Removing the golden thread: A Level-less D&D

We’ve almost come to the end of this exercise I agreed to take on in not just complaining about what’s wrong with D&D but providing an alternative take on how the game should be designed. We’ve made some significant alterations to the game (hopefully for the better) but we’ve got a couple more things to address. For reference, let’s take a quick look at what we’ve already proposed:

Today we’re going way back to the very core of D&D again and taking a very, very different path. But first, let’s review the usual ground rules: Try to remember that this is just an exercise in what I would have done. Everything here is opinion. Feel free to disagree, consider me an idiot, whatever. If 4E works for you and your gaming crowd, then by all means play it to your hearts’ content. I applaud all fun had in this hobby. However, as I’ve stated numerous times, 4E doesn’t work for me or my gaming crowd. As a result of this, I would not have made the same changes to the game that WotC did. What follows is where I would have focused my changes and where I would have gone with the intellectual property.

Methodology

My methodology in the process will be guided by a short list of principles:

  • Rules should be simple guides, with options to be expand by the DM.
  • Rules should lead to interesting options.
  • Rules ignored should be rules removed.
  • No Rule is sacred.
  • No inspiration forbidden.

The Starting Point

For this process I’ve decided that my jumping-off point with be trying to turn 2E into a better version of 4E by removing the bloat of the 3.xE versions of the game. However, today we’re once again going to go all the way back to the roots of the game and remove something unnecessary. This post is about the golden thread that interweaves virtually all of D&D’s mechanics; this post is about:

Levels

I know what some of you are thinking. You’re ready to scroll down and hit the comment and enter in something like, “You’ve gone too far!” or “I was with you up to now.” But bear with me. I think you might just be surprised what we discover. – KO

Blame Stargazer for this one. His simple line, “Last but not least I am actually not sure if levels are even needed…” really got me thinking. And somewhere in my consciousness it joined forces with Justin Achilli’s post that First Level Deserves to Be Cool and suddenly I realized that levels are a sacred cow masquerading as a false goal. In short, a blind adherence to a level-based D&D should be slaughtered just like adherence to the 3-18 bell curve of attributes. No rule is sacred, so lets see what happens when we remove levels… Gone with levels are XP gains and calculations and the never-ending spiral of ever-increasing challenge resulting in either absurdity or game breaking imbalance. Gone are the “standard” creature and challenge rankings that define what a new adventurer can and should seek to overcome and what should be left to a more seasoned party. Some of these removals should be instantly seen as a good thing. Mystery and adventure can be felt creeping back into a game where everything is on the same relative scale and a cunning and well prepared group of novices can indeed strike for their fortunes in the wilderness and return heroes. But likewise, even a well seasoned group of adventurers must suddenly be wary of even a group of goblins seeking to make a name for themselves. In short, removing levels makes the game more adventurous. But gone also are all those predefined gains from levels (most of which won’t bother us one bit since we’ve already removed them) and the underpinnings of some very D&D-esque concepts such as increased power, capacity and capability due to experience. In fact, the list of mechanics tied to level progression is fairly lengthy even for our simplified list of four classes:

  • Skill points – no longer an issue as we already removed them
  • Feats – also removed
  • Spell advancement tables – Both Magic-users and Clerics gain spells with increased level
  • Thieving skill advancement – Thieves grow more proficient from advancing levels
  • Increased turning capability – A Cleric’s ability to rebuke or destroy undead increases with level gain
  • To Hit tables – All characters see an improvement in their combat capabilities with increased level
  • Saving throw tables – All characters improve in resisting damaging effects with increased level
  • HP – All characters improve in resisting damaging effects with increased level
  • “Challenge ratings” – DM’s are given a well documented and easy to follow metric for understanding if an obstacle or trap is equal to a party’s capabilities.

There may be more I’m overlooking at the moment, but yikes, even with the prior removal of skills and feats there’s a lot tied to levels. It seems that if you attempt to remove levels from D&D it’s like you’re pulling on the master thread that holds so many things together.

Embracing our fears

Scary thought isn’t it? Levels look to be the linchpin holding the game together. Removing that pin is likely to lead us to a game that may not even feel or look much like D&D. But let’s keep going and see where doing that leads us. (Fear not, we can always delete this post and pretend we never thought of going down this path.) Let’s first look at all the places levels interact with the D&D’s mechanics and see what would happen were we to remove the concept of a level based progression from the game.

Magic!

Magic-users: Since we’ve already modified how magic is handled in our new version of D&D, I don’t see where the removal of spell progression as a result of level gain would seriously impact the game. Spells can easily be reclassified into groupings based on Spell Failure (which incidentally is translated from spell level) and, as we discussed in our remake of the magic system in D&D, we’re no longer concerned with Magic-users having access to spells above their level per se. As a result, the fear that removing levels might cause the Magic-user to suddenly break is an unfounded fear. Of course we will need to rework the current arcane spell list into one with spell failure as the classifier and describe the impact of an intelligence modifier to those spells it affects, but that’s to be expected. Clerics: Clerics on the other hand may pose a serious issue for us if we remove levels. Especially since we’re on the record for advocating that a Cleric should be able to cast “any spell at their level and below.” For the record, my exact quote from the post on rebuilding the Cleric class is: “…a cleric can cast any spell of his level or below at any time. They need not prepare spells, they simply ask for divine intervention and either get an answer or don’t…” Wow, that’s a problem indeed. Suddenly the Cleric has too many spells and access to too many world-changing, miracle-level options. That opens up the Cleric to being the guns AND butter everyman class we tried to reel it back from. So what are our options? For starters, in a level-less environment, the Cleric spell list needs some serious pruning. For example, gone are the needs for each Cure * Wounds spells. Combining them into one simple Cure Wounds offering would be sufficient with other progression spells also being combined to one master spell. That alone would pare down the divine spell listing. But there’s still more we could do to make the Cleric less of a stand-out in comparison to the other classes. Namely, we remove direct and sole access to any spell that is currently over level 4 and some of the level 3 ones as well. No inspiration being forbidden, I say we also take a concept from 4E and introduce rituals and prayers… but with a twist straight out of the Unearthed Arcana spell Combine and declare that certain rituals and prayers (as presented in the form of divine spells) require more than one Cleric who worships the same god (or at least gods from the same pantheon in a pantheon-rich environment) to entreat the bestowing of the spell. Obviously we will need to go through the divine spell lists and reclassify or combine progressive spells, but we were going to have to do so in order to describe how a wisdom modifier impacted certain spells anyway, and once completed the Cleric will be more in line with the other classes.

Skills (part 2)!

Thieves: It’s my opinion that thief characters have gotten the short end of the stick with regards to their list of special skills since the start of AD&D. Where their skills are generally useful to an adventuring party, the beginning skill level is so low as to make picking a lock vastly inferior to just bashing something open. At higher levels some skills exceed 100% and we find the addition of rules to bring those percentiles down due to slipperiness and the like. But these rules are often ignored. So by the mantra of ignored rules should be removed, we find ourselves with a progression of skills that can (under certain circumstances) yield an uninteresting result. What’s more, it’s probably a good thing we removed the racial benefits from the game since leaving them in leads to dwarves and elves being better than (or at least equal to) the thief at noticing things in low levels. I propose that in a level-less D&D, all thieves begin with a baseline of 50% chance for success in all thief skill checks which is adjusted by both intelligence and dexterity modifiers. Each bonus increases the chance of success by 5% (and penalty likewise lowering success by 5%) so that a smart and dexterous thief is more likely to succeed in a given skill check. The only given exception to this would be Hear Noise which would not be increased by dexterity but would still be increased by intelligence. As a result, a thief would have a range of base chance of success in their given skills from 40-80% based on their intelligence and dexterity modifiers with the norm being around 65%. For a class that has concerns about being pushed out of the spotlight in their given skill use by magic, it stands to reason that rather than trying to out-thief the thief by magical means and instead using magic to increase the intelligence and/or dexterity of a thief becomes a far better course of action for a party of adventurers.

Scale of challenge

I’m sure some of you are still thinking that D&D just isn’t D&D without levels. You’re convinced that it’s easy to address spell and thief skill progression by either reworking a new mechanic into the place of level or picking some mid-ground metric and calling it good. You’re probably wondering how I’ll handle the biggies of HP, To Hit and Saving Throws. Those are the details within which the devil resides… And you’re right. A level-less D&D is going to take a significantly divergent path from one based on the progression of experience. We’ll address the quandary of what to do for the triad of statistics (namely HP, To Hit and Saves) by taking the same path we took for Thieving Skills; we’ll pick a mid-ground and build off of it. Hit Points (HP) Base HP will be determined by class, further modified by constitution modifier, and finally by armor selection. Base HP for each class is:

  • Cleric: 8
  • Fighter: 10
  • Magic-user: 4
  • Thief: 6

Each constitution modifier is added to (or subtracted from) the base HP score and the current Armor Damage Soak score is added as well. This total represents a character’s total HP. For monsters and enemies, HP is determined by primary class role (i.e. orcs will commonly be considered fighters and have a base 10 HP while an orc shaman will have a base 4 HP.) To Hit Base To Hit probabilities are determined by class, further modified by dexterity modifier and finally by the target dodge score.

  • Clerics have a 50% base chance to hit (10+ on a d20)
  • Fighters have a 75% base chance to hit (5+ on a d20)
  • Magic-users have a 25% base chance to hit (15+ on a d20)
  • Thieves have a 50% base chance to hit (10+ on a d20)

Each dexterity modifier adds 5% chance (or lowers the necessary score on the d20 by 1) to the base chance to hit an opponent while the opponent’s dodge score decreases the base chance to hit by 5% per point (or increasing the necessary score on a d20 by 1 per point.) For monsters and enemies, like HP, the base To Hit probability is dependent on it’s primary class role (i.e. a spell-casting djinn will melee as a magic-user while the ghost of a warrior will fight as a fighter.) Saving Throws While we retain the breakdown of saving throws into Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, there is no distinction between the classes on how effective their resistances to the saving throws is calculated as the modifiers from the attributes make these additional rules no longer necessary. Every character begins with a base 50% saving throw in each save category which is further modified by 5% per attribute modifier.

  • Fortitude is modified by constitution
  • Reflex is modified by dexterity
  • Will is modified by wisdom

Was it worth it?

There, we’ve just rewritten the majority of the game of D&D into a level-less format. We’ve embraced our fears and found that removing levels from the game doesn’t break it, in fact from at least one obvious view, we may have re-infused D&D with some of the magic it had in the beginning. From a mechanical standpoint, while we may have removed levels from the game, as usual when me make so grand a change, we’re faced with a very important question; What did we gain? To answer that, I need to tell of what ultimately bothers me about D&D. What follows is at the core of my personal gripe with D&D… and it’s no fault of any edition or gaming style. Consider this my reasoning for finally taking on the task as put forth by wickedmurph. Feel free to disagree, but as it’s purely my opinion, don’t expect much argument from me on what follows.

The Core Flaw of D&D

The flaw of D&D is one of familiarity. The more familiar you are with the system, the more you know the stats, the more you can quote from the books verbatim, the less likely you are to hold D&D with any sense of wonder. What D&D really needs is the magic that you remember when you didn’t know all the rules. What D&D really needs is the wonder that your character might just be able to do and face and be anything. What D&D needs is mystery. Oddly enough, removing levels does just that. In retrospect, levels impose a meta knowledge of what’s likely and what’s not; where your character will probably succeed and where he’s outmatched; where the treasure’s lie and where the dangers will be posed. Levels put us on the path of no mystery because levels tell us what’s appropriate and what’s impossible. D&D needs impossibility to be magically possible in order to capture that sense of wonder. That’s the meat and drink of a true High Fantasy game – and it’s where D&D belongs. It is a strange thing that eliminating the upper scale of a game brings out it’s epic possibilities by putting those possibilities in the hands of even the beginning player. But that’s just what it does. Removing levels puts wonder back into the game because you can’t know if that horde of orcs is an easy encounter. Every encounter becomes important because everyone is on the same relative power level. Nor can you state that your novice heroes can’t overcome the dragon roosting in the crags. Play your cards right and with the blessing of fate and dice and your party may just overcome what are thematically insurmountable odds! Odds you know in a level-based game are outside the party’s capacity. That’s what removing levels erases, and it’s that erasure that leads to the wonder and mystery of the first game. So is it worth removing levels from D&D? Unequivocally Yes. The gains outweigh the work to be done in making it so. Removing the golden thread that is levels doesn’t unravel the game, instead it uncovers the golden tapestry that is the magic of wonderment. My advice: Unleash the wonder of D&D without levels. The floor is now open for counter arguments…

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54 Responses to Removing the golden thread: A Level-less D&D

  1. Zzarchov says:

    Not so much on this particular thread of removing levels (more on in the bottom of the post), but first I wanted to thank you for the link to my old priest miracle post, as I noticed in blogger statistic’s I have had a bunch of redirects there from here. Reading the comments in that thread I am glad you found some use in it. The game I was working on there has been released and you are welcome to a complimentary PDF should you wish it, just drop me an email at liberinterdico from Google’s mail service.

    Now onto the level aspect.

    I don’t think levels are a problem, I think levels as the only metric of advancement is a problem.

    For example, I don’t have a wizard base their spells on their level. How good they are with their spells is based on level, but no spell is tied to level.

    Clerics are much the same, even warriors learn combat tricks outside of going up in levels.

    Basically there are other advancement tracks. Now this does not mean levels should be abandoned, it is a nice goal and it is actually fun to level up and track XP. The problem becomes when it is the be all and end all, when things are balanced. Nothing I hate more than in games where you level up and the world just gets harder to match.

    Level’s don’t strike me as the problem in D&D, everything shackled to them (even if illogical, like skills) strikes me as the problem.

    That is just my 2c.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks Zzarchov, I found your take on the priest’s prowess as both a gauge as well as benefit for engaging in various priestly activities a really good example of taking the cleric to the place it needs as a class. Devoid of a director (in a god or a prime mover in the fantasy realm) the cleric really languishes as a lesser fighter and part time medic. However, the inclusion of something to work “for the glorification of…” lends an immense RP opportunity to the class.

    As for the level discussion, it’s my opinion that D&D is so entrenched in level-think that, the only way to re-invigorate the game and infuse it with the magical mystery of the original, levels necessarily have to be dumped.
    Even when learning is performed outside the ladder of levels, too many unwanted and wonder-killing things are tied to the XP/level structure to let them stay.
    The advancement and goals of the character shouldn’t be tied to some meta score-keeping metric.

    Best to slay the hobgoblin of wonder than simply lessen it to a goblin.

  3. Zzarchov says:

    Hello Kevin,

    Could you give some more information about when in your opinion advancement stops being “leveling up” and starts being some other method? Or do I misunderstand and you do not wish any advancement?

    I must admit I never really followed the D&D editions and started tinkering and “fixing” after but a few months of getting my first books so I may simply be ignorant of the baggage associated with the term.

  4. Kevin says:

    Sure.

    I’m actually advocating for a system where there’s no significant advancement beyond better gear, new spells and the like since those things typical of advancement (e.g. feats, skills and all other progression tied to advancement from an XP/level view – hp, to hit, saving throws, etc.) have been removed in the remake.

    To be honest I’m rather surprised nobody’s been more critical of the concept. Based on the number of pageviews for the post, I’d have thought someone would step up and explain why level-based advancement is intrinsic to D&D.

    Perhaps I’m losing my touch.
    Perhaps I didn’t make the concept clear.
    Or perhaps readers follow my blog but just gloss over my posts as “that guy’s ideas.” 🙂

  5. WB says:

    Excellent work cutting levels. They are the key to removing the unnecessary mathematical escalation that plagues D&D (my AC goes up, so your hit bonus must as well), but you took a much braver path than I did. Bravo.

  6. Zzarchov says:

    In that case I think you would very quickly find the game would tank pretty quickly. People may even love the game, they would have good experience of it, but they wouldn’t sit down to play it very often and probably not for a campaign.

    So many games (of types completely unrelated to RPG’s) use a level and XP mechanic (or something quite similar in purpose as a advancement) because it is effective at getting people to come back to the table and feel good/excited/addicted about doing so. Getting these permanent boosts, a way to show achievement and status is key to game design. The problem with levels in D&D is that having only one axis of improvement (that everything is tied to) makes it pretty simple. Gear is kind of a another axis, but the problem is that it is a “sudden jump”, there is no anticipation. Anticipation of an upcoming benefit is far better than just getting the benefit. Knowing “I am only 500xp away from leveling” for 2 weeks is better than “I just found a magic sword!” for 20 minutes and then becoming desensitized.

    To go back to the priest system I built for Neoclassical Geek Revival, it is so effective and loved by players because it is something they can track, it is a progress marker. “I am only 35 piety away from entering grace! I just need to burn down a heathen temple and I am good!”. It is in essence a second advancement track (A level 3 priest with 2000 piety is more dangerous than a level 6 with 20 piety in most ways, but not all)

    Whether or not its quintessentially D&D, it is quintessential to long term games.

  7. WB says:

    (I lost my post so trying again.)

    Excellent work on cutting levels. My peeve was always the (your AC goes up, so my hit bonus must go up as well) which is neatly fixed by removing levels. Bravo.

  8. WB says:

    Oh damn, I really sborked that post. My peeve is “unnecessary mathematical escalation”, the link above has more detail if it is not clear.

  9. Kevin says:

    Caught and fixed.
    I’m reading through your solution now and liking what I’m reading.

  10. Kevin says:

    Good points Zzarchov and likely why the removal of levels and XP (or some other meta-advancement metric) have been retained in the system for so long. In fact, the very concept that advancement in D&D should only happen from the acquisition of treasures plundered is a pretty radical concept considering that even games without levels still have some alternate upward advancement mechanic (like skill point escalations.)

    Perhaps an enterprising DM, who knows his players want to be on the ladder, will choose to grant a +1 bonus to add to one of the character’s attribute modifier as a reward for completing a story arc. But I’d rather not quantify that since I’d prefer to let the DM make that call (and because it’s just replacing one unnecessary escalation for another.)

    To be fair, I realize that levels are the carrot in the game for many players, but I’m not sure that if we weaned those players off that particular carrot they’d simple leave the game completely. I still can’t help but think that if we change our frame of reference from the current carrot (must do things to get XP to level and get more powerful/capable) and instead focus those energies elsewhere (must do things to get things that make me more powerful/capable) then the game suddenly fosters a style of play where the effort lies in the adventure for the sake of the adventure, not some arbitrary numeric that leads us to the escalation and familiarity issue.

  11. Zzarchov says:

    In that case your problem (from my view) doesn’t truly seem to be levels, but rather what gains levels (or gives XP).

    If it is about getting things, that still becomes in many ways exactly the same thing (From a mechanical perspective). Sure you can take away items, but in D&D levels go away too.

    The problem I am reading seems to be dealing with “appropriate challenge” (balancing encounters) as an escalation and with there being risk even at high levels, would that be appropriate?

  12. Kevin says:

    Yes… Somewhat.
    My issue is a bit of a combination of the familiarity that comes with the level concept and the baggage that it brings along.

    Level appropriateness leads us to a familiarity in the game presentation and mechanics that nearly dictates that a level 1 party can’t possibly (from a standard D&D viewpoint) defeat a dragon – I ask myself, “Why not?”
    Level appropriateness lends itself to such situations where a level 12 magic-user can take more of a physical beating and perform better in combat than a level 2 fighter – again I ask, “Why is that?”

    The baggage that the level and XP treadmill brings is the realization that each subsequent encounter/adventure must necessarily be equally power escalated in order to challenge the characters.

    I think a level-less D&D sets up a gaming environment where the level 1 party may indeed defeat a dragon, the magic-user is always the lesser combatant to a fighter, and each encounter is naturally balanced because there is no escalation that the vagaries of the dice won’t eventually overwhelm.

    What’s more there’s the added benefit that in situations where a new player (or character) comes to the table, there’s no longer a vast (or hand-waved away) chasm of power difference between the new character and the seasoned veteran. Just as the challenge playing field is suddenly “leveled” (for lack of a better term) so too is the playing field between characters – regardless of time spent adventuring.

    Somehow those concepts feel more D&D (and more wondrous) to me than the current scaled and tiered offering.

  13. Zzarchov says:

    Have you ever considered going back to the roots and going for a more sandbox approach? Balance be damned? Eventually players retire and build a keep because they have “won” so to speak and run out of challenges. Next character!

  14. Kevin says:

    To be honest, up until very recently, I would have been hard pressed to find a group of players (including myself) who could keep their gamer ADD in check long enough to follow a campaign more than a month.
    Last time I played D&D extensively enough where characters reached a level/point wherein the players might consider their retirement was in high school – some 20+ years ago.

  15. Zzarchov says:

    You should try some of the ConstantCon games around, might be a good chance for some long term play (FLAILSNAILS convention) without needing to be tied down to a schedule. If so I hope to see you around, if not I shall mourn our lost opportunity 🙂

  16. Locien says:

    To be honest, this sound like a lot of work to reinvent GURPS, or something like it. 4e GURPS is pretty good, it’s worth a try.

  17. Kevin says:

    Locien:

    I would have thought the removal of skills and feats would have been enough to show that the final destination of the redesign won’t be GURPS (or even GURPS-like.)

    I think GURPS style games give a different feel for a RPG.
    What I’m aiming for is D&D the way I think it should have been redone, not a generic and universal system re-cast into the D&D theme.

    Besides, to be honest, I already did a GURPS-like system: KORE. Which, while personally I think there are some really cool concepts in KORE (it’s my crunchy universal system so my bias should be obvious,) they don’t work to evoke the feel of D&D as well as rebuilding D&D does.

  18. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the heads-up Zzarchov. I set up Google+ for my Google account and will do some looking around as to the functionality/opportunities this weekend.

  19. Josh W says:

    Ok, here’s a problem with removing leveling; player’s desire to build stuff is not short circuited.

    Loads of players when playing a game will try to build up skills, prepare traps and equipment, and more generally change the world around them. If they start building a fortress and you attack it with a dragon, well, that might be a setback, but at least they got xp for defeating the dragon. Same for if they loose their loot, or have to leave a place they’ve got used to and know how to get advantages in.

    Taking away levels means a players desire to do something no longer has this displacement activity, and they’ll very likely start wanting to change the setting about. Reacting to this and carying through changes that they make can be an excellent reward in itself, but without it, the motivational angle can become weakened.

    Think minecraft; your skills don’t increase, but your changes to the world make you slowly more and more invested in it, and you’re improving equipment is something that you look after.

    There is also the matter of player characters changing less, which may lead them to wanting to play different characters. That could be cool though, with old characters retiring and becoming npcs, with various notes for the GM on their personality.

    In other news, we never did advancement in call of cthullu, and it worked great, we just carried on from character to character as they went insane.

  20. Kevin says:

    So I’m a bit confused Josh, you start by indicating that removing levels is a bad thing – which I agree it would be unless that “desire to achieve/grow” is redirected. (Which would place the real focus of a D&D redesign in growth through the story and the gains plundered – think treasures.)
    But then you seem to conclude that it’s not a bad idea at all. In fact you demonstrate it’s entirely plausible.

    Are you stating that it can be done, but not in D&D?
    Color me a touch confused (not by your statements) but by your position on the concept.
    Care to clarify?

  21. Josh W says:

    Got a bad habit of starting comments on a negative front! (oh the irony)

    But yes I think the game can work, and be fun, so long as characters change, and the world changes with them. I think it’s a lot of work, and although it appears a simplification, it means the other stuff needs to be attacked with the full force of your brain! So if you do try to edge towards building that kind of system, beware the dragons, then sort them out.

    In games that are about solving mysteries, or about following a descent into madness or something, (as our old CoC games were a hybrid of), or loads of other types of games, the scope of stuff that you need to track changes in, give players meaningful choice in, and give them ways to shape creatively and personally, can be reduced quite a bit.

    But if the players are supposed to be playing some kind of hero or adventurer, someone who will grow in strength, move from fear and uncertainty to taking on kings and demons and destroying/looting their domains, all that stuff, then the world has to be pretty reactive, it has to hold their imprints over a wide area, and hopefully do something interesting with that.

  22. Kevin says:

    Now that’s an interesting concept…

    If I may simplify a bit (and please correct me if and where I’m wrong) you’re essentially saying that in a gaming world where the character-centric changes are minimal, the environmental changes should be magnified so as to bring the scope and impact of player choice back up to the level where it would equal that of a level-based system.

    In that light you’d almost have to contend there should be a sweet-spot of change (some combination of either character-centric and/or environment-centric) that would make for an optimal gaming fun.

    Or did I just take a left at Albuquerque?

    EDIT: OK, maybe I didn’t actually simplify that idea did I?

  23. Josh W says:

    🙂

    Maybe, I’m not sure, I think there’s like a minimum guaranteed amount of change, and what that is depends on the player’s expectations for the game.

    The funny thing is that in adventure type games taking levels out can actually increase player choice, because levels are a really choice-cheap way to produce a feeling of growth, as many games companies have latched onto: You’re still making one choice, (I’ll do stuff to increase my level) but you’re heading towards a clearly marked goal, that feeling of progress is gratifying in a really simple way, not to mention unlocking new ways to explore the game. And then the game is set up so that goal is fitted to by all the other challenges going on:

    You’re not going to put “help the farmers put aside their differences in order to bring in the harvest” as a heavily supported goal, because it has no monsters, no treasure, nothing to help players who are following the main track of the game. There’s nothing stopping you doing it, but I imagine it’s just too far off the beaten track of the level system to make it likely!

    So I suppose you could say that the level system is a clear path, a way for players to navigate if they don’t know what to do, and is always backed up, naturally, without thinking about it, by the way the GM preps the world. You’re heading somewhere together, and wherever else it is, it’s to the higher levels.

    Getting rid of levels and xp implicitly removes that linkage of “we go to the dungeons, or fight off evil threats, to get money and items and fight monsters to become more powerful so we can…” that was previously guaranteed. I suppose when you replace it, you probably want to set things up so the players understand that they can do certain things that have a lasting influence/give them a lasting increase in power, and then make sure that you keep everything in line with that.

    Like if your local people become your equivalent of levels, then you’d treat threats to them like you treat negative level monsters in normal D&D. Or if equipment is, then you’d be very careful with removing items. Same would apply to building a name for yourself, building up knowledge of enemies etc.

    I mean you could do all of these at once! Then it would really get choicey!

    I think your basic idea is right though, the less internal the changes are, the more player’s desire for growth and accomplishment needs to get picked up by the world. You could possibly push it the other way to, with really detailed internal changes for not as much external change. Not really thought about that much though.

  24. jdh417 says:

    Still, there are differences between low-level play and high-level play. To borrow from 4e, how about a tiered system? Broadly group certain monsters and spells into heroic, paragon, and epic tiers. For the characters to advance, they must complete challenges from a higher tier (number not specified here for now). To be able to have a chance to overcome those challenges, characters would need to find spells and magic items, and acquire gold to buy the services of specialists and maybe mercenaries. They will probably also need to research and plan. Achieving a new tier means better to-hits, saves, spell levels, perhaps even unlocking abilities in magic items. And after the epic level, the characters become ledgends in their own time.

  25. Kevin says:

    But why bother with the tiers at all?

    By making the challenges organic and not silo-ed, the level-less game offers a more creative and encompassing spectrum of adventures.
    By requiring certain actions/gold/magic/etc. to overcome certain things in certain tiers (and to gain access to certain tiers), you’re creating a system of gated, challenge appropriate categories which is essentially reintroducing levels (albeit at a less atomic level.)

    New levels/tiers may indeed mean better to-hits, etc. But who’s to say that can’t be achieved without the necessity of tracking tiers and levels?
    I say strip the concept away that there’s any real meaningful difference between low and high level play and instead focus on the story elements as opposed to the mechanical ones.
    Therein lies the true hidden and obfuscated magic of D&D.

  26. Kevin says:

    And to clarify, by “There’s no meaningful difference between low and high level play” I’m referring to the capacity and capabilities of the characters to overcome obstacles.
    Because the challenges in a level-based system necessarily escalate to match the power creep of the characters, there’s no mathematical difference between low and high level play per se.

    I’ll certainly agree that the nature of the story elements change, but the mechanics do not.

    So why not simply let the story elements and capacity/capabilities of the characters vis-a-vis non-level-based elements (such as treasures plundered and knowledge gained) be the driving factors in determining the scope and scale of the adventure as opposed to some tiered system?

  27. jdh417 says:

    This level-less game would seem to be best suited for perhaps a one-off game with a clear objective (a party game of sorts) or a campaign with a singular, specific objective, not so much as an open ended kind of game world (typical D&D). Is this the way you see it, or as something else?

  28. Kevin says:

    I’m seeing the game as open to a long-scale, open-ended gaming setup as well as one-offs.
    While (like you) I see the systems great strength in the campaign-focused play, I don’t see where it would come unraveled enough in long term sandbox-style play to warrant putting levels back.
    What is it about the lack of levels that you feel puts the continual play out of reach?

  29. jdh417 says:

    Sorry. I was on vacation for a week and without Internet service.

    I like this level-less idea, but it does come with trade-offs. While it would play like D&D over a session, I would have to think it wouldn’t hold player interest over the course of a generally directionless campaign. Rather than a lengthy series analogies, let’s just chalk up this opinion to intuition and experience with similar RPG’s and also computer games.

    My thinking is that this game would work best under these assumptions:
    The characters are considered to be experienced masters of their professions. This accounts for their high skill level and also negates a need for them to improve their abilities.
    Characters start off with good equipment, but can still be improved over the course of play.
    Spell users begin with an assortment of spells. Give wizards like two first level spells that can be cast at will, without chance of failure.
    Lesser monsters, like Orcs, should not be a serious threat to the characters. Minion-like rules should apply.
    For a single session game, there should be a clear, achievable goal for the group to accomplish. For a campaign, there should be an overall goal with a series of intermediate missions to assemble the means necessary to reach the final objective.

    That last item makes this sound like a video game, and I do see this game as being more Doom than WOW. This style of play would require a total player buy in, otherwise there would be disappointment and constant friction.

  30. jdh417 says:

    I’ve adapted a few character classes from my own house-rules to the level-less concept. I originally made up this Paladin class to be a replacement for the Cleric.

    PALADIN
    Bonus Abilities required: Str, Wis, Con
    HP 8 + Con bonus
    To Hit +10 +1/Str bonus Melee
    +10 +1/Dex bonus Ranged
    Any weapon
    Any armor

    Smite: Automatic max dam on any hit against undead, demons, humanoid spellcasters, fallen paladins
    Rout: At 50% losses, either in numbers (mindless foes) or in hp (intelligent foes), undead, demons, humanoid spellcasters, and fallen paladins will automatically flee or surrender

    Heal: Fully restore hp, 1 + Wis bonus/day
    First Aid: Can automatically stabilize a dying person that is below 0 hp
    Break Enchantment, Heal Disease, or Neutralize Poison: Once per day
    Create Holy Water: May have 1 + Wis bonus vials active/day

    RANGER

    Bonus Abilities required: Str, Dex, Con
    HP 8 + Con bonus
    To Hit +15 +1/Str bonus Melee
    +15 +1/Dex bonus Ranged
    Bow, One-handed melee weapons
    Light armor, no shield

    Two bow attacks/rd
    Parry: Any missed melee attack allows an immediate counterstrike with a held offhand weapon (limited to daggers and short swords). This counterattack is made at +5 (+1/Str bonus) to hit.

    Detection (ambushes, traps): as a thief
    Stealth: as a thief
    First Aid: Can stabilize a dying person that is below 0 hp

  31. Kevin says:

    jdh417:
    Lots to discuss there, appreciate the feedback.

    You may indeed be right in that a total sandbox, directed-less (as opposed to directionless) campaign may have difficulty holding player focus in such a level-less D&D. I have no counter proof, though I would still be willing to argue otherwise.
    However, the strength of the system really shines in a directed, objective-oriented, goal seeking gaming setting. That much I’ll totally agree.

    Also, your description of the starting characters sounds an awful lot like how most players I know envision their characters in a leveled D&D, so I’m not sure there’s a lot of a stretch there.

    Regarding the “lesser” monsters, I see the flattening of the system by removing levels actually gives the usual punching-bag mobs a boost to their threat level and can really change the feel of an encounter. When a horde of orcs can and does stand toe-to-toe with seasoned adventurers, it really redefines the threats monsters pose in the game.

    As for the paladin and ranger redesigns, nicely done. Though I’m on record for stating those sub-classes are unnecessary, I also think it’s well within the DM’s scope to bring them back in his or her game setting. I commend you taking the opportunity to see how you’d codify them in a level-less environment.

  32. RedHobbit says:

    This is a very intriguing idea and I’d definitely like to try it out but I imagine you’ll need a very open minded and intrepid group to do so.

    While reading this I was reminded of a thought experiment I had posed to a friend of mine last year. The idea was that you would describe the classes and the players would pick the one they felt would best fit the concept they had in mind. You would start them off only with the level one features of the class and show them nothing else. Each subsequent level you would give them the next level and ask them whether the abilities granted by each concurrent level fit with the overall theme of the class described to you. The idea was that the first level of a class should be indicative of how it will play for the entirety of that character’s career. That also has a tie-in with the “First level should be more awesome” concept in that any ability granted at first level should be a key feature of the class and any further abilities should enhance or work complementary with them.

    Still I do find level-less D&D very fascinating and your arguments of wonder and mystery have certainly swayed me. I do have one worry that has been eating away at the back of my mind. By eliminating levels you also take out HP growth. So in that case how do you handle mythical or legendary beasts? Generally you need a few levels (most importantly Hit Dice) under your belt to remain anything other than a pile of soot after a dragon releases their devastating breath.

  33. Kevin says:

    Thanks RedHobbit.

    I like your idea of parceling out the upgrades based directly on player desires/vision. There’s a great deal of benefit to catering the character growth to the exacting vision of a player.

    Regarding the concern that removing levels leads to disaster when facing legendary/mythical beasts, I’ll ask the following:

    If a GM wants to send a 1st level group against a mythical beast, what’s stopping it from happening?
    If the same GM never wants the party to ever face such beasts, what’s stopping that?

    The presence of the beasts is completely in the hands of the GM.

    So what’s in place to even the odds against the big bad guys?
    When the party has sufficiently gained abilities (researched and discovered spells) and tools (uncovered magical items and artifacts) then the mythical beasts will be essentially on par with them – without the need for the level treadmill.

    Most new adventuring souls will want to hone their skills against less formidable foes, seeking their fortunes against the lesser beasties of the realm.

    However, bear in mind that there’s nothing wrong with having your novice adventurers prevailing against the mighty legendary dragon of old… if that’s the campaign a GM wishes to run and the players are having a good time, then I say we should allow even that.

    A level-less D&D opens the door to both extremes.

  34. RedHobbit says:

    Sorry for the delayed reply, the holidays snuck up on me.

    I suppose my original question was how do you handle a party fighting a creature so powerful its damage exceeds their HP, Dragon’s Breath for example. Since levels and thus more hit points typically ward off instantaneous death. Now I’ve no problem with certain creatures and situations spelling instant death. I suppose my problem was how does a part deal with this when such situation or creature is unavoidable?

    Now there will be rings of fire resistance and armor the wards off flames but it’s always been my thought that the characters strength should come from internal sources not external (magic items and the like). More riddle of steel and less vorpal swords so to speak.

    So with that in mind is it possible for the PC’s to ever be on par with mythic beasts without the need of ancient and powerful artifacts. In traditional D&D with enough levels you can slay most beasts with ordinary steel. By getting rid of levels my concern is that the gritty low powered style of play isn’t possible without removing some of the grandeur of certain fatal circumstances (again we come back to Dragon’s breath).

    Still nothing much to nitpick over since I have no idea what the finished system is going to look at, I just wanted to offer an outside perspective on the very intriguing idea you’ve proposed.

  35. Kevin says:

    I guess the short answer would be that only by gear and power accumulation (spells and the like) would the mythic creatures be able to be defeated with ease.

    However, removing levels from the PCs and scaling back all those mythic creatures to be in a range close to the PCs, I think (counter intuitively) it’s altogether more possible that a lower level group of adventurers may win the day against the powers that be.

    Whereas in “typical” D&D, only by experience and gear accumulation can one stand a chance against the biggies of the monster world, in this redesign, when it comes to general prowess vis-a-vis experience, everyone stands on the same level per se.

  36. RedHobbit says:

    Ah that’s what I was looking for originally. Provided that your fledgling adventurer still has some chance of defeating a magnificent beast without needing items of power.

    I agree with you on your second point however, I think levels are good from a player’s mindset. With levels there’s a certain unwritten expectation that starting off you hold no chance against a being of legend, and your own level is a gauge of what you are able to take on (heh, in an ideal system, that is). By removing levels by still allowing it so that a character take on foes ordinarly deemed much more dangerous than himself it removes a roadblock from the player’s mind that would ordinarily stop him from running headlong into certain danger. Whether that’s good or bad is difficult to say without seeing it and play. It would also be dependant on whether or not the DM has adapted his mindset to a levelless one.

    Interesting stuff.

  37. Demiurgus says:

    I’m perhaps a bit late to the party, but I’d just like to say that if you made and sold this game, not only would I play it, but I would run it, and I’ve never run a game in my life.

  38. Kevin says:

    This party never ends, so you can’t be late.
    What’s more, I appreciate the support.

    I have considered pulling my entire redesign into a single core game book for people to obtain. Perhaps I should do just that.

  39. Demiurgus says:

    Really, the only bit I have real questions on at this point is in regards to non-damage spell effects for the mage class, as the damage table you have is pretty comprehensive. Aside from that, though, I was wondering if you might have guidelines for other spell effects by level, as if I just went and stole from the only spell lists I’m really familiar with (being 3.x and 5), the game would likely shatter under my poor magic choices.

    Everything beyond that, though, I think is worth doing by the seat of my pants and just figuring out what works.

  40. Demiurgus says:

    Additionally, doing some rough math on the 30-point stat buy in the most rest 5E playtest packet, you can get similar results on the -1 – +3 range on five stats by using a 12-point (slightly weaker), 13-point (forces a 0-stat), or 14-point (slightly stronger) stat buy with the following system:

    -1 – 0 points
    0 – 1 point
    +1 – 2 points
    +2 – 4 points
    +3 – 6 points

    Due to the granular nature of the 8 – 16 stat buy system, and the assumption of racial bonuses, an exact adaptation is essentially impossible. That aside, if you look at the costs of the 0, +1, +2 and +3 benchmarks (set at 2, 4, 7, and 12 points, respectively), then each of 12, 13, and 14-point allotments with this system correspond with at least one 5-stat stat spread with a 25-point buy by the 5E system. This is based on assuming the 30-point allotment is built for 5 points per stat, and reducing by one stat.

  41. Kevin says:

    The spell lists and mechanics would necessarily need to be altered.
    Here’s an example:

    Find Traps:
    Divine spell
    Causes trapped objects to glow
    Chance of success: 25% + 5% per WIS bonus
    Note that the nature of the trap remains unknown.

    Given that thieves begin with a baseline of 50% chance for success in all thief skill checks which is adjusted by both intelligence and dexterity modifiers, and the spell does not identify any information on the nature (or have any chance of removing the trap from said item) the spell is, at best, a reasonable fallback if no thief is present in the party.

    I’m curious what spells you feel are game-breakers. Care to list a couple?

  42. Demiurgus says:

    Animate Dead, when allowed essentially at-will for anyone with an INT of 3, could lead to build an army under full player control, though maintenance would be a right pain. Additionally, various debilitating spells (Cause Fear for level 1, Confusion and Polymorph at level 4, on up to Mass Hold Monster and Power Word Kill at level 9) become rather abusable when one allows then to be retried or renewed every round. Access to Mage Armor means each party member gets a bonus to damage soak (I presume, under the new system) forever, or for however long the mage feels like renewing it, and Shield, being a reaction, is just a permanent bonus to dodge (again, just a guess on that) for any mage who has it and is able to cast when being attacked. And, of course, there’s Wish, but that’s no more abusable now than it ever was.

    It seems to me that such a system would require a different sort of spell, with a magic list based on the assumption of repeated castings with a static fail chance.

  43. Kevin says:

    Hmm… Let’s look at each of these spells on its own:

    • Animate Dead. On the surface it appears like that would be a problem. I’d say modifying the spell to allow for 1 skeleton or zombie per INT bonus would reign in the spell.
    • Cause Fear doesn’t really strike me as game-breaking given the saving throw. Perhaps as a further limitation, I’d probably set the duration to INT bonus. However, if I’m missing something, let me know.
    • Confusion falls int he same category as Cloud Kill in my estimation: targets an area indiscriminately (meaning your friends are targets too), lasts for only a short time, 15% failure rate, and even after all that allows a save.
    • Polymorph arguably looks like it will seriously break the game. With the duration tied to an INT bonus, a 3 minute change certainly limits the exploit-ability of the spell. I could certainly see this as a superior utility spell for some magic-users, but I don’t know that I’d fear it as much as others. Again, I welcome you to let me know if I’m off base here.
    • Mass Hold Monster has a failure rate of 45%, still allows for a Will save, and a duration of 1 round per INT bonus. While impressive, it probably isn’t as OMG as it seems.
    • No argument on the Power Word spells. That’s something as a DM I’d leave out of the available list.
    • I would require the target of Mage Armor to take on a -4 Reflex Save and Dodge penalties to gain the benefit of the +4 Soak granted from the spell. The spell would not be stackable with actual heavy armor.
    • Shield would grant a +1 Damage Soak without incurring a Reflex or Dodge penalty.
    • Wish… Severely broken regardless of the rules. ’nuff said.

    Of course each is naturally open to interpretation by the DM. That’s just how I would address them in a redesign.

  44. Demiurgus says:

    Those sound life fine solutions. Though that still makes the shield spell an essentially permanent +1 bonus to soak, as it can be used as a reaction whenever needed. I don’t see that as a problem really, as it makes it a fine bit of adventuring loot, and if it’s chosen as a starting spell, it presumably has to be taken at the expense of greater flexibility, and only on the expectation of direct weapon damage, which the mage should be avoiding anyway.

  45. Kevin says:

    Agreed. The benefit is nice, but only if one expects to be entering into melee.

  46. Demiurgus says:

    It occurs to me to point out that perhaps I’ve been thinking about this wrong. The very nature of the changes wrought on the system, most notably the removal of levels, means the game plays very differently. No longer do you need ~13 encounters per level; now, you can run a game where the only encounters present are those required by the plot without stymieing advancement of the plot, the characters, or the game world, which are now the only forms of advancement that matter.

    Thus, the possible abusability of a spell must be considered from a different vantage, where using magic to bypass challenge and attain experience is no longer a concern, and endless hordes of faceless mooks don’t need to be a consistent challenge, because they can be completely ignored with impunity. Spells to avoid combat them might be in much greater demand than ever they have been in any edition of D&D.

  47. Exactly. A game set in this fashion eliminates the daily encounter grind and allows for a better focus on the more thematic and iconic interactions (you know, the hero stuff.) In this type of game, advancement of story and how the journey affects the characters becomes paramount, not how many faceless mooks they’ve overcome.

  48. Ouroboros says:

    One problem that I can see in eliminating such things as skill advances is that characters should be able to grow and learn new things, become more skilled with their sword after using it and so on, a fighter should be able to start off green straight out of boot camp and become a veteran and that is part of the fun of it. Admittedly you don’t need levels to do this but you need some kind of progression system regardless, the veteran fighter when it comes to it might strike harder and faster than the green guy because hes been in life and death situations before and so doesn’t hesitate as much, the thief become more skilled at lock picking because hes had practice doing it, especially under stressful circumstances in the past, etc.

  49. Your response nearly presumes that advancement and growth of character necessarily lies in those point rewards gained from levels.

    I say that’s not how it should work. And in this redesign, that’s no longer the case.
    Advancement would come from magical item accumulation, spell access and knowledge, and more nuanced bonuses given by enterprising DMs.

    The issue with putting advancement on an escalating scale is that the characters never really advance with regard to the challenges they face simply because, in order to keep the game interesting, the challenges necessarily advance in lock-step with the characters.

  50. I should add that removing the standard experience and level system in D&D also removes such inanities like:

    • Killing things results in magic-users learning spells
    • Killing things makes thieves better at thievery
    • Killing things brings clerics more holy and closer to their gods

    And while Gary and Dave tried to address this with the 1gp = 1xp rule, that almost makes the discussion more absurd.

    Instead, I propose a system where the advancement is more in line with actual high fantasy.

  51. Ouroboros says:

    Oh no, I am a big fan of classless and level-less systems myself. I am currently running a Silcore game in a bit of a homebrew universe and enjoy the fact that no matter how experienced they get some hobo with a knife can still be a characters undoing as much as that megacorp hit squad.

    I just think having no advancement bar magical items and things external to the character itself is a mistake as experience does matter, in high fantasy as much as anywhere else, to watch the young hotshot become a experienced pro. Hell, even if the character in the example of a fighter gets themselves, through their actions, admitted to some prestigious sword school, unless he suddenly develops amnesia even removing his equipment then wont deprive him of having better skills than the novice and even then such things would be partly reflex memory.

  52. And I don’t discount any of that. In fact, after re-reading and getting the clarification, I’m with you 100%.

    What I don’t like is the faux escalations that D&D pretends don’t exist but are well rooted in the system… your character achieves level 2, so suddenly the monsters need to advance to the 2 HD range, the traps become just one level harder, the spell and damage resistance of your foes becomes that much greater, etc. ad nauseum to make the adventure a “level-appropriate challenge.”

    What I do think should happen is that the advancement and rewards should be subtle and at the DMs discretion. If the character is well trained or exceptionally experienced in something, there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving a bonus to an action… just as there’s nothing wrong with using common sense to apply a penalty here and there.

  53. Michael Taylor says:

    “With levels there’s a certain unwritten expectation that starting off you hold no chance against a being of legend, and your own level is a gauge of what you are able to take on (heh, in an ideal system, that is).”

    Yes, we should definitely make sure every player new to the game knows that they start off as a LOSER and that they should run at the first Giant Rat they see! 😉

    “I’m perhaps a bit late to the party, but I’d just like to say that if you made and sold this game, not only would I play it, but I would run it, and I’ve never run a game in my life.”

    I would have never stopped playing D&D if it had been done this way.

    But as it is, I went to The Fantasy Trip (TFT) and now Barbarians of Lemuria (BOL) that already pretty much match this diagram.

    That said I’d LOVE to see the final ‘product’.

    Hell must have frozen over because I think I’m endorsing another ‘retro-clone’!!!

  54. aradoth says:

    I cannot remember when I read this article, it must be 3½ years ago now. It saved my campaign.
    I had a small, but rich, campaign area that the players were enjoying playing in, mainly human populated. However, because of levels they were out growing the area and I was struggling to find encounters and challenges for them. Since I did not want to throw away a lot of work and have to write a new environment, I capped levels, no more progression.
    One player kicked against it but to his credit stayed with the group.
    We are playing a hybrid Ad&d system, so what changed. We rounded the characters to 6th level. Changed the hit-points, so every human (elves, dwarfs, etc) has comparative hit points. So now the tavern owners, town guards, the party’s M-U and fighter all have HP within a few points of each other. The campaign population were considered roughly 1st level with notable NPCs being higher. No change to Monsters.
    What has it done. Kept the players’ characters in the same area with their contacts, friends and rivals; They belong rather than being transient; Made the environment exciting: small groups, the players can over come, but larger groups need a little more thought and tactics; It it makes it easier for me as the DM to design encounters.
    Overall a much better gaming experience and six years later the campaign is still going strong.

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