The concept of increasing in level has long been a boon to progress-based RPGs, as it creates a potentially unlimited path of advancement for player characters. And players love to advance their characters. RPGs without levels typically have to pin their advancement scheme to a fixed scale, often striving for realism. Barring hideously expensive powers generally not expected to be possessed by the populace at large, it may be hard to keep a determined player from becoming amongst the best in the world at a specialty very quickly, possibly even at character generation. For some RPGs, this is a boon, but others are built around a continually ramping series of challenges. For these games, basing advancement on levels makes balance and maintaining player interest far easier.

But it makes world building far harder.

The hallmark of levels is how much of a difference there is between one level and the next: a progressive ramping up of power. It’s difficult to make a level-based game where a several-level power difference doesn’t make the lower-level character completely ineffective in most challenges vs. the higher level character. It’s hard to make these settings “gritty” or even marginally realistic; just in the realm of combat, a kid with a gun or a punk with a knife very quickly becomes completely negligible in a way he wouldn’t in the real world. And the real world (or at least Hollywood’s interpretation of it) is how players expect the game world to work intuitively until it’s proven otherwise.

This intuition is less of a problem for actual play; players can very quickly adjust to being superheroes. But it makes world building problematic: a designer’s default assumption is to create a world space that just doesn’t make any logical sense if there is a multiple-order-of-magnitude difference in capability across the spread of levels in the world. High level characters and creatures are so much more powerful than low level ones that it very quickly makes little sense if they don’t completely dominate the socio-political landscape of the setting, creating a massive base of the population that will literally never do anything of historical note if they don’t level up. Even attempting to mandate that high level characters are rare is a very hard assertion to make when having to design adventures that continue to challenge leveling heroes: a single high level mook could live a life of power and prestige dominating a lower level region rather than waiting to serve as a speedbump for high level adventurers going after his boss.

Massively multiplayer online RPGs have this problem worst. Tabletop GMs and the designers of single-player computer RPGs can more easily contrive situations that less arbitrarily segregate power levels in the game world. Sealed underground warrens, extraplanar threats, and a constant pressure to deal with the next big challenge can keep the goalposts moving long enough to keep suspension of disbelief afloat. And, at great need, a high-level PC can be allowed to journey back and realize the massive power now wielded over most of the cultural landscape. But MMOs can’t do this as easily. Gameplay needs to funnel players from zone to zone where threats increasingly ramp up, resulting in huge fields of high level creatures and NPCs waiting for the slaughter. Balance and protecting against jerks requires that safe areas include lots of friendly, high-level NPCs. The world can very easily become an inexplicably ramping heatmap of levels along the optimal player path.

So, how do you solve the problem?

In a tabletop or single player computer game, it’s about consistency. If leveling is a common result of the physics of the world, logic can be applied to the problem: powerful political figures are very high level, cities are built to account for the abilities of powerful creatures that might attack them, and the only reason to field armies of lower level individuals is to try to level them up into higher level individuals before a single champion of the other side crushes them. If leveling is an unusual fact, making the PCs more and more exceptional as they grow, the world needs to reflect this as well: player characters very quickly exceed threats on a mortal scale (no 20th level city guards), more and more adventures take them to places of great danger that are somehow blocked off from casual interaction with the world, and there is an expectation that they will be able to enact great change on the political landscape should they so desire.

In an MMO, it’s much harder. Unless you’re doing very complicated things with instancing, a player character can’t have a significant effect on the world. And, as more and more players race to the level cap, you wouldn’t really want them to anyway. It’s almost inevitable that player characters can return to areas where previously challenging enemies now fall like wheat, and the question starts: why don’t some of the max level characters take some time off of showing off their outfits in the central zone and deal with the problems that are now easy to them, so the people slightly below them can deal with easy problems, and so on down the line? Sure, the answer is, “because it’s a game,” but it’s also supposed to be using as many tricks as possible to preserve immersion. Auto-scaling things to the right level is not much more of a solution, as it can lead to feeling like leveling is mostly meaningless. Some possible, modular concepts to mitigate the problem off the top of my head:

  • Periodically spawn higher level NPCs in low level zones that are somehow set up as the bosses of the area but not required in the main quest line for the low level story. Encourage high level PCs to return to deal with them in a way that doesn’t also encourage them to wipe out quest targets for the lower level characters in the zone.
  • Frequently spawn much lower level NPCs in high level zones as the toadies for the appropriately-leveled threats. Players will mow through them and potentially enjoy getting to feel awesome.
  • Avoid putting in drastic attack scaling between high and low level combatants: armies of low level characters vs. high level threats makes a little more sense if they can actually hit the target, even if for only a tiny fraction of a percent of its hit points. If PCs take on low level swaths of foes, they might get chewed up a little (and might be able to similarly chew up higher level targets).
  • Set up the major threat of the world with some kind of story reason for clustering power in a central location and waning as it spreads away. Maybe it’s societal, or maybe there’s an actual power source of some kind that improves effectiveness based on proximity. Essentially, there should be some story based reason why the weakest, rather than the strongest, of an enemy group are able to penetrate furthest towards the good guy seats of power.
  • Spawn non-boss NPCs at low level. Give them exp and let them level when they kill players on roughly the same scale as players gain exp (and maybe make them not target PCs for whom they’d get no exp unless attacked, just like PCs will rarely attack gray NPCs). Figure out how to get levels and location to persist through server restarts. When they die, have them rez like players at the nearest stronghold of their enemy group (or in the next nearest of higher level if they die in their stronghold) and then wander out to staff it. See what happens. (This could obviously go horribly awry.)
  • Use instancing/phasing and gating to prevent players from returning to low level areas and preserve the fiction that time is passing. Everything in the world effectively levels up slightly more slowly than the PC so the gains in power feel more gradual. If players somehow return to low level zones, preserve the illusion that this is some kind of flashback, possibly even temporarily reducing their level to match (i.e., let them help their low level friends but not wander into low level zones as modern gods).

Some of those have been tried to some extent in previous or upcoming MMOs, but most of the time, AAA games tend to punt on this particular problem because it’s a game and games have levels and players, as a whole, are willing to ignore the inconsistencies. But I hold that, at some level, suspension of disbelief is being strained and it makes the world feel like a theme park, even if most players don’t consciously worry about it. With a few tricks to incorporate this weird inheritance from wargames, though, I believe immersion in games could be greatly increased, and everyone enjoys a little more immersion in their escapism.