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Levels and grades
hattifattener
richardthinks
So James has started up a lively discussion about an ancient and much-reviled practice - level titles in early D&D - that's set my design brain buzzing. I don't want to design all over his blog, which has its own concerns and readership, so here it is.

Levels are ambiguous in D&D: they reflect one's mastery of one's vocation, and they reflect a certain hierarchical preoccupation that runs throughout the D&D rules, but it's unclear how far they impinge on the gameworld; put briefly, do PCs know what level they are, or feel themselves leveling up? Are level titles meant to be mnemonics for the players only, or do they reflect some process of initiation for the characters?

Let's say it's the latter. Let's posit a common culture across the gameworld, with common standards or conditions for leveling. James goes halfway there, but let's be a bit more formal about it:  D&D settings tend to abound in guilds for the various PC classes, why shouldn't those guilds assess, assign and police levels - rather like the coloured belt systems used in martial arts leagues today? To level up, you have to overcome some contest assigned by the guild, or undergo some rite of passage that tests your vertu.* That way you can wear your status on your (eg) sleeve, and get the proper deference, access to numbers of hirelings and all that, due to your experience.** Such a trusted, portable method of assessment/certification would be extremely useful, not only to itinerant ne'er-do-wells (who suddenly have a codified, socially-recognised mechanism for "doing well")*** but also for potential patrons and other authorities.

You can probably see where I'm going here. Before the 16th century, standing armies were rare: troops would either be half-trained peasants or career warriors who were bound to the lord by bonds of fealty - or out-and-out mercenaries, of questionable loyalty and legal standing, and unknown competence. What if there were bonds between lords and guilds - what if guilds' licenses were dependent on furnishing competent people to lords when needed - possibly all under contracts, for wages or loot-sharing? The lord would have an idea of who was available and how command should be structured. He'd also have a complex relationship of negotiations with the guilds regarding duties, agency and rent. He could call on guilds for small missions or territory-wide defence.

So far so Pratchettian, I hear you mumble. But there are some nice opportunities in here for gaming. Usually D&D parties have fairly static numbers, limited goals (personal advancement, punctuated by the occasional Quest for the McGuffin) and predictable social relations (weird loyalty within the group, psychopathic violence without). This mechanism could mess with that. So you're a fifth level fighter, and the goblin horde is coming: if you've reached level 5 of initiation in the guild then you automatically get a company of 1-2 level fighters to command. If you're a sixth level mage, the guild knows you can learn Demonic Stomp, and they have just the job for a Demonic Stomper down in the old deserted graveyard. or they need someone to Charm the ambassador from the Sea Rovers, or maybe they need you to light the fuse on the unstable ordnance with your Thunderbolt. What if your guild is worried about your party mates, or there's inter-guild warfare? What if there's a rumour that the guild's records aren't reliable, or a bunch of obvious charlatans turn up that call the whole ranking scheme into question?

* essential, innate power. Not this.
** this belting/badging system seems to imply a middle class: serfs/tenant farmers are too busy subsisting to become professional raiders, aristocrats are probably locked into their own hierarchies based on gift exchange, land owndership and inheritance, and disdain guild badges)
*** no, but wait: experience is what levels you up, and makes you better at your job! Maybe, but I can think of 2 counter-arguments that could work in-game: (1) when you pass the rite you get access to new training from the guild, that orders your experience into a useful schema - you may have picked up some sword-tricks from fighting the Leng, but you need formal training to improve your stance. (2) Do what Durkheim does, and blame religion as the alienated codification of social rules: the guilds are social recognition, and they have a pseudo-divine (or outright supernatural) effect on the individual - how else can you explain suddenly doubling your hit points?

 

In AD&D, there was a rule that advancing in level took several weeks or months of dedicated training, and thousands of gold pieces. No one ever used this rule, partly because the gold piece cost given by Gygax far exceeded the amount of gold one could obtain in one level's worth of adventuring (partly because, per Gygax, gaining gold itself awarded XP).

Yes, you're right, and I'd forgotten. For as long as I played AD&D, I played 1gp = 1xp, and leveling up occurred spontaneously, sometimes mid-combat (as it does in Pokemon, BTW). But then, I stopped playing AD&D around the age of 15.

For years afterwards one or another aspect of this would bother me: first it was the sheer irrationality that experience was contained in precious metals (an idea I now rather like, as a kind of oddball pantheism), then it was the incredibly low value of "precious" metals in the D&Dverse, finally it was the supernatural-superego structure of levels themselves. I indulge discussion of D&D now because I find it so very weird that it restructures my brain when I think about it.

I think the experience vs. rite of passage question makes perfect sense if (for instance) when you hit 2000 XP, you get an additional hit die and can now cast Create Bacon, but until you (defeat Sheng Long | tithe | defend your thesis) you stop gaining experience. That is, there are two phases to gaining a level: acquiring new skills, and mastering them. Presumably, someone with extraordinary natural ability could rise through the ranks without actually gaining the experience; at that point they'd just level up as XP permitted. (Bruce Lee might well have become a Grand Master of Flowers without ever acquiring the ability to resist poison, for example.)

I believe this is the nerdiest comment I've written this year.

Also, in answer to your cut-text, which for boring reasons I cannot reproduce easily...

Have you ever played the old SSI game Stronghold? Apparently, what a Duke does with a bunch of high-level mages is put them to work building mage academies, houses and farms until he has a hundred or so 36th level mages which he can send out to destroy a nest of beholders. Fortunately, the mages level up as a squad, which I imagine makes the "wait, how many level 31 mages do I have?" accounting much smoother.

this makes perfect sense to me in a fantasy economy. It also implies something peculiar about mages: are they natural communitarians? Or do they all work on the same research and therefore advance as an institution?

I love your nerdy comment, BTW. I reassure myself that I'm only slumming as a nerd, here.
...or at least as a gaming nerd.

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