Sep 10

The Levellers

TMFD14 comments • 542 views

I wrote a post before. in the “I Was A Goblin” series, about how the Dungeons & Dragons concept of player “levels” and “levelling up” was an innovation which became hardwired into pretty much every game since. That was back in 2006 or so. Now we’re seeing a lot of talk about how the priciples and mechanics of gaming can be transferred into everyday life – see this blog post on the “Decade of Gaming” for an excitable* example.

I have another blog where I can dig into the details and issues around that, but I thought it would be interesting on Freaky Trigger to delve a little into the history of the “levels” idea. So this is a bundling of sources – comments from anyone who can fill in more or have other ideas would be extremely welcome.

A brief recap of what we’re talking about – “level” is used in multiple senses in games: to talk about player rank, specific game areas, and the ambient level of challenge in the game universe. We’re interested here in personal ranking. The idea is that a player (or avatar) earns points through successfully carrying out actions or tasks: get enough points and you go up a level, which generally involves an increase in your in-game abilities or access to new ones. So where does that come from?

MILITARY RANK: This is the obvious place to start, since a) there have been military ranks as far back as we can trace military history and b) D&D’s roots were in wargaming, which would often use ranked units with different weights in gameplay. So case closed? Well, not quite: the thing about military rank is that it’s a relationship of command – a decurion reports to a centurion who reports to the geezer who sits in a tent with a big cloth around his shoulders. So rank is defined not by one’s actions but by the relationship between ranks, and there’s also not necessarily a sense of progress, at least not between the officer and non-officer classes. “Gygaxian” game-ready levels don’t really work like this, so we’ll need to draw in other ideas.

LEVELS OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT: Buddhism seems an obvious place to look for the idea of an individual’s progress in stages (and the era when D&D was developed was also the peak of Western pop-culture interest in ‘Eastern philosophy’. Of course, I know very little about Buddhism so my understanding that the path to enlightenment is a matter of going from step to step might be completely misguided. But here’s a possible philosophical root for the idea of levelling as an individual journey.

HIERARCHIES OF EXPERTISE: Dungeons and Dragons is a game set in a medieval world, and the professional life of towns and cities was deeply hierarchical, with guilds creating and enforcing a simple structure of levels: apprentice, journeyman, master. So here we’ve got an obvious source for the D&D style idea of levels as a function of “class” – the nature of the abilities you gain depends on the profession you’re in.

EXPERTISE AS ENLIGHTENMENT: When you combine the idea of mystical self-advancement and the idea of formalised hierarchies you get cults and initiatory organisations, most pertinently the MASONS, whose initial three degrees are the guild levels redux, but whose Scottish Rite involves levels 4 to 33, ascending orders of knowledge and revelation (and much more besides, according to airport revolving racks). Here we see the number of available levels increasing to a degree that suggests some kind of abstraction as well as simple organisational hierarchy. Also pertinent here: Scientology, whose upper levels overtly promise magical/supernatural powers.

LEVELS OF SKILL: We’re now starting to break away again from the merely organisational model, where the upper levels are somehow in charge of the lower models. The idea of levels of pure individual skill is embedded in the martial arts – like Scientology, the Masons and Buddhism big news in 70s pop culture and a massive influence on D&D. The idea of different levels of “belt” seems to be a relatively late (19th century) construction of a tradition, but for anyone doing “martial arts” at school or watching on TV it symbolised the entirety of the discipline. It’s important because it’s a very explicit recognition of levelling happening not because there’s a vacancy above, or because it’s time to understand the next mystery, or because you’ve petitioned your guild successfully, but because you’ve earned it by being good enough at something.

SCHOOL: Perhaps the most important thing of all, especially given the agegroup these games caught on with. The dynamic of tabletop games is of a group of individuals working together and typically advancing at roughly the same rate through the game. This owes less to guilds, or Buddhism, or karate than it does to school – the US system of years as “grades” as explicit a system of real life levelling up as you’d find. As you advanced to the next level you’d meet new challenges, tasks, and gain new skills. The sequence of grades – 1st to 12th – matches the levels most official D&D adventures focused on: once you got to “high level” the degree of challenges became vaguer, harder, and ultimately it was hinted your character should leave the life of adventure behind and get a job building magical artefacts or running a kingdom.

DETOUR 1: WHAT ABOUT DANTE?: When I asked about this topic on Twitter Stevie T suggested Dante as a source. The Divine Comedy is, obviously, all about levels, but it’s the other meaning of the word – levels as places. Said places of course symbolise different degrees of sinfulness or virtue, so there’s an element of human progression – and decline, much more unusual in these kind of models – but as a game mechanic Dante is unusual: you find out your final ‘level’ AFTER you’ve finished playing, and you have no chance of changing it.

DETOUR 2: POWER-UPS AND POWER-DOWNS: Hazel mentioned jousts and tournaments as another example of medieval game mechanics, where Knights would take part in tournaments and use the spoils as a means of upgrading, replacing and improving their armour and horse – a real-world system of power-ups and power-downs. This doesn’t have a lot to do with the “levelling” element but directly or not the ideas fed into these games in a big way – the problem with most systems of levels is that the amount of actual power differentiating each increment is pretty low, which is why it’s so often expressed in terms of hierarchy. So if you can include some kind of physical upgrade so much the better.

INDIVIDUALISATION: Almost all these “levelling” systems (except Buddhist enlightenment I guess) take place within an organisational context – even if being a higher level doesn’t give you automatic authority, there’s always somebody who has to ratify the fact of advancement. The real innovation in D&D was the moving of this ratifying authority into the person of the referee. This means that levelling up is now not a property of a body within the world but an automatic property of the world itself.** And this is the breakthrough in terms of gaming – if levels are a property of the gameworld, they can be automated and individualised. (The tension between individual reward and co-operative play is one of the things that makes RPGs fascinating).

I don’t know whether digging around in the roots of the “level” idea has much practical use for people designing “game-like” experiences today – I just think it’s interesting. But maybe exploring where these concepts came from is a good way to think about what subconscious expectations people might have of them, and how those expectations can be reinforced or confounded.

*as I said on Twitter, the fervour with which the writer is pronouncing one scene dead and another scene arriving is very reminiscent of the UK music press in its pomp, though I don’t think any NME writers styled themselves “Chief Ninja”.

**D&D itself took a lot of care in NOT fully realising the implications of this – there were an awful lot of rules about converting points to levels via study, ratification by the “Thieves’ Guild”, formal training etc. This was, in essence, an attempt to preserve the problem the game had already solved and I know very few players who stuck to them.


  1. 1
    Len on 10 Sep 2010 #

    Ho surprised was I to find out that this wasn’t an article on Brighton’s finest.

  2. 2
    pink champale on 10 Sep 2010 #

    what about chess? I’m not terribly up on the ins and outs of chess ranking (nor rpgs for that matter) but as i understand it there are a number of levels for chess players to progress through on the way to the ultimate status of being a (suitably d&d sounding) grandmaster and they way you get through these levels is battling and besting the requisite number of sufficiently tough foes. sadly, i don’t think grandmaster status actually confers any higher knowledge or in-game advantages – extra pieces, magic bishops, etc.

  3. 3
    Tom on 10 Sep 2010 #

    Yeah chess works like a martial art I think (as any Wu Tang fan knows!)

    Chess has an interesting dynamic in the pawn power-up thing though.

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 10 Sep 2010 #

    I seem to remember in the Scouts you had to perform a variety of different tasks and challenges to work your way up through Bronze, Silver and Gold Arrows – not to mention assorted badges.

  5. 5
    swanstep on 11 Sep 2010 #

    Effectively, JS Mill (e.g., in THOUGHTS ON PARLIAMENTARY REFORM 1859) thought that democracy should work like this – that suffrage should be universal but with lots of levels:

    “When all have votes, it will be both just in principle and necessary in fact, that some mode be adopted of giving greater weight to the suffrage of the more educated voter; some means by which the more intrinsically valuable member of society, the one who is more capable, more competent for the general affairs of life, and possesses more of the knowledge applicable to the management of the affairs of the community, should, as far as practicable, be singled out, and allowed a superiority of influence proportioned to his higher qualifications.”

    He continues concretely:

    “If every ordinary unskilled labourer had one vote, a skilled labourer, whose occupation requires an exercised mind and a knowledge of some of the laws of external nature, ought to have two. A foreman, or superintendent of labour, whose occupation requires something more of general culture, and some moral as well as intellectual qualities, should perhaps have three. A farmer, manufacturer, or trader, who requires a still larger range of ideas and knowledge, and the power of guiding and attending to a great number of various operations at once, should have three or four. A member of any profession requiring a long, accurate, and systematic mental cultivation,—a lawyer, a physician or surgeon, a clergyman of any denomination, a literary man, an artist, a public functionary (or, at all events, a member of every intellectual profession at the threshold of which there is a satisfactory examination test) ought to have five or six. A graduate of any university, or a person freely elected a member of any learned society, is entitled to at least as many.”

  6. 6
    Greg Pallis on 11 Sep 2010 #

    I find the what-was-Toilkein-and-what-was-Gygax question endlessly fascinating – ‘level’ I guess is the formalization of the ‘who can kill whom’ rules of the fantasy novel but I don’t think those rules existed pre 1st edition, and they’re certainly not in LOTR (which as you said has wildly differing power levels that make for a terrible rpg setup). Where they are present though is Greek myth, which is very strict in its rationing out of who can beat whom?

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Sep 2010 #

    power-ups in tolkien: GANDALF; i think that’s it!

    aragorn becomes king, but that’s kind of GAME OVER ALL HAPPY SAD NOW

    maybe frodo powers up with the ring, but since all be becomes is a tiny crap semi-ringwraith the “upness” is questionable to be say the least

    (I think Tolk’s default settting is a bit like Kipling’s, actually: empire works best for all as salad of all the races being who they truly are, which is not so much hierarchical as a distributed field of difference or some such: yes yes humans get to be MIGHTY KINGS OF EVERYTHING if they are demonstrably self-proven super-noble, but this nobility is the same as harmony everywhere — the king’s healthy body is the totality of middle earth, with everyone living at peace, the dwarf in his mine, the orc in his hole, the elf in his tree…)

  8. 8
    Pete on 11 Sep 2010 #

    Whilst you hint at it here with your discussion of the military, surely one of the key real world applications of levelling up is work itself. Natural hierarchies, where the challenges of the “lower level life”, coping with menial work and low pay slowly change into the concerns of middle management and the higher paid (oh noes, higher rate taxation is the dragon I must slay). One of the key aspects of D&D’s levelling up is the idea that a sudden increase is the “reward” for experience – hello big promotion! The public sector even institutionalises this even more with in grade auto-levelling up of pay increases on an annual basis.

    Another age old analogy pretty much built into the game is the Church – where depending on your stream you can work yourself up from Novice up to potentially Pope.

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Sep 2010 #

    Switching from Tolk as D&D percursor to Fritz Leiber, I’d happily propose that his “plot model” is something like this. A society that consists of a cluster of juxtaposed hierarchies in uneasy interaction: the various guilds (including a thieves’ guild: did he invent this idea?); hierarchies of sorcery (from apprentice to adept to wizard); ditto ditto of “religion” (novice to high priest); military hierarchies of course; “monster” hierarchies (do mummies trump rats?); sexual heirarchies; and of source a very stratified pseudo-feudal society itself, from slave up to emperor

    But the Gray Mouser and Faffhrhd (sp.) are — deliberatly — either hard to place in this strata, or wilfully outside them, in stance and social fact: Fhffhrhd is a barbarian; what of the Gray Mouser??? he belongs to the Thieves’ Guild IRCC but it does seem to be a sort of Joke Guild inside and out side the story, a free association of Masterless Men (cf the constitutional articles of a pirate ship)

    I haven’t read all of them but a LOT of the stories basically devolve to the duo triumphing because their enemies aren’t able to think outside the boxes of their own sub-class mechanism of levels; can only map value and hem hem cultural capital onto the world by borrowing it from their own enclosed “guild-perspective”… this gives them enormous power when they can control the context and patrol the perimeter of an encounter, but always collapses when context/perimeter are breached, and use-value of hierarchy evaporates viz when the two arrive on the scene and stop thinking in terms of the rules of the scene

  10. 10
    Simon K on 11 Sep 2010 #

    Sumo would be another example of level rankings tangential to martial arts.

  11. 11
    Greg Pallis on 11 Sep 2010 #

    I think there’s maybe two things being conflated here!

    1) The ‘level up’ – this is what Mark is talking about, and Tom’s right that D&D at first tried to elide it with a training period that allowed it to still be a gradual advancement (albeit one that happened offstage) – as soon as the TSR games came out the die was cast there – I feel like there’s been a trend lately (that started, I think, with Diablo?) towards making it even more a reforming, transformative moment, such as the trend lately to give full health straightaway on levelup rather than waiting ’till heal, or 4th edition’s unlearning and replacing of previous skills.

    2) Levels themselves, which have kinda two main roles in fantasy:

    i) They dictate what you can do – this is the aspect which people are talking about when they discuss ‘levels as trend/phenomenon’
    ii) They dictate what can beat you, and what you can beat – this is the interesting one to me, because it’s been half integrated and half not – I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately because of reading that review of F.F. 50, where he discusses how at the very end there’s no real break with episodic ‘bad of the week’ storytelling – the shift from Galactus eater of worlds to another ‘just a guy’ villain, whom we still have to take seriously. Which shift is enabled by the fact that there’s no strict hierarchy of dangers in comics at the time**, whereas in fantasy post AD&D you get a very clear progression of ‘rats/goblins/bandits/orcs/bugbears/onwards’ (There’s a bit in one of the later Zelazny novels where the hero encounters a giant spider and it’s played for laughs, everyone in on the fact that this is in no way a serious challenge at this point?)

    **: I get the impression that that’s less true now that comics are mainly for an older audience, but I don’t really know much about comics!

  12. 12
    Pete on 12 Sep 2010 #

    The problem of mapping fantasy on to role playing games has always existed, with even the pretty loose rules of original D&D it would be near impossible to play the plots of most fantasy novels in the game (or at least succeed). This was often held up as a flaw (and led to different types of game systems – MERPG etc – which still probably wouldn’t do it but redefined the level up. The flaw is not in the games however, its in the novels themselves where the fantasy is often partially sited in the remarkable acts of the heroes themselves (you could do a sort of Lord Of The Rings in D&D, but it would have a hugely uneven party, and a long sting of remarkable saving throws).

    The trend in early nineties RPG’s seemed to move away from the bold level up (the last time I know about them), but I imagine this has been countered by the computer game rpg experience where the level up is an important staging point in the progression of the game and unlocking new features.

  13. 13
    Tom on 12 Sep 2010 #

    Yes, the computer RPG is the modern template here, D&D is the pre-template (early computer RPGs – Wizardry, etc. – got their mechanics from it at the height of its popularity): it’s kind of a lens through which all the stuff we’ve been talking about in this post gets filtered into “gaming” and then things spread out from it.

    The unwritten bits of I Was A Goblin – or yet-to-be-written, he says optimistically – dig into this games and storytelling thing a bit more.

  14. 14
    CarsmileSteve on 13 Sep 2010 #


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