, "oh crap! a giant!" not "well, I've got 50 hps and the cleric has all her spells, it'll be a battle of attrition but it shouldn't be too much of a problem."

    The latter thinking is a video gamey mentality...and I kind o want to try getting away from that.

    BTW, spells are going to be much different, if I can manage it (still tinkering with the idea).

  13. Initial response (I'm at work so will need to be quick... I'll try to come back later today).

    At first I thought of E6 (as mentioned by another commenter) but that's not really the same thing -- E6 is limited to the bottom end of the 3.x level range, you seem to be spanning more of it but in bigger chunks. Which is cool by me.

    In fact, that's close to what Echelon d20 is doing (except that each 'chunk' is still split into four levels). D&D has several noticeable power levels of play (see Justin Alexander's "Calibrating Expectations" article at for detail). I see no reason why you can't play on that explicitly (as Echelon does) -- who cares that you're 'fifth level', you're 'heroic' and can do 'heroic' things, while someone a step up from you is a 'champion' and can do bigger things (+3 more to his attack bonus, can cast a couple levels more spells, whatever).

    On the face of it, seems an entirely reasonable idea to me.

  14. Heartbreaker alert! Aren't you breaking compatibility with your own B/X companion in the process? This is a good time to review any mission statements.

    Perhaps I represent a minority in this commentaries section-- but I like leveling up. I enjoy the feeling of achievement, be it survival, diligence, or clever play.

    Having said that I do not believe there is something inherently wrong with a five level limit. Particularly if steps could be taken that made leveling up feel like a more organic experience.

    The only negative I can think of is that levels in DnD have traditionally been a kind of skill-measurement. Reducing these to five steps creates a very blunt "usuck" or "urock" scale. My gut feeling is that 10 to 12 is perfect-- but I'm guessing there is something more going on.


  15. Sounds like a great idea. I think if I did this I would avoid lumping all the classes together under the same levelling system, but instead focus on those incremental jumps in abilities for the various classes - those levels where they increase their attack rolls and saving throws. Fighters would level up more than magic-users (or at least magic-users would take longer to reach their maximum level). This might be more fiddly initially, but once down on paper I'm sure it would work fine.

  16. I think you'd be better off scrapping the level system altogether and allowing people to buy specific things they want with experience. Seriously.

  17. The only qualm I'd have is if you still included level drain effects. Fear would have to be generated in some other way.

    There's another game being designed that uses a similar concept. It compresses levels down to three (!), with each level incorporating aspects of several "traditional" levels. It's set in Dark Ages England, and can be found in this blog, with some specifically interesting posts delineating various classes. Here are some examples:

    Wicce and Wicce Craft

    Ælfcynn Scytta

    Dweorg Scildgebróðra

  18. If a first level character is only as hardy as a first level D&D character, it won't work, no one will make it to level 2. Otherwise, it'll be fine!

  19. Why not simply start the characters at level five and end the game at level 11 or 12?

    This would start the characters out as reasonably effective yet by no means invincible heroes who have some survivability against dangerous odds. A level five group could get away if they found themselves in over their heads in an encounter.

    On the other end a level 12 group would be very powerful, yet not invincible. They can do amazing things and defeat some of the toughest of monsters if they work together yet the DM can always smack down any player who gets a god complex.

    These parameters would give you the six (or seven) levels you desire but would still feel like D&D, in fact the game rules themselves would not be altered.

  20. @ BTS: I LIKE certain aspects of low (1st and 2nd) level play. It's not about shortening the campaign length, it's about COMPRESSING the experience...not drawing out advancement from low to mid to high level.

    It's also about playing a game where characters are more heroic and less superhuman.
    ; )

  21. Comparing WoW with D&D is like Apples and Orangutans. It really is two very different things. RPG's have been moving away from class based/level based play since the seventies. There are some completely realized and very well done games without either. Some of those games work fine for a fantasy type setting.

    No reason not to have five levels or none if that's what suits. No reason not to create your own game if that's what floats your boat and playing it in a OSR type world. Like someone said, rules are not really necessary. I've played whole games with just a player describing their character and me describing the world. Things that needed a random outcome were either settled with a coin toss, a die roll, or some other way with bonuses and penalties added or subtracted as we saw fit.

    You clearly think about game design, play, and preparation. Anything you came up with would be playable with only minor tweaking.

  22. Nice. Can't wait to see it. Simpler and more straightforward = better.

  23. You could continue advancement past Level 5 by allowing, for example, a complete reroll of HP when you earn another 100,000 EXP. Take the better of the two. Eventually you will have close to the maximum possible by roll. It's also possible that you just roll HP luckily the first time through and that doesn't help much. Maybe every 100k EXP you get a chit that you can use for various things: HP reroll chance, learn a new spell (M-U style), find a treasure map leading to some adventure, something cool happens to benefit your stronghold, etc.