Towards a system without levels

Recently,  I had one of those moments of insight that make you want to move on. They usually lead you onto new things and new places but they are also mighty scary and need some time to process and if you are sensible (or just a lot older) require a bit of planning. I’ve had a few in my life and they have led to changes that have only helped me grow, even if the process as not always been enjoyable and yes, dear reader I have learnt to plan for the change through failing to do so previously.

Anyway, to the point in hand, I thought “Why do we have levels and EP?”. I think it grew out of the emulation/simulation debate raised by Gabe and a growing dissatisfaction with the whole EP reward and class system. So I raised the question about if anyone had done it and how it worked on the Rolemaster forums. Of course, there is no need to re-invent the wheel when you know it exists, which given the love of rule mechanics often foisted on RM players, was a surprise to find already invented, if a little diverse.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised because I already knew Runequest used a learned skills system and in some ways, I was thinking about a similar concept. I think that there are several things to consider before I put the mechanics to players as a way forward and inevitable at that stage we may tweak things but when I mentioned it at the post-game beers the other night they didn’t quail.

Here is a list of things I’m thinking about

  • How many hours/days to acquire skill ranks?
  • Are all skills learnt at the same rate?
  • Is the rate of learning linear?
  • What is the effect of a mentor/tutor/school?
  • In game skill development?
  • Natural aptitude vs resilient study?
  • Hierarchy of knowledge or accomplishment within skill levels?
  • Complimentary skills?
  • skill/knowledge fade?
  • How to provide an overall measure of success to the players if no level?
  • How do you encourage adventurers out of school?

Which is a lot of questions to work on, hopefully, I can blog some of my thoughts on the approaches we come up with. I suspect that initially at least we will apply this to the secondary skills in MERP which are almost impossible to develop using the development points given for each level. Certainly, that is what my players would like as a starting point.

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8 thoughts on “Towards a system without levels

  1. I’ve used skill-based games since the early 1980s. Some other things to consider:
    – Do some skills advance faster than others?
    – Are some skills flavor and not important to game play?
    – What skills should I emphasize to get the gameplay I want to see?
    – How much faster do player characters advance than the rest of humanity? I solved that one by setting four speeds of skill advancement, so that the players could play heroes.
    – When do characters go up in skills? When they use them, when they use them successfully, or on a time basis? Do they go up faster if they have a mentor or go to school?

    If you want a rule of thumb, remember that levels in D&D were geared around how much better a fighting man was than a normal unit. 7th level means the fighting man is as good as 7 normal men.

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    1. I like your ideas for things to consider, more grist to the mill. I know the rule of thumb – in fact, either here or on some other forum we have mapped out Rolemaster levels against the general population, something I think players can forget in their race to gain levels and power. The player whose character died in the last session was lamenting how he was just getting powerful enough a reflection that they had reached the sergeant/squad leader level. But take away that levelling and you would have a skilful fighter at 18, say, but none of the qualities of a hardened veteran. Which is where the skills that emphasise roleplay would be better developed. My character is good at leadership, tactical organisation, basic armour and weapon repair, telling stories. We wouldn’t need to roll for every action but it would help with the overall feel of the game.

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  2. I’d be very interested to hear what you come up with. I’ve been wondering what to do with my own game system for a while now. I don’t want giant, complicated lists of skills, either in the rulebook or on the character sheet…but is it even possible to do this thing without skills and levels?

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  3. I have been playing Rolemaster level-less for 20 years or so. It works really well.

    The basic mechanic is this

    You still use development points to build the first level character, nothing changes there.
    After that point when a skill is used in the story (not used for the sake of using it) the player can mark that skill and the related stats, so using your sword in a fight would mark the sword skill and ST and AG stats.

    When the character is due their ‘experience’ they roll d100 and if they roll over their current skill rank total then they gain 1 rank in the skill.

    Stat gains are rolled for stats that have been marked using the same rule, roll over your current temp to gain one point.

    Spell lists are slightly different. Learning the list, using DPs, give you just the first castable spell. When that spell is used it is marked just as skills are. The current level known x 5 is the target number to roll over. So if you know Invisible Ways to 4th level then you would have to roll 21+ to learn the 5th level spell on that list. This means that characters end up with a spiky profile of spells they know, many more spells on their favourite lists and fewer on the lists they rarely use.

    Once play starts players need to be able to learn new skills and spell lists. I used to work in adult education and we worked on the basis that it takes an average of 20hrs of tuition to learn the basics of a skill. So 20hrs of training will give a character the first rank in a skill or a chance of a skill gain roll in an existing skill.

    Spells that are based upon level now become based upon the rank in the individual list so a spell that has a duration of 1rnd/level would be 1rnd/rank.

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  4. One way of doing that is to create two NPCs that join the party. One you level up as normal and the other you use these house rules or your own variation of them. After two or three adventures compare the two.

    What I have found happens is that the characters progress very quickly to what would be a traditional 4th or 5th level. Skill bonuses at about +50 in all the skills that the characters feel are important and they are using. Spell lists get to 10th level and so on. After that things start to slow down.

    So the two side by side NPCs the level-less one will initially outstrip the levelled one.

    I have one player who can be a bit of a passenger, sort of “Wake me up when there is something to hit”, he found that his character fell behind the other more engaged characters until it was pointed out that the more they did the more they improved. That made him engage more but at first he was trying it on by using completely useless skills just so he could tick the box.

    Liked by 1 person

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