I read a very good post today over at Cyclopeatron that discussed character advancement (leveling) in old-school fantasy games (OD&D, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, etc.), how it tends to drag out too long if the rules are followed by the book and also several possibilities on how to speed things up a bit. I think this is something we have all faced, and it is a legitimate gripe. Making the leveling process too easy causes the game feel diluted and boring, but making it too hard causes the game to seem tedious, frustrating and again boring. Advancing your character through the levels should be fun and feel rewarding. So, what is the answer to this age old dilemma?
I have approached character advancement several different ways over the years, and these are the main three that come to mind:
- By the Book - this, of course, is leveling the way it is written. This worked back in the day when I had all the time in the world to play D&D. These were the days of marathon-weekend-gaming-sessions that would last for days on end, all with little or no sleep. I no longer play in this fashion, nor do I wish to. I'm too old, so this method is no longer relevant to my style of play. I have used this method maybe a handful of times in the past decade...
- Abstract Reward - this was a method I used when running many a 2nd edition AD&D game back in the 90's. There was really no tried-and-true way of rewarding experience (XPs) with this method, but it wasn't so abstract that it was just a number I pulled off the top of my head. Well, I guess it was, but there was reasoning behind it. I would come up with a total XP value for the game session by looking over the encounters the party faced, the treasure that was found, what the characters needed to achieve the next level and I came up with a nice round number. I also evaluated each player on the effort they put out during each session and awarded additional XPs accordingly. Their current level had everything to do with how many XPs were awarded. Needless to say I tended to be a lot more generous with experience rewards then I would have if I had calculated them by the book, but not so much that the game felt easy or compromised. No one ever complained when I used this method, and it made my life much easier behind the screen.
- Game Sessions Equal Levels - this is my latest method for advancing the characters through the levels. The idea is that each level is no longer tied to a set experience point total, but valued by an equaling amount of game sessions. Levels are seen as cumulative in this method in relation to game sessions, so Level 1 equals one game session, but Level 3 would require six game sessions to achieve. I like to run each player through an introductory session, which helps flesh out their character's background and establish a bit of history. This could take anywhere from ten or fifteen minutes up to an hour. Mainly, we just sit and discuss the character's background, and overall concept. Dice are never rolled, but I do try to get the player in the right mindset with some roleplaying. Technically, the characters are not considered level 1 during this session. Completing this introductory solo "adventure" brings their characters to Level 1, so the first session gains them one level. To achieve Level 2 the characters will need to complete two more game sessions. Three additional game sessions for Level 3, and so on. It would take 55 total game sessions to achieve 10th Level using this method.
Of these, I like the Game Sessions Equal Levels method the best. My players seem to enjoy this method as well. Cyclopeatron mentioned that it had taken ten four-hour sessions to advance the party to Level 2. Using the Game Sessions Equal Levels method the party would have been Level 4 after ten sessions (1+2+3+4=10).
Now, I haven't done the math to see how it compares to the official way to gain experience, but it seems to work well for my games. From a game master standpoint I like this method mainly because I subscribe to the E6 philosophy that the sweet spot in the game tends to fall somewhere between Levels 5 and 8, and using this method allows me to advance the characters quickly to the sweet spot, and keep them there for a while. This method is abstract in the sense that there is no reason to tally up experience points anymore, but having the system in place still gives the players a goal to work towards. And we all know that establishing set goals keeps a game moving along...