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# Level-Less Levels

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In my game designs, I always attempt not to include experience levels. They tend to seem arbitrary and meaningless and are totally unrealistic. Furthermore, there is usually an overblown difference between low and high levels. These factors tend to lead to lapses in logic and unrealistic gameplay. However, a big advantage of character levels is that a player can quickly differ between a low-skill character and high-skill character. For instance, in a game like Swords of Chaos, if I am a Level 1 Thief, I won''t try to steal from a Level 20 Shopkeeper and I know that right off the bat. Without levels, I really don''t want to (as a player) look through a whole character sheet to figure out if I''ll be caught. Nor do I want to try to decipher a text description that states, "He looks very strong and tough, and a little agile" or something of that nature. The question is, what are some methods to make a quick-glance character description without resorting to a experience based level system or worse yet a simple experience number listing?

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Perhaps using some of the techniques screenwriters use to add "contextual depth" to their scenes. If you think of a movie scene as a large amount of data, the only a small percent of that is actually verbal/dialogue-based.

Most of it is visual - after all, humans are very keen at visual information. Audio clues can also help - like specific tones or beats in a background clip.

Perhaps the use of colors, geometrical shapes, and other visual clues. This, of course, means that the entire game world must be consistant with these clues, or players will not be able to corrolate the symbol''s significance with a particular scenario.

For example: All shopkeepers that have information that is important for the player to learn, or perhaps just more flexible in terms of bartering will have a subtle green filter (such as the matrix movies) while a character that is more hostile will have a slightly different filter color (or none at all).

Depending on the time/talent of your animators, you may be able to use stance and posture as a visual clue.

Geometric shapes can help to create the background and framework of a scene (every frame is a picture, so all of the techniques that artists use to "focus" their audiences attention to specific details may be relevant). Some artists use lines that all point to a specific element in a painting to grab the audiences focus.

The main problem with these techniques is that they need to either be very consistant in the entire game world (so that people consciously or, idealy, subconsciously take notice) or they must be stated explicitly for the gamer. The reason I say that subconscious depth is better is because a player who doesn''t completely understand why they "feel something unique about a character on the screen versus the other characters" gives people a feeling of depth - which is one of the gaming industry''s weakest elements in today''s products.

I hope this helped and I would love to take more about it tomorrow, but it''s 2:30 in the morning here and I got an early schedule. This is an interesting discussion though, so I am looking forward to the other responses. It''s easily an overlooked design element in most games today - and it shouldn''t be.

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Interesting stuff, dgaf, but you may have to retrain some players to get the most out of it. Many gamers aren''t used to using body cues in games as a sign of anything but emotions. If you are going to use a filter, I wouldn''t have it apply to the character''s image all the time, ot they''ll just think that person is naturally that color. A fe tricks you might use is changing their color on mouse over, or maybe shifting the color on text as they speak.

Alright, now let''s look at character descriptions. The key here is "what do you want to know?" Take the original example. The thief wants to know if they''ll get caught. That suggests they want to know how skilled or how powerful the shopkeeper is relative to them. For "how skilled" use the level of the character''s highest skill. For "how powerful" you''ll have to give them a rating. A quick estimate would be to base it on their skill & stat totals. A more precise version would give different multipliers to each trait. This give you your numbers. However, you may not like tossing a straight number at them. One option is converting it into a text descriptor, as in FUDGE (a versatile tabletop rpg). However, this may work better if you use a realtive scale, rather than an absolute one. For an absolute scale, you''d have to have a new term for each power level and hope no one confused the terms. For relative scales, you can work with fewer terms, so this is less likely. Besides, characters tend to care more about how powerful their opponents are in relation to themselves.
You could swipe a device from mmorpgs here and use a color code based on relative value. Instead of using levels, just use one of the point value systems mentioned above.
Another option is to convert these values into bars. The longer the bar, the higher the value. If you showed bars for both the player and the target, they could get an idea of absolute and relative level. If you just wanted relative level, you could have 2 bars competing for a boxed in area, where the larger bar represents the more skilled/powerful character.

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The problem with explicit math and statistics is that the player either loses all disbelief in the game world or they simply don''t have experience with counters, multipliers, etc. from various RPGs.

Assuming that you are making a game for "non-hardcore gamers" as well as the RPG-buff, the game world should be much more immersive than blatantly artificial.

Let''s assume that special character animations for certain events just isn''t what the publishers/producers feel is worth the money. Likewise, it would take too many voice-overs and cost too much \$ to have audio mono/dialogue.

Text, IMO, is a poor solution to many "explanation issues". Unless you pick up a book somewhere in the world that has a legitimate purpose for explaining something (perhaps a diary), then there really shouldn''t be any magical text boxes that pop up and tell the player something.

I don''t expect to be walking through my house and see a giant pop-up box floating overhead, reminding me to talk to someone or do something. The game, if at all possible, shouldn''t have one either.

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Something that bugs me about stat-based RPGs in general is this assumption that any given player automatically knows or needs to know whether or not they can get away with robbing a certain shopkeeper. If you''re a Level 1 Thief, there is no way your character would be even close to experienced enough to be able to accurately judge a situation well enough to make that kind of determination. Unless the shopkeeper is a one-eyed thug with wicked-ass broadsword and a smirk, or some other obvious visibly dangerous fellow, there is really no way for the Level 1 Thief to assess the situation and know that the shopkeeper is a danger. He''ll either have to attempt to rob the fellow--thus being quickly slapped down by the Level 20 if he gets caught--or he''ll have to assume that any person who has managed to stay in business for so long in a dangerous fantasy world is probably a little tougher than he looks, and it might be the course of wisdom to walk wide until he has more skill.

The problem with CRPGs is, obviously, the lack of available means for communicating abstract data, as the previous posters hint at. Visual cues are great, but a lot of data isn''t going to conveniently fall into easily classifiable categories.

I remember way back in the old days when I used to play MUDs. When facing a new battle, there was no way to guage the threat of the enemy except for simple observation and examining the enemy to assess it''s equipment and health status, and a command called Consider which would perform a rough evaluation of your chances. If "con monster" returned "The monster looks at you and laughs mercilessly" or some such, that was a good indicator to get the hell out of Dodge. Just that simple sentence conveyed more threat of menace than any contrived visual indicators, without detracting from the experience as such a contrived visual indicator would.

Exactly how would you contrive a visual indicator to accurately (or even inaccurately) portray the dangerousness of an opponent anyway? Consider the actor Jet Li. To look at him, you would see a small, slender, polite and well-mannered fellow. Except for a certain grace and lightness of movement, there really is no obvious way to judge the depth of his martial arts skill just by observing him. Take a swing at him, on the other hand, and you''ll learn the true depth of his skill in a hurry.

If every situation can be easily assessed at a glance by even the most inexperienced characters, where is the challenge? Where is even the semblance of realism? I prefer an element of risk, of the unknown. I prefer to feel a little uncertainty, even fear, the first time I face off against an unknown monster. Will I beat this thing, or will I be slapped down like a snot-nosed little girl? If I fight it and lose, forced to tuck tail and run, then that is a bit of knowledge added to my own personal database that will come in handy the next time I encounter such a beast. I don''t need a visual indicator to remember that the last time the monster and I met, it handed me my ass.

Of course, in many situations, visual indicators are good for conveying information, but mostly these are the obvious ones that are already a part of the monster/character. The big, blood-red, dripping claws might be one indicator. The foot long, gleaming white fangs another. It doesn''t take some wierd, abstract coloration or warning light scheme to know that this thing means business and is capable of dealing a lot of hurt.

I personally like the idea of a Consider command of some sort, and for me a simple, brief textual reply is sufficient--though for others it might not be. The reply can be based on a number of factors, to convey a wealth of information (comparison of hand-to-hand battle strength, comparison of relative health levels, comparison of relevant combat or spell-casting skills, etc...), and no tricky or contrived programming is really necessary to try to implement some sort of visual cue system that the player may or may not be able to understand. The Consider ability can be implemented to return more accurate information as the character increases in Level, to reflect his growing skill at assessing situations before he acts. It can be generalized or specific; the player can consider either a general comparison of himself with an enemy, or he can consider the consequences of a specific selected action.

For example, in the case of the Thief, his Thievery or Pick-pocket or whatever skill could have an associated helper icon for Consider. Select Consider, select the shopkeeper, and based on the character''s relative danger assessment ability, a reply is returned describing the thief''s chances of successfully using the Thievery skill on the shopkeeper''s wares. In the case of the Level 1 Thief, the reply might be uncertain and uneasy: "The shopkeeper studies you, a slight smirk on his face." Enough to know that perhaps all is not as it seems. Get a few levels under your belt, and the Consideration might instead return something more specifically related to the danger the shopkeeper poses.

It''s not a perfect scheme, nor is it suited to every game. But neither is the expectation that visual cues alone can accurately convey the nuances of a situation, nor is the assumption that all interactions should be readily decipherable in terms of success/failure, and all data known, as in the case of character sheet and experience level comparisons. Audio cues can enhance things, but can not be relied upon; I know many gamers(myself included) that turn off the music channel in order to play their own playlists, thus losing any effect that music tempo changes or beats would have on indicating the particulars of the situation.

Just my thoughts.

Golem
Blender--The Gimp--Python--Lua--SDL

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Those are good points.

Another benefit of using the player''s own abilities to gauge his chances (rather than stats and levels) is that the player will feel as though he/she is the one that is "skilled".

It seems much more plausible that someone would tell a story about them sizing up a character poorly (and preceeding to be tossed around) than for them to mis-calculate a statistic.

A player-misjudgement is a humorous (if not severely punished) situation and will also create a benefitial bond between the player and the avatar.

Looking into my gaming past; the best skills my characters ever learned were the ones that I, as a player, was a significant part of executing. As profficient as I am in math, I don''t play games to practice my multiplication, addition, and probability expertise. Intuition is a valuable tool for developers - not just from the design standpoint, but from the player perspective as well.

Intuition forces people to use their surroundings and clues to size up a situation - much like in real life.

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Many good points here. For my game, I think the consider option would work extremely well, and fit in into the whole MUD-like atomosphere of the game (I''m trying to substitute the normal isometric RPG view for high-quality pictures and descriptive text, sort of like an adventure game). Perhaps there could be a special Consideration skill that would slightly rise at normal experience gains.

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quote:
If you''re a Level 1 Thief, there is no way your character would be even close to experienced enough to be able to accurately judge a situation well enough to make that kind of determination.

In general, I would consider that a false statement. Having a strong D&D background, level 1 classes were a considerable step up from the average commoner, with an assortment of useful skills and abilities already at their disposal. Level 1 characters weren''t considered to be newbies, inexperienced whelps. Your level 1 thief, fighter, mage, or cleric have all gone through years of apprenticeship and learned a great deal about their profession as a result. In this particular instance, a level 1 thief indeed has a good deal of experience sizing up people, spotting the subtle gestures and postures that are the teltale signs of an experienced adventurer. A level 1 fighter would be able to interact with Jet Li for a mere minute and gain an appreciation of his skill, without ever even hinting at a blow. This fighter has gone through a significant amount of training. He understands how stance and posture affect balance, the advantages of flanking opponents, obtaining higher ground, etc. The level 1 adventurer in general sees the entire world in a way us common gamers just don''t perceive.

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For a graphical game, it''s useful to color code your consider functionality. Most, if not all, MMORPGs are essentially using this with grey, green, blue, yellow, red, and purple opponents. For a skill based game, use the color coding for your actions. However you select the ''steal from vendor'' option, have that option appropriately color coded. Make use of a consider type skill by making it an action in itself. You have to ''assess'' an opponent to get an accurate idea of how successful your actions may be. The downside to assess though, is that your opponent may recognize that he is being ''sized up'', and if this occurs, actions like stealing, backstabbing, surprising, etc, become noticably more difficult. This provides a tradeoff. Do you just steal and hope you have a good chance of success, or do you more closely assess the situation at the risk of receiving unwanted attention to yourself?

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quote:
Original post by NecroMage
For instance, in a game like Swords of Chaos, if I am a Level 1 Thief, I won''t try to steal from a Level 20 Shopkeeper and I know that right off the bat. Without levels, I really don''t want to (as a player) look through a whole character sheet to figure out if I''ll be caught. Nor do I want to try to decipher a text description that states, "He looks very strong and tough, and a little agile" or something of that nature. The question is, what are some methods to make a quick-glance character description without resorting to a experience based level system or worse yet a simple experience number listing?
The shopkeeper can be very active, looking furtively about, checking under tables, recounting his goods and cash frequently. In a more modern context, surveillance cameras, infrared beams, various alarms (if you''re going over the top, atmospheric elements of "doom and gloom") and so forth connote the difficulty of getting one over on this guy.

Context communicates a lot, especially if it''s used consistently.

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quote:
quote:
If you''re a Level 1 Thief, there is no way your character would be even close to experienced enough to be able to accurately judge a situation well enough to make that kind of determination.

In general, I would consider that a false statement. Having a strong D&D background, level 1 classes were a considerable step up from the average commoner, with an assortment of useful skills and abilities already at their disposal. Level 1 characters weren''t considered to be newbies, inexperienced whelps. Your level 1 thief, fighter, mage, or cleric have all gone through years of apprenticeship and learned a great deal about their profession as a result. In this particular instance, a level 1 thief indeed has a good deal of experience sizing up people, spotting the subtle gestures and postures that are the teltale signs of an experienced adventurer. A level 1 fighter would be able to interact with Jet Li for a mere minute and gain an appreciation of his skill, without ever even hinting at a blow. This fighter has gone through a significant amount of training. He understands how stance and posture affect balance, the advantages of flanking opponents, obtaining higher ground, etc. The level 1 adventurer in general sees the entire world in a way us common gamers just don''t perceive.

Maybe, maybe not; that''s a roleplay distinction, not an actual rule. I''ve had L1 D&D warriors fall to a net trap and a runt orc with a broken sword before, and if that is what constitutes superior training and "years of apprenticeship", it''s pretty sad. A level 1 might be a step or two above an ordinary commoner, but as far as real situations go they are inexperienced. That''s the whole point of the experience levels. They start out as basically a farmer with a sword and a few picked-up tricks, and only as they progress do they gain the necessary combat and tactical experience to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent or situation to an accurate degree. I reckon you can look at it either way and still be right. I guess it all depends on the game. Few of the campaigns I ever participated in as a kid took place in lands civilized enough to offer "formal" apprenticeship and training in many arts; the setting was such that most of the adventurers were village toughs and non-conformers who picked up a sword or a spellbook and set about learning what they needed to know.

Regardless, my main point was that I objected to the straight across statistical comparison implied in the original post. Being a L1 thief and knowing right off the bat if a particular victim can thwart your theft or not by doing a statistical computation isn''t roleplaying. A comparison of character sheets can give you precise mathematical probabilities of success, and a run-down of all strengths and weaknesses, but the L1 thief would not and should not have access to this information. Since the character should not be able to make an evaluation of the situation with that level of detail, the player should not be able to either.

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In order to have a game without lvls you would have to make a game similar to mario or donkey kong. That way it would only take one hit to kill the enemy or like 3 hits depending on if it is a boss or not. Those are really the only types of games that you can have levelless characters.

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Or you could base the stats on equipment. Zelda had a pretty good feeling of gradual progression, and all it had was two rings and three swords to adjust your stats. I liked that it was a binary improvement, though. Well, you got through the second dungeon, you are now twice as awesome as you were before. Now, as you get ready for the very end of the game, you are twice as awesome as you were after the second dungeon! Go you!

The gradual increase of health was nice, too. Heck, OoT was sweet, because you had the gradual increase in health, the opportunity to double that faculty, a fireproof suit, an aqualung, and the Biggoron Sword, which was freaking sweet. Throw in the different shields and the various other "augmentations", and you've got a good sense of betterment without having to hoard XP or buy skills.

Edit: But I think the best way to do it is to make it hard to see people's stats. After all, if Aldo Nadi comes into a bar, pinches the waitress, orders a glass of wine and starts reading the newspaper at the favorite table of "Rapier Jim", how is RJ to know what kind of trouble he's getting into when he challenges Nadi to a duel? Aldo Nadi didn't wear his various medals and titles on his shirt, and there wasn't a big sign over his head that said, "Best Italian Fencer Ever".

Maybe if you have some kind of "intuition" skill that lets you think, "Say, that guy walks like a wrestler," or "Anyone packing a Kimber probably knows how to use it." Or perhaps if you use some kind of competition system, and you read the papers, you can see that the man in front of you is in fact Doug Koenig, 1996 winner of whater combat shooting competition he won that year.

But for most RPGers, the stat screen is the trophy the win for spending five hundred hours playing the damn game. If you can't show that off, then what's the point?

[edited by - Iron Chef Carnage on May 7, 2004 1:16:43 PM]

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quote:
Original post by Iron Chef Carnage

Maybe if you have some kind of "intuition" skill that lets you think, "Say, that guy walks like a wrestler," or "Anyone packing a Kimber probably knows how to use it." Or perhaps if you use some kind of competition system, and you read the papers, you can see that the man in front of you is in fact Doug Koenig, 1996 winner of whater combat shooting competition he won that year.

[edited by - Iron Chef Carnage on May 7, 2004 1:16:43 PM]

Intutition seems like a pretty good idea to me. Something I thought of that might be particularly relevant in the kind of dangerous fantasy world most RPGs take place in: for somebody who makes their living in the arts of warfare, it might be important to strike a certain balance in your appearance, demeanor and manner of moving/speaking. You''d want to cultivate a sense of being dangerous, without giving away the full extent of your abilities. You would want to appear dangerous enough that you wouldn''t have to fight a brawl or a duel every six steps down the street, but you also would want potential enemies to misjudge you and underestimate your skill.

This would create a pretty tricky environment. On the one hand, you have the posers--people who act tough, and talk tough and might be just skilled enough to appear tough even to the skilled eye, but in reality are not all that dangerous. On the other hand, you''d have the truly dangerous ones. In my experience with martial arts and tournament competition, it has usually been the quiet, unassuming ones that posed the most danger to my health. Folks that do not talk tough, nor do they look particularly tough, but will hand you your ass if you underestimate them.

Intuition would be critical in an environment like this, where any asshat can cultivate a mean, lithe grace without any true depth to back it up; or where any lethal killer can look like the kid next door, fresh-faced and maybe even slightly awkward. Intuition perhaps based on very low level subliminal processing of non-obvious data, or even true magical or psychic abilities as permitted by the gameworld.

World of Golem

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Iron Chef Carnage, VertexNormal: I agree, intuition is a good idea for a skill.

Self-intuition would also be an interesting attribute. Suppose the game lets you choose where to put points, and self-knowledge (knowledge, intuition, whatever) is one of them. You could buff your character up... and the character might seem rough and tough, but without the self-knowledge, the character could easily end up on the floor in a brawl.

It parallels reality to a certain extent. Quite a few people have a different sense of how important they are in a company to how they are viewed as coworkers (and I''m not exempting myself) -- or how good they are at certain tasks. Imbalances are more often on the intellect/wisdom scale than strength (due to the ease of proof in the latter), but they still exist everywhere.

Other-intuition, of judgment, is definitely a separate thing, but also important. And it makes for a good choice for the player. Would you rather be stronger... or better able to judge your foe''s strength, to know when to run away? In time, both might be attainable, but...

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I''d prefer it if your intuition was more effective at ascertaining skills that you and the other guy share. A sort of "it takes one to know one" type of system would be ideal. If I''m a skilled thief, and I see a skilled thief across the room, I''ll think, "Ah, crap, she''s already working here. I''ll have to either get rid of her or go someplace else." Same deal with warriors. If I''m looking for a bunch of fighters to help me keep the peace in town, I''ll be able to find the ones that can actually fight, and spot the posers right off.

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I think a system that combines your skill level and perception to judge what you perceive the other person’s skill level to be, would be good. So if you have a low firearms skills and you look over at the guy at sitting at the bar you might think hmm, he doesn't look so tough. While, if you had high firearms skill you look at the same guy and notice the little details, the way he holds his glass and the way his muscles move, and you know immediately that this person is a highly skilled sniper and not some you should take lightly.

Perhaps you could even include an obscuration skill that allows characters to hide how skilled they actually are.

You could also have another skill assessment that is used instead of perception to determine how well you can judge people, places, and things.

-----------------------------------------------------
"Fate and Destiny only give you the opportunity the rest you have to do on your own."
Current Design project: Ambitions Slave

[edited by - TechnoGoth on May 10, 2004 5:22:14 PM]

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This is a really neat idea. Being able to interact with people''s demeanor and appearance instead of just reading their stst sheet would make for a far more organic gaming experience.

I think, however, that detailed technical data on a character should be available to that character''s player, to facilitate more effective training and micromanagement of skills, etc. I don''t like the idea that you need to gain a skill for "introspection". That should be a priori.

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I really like the idea of using intuition to "consider" the enimies, and combining that with perception and your own skills. It also fits in quite perfectly with my game as I already have Intuition as a base stat. I also have a base stat called Temperament which basically represents the character''s self-control and could help determine their ability to hide their true skill. Perhaps actually have a disguise category of skills.

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quote:
Original post by NecroMage
In my game designs, I always attempt not to include experience levels. They tend to seem arbitrary and meaningless and are totally unrealistic.

I don''t see anything unrealistic about it. A young adventurer starts smashing monsters, he''s not as efficient as he could be. As he smashes the monsters, he learns better techniques, and in the case of physical attackers build muscle mass, in the case of mages they learn better use of the spells through practice.

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quote:
Original post by dwmitch I don''t see anything unrealistic about it. A young adventurer starts smashing monsters, he''s not as efficient as he could be. As he smashes the monsters, he learns better techniques, and in the case of physical attackers build muscle mass, in the case of mages they learn better use of the spells through practice.
But at what point in his monster-smashing career does he build the "muscle mass" to withstand fireballs and dragon bites and axes to the head? Why must this improvement be represented to everyone in the game as "+6 strength"? Why is it that every fifty goblins or so his strength, intelligence and speed jump up a few notches?

Surely the process can be given a more analog appearance.

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--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Original post by dwmitch I don''t see anything unrealistic about it. A young adventurer starts smashing monsters, he''s not as efficient as he could be. As he smashes the monsters, he learns better techniques, and in the case of physical attackers build muscle mass, in the case of mages they learn better use of the spells through practice.
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But at what point in his monster-smashing career does he build the "muscle mass" to withstand fireballs and dragon bites and axes to the head? Why must this improvement be represented to everyone in the game as "+6 strength"? Why is it that every fifty goblins or so his strength, intelligence and speed jump up a few notches?

Surely the process can be given a more analog appearance.

------------------------------------------------------------------

I view muscle mass and the ability to withstand damage as separate, yet semi-related concepts. +6 strenght makes sense in the context of hacking and slashing for six months (really it should be x number of specific kinds of sword movements to influence increase of strength). If I wandered around the woods beating to death everything I saw, after a small amount of time I would be a whole lot stronger, and continue to gain strength until I reached either my physical limit, or the limit that using a sword of its wheight allowed me to reach.

It would also seem that this activity should drive dexterity/speed up as well. Your upper body should be leaner as I would think that this is a farily aerobic exercise, once you reach the muscle mass you will attain from the wheight of the weapon.

Regarding the constitution of the PC, if you have constitution as the stat that you base the ability to withstand damage from, it should increment somewhat with muscle mass. But really this is the ability to withstand blunt trauma and some light slicing/cutting.

You could also use the hit box approach, where damage needs to be dependent on the area of the body struck, certain areas are "soft spots". Using this, a generic constitution stat doesn''t make very much sense. So somehow my skull is now fatter with more muscle as I age? Makes me want to have a fat head.

I think that the generic STR, CON, INT, DEX stats exist as a result of the influence of pen-n-paper RPGS on CRPGS. At this point there could be 50 statitistics that are not shown to the player but increase throughout the game. Specialized activities can improve specialized areas of strenght for example.

As for strength causing the charecter to withstand a fireball, well one fireball of an appropriate size should really be enough to kill any person, if your basing damage afflicted to the char. on real life. Fireballs just need to be less common and avoidable (not withstandable) in some manner. Or you have a magic resistance stat of some kind (or elemental resistant stats). Resistance to elements could be based on amount of exposure to the elements as well as the DNA of the person. Of course there would be certain levels that would not be resistable.

Matt

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I think some of you may have misunderstood me. When I said levels are unrealistic, I meant that actual levelling-up is unrealistic, not steady progression of stats, etc. People don''t pick fifty locks and then BAM all of a sudden they can sneak 1.4x better than they did before. People don''t occasionally get +20 hitpoints instantly. Growth should be gradual rather than incremental, but yet growth should be measured (in levels perhaps).

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I''ll have to agree with Necromage on this one. While levels can be convenient, they''re hardly realistic. Let''s take a look at the standard level-scheme.

Char gets "experience" from killing things, or at least defeating them. After a certain amount of experience is gained, the character suddenly gains a trait package based on their level and class.
The level system comes from tabletop rpgs, many of which were inspired by D&D. D&D started as an adaption of a war game where the focus shifted to controlling individual heros instead of military units. In the wargame context, a level system makes a certain amount of sense. The more battles a unit wins the more "elite" it becomes. In short, each battle brought the unit closer to an idealized elite status. Levels were a way of generalizing the skill developement of troops, just like hit points generalized damage. After all tracking the individual skills of every soldier in an 100 man legion is a daunting task.

The flaws crept into the system during it''s repeated adaptions. Does it make sense that a character gets better at making successful attacks the more battles they win? I''d say so. Now does it make sense that the character get''s better at ballroom dancing the more battles they win? Somehow I seriously doubt it. Though that last example may seem a bit bizarre, it does show my point. After all, why does a thief have to go out and kill things to get better at lock picking? The problem is that when a leveling system is the only way to develope skills, every skill the characters will develope has to be tied to that system.
Note, gradual growth can be gained by just making more levels. If each stat goes up by 1 unit each time, the difference will be barely notable. For example, Str +2/3, Dex +1/2, ect.. This doesn''t mean the character will get fractional increases, it just means the increases are divided over multiple levels. (Ex. +1 Str at levels 2,3,5,6,8,9... and +1 Dex at levels 2,4,6,8...) However, this fix doesn''t solve the problem of increasing unused skills.

I really think we need to look at some other models, or at least build in other ways to improve skills.

Use-based training is a common alternative. Just track each time a skill is used and level up after a certain number of uses. This isn''t really a difficult system to implement. I''ve seen examples as early as Final Fanatsy 2(japanese version) and the Quest for Glory series. These systems have been used in games that are over 10 years old. I believe Ultima Online also uses this kind of system.

If you want something a little closer to levels & classes, try setting up a "combat style" system. Assume each style contains a list of traits, with a pointer starting at the first trait. When the character gains enough combat experience, that first trait is purchased and the pointer moves on to the next one. When the end of the list is reached, it cycles back around to the first item. You could even put in a list item that changes each time it''s passed. This would spread the effects of a single cycle/level over multiple encounters. Note that only combat traits should be gained from a combat style, which should in turn only be developed through combat or similiar training. If that thief character want''s to learn lock picking, they''ll have to do it outside of battle. This system works best if you have a distinct "feel" you want to create for a certain character type.

Btw, muscle doesn''t neccesarily make you tougher. In fact, people with heavy muscle developement can actually bruise more easily, as they have less fat protecting all those muscles. On the other hand, mass does seem to help soak up blunt trauma. I guess the point is that while the muscle mass will absorb the force, it can get bruised in doing so. Fat is actually a more effective form of protection. However, obesity tends to reduce overall health, thus making it harder to recover from trauma.

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Here is the system i use for games I design.

Skills

All skills begin at an initial value of 0 representing the character is untrained in that skill or ability, the heights possible level in a skill is 10 representing mastery of that discipline. Before a skill can be improved it must first be learned either from another character or skill book. These provide a basic introduction into the skill increasing it from 0 to 1. Most skills also have a limiter stat, in which the maximum level the skill can be increased to equal to the limiter stat. In the event the stat decreases below that of the skills current level, the skill is considered impaired and decreases to the stats current level. However it can be relearned at half the original cost the impairment is lifted if the stat is returned to its original level.

In order to improve a skill the player must practice the skill or receive training in it. Each skill has a practice requirement this is the number of practice points the character needs to acquire in order for the skill to advance to the next level. The amount of practice points need to advance the skill depends on the skills current level and the amount of skills levels the character has. When a characters'' skill level increases then the required practice points for all non similar skills increases by 10% thus making it harder for the character to acquire high levels in a large verity of skills. Also the amount of practice points amassed in a given skill decreases slightly over time if the skill is not used.

Example:

Character opens a tumbler lock for the first time and receives 20 PP + 20 PP for the first success completion.

However the next time the character opens tumbler lock they receive 19 PP the next time 18 and so on.

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"Fate and Destiny only give you the opportunity the rest you have to do on your own."
Current Design project: Ambitions Slave

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