Playing Card Hunter got me thinking about the concepts and ideas behind the idea of leveling.

In single-player Card Hunter, you kill monsters and complete missions to gain XP.  Gather enough XP, and you go up a level, gaining hit points and extra item slots.  The item slots allow you to expand your hand.  You also get power tokens later on, which you need to equip the better items.

What purpose does leveling really serve in a game like this?  Well, for one, it’s a way to reward players for playing.  Play more, and get new stuff to play around with.  It’s also a way of rationing content – you can’t get to Module X until you’ve played enough to be ready.  It’s also a way to ration abilities and mechanics.  Lots of cards are not granted by the low-level equipment, so by hiding them behind a leveling mechanic you prevent players from being overwhelmed by the whole deck.  Finally, the concept of classes and levels is integral to the “Old School D&D” nostalgia behind the game’s art direction and framing device, so you just couldn’t get by without some sort of representation of levels.

From a game-logic perspective leveling makes sense, but from any sort of real-world logic it’s totally absurd.  Sure, people do slowly improve at things by practice and training.  One can think of killing monsters as a sort of extreme training.   However, the sorts of benefits granted in any fantasy game for leveling up are simply absurd.  One comes by them too quickly, and becomes far too godlike, for the analogy to real world practice and training to hold up in any meaningful fashion.  Furthermore, the idea that level-appropriate groups of challenges happen to cluster together on a regular basis is impossible to reconcile with any notions of society or ecology.  These are far from new ideas and I will not belabor them here.

Obviously, Card Hunters is not aiming at any sort of realism, but any time I run into a game so dependent on leveling I end up thinking about the mechanic, and trying to imagine games, and RPG’s in particular, without it.  How could content and challenge be rationed in a reasonable manner without Leveling?  How would an RPG work, if one was not constantly growing in power?  How could players be granted gradually access to expanded abilities and options without some sort of ultimately absurd zone or time or level based system?

Reaching a bit further afield, think of  Borderlands.  Borderlands is a “treadmill” game, where one is constantly leveling up in loot and abilities, yet constantly faced with enemies that are, amazingly enough, a good match for one’s powers and experience.  It’s easy to understand why – the game is most fun when you are being challenged to use you gear and skills and teamwork fully.  It all comes together in a way that is incredibly fun, but also completely absurd.  Likewise, the tactical battles presented by Card Hunter.  I’ve played through several of the early Modules with two different parties – a balanced party with a Dwarf Fighter, a Human Cleric, and a Human Mage, and then a party with two Elf Warriors and a Dwarf Cleric.   It’s been fun figuring out how to use my party’s strengths and abilities in different ways to solve the situation at hand – but it simply makes no sense!

Even worse is the situation where a game offers no clear or compelling motive to play OTHER than leveling.  This is a problem related to what I talked about yesterday in regards to EUIV, where there is nothing to really do other than expand.  I ran into this problem pretty hard playing Torchlight 2 – I lost interest because I was  leveling for its own sake, getting more powerful just to be more powerful.

Yet I am at a loss trying to imagine a level-free RPG.