Six ability scores ranging from 3 to 18. Fighters, clerics, wizards, and rogues. (Or, if you prefer, fighting-men, clerics, magic-users, and thieves.) Character levels. Experience points. Rolling a d20 to attack. Magic missiles. Fireballs. Hold person. And so on.Previously I wrote about the simplicity of "rolling a d20 to attack". Today I want to consider character levels and their role in Dungeons & Dragons. Generally, a player's hero (PC or Player Character) increases in level from 1st level through 20th level in its character class or classes. Some games have included more levels from 0-level characters through 30th level or higher. Character level has described a PC's power level in their character class (fighter, cleric, magic-user, thief, &c) and could also be referred to as class level but there are other options.
human experience of time. Life doesn't stay the same. For example, ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that you're either improving yourself or you're sliding backwards but there is truly no such thing as standing still in your growth. We refer to the mechanism for gaining levels as experience points which reflects the accumulated benefits of going out into the wide world and living life.
Authors, like Richard Lee Byers, also recognize the need for the story protagonist to evolve, otherwise "he and his exploits may seem stale and repetitive". Within the context of roleplaying games we have many ways our characters can progress. The unfolding story, starring the player character, can move forward. The PC can acquire new weapons, armor, equipment, and even world-shaking artifacts. Magic-users can learn new spells. Characters can gain new or improved abilities. Lastly, the numbers on your character sheet can get bigger (or at least better since in some regards, such as THAC0, lower is more powerful).
I have some strong advice for the designers of D&D Next.
Focus on giving players, and their characters, "more options" as the key aspect of leveling. Make room for levels to be about adding new capabilities or better expressing a vision of who the character is through new characteristics. I've mentioned before that I don't like to level but that is only a half-truth. I love to level when it means growth for my character without the march towards failing game rules. Sooner or later the game play aspect collapses under its own weight when leveling is expressed as bigger, more powerful numbers. Slow down the mathematical growth from level to level. Damp down the power differential between 1st level monsters and 10th level characters.
Give us access to elements that make characters wider (more options) rather than taller (bigger numbers).
Feats, prestige classes, and paragon paths are all great ways to add options or definition to characters as long as you exclude flavorless height-enhancing versions such as 4th edition's weapon expertise feats. Since they were introduced, I've always thought characters were not given enough feats. The E6 variant of D&D v.3.5 does a great job of demonstrating how Dungeons & Dragons plays just fine if you freeze the height of characters (represented by numeric level) but continue to allow them to grow wider (with an ever increasing number of feats).