[MUD-Dev] (fwd) Re: Roleplaying

Travis Casey efindel at polaris.net
Sat Apr 4 22:58:32 New Zealand Daylight Time 1998

On Thursday, 26 March 98, J wrote:

> Like that fella from Fiddler on the Roof says: you are all right.

> A working definition for the sake of discussion: I propose that 'level'
> mean 'level of experience' and refer more or less to what we mean when
> we say 'that person has a great deal of (or not much) experience.

This, however, only leads to another question -- experience at what?
I don't think I've ever heard that phrase used without at least an
implicit specification of the "at what" part.

If we're going to say, "at anything", then the concept of level
becomes meaningless, since it gives us no useful information about the
character -- one could be "high level" by virtue of having a great
deal of experience at nose-picking.

Levels in RPGs are always associated with something else which defines
the "at what" -- thus, a character doesn't simply have a "level",
he/she has a level in a class, or in a skill, or in something else.

> Yes, level has been used as a single expression of power, where your
> level expressed how good you were at everything, or at least how
> good you were in the collection of powers and skills related to your
> chosen profession.  This is clearly silly, though I don't think any
> where near as silly as most would have us believe.  That is, though
> I think there are better ways to do it, still, using level as a
> single expression of power can be defended fairly well without
> stretching too much.

Again, this leads us to another question -- what's power?  D&D
defined power, for the most part, in terms of combat ability, in
fitting with its combat-centeredness.

However, power can't always be so easily defined.  Consider a magic
system in which one's access to magical energy is inborn and fixed.  A
mage can learn how to control the energies in more subtle ways, but
cannot learn to access more energy.

Thus, from a combat-oriented point of view, an inexperienced mage
might be much more powerful than a more experienced mage.  This isn't
unique to mages -- a more experienced warrior might have less combat
capability than a less experienced warrior who is more agile and
stronger.  I'm focusing on mages, however, because the "incredibly
powerful mage who doesn't have good control" is a common figure in
fantasy literature -- and one that doesn't fit well in traditional
class/level systems.

> And yes, the idea of HPs rising with level stretches things a bit too.
> ALSO not as much as people would have us believe.  For instance, it
> is not that great a stretch to look at HP as some sort of expression
> of one's ability to absorb/avoid/maneuver away from damage, not JUST
> bodily physical damage.  So as one 'rose in level' one gained more HP
> which represented a certain experience reflected in combat survivability
> through (for example) wiser use of maneuvers, or whatever.  I do think
> it makes more _sense_ to leave HP pretty much constant and to vary
> your 'survivability' by adding in combat-related dodge or parry or
> whatever skills.  But rising HP with level is by no means totally
> indefensible.

That depends on what levels mean.  In a combat-oriented game, in which
levels are supposed to correspond to combat ability, having HPs rise
with levels makes some sense.

If you're defining levels simply in terms of experience in one's
profession, having HPs rise with level makes no sense except for
combat-oriented professions.

A profession and a level can be thought of as just another kind of a
skill system -- just one with very broad skills.  Traditionally in
class-based systems, professions have included everything that a
character can do.  However, there's no reason why they have to be
defined that way.

The paper RPG Fantasy Wargaming defines characters as having three
different levels:  a combat level, a magic level, and a religious
level.  These somewhat correspond to D&D's Fighter, Magic-User, and
Cleric classes, but unlike those, they have no overlap.  That is,
where in D&D being a high-level magic-user automatically implies a
level of combat ability (via hit points and "to hit" scores), in FW, a
high magic level implies nothing about the character's combat level.

IMHO, such a division is much more useful than the "standard"
class-based way of using levels.

> Okay, all that said, one could easily still have a skill-based system,
> or at least a system which includes skills/abilities/etc which are
> somehow increased in effectivenes through use or practice, and each
> may be increased independently of the other, generally.  And this
> skill-based system could still use the idea of 'levels of experience.'
> And this could still represent, in some meaningful way, an analog
> to real life.

Of course.  Indeed, many paper RPGs have such a system.  Bushido is a
good example, although hard to find these days.  Characters in Bushido
have a profession, which defines the base set of skills they get and
which skills are cheaper for the character to rise in.  However,
characters also have a level in their profession.

Skills can be raised through use and through training.  Level,
however, can only be raised by gaining experience points, with each
profession having its own methods for gaining experience points.
Levels in Bushido also require a minimum amount of On (honor points).

Levels are used as modifiers to some skills and also indicate a
character's reputation in his/her profession -- in order to become
renowned in one's profession, simply being very skilled is not enough
-- a character must also have done significant things.  Thus, the
requirement for experience points and On.

> For example, I know people in my field that are wildly experienced,
> much more than others, and I know people that are totally inexperienced,
> and all sorts of folk in between.  Some of the newbies to my field are
> very good at one or two things, and know much more than, say, someone
> very much more experienced.  Still, their level of experience is a
> real and approximate-able thing.  And it's meaningful to use the
> expression.  Level of experience in this case refers, more or less,
> to a sort of weighted average of all the skills attained, with a
> random factor of sorts thrown in for just plain service time or
> years of life.

> Over and over again I've seen it -- more experienced people just do
> better at things, even things where the less experienced people
> (in the field) may have a few individual skills that exceed those
> of the more experienced people.  Okay, it might be arguable that
> that just means the more experienced people have some obscure
> 'skills' at higher levels, but we just didn't know what they were,
> like, hmm, "thinking on your feet about matters related to your
> field" or "improvising jury-rigged solutions" or whatever. Fine.

What I think you're trying to get across here is the difference
between a high skill value acquired by "book learning" and/or
simulation-style training and one that includes practical experience.
This is definitely something that many skill systems have problems
with, but there are multiple ways to deal with it.

To some extent, I believe that the problem is a false one, however.
It's more something that exists in the perceptions of gamers than
something that exists in RPGs.  A couple of things that make this a
false problem:

- Prior to modern times, few people learned skills solely, or even
  primarily, through "book learning" and/or simulations.  Instead,
  skills were learned through apprenticeships systems.  Thus, people
  gained real experience with what they were learning to do as they
  were learning it, and were given more opportunities to see how
  things are actually done "in the field."  Naturally, this doesn't
  apply to games in modern settings, and may not apply to games in SF
  settings as well.

- The second reason has to do with the definition of a skill level.
  Many RPGs explicitly state that skill levels are defined in terms of
  what characters can do with the skill in practice, and/or in
  high-pressure situations.  Thus, a character with "high skill" in
  colloquial terms but without much practical experience would not
  have a very high skill level in game terms, because he/she cannot
  *apply* the knowledge well in practical situations.

> Either way, levels of experience, or just levels, can be meaningful
> as an expression of some sort of overall attainment, and levels are
> not at all incompatible with skill-based OR roleplaying systems.
> Or so I would happily assert.

I'll agree with all of that.  They *can* be meaningful, and are
definitely not incompatible with skill-based or roleplaying systems.
However, levels can also be very misleading

       |\      _,,,---,,_        Travis S. Casey  <efindel at io.com>
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