Feb 122013

In my mind, an RPG leveling system should have four major goals.

Gives the player freedom to customize their strategies by developing their characters’ abilities.
Reinforces the personality of each character.
Rewards and surprises the player.
Adds long-term strategy.

Unfortunately, these goals often serve at cross-purposes. For example, if you make a game where each character’s progression is strictly predetermined, it’s easy to reinforce their personalities and to reward and surprise the player but you lose out on long-term strategy & the freedom to customize your strategy. Conversely, a system where each character is a blank slate and LV-Ups are clearly seen in advance is great for customization & long-term strategy but can be weak in personality reinforcement and surprising the player (you can run into situations where the player fully plans out their progression before they play and then gets bored while playing because they already know what’s going to happen next).

What are some of your favorite examples of RPG leveling systems?

 Posted by at 10:01 am

  12 Responses to “RPG Leveling System Goals”

  1. My favorite examples? On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, and now 4 (which I just bought today) top my list. The old Dungeons & Dragons style is a classic, and Fallout’s SPECIAL system starts out well enough, but drys out after initial character creation. Final Fantasy V was good, and the Fire Emblem series isn’t too shabby, either, but ultimately, I like what Zeboyd has done with their games.

  2. Star Ocean 2 is one of my favorites. With the choices of how you want to spend skill points earned while leveling up you can focus on powering up different attributes of your chracters, but also giving them bonus abilities, like the ability to write music and perform it for bonus effects in orchestra mode, or make better gear through blacksmithing, and so on. All the individual skills required to learn orchestra and to up your range of gear making abilities gives states, like 20 to strength, 10 to mentality, that kind of stuff. Where you placed your points was entirely up to you, as you could give your wizard all the abilities for strength increasing and make that character more useful as a blacksmith, or you could play to a character’s strengths by letting the people who rely on strength learn blacksmithing skills and characters who like magic focus on jewelcrafting disciplines.

    Also, I love hitting high lv’s. I know developers like to limit their games to lv 99, but watching those levels hit 100, 110, 150, and so on just feels so satisfying, or at least it does in Star Ocean 2.

  3. @Spuuky: You’re right, of course. It’s a careful balancing act between giving the player enough information that they can feel like they’re making decisions but not so much that they’re overwhelmed or faced with analysis paralysis. When I said “if I can’t see in advance exactly what’s going to happen based on my choices” I was exaggerating to my own detriment. At a decision point, you don’t need to know exactly what each choice means; you just need to have a clear enough picture to understand what each choice represents.

    For me, choosing the final form of familiars in Ni No Kuni is a classic example of this failing. At that decision point, with just the information the game is offering me, I haven’t got a single clue which of the two forms would benefit me the most. Because the familiar’s stat growth and most of their abilities are hidden, I have no idea how the familiar will benefit my team when it’s all grown up; I just don’t have enough information to make a smart decision.

    Final Fantasy X avoids this trap well, I think. Even though you can see the whole sphere grid from the start, your characters are locked to one path for most of the game, and as a result there’s no need for you to finalise your plan until you reach the decision point, many hours in. You’ve had plenty of time by that point to learn your character’s strengths and weaknesses and then look around the grid for ways to take them where you want them to go. As the game progresses you’re free to decide what your goals are going to be at your own page and to develop and adjust your plans as you go. But if you just want to get playing, you can go through almost all of the game without ever making plans for your characters’ late-game development.

    To re-use the Doublecast example, I had planned all along to pick up black magic with Yuna and white magic with Lulu after they finished their paths – but doublecast hadn’t been on my radar until Lulu eventually picked it up and I realised just how good it was!

  4. One of my favorite systems is from grandia 2, symphony of the night on android has a similar setup as well.
    I personally disliked ff7 and 8’s systems but I never enjoyed either as much as most I preferred ff9. Anyways grandia 2’s setup for is memorable with their egg system allowing the party to learn most skills universally and some character specific and with it being supported by earning skill XP after a battle. Im sure plenty dislike that kind of setup but I’ve always enjoyed it.

  5. I gravitate towards a few, including the Zeboyd system (no, I’m not trying to earn brownie points: I really like how easy and at the same time complex the system can be) present in BoD and CStW!!

    The system I consider the most balanced is the one in Seiken Densetsu 3. You get to choose three characters from a list of six, and each has its strengths and weaknesses: Duran, the Fighter, has longer range and balanced Attack and Defense, while Kevin is pretty fast, hits like a truck, and can turn into a Beastman at night for increased damage potential. At two points in the game, you can choose whether to go Light or Dark, and each choice represents a very different tactic. Light classes focus mostly on Light spells, are somewhat defensive and specifically limit early power; Dark classes on the other hand focus mostly on Dark spells, lean towards offense and specifically encourage early power acquisition. After a while, you get another divide, where you can choose between two versions of the same Light or Dark class, which range from late bloomers to all-rounders to specialists. Explaining how the system works can take an entire blog post, but the key benefit to it is that the game can be pretty tough, but no choice you make ever limits you or makes the game impossible to beat. If anything, there’s only ONE setup that can end up somewhat weak, and even then, you can still finish the game. That point where any set up you choose works, but you still get prized for certain choices over others is what I consider the pinnacle of balance. For those who know of optimization, the game’s optimization boundaries are in the right place: you have to deliberately make the wrong choices to screw your set-up, but it’s rewarding to find a set-up that cleans the room in seconds flat.

    The secondd system I like is the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance/A2 Race/Class progression, though I incline towards a hybrid progression with its PSX predecessor. In essence, you have a main class which defines your stat progression, but you can choose from another class’ Action abilities, and customize a bit further with Reaction and Support skills. The jobs in FF Tactics for the PSX felt a bit unimaginative, whereas the larger, yet limited, system in FF Tactics Advance/A2 invites to play around the limitations. You get your “Mario” race (well-rounded, covers tanking, buffing, ranged combat and CC), a race with mostly physical classes, a race with a blend of speedy and magical classes, a race with almost specifically magic-inclined classes, and a small race full of interesting gimmicks. A2, I feel, hit the spot with many things, serving as an update to the original with a lot of additions, even though I don’t like some of the choices (still despise the Gadgeteer/Tinker with great fury, feel like being cheated with the Arcanist and the Spellblade, amongst others), but the sheer number of combinations just dealing with one race was astounding, not to mention having 7. It makes the choice of race important, something rarely seen in many games with different races.

    The third one appears somewhat on Etrian Odyssey, but it is at its purest on Ragnarok Online. Basically, you get a base progression and a job progression, and your build is determined by point-buy on both aspects. It’s main weakness is that you have to plan your build from advance, but if you do, you get a very complex character building system as you have to maneuver the few points you get for stats and skills towards what you want to focus upon. You start with a first job, which defines what you’ll eventually do, then you have a second divide with further allows you to specialize (much like SD3), but then you get to restart your character (like in EO, and specifically preceeding it) and advance that second class even further, and the level cap was recently raised alongside a further improvement to the class, which opens new options within the 2nd classes themselves. It really rewards tweaking, but it sadly doesn’t reach the perfect balancing point that SD3 achieves. That skill point-based way of acquiring jobs is not exclusive to RO or Etrian Odyssey: 7th Dragon ALSO has it, making it easy to see how it works on different versions of the same genre.

    I don’t favor games where the builds are pre-determined, though there are a few exceptions to the rule (Final Fantasy VI being the most evident). I tend to incline towards class-based leveling systems over purely skill-point based systems because I prefer to work around themes instead of trying to dabble in everything without a defined theme and end up gimped because of it. On the other hand, I also like how races interact with classes, which is a shame that pretty much no games ever exploit this other than a character creation choice; things like limit breaks/overdrives should depend just as much on the race as they should on the class and their personality. Finally, when I think about leveling systems, I incline towards how to define classes that are phenomenal on one specific thing (tanking, healing, CC) without sacrificing other potential aspects, classes that incline towards jacks-of-all-trades and how those dabbles synergize towards a specific end; how classes can approach the same purpose through different means (say: a Mage and a Necromancer incline towards crowd control, but one approaches it through battlefield alteration and other through debuffing and pets) and specifically how each race can be balanced (having no obvious flaws or must-have abilities) amongst each other classes and STILL keep imbalance (having one class that does something obviously better than the other), where you’re forced to apply other factors to counter the imbalances and reach a comfortable “balance point”.

    Complex, sure, but I love re-imagining existing leveling systems and working with ones from existing templates for nothing else other than entertainment…

  6. X-Men Legends 2, and to a lesser extent X-Men Legends 1 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 1 & 2 were my all-time favorite leveling systems.

  7. On the other hand, Fang Xianfu, the ability to completely lay out your plan can be “dangerous” for the reasons he initially listed. I don’t like feeling like I’m forced to lay out my entire strategy for a character at level 1 – in fact, this cripples my ability to enjoy progression in some cases. I feel like I’m making one big choice at the start (determining my path of progress) and then never really choosing anything again. I like the luxury of just being able to choose what I feels best at the moment without having to worry about where that choice will eventually lead me.

  8. Incidentally I also loved Final Fantasy 8 for many of the same reasons – which is ironic because most of your characters’ progression isn’t linked to your level at all and the levelling system in that game is basic and ultimately pretty irrelevant. But by decoupling most of a character’s power from their level, the game rewards you for making smart decisions with the limited magical resources you have, both by increasing your characters’ power, and by allowing you not to level them up until you’re ready, thereby avoiding making the enemies harder (because enemies levelled up with you, except bosses, which had a level cap – if you can manage to stay at low levels for longer, the game is easier). I thought that whole package – stat bonus abilities and enemy levelling encouraging you to stay low level, magic and cactuar island helping you to do that if you’re smart – came together really well.

  9. I loved the sphere grid in FFX. It hits all four of these goals beautifully: characters start off specialised, locked to one area of the grid, which reinforces their personalities and allows you to build strategies based on their different strengths and how they interact. Then later on it opens out and you get to pick up the other character’s specialisations, giving you complete freedom to build everyone just how you want them and fulfil all the tactical dreams you were developing while trying to cope with the limitations of the characters while they were locked down. I loved picking up Doublecast and the end-game Black Magics with Yuna, who was the architypal White Mage, and going to town 😀

    I do think you’re wrong about one thing, though: “surprises the player” is a very dangerous goal if it means that you hide information from the player for the sake of it. I hate the part of many RPG levelling systems that’s essentially uncovering the information you need to make smart decisions. If I can’t see in advance exactly what’s going to happen based on my choices, I’m not really making a choice at all, I’m just taking a punt and hoping it works out. This is a big mark in FFX’s favour because you could see the whole grid from the start, which gave you the ability to really plan out what you wanted to do and gave you a real sense of reward when you achieved something you’d had your eye on for a long time.

    This is one of my major gripes with Ni No Kuni. It’s really hard to tell when you first pick up a new familiar, just from the information you have at that point, what tactical niche that familiar is meant to fill. Give it a couple of years and GameFAQs will fill the gap, but the first time though, right now, it’s really frustrating not knowing whether it’s worth the effort to make room in my party for a new familiar. I simply don’t have enough information at that decision point to know if the new guy will help me fulfil my tactical goals. This leads to stagnation; if I can’t make a smart choice, I don’t – I pick my core team and a simple tactic early on and stick with it until I’m forced to change. Experimentation dies.

    I suppose the key theme that I’m going for with this post is “decisions”. In fact I would amend your four aims to include that word:

    Gives the player freedom to customize their strategies by developing their characters’ abilities.
    Reinforces the personality of each character.
    Rewards the player for making smart decisions
    Gives the player more meaningful long-term strategic decisions

  10. I have two main types I like.

    The first is the typical Dragon Quest leveling system. Just boost my stats and give me some new abilities, and don’t waste my time with choices for mostly irrelevant upgrades. This lessens my feelings of making a mistake I’ll regret if I have to choose, and gets me back to the more important stuff- the actual game.

    The other type I like is the Elder Scrolls model, especially with Skyrim. Boost the skills I actually use, give me some special abilities in that area, and let me guide the development based on how I play. With Skyrim, at first I lamented the fact that there were no more stats and no more of the visible numbers game really anymore. But I ended up playing for 50 hours before I even realized there were no numbers, and that added to my immersion into the gameplay.

    I’ve never been the type to be interested in overly complicated development. That monstrosity of a spheregrid-like skill tree in Path of Exile is downright scary and the number one reason I wont even look into the game any further. I don’t like feeling apprehension about leveling systems before I play a game.

  11. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to do this. I can list off some examples that had some good qualities to them

    Final Fantasy6’s Esper system – Each character had a preset growth pattern and personalized abilities. At the same time, you could equip Espers to them to teach them new skills as well as alter their stat growth pattern. Its primary weakness lies in the built in system of new characters matching the level progression of the current party, thus reducing the gains from Esper usage for later characters.

    Breath of Fire 3’s Mentor System – Very much like FF6’s Esper system except that you cannot change at any time. You must go back to where the Mentor is.

    Final Fantasy 10’s Skill Grid – This one placed each character at a different starting point in the ability grid. This provides a built in character growth while giving the player the freedom to branch out into directions not intended by the developer.

    I am honestly not a big fan of set progression paths such as Final Fantasy 4. I think the three listed are good examples to start with when crafting one for another game.

  12. I’m not sure. I like all level-up systems. I just like advancement and progression in general.

    I think my preferred system is Gothic’s system, actually – you gain some generic “learning points” which you can use however you want (customization and long-term strategy) but you have to actually find people in the world who are willing and able to train you in those skills or stats (reward and surprise). But this would be difficult to achieve in most games.

    I guess the best blend is often a dual-type system where something (like “stats” and a few unique abilities) are gained naturally as part of gaining levels without customization, while other skills are selected/customized to tailor the character in a particular way.

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