Monday, October 28, 2019

Stratified progression, yesterday and today

I have been preoccupied by other things, and have neglected this blog of late. Happily, some of those things have involved actual gameplay, and not mere reflection on it. But I have also been somewhat deterred by the enormity of the village campaigns theme I undertook to investigate earlier this year. I still mean to tackle it. Soon.

This post, however, was elicited by my rediscovery of my copy of Jon Peterson's Playing at the World after several years of fruitless searching. It had become obscured by another book on one of our shelves, and after I found it, and dived right back into the enormous chapter on the game system, which I had left off sometime in 2016, when I first misplaced it.

After a valiant slog through the history of the 'kriegspiel', I happened upon a very astute set of passages regarding the system of leveling in D&D, which I reproduce in full below. It caught my eye because I have long felt that level advancement (along with character classes and funny-shaped dice) is one of the key reasons for the breakthrough that led to the rise of RPGs as a distinct style of gaming, and for the continued dominance of D&D within the hobby at large until the present day. This is so despite the fact that numerous competitors have criticized level advancement as highly unrealistic. This lack of realism is more than compensated by the psychological payoff experienced by players when their characters advance in level - a payoff that skill-based systems very much lack. Peterson is largely in agreement with this assessment, but what's especially significant is his analysis of the social mythology that made the rewards-framework particularly potent for the game's creators and early players.

Here is Peterson's take:

... the system of stratified progression, as packaged by Dungeons & Dragons, appeared novel, perhaps even disruptively innovative, to its early audience. No small part of the game's appeal derives from this innovation, and thus the development of progression holds a special interest for posterity (342)... If Dungeons & Dragons has an object of play, it is progression... the overarching reward for play is unending self-improvement. Levels serve as a universal status symbol, permitting players to track and compare their advancement with numerical milestones. "There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress," Man & Magic asserts... The distance between the milestones of level are measured in experience points... Experience points derive ultimately from this sort of tally, growing with each victory over enemies. This system models the principle that practice makes perfect: the more fighting you do, the better you will fight in the future (351)... from this perspective, it might appear counterintuitive that the acquisition of material goods translates directly into experience. Ultimately, the accumulation of wealth in Dungeons & Dragons is tantamount to the growth of power, as it is in the real world. The story of a successful adventurer is therefore a rags-to-riches story, like many a swords-and-sorcery story arc. Experience shares something else in common with wealth - no amount is enough. Having more hit points is always preferable to less, and the same goes for other bonuses associated with level. The personal self-improvement fantasy of experience in this respect mirrors the capitalist fantasy of perpetually swelling treasuries: it promises in the Nietzschean vein that dangerous experiences always educate or exercise us, rather than rendering us less fit on account of wounds or mental trauma, say. Of course, if we players of Dungeons & Dragons dedicated ourselves to exercise and education with the same vehemence as our characters, our returns would be far more modest; the accelerated pace of rewards in Dungeons & Dragons, be they financial or physical or mystical, is a great part of the allure of the game. For our investment of time and risk (our character's risk, which we incur only vicariously), we feel disproportionately well-rewarded. We feel that we have taken risks and done work for wealth and power, but they come much more easily in Dungeons & Dragons than they do in life (352-353)... Through a variety of means, Dungeons & Dragons forges an especially strong bond between players and characters [-] a bond strong enough to withstand temporary sojourns to the grave; players often identify with their characters, and enjoy them just as much for their form as for their function. It is precisely this identification that makes personal progression elicit such a strong immersive reaction from many players... the first gamers to encounter Dungeons & Dragons as a commercial product praise the compelling system of progressing a specific, named character through adventures until they rise from a novice to a master. The uniformity of this reaction should make us suspect that personal progression is one of the key catalysts that triggered the new style of gaming which emerged in 1974 (358)...

Die Augburger Monatsbilder, Juli, August, September (Jörg Breu, c. 1520) 

In some places explicitly, and elsewhere, more by suggestion, Peterson uncovers that D&D's phenomenal success, not only as a commercial product but as an iconic cultural artifact of the last third of the 20th century resides in its ability to tap into the mythology of the dominant capitalist ethos, especially in its American form. The appeal of the game is fostered by:

  • The Horatio Alger story that lies at the base of every PC's adventuring career. The identification with the specific character is greatly strengthened by the fact that the character survives hardships and an inauspicious beginning, and becomes somebody. The character deserves their success, because they faced risks, worked hard, and persevered. This identification with the surviving character was all the stronger given the high rates of PC death in early D&D. And the identification with the successful character was further amplified by the fact that in this fantasy world, the capitalist promise came through dramatically enough to make us suspend our disbelief regarding its efficacy, at least while at the table;
  • The fact that open-ended character of the game models what Max Weber called the 'endless accumulation of capital'. This applies both to the PC's accumulation of wealth, and also to the accumulation of experience points, and therefore, power. There is no sense that the game has to end simply because the character has reached a certain level - further play has further challenges, and can bring ever more power. Though the perks of very high levels are often undefined, DMs are urged to make things up to motivate heroes, just like Walt Rostow, writing a decade and a half prior to the birth of D&D, said that capitalism would create other values to pursue after consumer society gave most people a high level of material comfort;
  • As for Weber, the endless accumulation of levels and experience would be a rational process, based upon a particular calculus. Monsters and treasure (and perhaps, puzzles, investigation, and other things) are worth a quantifiable amount of XP. The tallying of XP, keeping track, anticipating the earning of a new level, and comparing level and XP tallies with those of other characters provides an objective, numerical value of the character's (and in many instances, its player's) virtue;
  • Finally, the identification of player and character derives from the extreme value the capitalist ethos places on the individual. We succeed and fail because of personal decisions and actions, not as members of groups, and this is despite the fact that failure is sometimes caused by happenstance (bad rolls), and the fact that some groups (classes) may be more powerful than others. The character's story is, first and foremost, a story of their success. It is this that differentiates them from others of their type (again, this is especially important in early D&D, when the number of classes and races was very limited). And it is this that we commonly recount in the 'let me tell you about my character' stories.

Ultimately, it's the 'endless' character of the game and the individuation that made D&D a much more effective and appealing representation of the dominant myth than, say Monopoly.

Frontpiece to Huzinga's classic
(note the cultural similarities with
the above painting, often used as
a frontpiece to Weber's classic)
All this got me thinking about how changes in the dominant culture since the early 1970s has altered both D&D (in its contemporary, 5e form), and the experience of stratified progression by today's players. Perhaps it is not quite accurate to suggest that cultural changes have altered player expectations within the game, because the relationship between games and culture is rather more complex. D&D emerged, after all, at a time when mature capitalism had managed to provide sufficient leisure time that a sufficiently large group of people was able to reflect upon and reproduce this ethic in game form - that is, when the highly productivist Protestant Ethic had passed its apogee, and was already in retreat. In this sense, D&D was no mere capture of zeitgeist, because it had, like Minerva's owl, taken wing over that zeitgeist after dusk had already fallen. In the 1930s, cultural historian Johan Huizinga had already argued that games and play not only preceded the emergence of civilization, but were themselves formative of it - and Huizinga himself clearly looked forward to a time when gameplay would implode the humorless bubble in which industrializing, economizing and totalizing civilization had encased Western society since the 19th century. And René Reinhold Schallegger has recently noted the contemporaneity of the emergence of role-playing games and postmodern philosophy, which heralded the retreat of grand narratives, the reemergence of ludic rituals and local narratives as the key culture-generating rituals. The 'gamification' of culture, dramatically underwritten by the expansion of video games, which in turn were heavily influenced by D&D, has fostered the triumph of a mass culture of secondary reality that constitutes a defense against the hyperreality fashioned by capital (23).

In this regard, we may note that while D&D may have appealed to players who accepted the Protestant Ethic as second nature - and the Protestant Ethic (and its other industrialist spinoffs) was the ur-grand narrative at which the postmodern theorists aimed most of their fire - its transformation into a set of game mechanics, and its cartoon-like depiction of worldly success as a fantastic augmentation of personal power and hoards Monty Hauled from the dungeon were culturally transgressive. I even suspect that the tendentious accusations of occult influences that led to the Satanic Panic were merely a pretext - the underlying problem with D&D from the perspective of the true champions of the Protestant Ethic was that an awful lot of young people were spending am awful lot of time playing an immersive game, when they should have been preparing for a working life in a bureaucratic, industrial society, where their primary ritualistic outlet should have been the attendance of church on Sunday mornings (and perhaps, organized team sports, which Huizinga notably disparaged as "puerilisitc" and not truly ludic).

Nevertheless, D&D stood at the cusp of a new ludic age, and as Schallegger notes, those (such as Peterson) who overemphasize the identity of D&D and role-playing games in general miss the dramatic expansion of postmodern influence on design principles in subsequent decades. In particular, Schallegger argues that Peterson's emphasis on the simulationist and quantitative roots of D&D deflects too much attention from the more narrative and performative orientations of later RPGs. Similarly, he emphasizes that many later games abandon Gygax's notion of the "competitive, auterist and autocratic " Dungeon Master in favor of a more "process-oriented and democratic" style of play that incorporates greater player agency.

The question is, given the intensification of the postmodern turn by and within the RPG community, what kind of impact has it had on attitudes toward leveling, which Peterson underlines (correctly, in my estimation) as so terribly important for the breakthrough into the first RPG - Dungeons & Dragons? Notably, leveling is absent from most top games that are not situated within the D&D family of games (including Pathfinder and OSR retroclones), but, given the huge D&D renaissance after the release of 5e, and the fact that available statistics indicate that the majority of tabletop gamers are still playing one variety of D&D or another, leveling remains very important, and probably a key feature in pulling in large numbers of players.

So what has changed? Several factors must be emphasized:

  • The partial displacement of tallying XP by the 'milestone' system. This has taken place for several reasons. First, many DMs express frustration with calculating experience, which they see as arbitrary and needlessly time-consuming. This shift may be partially accounted for by the partial decline of scientific authority in society. If science is merely one language among others, as Derrida contended, then scientific claims to absolute objectivity, which revolves, first and foremost, around the quantification of knowledge, are merely self-referential language games, no more entitled to be designated as truthful than any other language. Conversely, the narrative turn makes recommends the awarding of levels experience on the basis of accomplishing the goals of the story around which the adventure is emplotted as a more objective. Simply killing monsters or accumulating loot because doing so is worth a certain amount of XP actually breaks immersion, and creates metagame incentives for PCs that are not consistent with their in-game motivations and personalities.
  • The democratization of stratified progression. This has four important facets. First, the level-advancement system has been greatly simplified. Whereas each character class had its own progression table (weaker classes generally gained levels more quickly), more recent iterations of D&D have made a single advancement scheme for every class, which in turn necessitated a partial redesign to ensure that classes were delicately balanced vis-a-vis one another, to make sure that no class could be regarded as better or stronger than any other. Thus, whereas the underlying message in older varieties of D&D was more individualist and worldly-ascetic - when making a new character, the player should choose wisely, and perhaps delay gratification (until one's pathetically weak magic-user blossomed into the awesomely overpowered archmage), the newer versions signaled that not only does being an adventurer make one 'special' right off the bat (the previously hapless wizard now gets at-will cantrips at 1st level), but advancement should not be affected by the choice of class in which one chose to advance. This system also made switching between classes easier.
Cyborgs, simians, hybrids - models for today's
character races?
  • Second, recent editions have completely eliminated the racial ceilings to level advancement. The original game rewarded humans, who lacked various magical and mundane perks at the outset, with unlimited level advancement. Today, these limitations are regarded as hopelessly racist, and in line with a preference for racial diversity, there is a tacit encouragement for players to take on a variety of exotic races - dragonborn, tabaxi, genasi, warforged, tortle, and so on. These preferences are very much in line with a postmodern disdain for racial and ethnic essentialism (that arguably informs the notion of races in early D&D), and a predilection for hybrids and cyborgs.
  • Third, the advancement system is democratized in the sense that it has become significantly easier to gain levels, especially in the early going. Whereas in early rulesets, the fighter had to accumulate 2001 XP in order to advance to level 2, now that same fighter is well into 3rd level by this point. The rationale for this change is that players like characters who have standout powers compared to a run-of-the-mill peasant, and that it is much too easy to die at early levels, so faster advancement should be facilitated. Moreover, guidelines recommending the rate of progression in the rulebooks, and published adventure paths make it clear that PCs should attain high levels, characterized by truly superhuman powers, quite quickly. Whereas the designers of early D&D suggested that it should take at least a year of intensive play to reach 'name level' (typically, 9th to 11th), 5e designers have stipulated that a character should ideally level after every session.
  • Fourth, there is now much more emphasis on characters in an adventuring party advancing levels together, and simultaneously. This is typically linked both to the simplification of the advancement scheme (which eliminates class distinctions), and to milestone advancement, which makes XP tallying unnecessary. The justification for this is twofold: first, people have lives outside of the game, and there is no reason to punish them for missing sessions by giving XP only to the players whose characters attended. Second, having all characters in the party at the same level is preferable, because having them more or less equal in power adds to everyone's enjoyment, and gives them a greater stake in the campaign, since they can all contribute without fearing that they are outmatched by antagonists pro-rated to fight their more powerful comrades. In any event, it should not be the prerogative of the DM, or some quantifiable system, to decide who deserves to advance, and when.
  • Having all the PCs advance together, and stipulating a rate of progression (based on the number of encounters or the number of sessions played) has created more of a demand for, and an expectation of, regular progression. When a particular DM has a rate of progression that differs markedly from that of others, or when playstyle affects that rate (e.g. a role-play-centered campaign has PCs progress more slowly than a combat-centered campaign, because less XP is given out, or plot problems are are navigated at a more leisurely pace), some players become annoyed by the irregularity. Relatedly, XP awards that give a character almost, but not quite enough XP to attain the next level are seen as arbitrary products of a purportedly 'objective' calculation. This demand for a greater regulation of progression is closely related to a critique of market-based (quantified, objective) regulation, as well as arbitrary state-based regulation (in this case, represented by an all-powerful, 'auterist' DM). In certain cases, the imperative to decenter the DMs authority even involves the players collectively deciding when they should level up. Finally, the regulation of advancement is also fostered by the fact that characters reach a ceiling at 20th level. Though there are some suggestions regarding how a character might keep advancing past that point, the lack of any level higher than 20th on the advancement tables (or even any mention of how much XP is necessary to gain higher levels), as well as discussions of "builds" that cap out at 20th level total has created somewhat of an expectation that 20th level characters have reached a pinnacle, and should probably be retired soon after having done so.
  • There is a greater emphasis on leveling as a unidirectional process. Although moving up was always much more common than moving down, there was a whole class of monsters - the undead - that specialized in level-draining - that is, reducing a character's level as a result of attack. Though there were remedies against this, they tended to be rare and very expensive, and it was far from unusual for characters who had been drained to have to begin their difficult climb in levels from scratch (assuming they survived these attacks). As a result, undead were arguably more feared than any other monster, precisely because attaining higher levels was the most important process in the game. In 5e, level loss is much rarer than it used to be, because losing levels generated so much negative response among the players. Therefore, the level-draining feature was largely replaced with necrotic damage and/or temporary max hit point loss, which can still kill a character and transform them into one of the living dead, but cannot permanently take away levels. Other common ways to lose XP and levels - e.g. by not following one's alignment - are also largely eliminated in 5e, where alignment is commonly treated as an optional role-playing guideline.
  • Though personality remains a key aspect of character (arguably, it has become even more important that in early versions of D&D), it has become partly dissociated from the system of level progression. Whereas initially, D&D characters started out as nearly a blank slate other than a simple set of statistics, and acquired an individuality which emerged from play and was often a factor of their exploits, 5e characters emerge from the heads of their creators much more fully formed, with personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Resolving a PC's personality conflicts has become a key part of the modern game, but it is essentially unrelated to the system of stratified progression.

Taking all of the above into consideration, what broad trends can we note regarding stratified progression in D&D in response to the 'postmodern' or narrative turn?

  • Although there is no question that the profound changes that have taken place in the culture at large (many of them driven by 'gamification' and the postmodern turn), leveling up remains an important draw for tabletop gamers, both old and new. The overwhelming dominance of D&D in the tabletop RPG market has many causes, including branding and a (relatively) big budget, the legacy market, the continued popularity of the fantasy genre, the coincident rise of streaming, and demographics (old grognards with disposable income and free time recruiting their children). Taking these advantages for granted does not explain why D&D has been able to maintain its top status - there have certainly been watershed periods (the Satanic Panic, the malaise of the 1990s when White Wolf Games became a serious competitor, the mistake of 4e) when it was possible for D&D to lose its crown to another franchise or family of games. But it has not happened. And a key draw remains leveling up, because it unlocks new abilities, which is how it works in video games (which are popular, and which originally got the idea from... D&D).
  • The continued attraction of 'leveling up', coupled with making such progression faster and easier manifests a complex interaction of distinct cultural processes, which both feed off and counterpoise one another. On the one hand, progression remains important, because it instills a sense of accomplishment, and provides discrete milestones which mark dramatic increases in character power. The way leveling up 'feels' about the same regardless of whether one falls in the "XP vs. milestones' debate. The failure to replace the Horatio Alger myth by the postmodern turn is to be somewhat expected - postmodernism is in the deconstruction business, not the mythbuilding business. At the same time, the more 'postmodern' current prioritizes leveling as a product of teamwork - in terms of tactical cooperation, 'collective storytelling', and well as player camaraderie (as opposed to individual accomplishment). It also, as we have seen, underlines the importance of narrative progress rather than quantitatively measurable progress. Thus, the curious thing is, that the postmodern turn notwithstanding, the formal aspects and the language of stratified progression - the main reward mechanism for both players and characters, remain largely unchanged, though the content of what is being measured, how it is being measured, the rate of progression - have undergone much greater transformation. In a nutshell, the dramatic reward- for-accomplishment mechanism of leveling up remains under DM control under the formal rules, but the cultural expectations around leveling has transformed to some degree, such that a significant number of DMs feel pressure to allow for faster, more collective, more regular, and/or less quantifiable progression. 
  • Because the cultural change has been at best partial (5e is an explicit compromise between the older 'adventure' games and the newer 'story' games), some reactions to them have pointed to the contradictions within the newer perspectives on stratified progression (and, implicitly, to unresolved contradictions within the old ones). A significant segment of players, typically older players with experience of the 'legacy' editions, have argued that it is newer, rather than older approaches, that restrict player freedom and give DMs too much arbitrary power. Their key points typically include:
    The railroad campaign corresponds with milestone leveling?
    • The milestone approach railroads players into pursuing the pre-planned GM narrative. Rather than increasing "player agency", it actually makes progression more arbitrary, and more subject to DM fiat. Players that hew to this line often mention that milestone advancement feels 'gimmicky' because it breaks immersion, e.g. by making the PCs the 'appropriate' level for fights that the DM has planned (and that can only result in a confrontation that ends in a decisive victory for one side or another). 
    • De-prioritizing combat-based XP in favor of rewarding better role-playing can not only result in differential advancement (the better roleplayers advancing faster), but it can have a more demotivating effect than making XP more combat-based. Failing to get XP because you lost an encounter because of inauspicious die-rolling, or even player absence, is not a personal reflection on the player, whereas getting less XP (or even failing to get Inspiration) arguably is. Worse, in some cases, players who are short-changed begin to suspect DM bias. 
    • Conversely, not setting incentives to reward good roleplaying or clever solutions can, in the estimation of some players, devolve games to the lowest common denominator - if I'm not being rewarded for thinking or getting into character, why should I bother? 
    • The calculation of XP, and its regular awards after each session provide a level of transparency that milestone awards lack. Not only do many players prefer to track XP, both to have a sense of accomplishment for their actions, and to know how closely they stand to making the next level; the idea that there is a system for determining advancement that is at least partly independent of DM desires and plans is highly appealing.  
    • Balance and regular advancement. Though as we have seen, balance is often invoked by those who champion the newer gaming culture, some critics of non-XP advancement also invoke balance to argue that the progression tables were designed to significantly slow advancement at mid-levels, because experience shows that is the 'sweet spot' for most campaigns (the levels which players enjoy the most, and the point, statistically, before most campaigns start to fail). Tinkering with this balance by awarding levels arbitrarily, by milestones or another non-XP system, disrupts the proper functioning of this built-in regulator.
  • In addition, there is also a sizable group that defends an explicitly 'traditionalist' take on leveling. They tend to assert that:
    • Leveling should be deserved. Only when it is deserved (as opposed to earned for being present, or even nominally belonging to the party) does the psychological payoff become real and worthwhile. It creates individual investment in the game, because rewards are so explicitly tied with right actions.
    • It is proper to explicitly incentivize actions that lead to XP (whether those actions are killing monsters, stealing loot, solving problems through negotiation, etc.) so that players know what kind of play is expected from them, and then draw the appropriate conclusions. Without clear (and preferably, calculable) guidelines, the market-like transmission of information between DM and players breaks down.
    • Failure to calculate XP for each session, and justifying this by citing an unwillingness to overload the game with crunch that has no visible impact on the enjoyment of the game is an abdication of DM responsibility, or, in short, simple laziness. People who apply this productivist logic toward DMs (and not just characters) tend to assert that players prefer such a crunchy, though transparent, system, and only lazy DMs choose to opt out of it, for their own reasons.
    • 'Modern advancement' at the rate recommended by the DMG for non-XP-based leveling (1 session each for the early levels, 2 sessions for levels 4-5, and perhaps 2-3 sessions subsequently) is too fast. Of those that support slower advancement, many want to replicate the rate of advancement present in earlier iterations of the game, where a significant investment in the character had to be made to earn higher levels. Some DMs and players, however, enjoy a lower-magic setting more for aesthetic reasons, so slowing advancement may have little to do with making advancement difficult for its own sake.  Some 'traditionalists', however, argue that slowing advancement is better done with milestones, precisely because standard XP values are determined on the basis of a faster advancement scheme. 
The sandbox - corresponds with awarding XP?
  • As expectations have diverged, and a range of approaches to stratified progression have emerged, distinct cultural preferences have, at the margins, crystallized into political preferences. It is an oversimplification to reduce the more traditional approach to a preference for a Protestant Ethic, individualist, competitive and 'auterist' style of running the game, and the newer, more 'postmodern' style the more collectivist, regulated, 'democratic' DMing, but it is difficult to account for the vehemence in a lot of discussions about leveling without seeing people's positions about game mechanics as reflecting real-life political preferences. It should be added that the vehemence is present on both sides, though it can be expressed in different ways. Whereas the traditional Gygaxian is often cited as "gently but firmly" disciplining players in order to elicit proper behavior or playstyle, or a traditionalist chides DMs who don't calculate XP for failing to understand human psychology, some 'postmoderns' have a penchant for lecturing DMs for awarding differential XP awards, especially by cutting out absent players. This, we are informed, is nothing but a powerplay by DMs who fail to recognize that D&D is a 'team game' which works best if all the PCs have roughly the same level of power, that players have work and family lives outside of the game, that the DM's job isn't to punish or control behavior, but to facilitate a fun experience for all. We should pause to unpack this set of claims, to lay bare certain, perhaps unwarranted assumptions, which are partly obscured by the tone in which they are often advanced:
    • There isn't a fundamental difference between someone who insists that players must deserve to advance, and someone who says every player who misses a session deserves to be treated the same way as those players who were present at it. In fact, players do miss sessions because of work or family issues; but, players who join a gaming group do so with the understanding that the group has a regular schedule. If a player has a regular scheduling conflict, they have a responsibility to the group to let the DM and the other players know about it ahead of time to allow them to plan accordingly; if their schedules are irregular, they should inform the group about such irregularities with as much advance notice as possible; or, if this is impossible, responsible players will either withdraw from the game, or put in occasional 'guest appearances', if that is acceptable to the group. On the whole, players who miss occasional sessions due to work, school, or family will not fall very far behind, because the number of missed sessions tends to even out over the long-term, and because players and DMs who have developed a respectful relationship with one another will reach some sort of accommodation. Remember, it's only a game.
    • Most reasonable people will not expect the gaming group's schedule to conform to the demands of particular players, even if one were to grant that on some objective level, the player's life trumps what happens in the game. But moreover, can it be established that most players who miss sessions do so because of work, school, or family reasons? Casual observation seems to suggest that players often fail to appear because they forgot, or because other 'non-serious' commitments arose at the last second. Some players simply can't be bothered to inform their fellow players that they will miss a session ahead of time. I recently had a player who failed to appear because it was his birthday, but he notified the group only through another individual player at game time. While family celebrations are certainly important, one surmises that someone is aware of when their birthday is well ahead of time. This player is a habitual 'skipper' - for a variety of reasons - and has now made it a common practice to give no warning (though he has seen fit to ask for makeup sessions for himself). Typically, such players get expelled from the group, because of their unwillingness to valorize the interests of the collective. If, for whatever reason, such a player is allowed to stay on, I see little reason why the DM is required to make sure that player stays at the same XP level as others. DMs should, indeed promote the interests of the collective, and respect the lives and commitments of their players, but if they are not respected in turn, they can become demotivated to such a degree that the game as a whole suffers. Whether a DM is 'auterist' or not, DMs invest disproportionate energy in the group - not only because they prepare the adventure and run the game, but because they generally assume the lion's share of administrative duties (planning, communicating, often hosting, etc.). Not awarding XP, or expelling habitual offenders is not so much a 'punishment' as it is the drawing of boundaries by a self-respecting person.
    • D&D may be a team sport that depends on some measure of balance, but does that mean that players must receive identical XP regardless of actions or presence at the table? How far is equity to be pushed? If characters must advance simultaneously or be granted identical amounts of XP, do they also have to have identical amounts of wealth? Do party members have to share money they found during a session with characters who were absent during this time? Do all characters have to attract identical attention from monsters? Is it unfair if one character is killed or maimed, while others are not? Do all characters deserve the same narrative attention regardless of how much time they spent developing a backstory? One can see how insistence on equity or balance can quickly become reductio ad absurdum. Stratified progression, as has been noted all along, is a central aspect of the game, so equality in level or XP outweighs equity in most other respects. But is it truly necessary to ensure at all costs that all characters must be identical in level, and have an identical amount of XP? If the Dungeon Master's Guide itself stipulates that "there is nothing wrong with" having absent players who are more frequently absent fall behind, because "a gap of two or three levels between different characters in the same party isn't going to ruin the game for anyone" (p.260), stipulating that the DM who does must be a tyrant comes across sounding a bit strained. The DMG later suggests adopting a more egalitarian system as a variant. Both are acceptable alternatives. Some players aren't going to want to be behind in any respect, claiming that this means they can't contribute. That is their right, and if they are candidates for a game in which a DM sees certain gaps as acceptable, they are within their rights to say that this DM's game isn't for them, just like the DM in question is within their rights to say this player is not a good fit. It should be added, in closing, that even Huizinga - cited as a champion of the 'ludic turn' and the separation between game-play and real life by postmodernists - insisted that all play contains an element of competition, which was fostered not by a desire to dominate, but a playful desire to excel (p. 50). When properly regulated to make sure that this desire does not transform into individual resentment, but instead translates into a higher self-regard for the group to which the virtuosic player belongs, then the insistence on absolutizing level and XP equality becomes a solution in search of a problem.
    • There is surprisingly little explicit recognition that different approaches may work for different tables. For example, awarding identical XP (or milestones) may be appropriate for a group of new or immature players, whereas a more hard-nosed approach may work well for long-running groups of players who have developed mutual trust, and can handle some measure of disparity between levels (some may even treat starting at low level as an exciting challenge). 
    H. G. Wells simulating war
    • The treatment of players who prefer different approaches to stratified progression as something akin to political enemies ignores that in-game preferences do not necessarily reflect out-of-game preferences. Adventuring parties - even those that regard themselves as heroic - commonly commit unseemly amounts of violence. Violence and the killing of enemies are pretty central to D&D, but we generally do not suspect that D&D players favor this method of solving personal or political problems in the real world. In fact, as Peterson relates, the transformation of war-gaming from a teaching tool to a hobby coincided with the rise of pacifist sentiments. Robert Louis Stevenson and H. G. Wells were both avid wargamers precisely because they saw such games as a sublimation of the warlike spirit which, in other conditions, resulted in the death of real flesh-and-blood people (Peterson, pp. 251-270). It is much the same with the Horatio Alger spirit that drives stratified progression in D&D. By playing through the idea that dramatic advancement must be earned, or reduced to a quantifiable formula, or assigned for individual achievement in a fantasy world, we obviate, to an extent, its imposition onto real social relations. And if playstyle does not serve as a screen on which we project real political commitments, then perhaps we might want to reduce the temperature in discussion about game mechanics like level progression.    
As important as level progression remains, and as bound up as it is with changing and divergent cultural currents, it would also be a mistake to overestimate the importance of different philosophies of progression to actual game decisions. Considering how sharply the lines can be drawn, and how often we hear statements to the effect that 'I will not play with a DM who uses milestones' or 'I will not join a game that awards individual XP', we might expect these considerations to predominate. In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of players join games for reasons having little or nothing to do with such considerations. Players join games that are available (if the alternative is not playing at all). Players join games with their friends. Players join games run by good DMs, regardless how they approach leveling up. And players join games that have a compelling settings, even if the DM happens to be a 'gamist', and the player - a 'narrativist', provided there is mutual trust and respect. Moreover, quite a few players and DMs admit to actually using different approaches, and playing in games that use divergent approaches to leveling and determining XP. There are plenty of grounds on which overlooking ones preferences is worthwhile. And, in point of fact, incentives also have fairly little impact on character decisions - most players have a preferred style (murderhobo, thespian, problem-solver, etc.) that seems to be little affected by how XP (or milestones) are awarded.

We conclude, therefore, that despite substantial cultural changes, leveling - a key feature of D&D, one that is grounded in an earlier culture that has retreated in society, remains very important. Given that D&D, for a variety of reasons, remains the most popular tabletop RPG system, and therefore, to some extent, a generic fantasy system, a multiplicity of equally legitimate approaches will remain in place. This multiplicity may reflect cultural and political predispositions, but it also represents preferences for different types of scenarios and genres, and even a desire to overcome old cultural norms through their transposition into play.

No fan of D&D would disagree with Huizinga about the importance of play, playability and fun. And yet Huizinga, who lacked a general theory of games and their interplay with sociocultural trends, stipulated that not all types of play, and not all turns toward a more ludic society were socially salutary (some were 'puerilistic', elitist, or too bound up with 'classical forms'). Some forms of play did little to prevent a society from taking an overly serious, and deadly turn (as the playful 18th century dissolved into a 19th obsessed with industry, business, and politics). Ancient Roman society was overwhelmed by a somber Christianity because its play forms proved to be culturally sterile. And finally, games and play give birth to competition and stratification - for good or ill, and regardless of whether one explicitly champions them, or thinks of them as atavisms.


  1. On indie rpg twitter there's just been a very interesting stink made about xp and levels. Some designers would like to move away from levels in rpgs entirely.Players are expected to find value in play and in the game world by themselves, without an overarching progression system judging their actions. This might be the more postmodern approach to leveling which has been missing from rpg discourse. The design for such a system has already have been tested in new systems such as Chris McDowall's 'Into the Odd', which sees players progress by finding items and acquiring mutations rather than in abstract levels. Still, I think an xp and level system has merits. In our own world we are often at the mercy overarching systems which judge our actions and assign punishment or reward. Additionally, if we take a cue from a certain Boris Stremlin and imagine class/calling as a socially determined role which characters grow into, we can start to use xp as a more concrete measure of social status. Perhaps the things we do for xp, to climb the social hierarchy, to serve the interests of a certain structure (even if those are interests are framed as our own self interests), are not inherently good or desirable. Sure, there are other ways to gain power in this world, there's still magic treasure and mutation, but the lure of a level up is always hanging over us. We might be able to do some good with the extra hit dice or 1d6 junior fighters we'll recruit at level 6 or with the extra cash we'll get from becoming chief executive officer.

    1. A lot of people have been critiquing the idea of levels all along - the question is, does a system without levels have a chance of displacing D&D from the top perch in the foreseeable future, and is there a chance that D&D will jettison levels? Seems to me the answer to both questions is no.

      As for as levels measuring social power - there is an extent to which my take on classes/callings (as well as D&D's original designers) is tongue-in-cheek, but: in a rapidly re-stratifying society such as ours, the idea of levels as illustrating social gulfs between strata is no longer sounding as silly as it once did.

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