23 May, 2016

On levels in roleplaying games

Why “The Legend of Zelda” is the best RPG series I’ve ever played

The first roleplaying game in the modern sense of the word is Gary Gygax’s and Dave Anderson’s “Dungeons & Dragons”, based on the wargame “Chainmail”. It allowed players to explore mysterious dungeons, slay horrible monsters and get exciting rewards for doing so. The system included classes, levels, equipment and various other things. Since the first edition of the game (currently on its fifth edition), a whole genre has emerged. Things have changed – not every RPG has classes, not all of them feature equipment in the usual sense of the word. However, one thing is necessary for a game to be generally viewed as an RPG or as having RPG elements – the player character’s advancement and customisation through experience points he gains over the course of the game. It is about this that I want to talk today.

Advancement and customisation based on experience points are detrimental to a single-player RPG’s ability to engage the player.
Note: here, “ability to engage the player” is used instead of a more vague and subjective “fun”. If I mention “fun” later on, it means that thing.

Let us look at a typical open-world RPG (don’t worry, we’ll consider linear RPGs as well). It is divided into various areas and tasks (quests, monster lairs you have to clear out, treasure caches you have to find, etc). Each of those is assigned a level or level range – in the starting village you’ll encounter rats and can find an iron sword; at the Mountain of Gods you’ll find demon-spawn hydras and after completing a long series of quests will get the Infinity Spear. It gives the player a sense of progression, but at the same time serves as a barrier between the player and most of the game’s content. Not being able to access harder areas is fine, the real problem lies with cutting off “outdated” areas.
Remember that village you started in? No reason to go back to that secret stash you’ve missed, it contains a minor healing potion which you have hundreds by now. The bandit fort that was a huge challenge while you were still on the track of the Lich Queen? Would’ve been nice to clear then, the Bow of Undead Slaying was a pretty great treasure for its level. Now you’ll just waste your time to make yet another area devoid of life by clicking through enemies that can’t possibly present a challenge to you. And even if you’re going the completionist route and doing all the level 30 quests before starting the level 31 ones, you’ll notice that after doing about a half of the level 30 ones you’ll already be miles ahead of them, because the game designer has to balance the game around you doing only the bare minimum.
And if the rewards and challenges are based on your level (see: “The Elder Scrolls” series), then what is the point of it? If at my level 1 the rats in the cellar were just regular rats, and when I reach level 50 they turn into angelic dire rats of death, then why did I even bother leveling? If that stash contains an iron sword at level 1 and a fiery sword of poison at level 20, then shouldn’t I postpone opening it until I reach the maximum level for maximum rewards? Not to mention it makes the world seem lifeless, revolving only around the player.
One thing levels and experience points do help with is the sense of character progression and the ability to customise him – when you level, you can choose which stats to improve, which stats to get, think about your further progression. Such a system makes implementing vertical (directly improving your already existing abilities) and horizontal (getting new abilities with power on par with the old ones) progression quite easy, but it is definitely not necessary. “Wolfenstein: The New Order”, for example, let the character improve through finding hidden objects (bonuses to maximum health and armour) and completing specific tasks (new abilities and improvements to old ones).
On that note, “The Legend of Zelda” series, while not usually classified as an RPG series, does the job of giving a sense of progression extremely well. Abilities and upgrades in that game are tied to story progression, exploration and mini-games. You delve into a deep cavern to grab a heart piece (which is always a prize, even when you have almost all of them), you win the race to get a bigger coin bag, and if you ever get stuck – you know you don’t need to grind, you just need to progress along the story to get a new ability that allows you into previously inaccessible areas. It does all that and engages the player without ever using experience points or the like.
A game that is heavily inspired by “The Legend of Zelda” – “Darksiders” – has shown the distinction between level-based and not level-based quite nicely, when its second installment added an “RPG” system as the biggest new feature. The result? “Darksiders II” is bigger, prettier, but ultimately more corridor-like. When coming back to old places for newly-available or missed upgrades, you just run past the enemies (that are too low-level to harm or challenge you) instead of, well, playing the game. When getting new treasure, you’ll often go “Oh, these scythes are worse than those I already have. Oh well.” And the game suffers for it. It becomes a slog where the first part was a fun and rather quick diversion.
And as for the linear RPGs I’ve promised to mention? The state of affairs is even worse there. You either have the opportunity to grind – in which case you’ll often be either ahead or behind the level the designer “intended” you to have at this point – or you don’t, in which case why even bother with experience? Could’ve just made it like “you’re getting an upgrade after beating this boss” like most games.


Experience is a holy cow that desperately needs butchering. It works in pen-and-paper games – because there the game master watches from behind the curtains, adjusting challenges, story and prizes as necessary to make the players feel like they’re in a living world, to feel like they’re being rewarded for their efforts –, but is not at home in videogames, where the player’s getting a finished product that doesn’t have the development team bundled inside the box. Look at “The Legend of Zelda”. Imagine what an actual RPG – with character choices, namely – would be like if it had that game’s systems. Wouldn’t that be great?


  1. I have some counterarguments to that. Maybe more to the premise of the actual article then to its contents, but still.

    Everything is good in moderation. Levels and experience are really not the problem, it's how you use them. If done correctly leveling could be used as a sort of self-balancing of the system. If you are good enough you can complete challenges at lower level, if not then you can skip it for now and go gain some experience somewhere else to make it easer. If anything, I would say it actually makes MORE sense outside of tabletop RPGs, because in tabletop GM can see the player's reaction and alter the challenge appropriately.

    You seem to conflate leveling of a character and level tiers of rewards - you assume, for example, that the potion of healing from the secret stash in the starting village is not going to be useful later on, which is not always the case. It could heal for percentage of your health, which, I would add, is not the same as scaling the reward to level as you don't get the different potion. And even if it was useless - what's the big deal? It's optional content. We're talking about RPGs, the whole genre that is supposedly focused on choice. Yes, once the players missed the secret cache in that case, they would have no real reason to go back and experience finding it. Which is not that different from them not experiencing a plot branch based on a choice that they made during a conversation. I think you might be getting dangerously close to the line of thinking that says every piece of content should be available and appropriate to everyone at any time during a single playthrough simply because designers spend their time on it.

    Then you seem to almost assume that all the content is going to be laid out in a somewhat-linear fashion and bandit fort is always going to be close to the level-appropriate area (and too easy should you decide to return to it later). What if it isn't? What if you want to place the Castle of Ultimate Evil right next to the starting location and suggest that the player should come back later after completing a journey in search of power? While you say that "not being able to access the harder areas is fine", if you go the described Zelda route, you would probably have to lock it behind an ability gained later. But with levels you could make it accessible at any point at which players are feeling that they are strong and experienced enough to survive it, or even TOO strong if they choose to. It's just more choice and control for the player which I can't see as a bad thing. So what if some people would decide to make it too easy for themselves? Instead of preventing them from doing that there should just be a more clear plot incentive to progress to a harder area before completing absolutely every possible available task because of misplaced sense of completionism. Maybe you should actually trust the players to make a sensible choice in the game about choices.


    1. Of course, all of that could be done good or bad. In an ideal world, players wouldn't WANT to get back and search for a hidden potion cache, because it was clearly (if indirectly) shown to them to contain only minor potions. Or maybe the house that the potions are known to be hidden in was burned down with later plot progression so they can't go back. The Castle of Ultimate Evil is shown to be a tough challenge with scattered corpses, a few "warning shots" and an obvious alternative path so it wouldn't come off as an arbitrary spike in difficulty. It's not to say it's always appropriate - there are no universal solutions.

      For a decent example of a leveling system you can look at Dark Souls. There is a character level that you can increase to improve your stats, but you don't have to do it. Pretty much everything can be completed without ever leveling if you choose to, it's just going to be an extra layer of challenge. In fact, there is a class the main idea of which is starting at lower level than everyone else. You can either, as they say, "git gud" (though my version of git keeps telling me that "gud" is not a valid git command for some reason), or make it easier for yourself by, for example, getting more HP and more room for error as a result. And the equipment, by the way, is leveled separately from the character. So that weapon you missed at the very start? You can still use it if you go back and get it. You would just have to use the same type of resources to improve it you use for any other weapon. And those resources are split into different tiers so you wouldn't put it all of them into a single weapon you already have because it will move to a different tier before you run, leaving you free to try other weapons.

      And then there is another point about progression. Why do many modern games even outside of RPGs have some sort of a "progression treadmill" built into them? Simply because it works. You can look down on it, but constantly giving even small and insignificant rewards to players positively affects their engagement with the game on average. And if instead of giving +0.01% to attack you decide to make upgrades actually big and meaningful you often just can't spread it enough.

      So what is the point I'm trying to make with that wall of text? Levels, in RPGs and otherwise, are just a tool. You don't need to get rid of it. You don't need to always use it. What you need is to think about how you use it, why use it and not give in to extremes just to be different or just because it was always done that way. Unfortunately, that kind of reserved statement does not make a good article title, so it's probably not going to catch on.

      P.S: As a bonus here are some mildly interesting ideas to consider to solve the problems you point out without discarding the leveling system completely. What if the challenges could scale up, but never down? What if levels are temporary and go away after a while? What if leveling is not linear and you get diminishing returns, thus never outleveling challenges too much? What if lower level areas actually close off or empty themselves after you get over a certain experience threshold? What if the whole game is designed not around the story separate from level, but reaching the certain experience level in any way you see fit?