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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

The Secret World and Level-Free Systems

Posted by Ortwig Wednesday June 6 2012 at 4:17PM
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In 1978, just about 11 years after TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons burst onto the scene, a company called Chaoisum introduced a new game: RuneQuest.  While there were many, many differences between RuneQuest and D&D, the one people point to most frequently is RuneQuest’s percentile-based skill system, and the fact there were no character “levels.”  In RuneQuest, rather than templated character classes (“fighter,” “cleric,” “thief,” etc.) with pre-defined abilities, you placed points into skills, and as you used them, each skill had the possibility to improve.  So a character might have especially good skills in longsword and shield if they were a fighter-type, or magical spells if they were a mage.  Even more of a shock, your “hit points” almost never increased.  Your ability to defend (parry or dodge or block with a shield), could become very high, but your base health stayed pretty much the same throughout your character’s life.  A lowbie character with a very lucky roll could defeat a high powered one who made a very bad roll—something unheard of in the D&D world.

At the time RuneQuest was introduced, it was a pretty radical change in tabletop gaming, and the gaming community quickly formed sides, with arguments ensuring over which system was better.  Not too long previous, though, there had been rumblings in the D&D world about “Monty Haul” gamers whose sole focus was on getting that +5 Vorpal Sword and amassing thousands of gold pieces (which in D&D also translated to experience).   Magazine articles giving Dungeon Masters advice for destroying overpowered items, or cutting back that player who had become “too powerful” for the monsters  abounded.  Sound familiar?  RuneQuest changed the focus of the game system from individual player power-ups to immersion in the adventure.  And power gamers absolutely hated RuneQuest.
Another Chaosium game was published in 1981, using essentially the same system, called Call of Cthulhu.  Based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu was the first horror RPG.  In it, characters were fundamentally less powerful than the god-like monsters, and could be quite easily killed in a pure combat confrontation.  Outwitting the monsters (sometimes fighting) was your best chance at survival, and even then it was never easy.  Call of Cthulhu became one of the best-selling tabletop RPGs of all time.  Perhaps power gamers did not have as much an issue with a skill-based system in the horror genre.  Or maybe it attracted larger numbers of the roleplaying crowd.  In any case, Call of Cthulhu continues to live alongside D&D as one of the longest-lived, most popular RPGs.
Fast forward to 2012, and note that nearly all MMOs use D&D-style, level-based systems.  Credit D&D for being there first, and perhaps also for tapping into a need for structure.  Level-based systems certainly create a sense of progress, the feeling that your character is improving as he or she moves along.  There’s also that template to latch onto – you know your Druid’s specialties, and it certainly defines you as different from other character types.  But that steadily growing complaint is the same one we heard back in the tabletop days.   “There’s too much standardization in the ways a character type is played.”  “It’s just becoming a long grind for the next piece of gear.  It should just be called GearQuest.”   “Why do we need this “holy trinity” of warrior, healer, and damage dealer?”  “I’m tired of killing 10 rats to get to the next level.”  “Why are the people in pick-up dungeons such obnoxious twits, and why did they just steal my loot?”  “Why do I feel like my character is on a hamster wheel?”
I submit that leveling systems have an inherent flaw in that they encourage selfish, power-hungry behavior that leads to in-game anti-social conduct.  Ironically, these games are meant to encourage teamwork and fellowship.  It was true of D&D back in the day, and I think it’s still true in the today’s online gaming. 
This isn’t to say leveling systems can’t be fun.  A good gaming group or referee can certainly have a great time with any system.  I remember when we switched over to a more story-based campaign in our early D&D days, and how surprised people were when they found they could define their characters more with their background and experiences.  Suddenly the +5 Holy Avenger became less important than what each character had learned about the world in the last adventure.   We took to writing up what each of us had done between adventures and contacts and friends we had made.  The adventures themselves became the next big chapters in the story. 
And our Warcraft guild has players who understand that it’s more fun figuring out the dungeon than it is berating each other for not having the appropriate gear level.  When the game becomes about a power and gear comparison, well, to me it’s the sign of an immature group of players.  Some folks eventually learn there’s more to gaming than simply attaining the next level—it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.  My sense is that skill-based systems lend themselves better to this kind of gaming because they better balance character growth with the game world at large. 
The Secret World (TSW), perhaps because it owes some of its modern day horror inspiration to Call of Cthuhlu, is the first MMO I have seen that uses a skill-based, level-free, classless system.  I got a chance to play on the 2nd beta weekend, and already I think the system is doing what it should – for characters, it allows them to create the style of character they want to play without worrying about what class they should play, while also giving them lots of skill options.  For those who want the structure of a class, TSW also offers templates that show recommended skill builds.
As characters progress, players can pick out new skills, eventually to the point where they can swap out skillsets based on the current need.  The world is rich enough in story that gear becomes incidental, and while nice to have, not a goal in and of itself.  It remains to be seen whether there will be “gear requirements” to participate in instances, but already the system seems to jive nicely with the environment.
RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, while popular, never matched the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons. In the end, where sales numbers are critical, I’m predicting the ratio of level-based to skill-based systems will remain pretty much the same in the MMO space as well—people will play what they are comfortable with.  However, in looking at new systems such as The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 and even Rift, it seems game developers are beginning to better understand the pitfalls of mechanics that lead to behavior that doesn’t meet the goals of a social MMORPG.  Warcraft certainly has enough time logged to see what things work and do not.  While I would never recommend trying to solve all social interaction problems with code and game mechanics, there are plenty of places where a mechanic has an obvious detrimental effect, and can be fixed by taking a fresh look.  Here’s hoping we have more game developers and publishers willing to do so.