Saturday, January 23, 2010

Neo-Classical Mechanics: Leveling Slower Than A Gelatinous Cube

So in yesterday's post I mostly talked a bit about why I like long term play and the effect that it has on a game, and in the process I mentioned this idea that such play is a cornerstone of old school and neo-classical gaming. I don't mean that it's not possible to have an neo-classical one-shot, but long term play supports a couple of features that make those kinds of play styles really different from more modern styles.

The main thing I want to focus on for now is that it allows the campaign's style to coalesce, in a really natural way, around player interests. You have time to explore things and try out different ideas; the story can develop from random chance, player decisions, and spur-of-the-moment DM inspiration rather than being pre-planned. And, in particular, this style of incremental campaign design allows players to discover what they like as they play. They don't have to understand their own preferences well enough to be able to explain them to the DM as she's planning the campaign.

None of this is unique to neo-classical modes of play, but that kind of organic, improvisational development is a key feature of the kinds of games I'd describe in that way.

Now, part of my reason for saying that is that OD&D and Basic D&D are very clearly built for long-term play. The XP/level system assumes you're going to be playing for at least a half-a-dozen or so levels. It takes a long time to get to those levels. So to a certain degree I'm working backwards here and trying to figure out why those features are in the game in the first place, but I've also seen the effects of assuming long term play for long enough now to know a few reasons why building a system this way would be a good idea.

But those mechanical features are important, and they bring me to the point I'm trying to make in all of this: The ability to support long term play is an important feature of a lot of what I'd call "neo-classical," and it has some pretty serious mechanical underpinnings. The entire XP system of OD&D, the part of the game that makes it tick, is built around this assumption of campaign length. The rate of leveling. The number of levels. The way the power level changes as a character gains XP.

Not all systems support long term, open ended play. If it has a level cap that your players are geared to hit within a year or two, that's not going to work. OD&D does have level caps, true, but at a normal rate of treasure gathering its going to take your characters three, four, or more years to start hitting those levels.

Furthermore, if the power level changes really dramatically over the course of a few months or a year, then the DM either has to accept that the threats she assembles have a strictly limited shelf life, or that she needs to be willing to make things the party doesn't explore immediately level up along with them, which can create more work and damage verisimilitude. There's not quite so much room to wander around and explore different options, because if you don't handle something fairly quickly once you become powerful enough for it, it quickly becomes irrelevant.

And in a really good, long term, neo-classical kind of game, the players are eventually going to find something they like to do better than leveling. A huge part of the kind of campaign I'm describing is that eventually the players are going to find something to do that basically ignores the rules, and at that point, leveling becomes a distraction. Even, perhaps, a nuisance. You can use this to your advantage ("Do you go for the gold and level, or work towards a less-lucrative but more personally fulfilling goal? Dilemma!") but I have a strong suspicion that the reason leveling in OD&D is so hellaciously slow (besides just making it "mean more" when you do finally level, and the general old school philosophy of driving the players crazy) is so you can use it as a motivator in the early stage of the game, and then ignore it most of the time after that.

If that's where the game goes. Which is, when you get down to it, what this kind of play is about.


  1. I seem to recall that pre-greyhawk xp rules allow for surprisingly speedy levelling.

    Perhaps I am mistaken...

  2. Pre-Supplement I leveling is quite speedy: 100 XP per Hit Die of the creature -- so lowly orcs are worth 100 XP a pop if encountered on the 1st level of the dungeon. They're half that on the second level, a third that on the third level, and so on, though. The original system was designed to make facing "level appropriate" monsters the most valuable.

  3. Agh. Yeah, I should have remembered that. Especially since that means that Gygax slowed down the monster XP sometime between publishing the original and Greyhawk.

    My point may be somewhat overstated (blame Trollsmyth ;) ) but leveling is still slower, and assumed to be slower, than 3e and 4e D&D. And that, I think, is important.

  4. Not only the monster xp's. As I recall, you got 10 times the treasure compared to the monster xps. So if the monster was worth 700 xp, you also found 7000gp worth of treasure.

    The later moldvay/cook rule of "3-4 times xp" for treasure found made more sense. I'm admittedly one of those DM's that likes to have the players level from 1st to 2nd level fairly quickly (ie. within 2 or 3 sessions) as a little positive reinforcement.

  5. My group are mostly people who grew up on Basic and Advanced D&D. When we were playing 3e, we definitely noticed that the levels were going by awfully fast. It seemed like we were gaining another level before we’d had a chance to use any of the stuff we’d gained with the last level. We seriously started talking about a campaign in which leveling was governed by months-of-play rather than XP. We wanted to know what it meant to be (e.g.) third level before making fourth.

    Then there’s my other first RPG: classic Traveller. There is virtually no “character progression” in cT. (There is a provision for some minimal skill growth, but even that has been seldom used in my experience.) Lots of players (especially those who played cT before D&D) don’t really notice its absence until it’s pointed out to them. They enjoy simply playing itself and the “in game” rewards and never miss that the numbers on their character record stay relatively static.