“Levels” Of Enjoyment In RPGs

I’ve been playing Dragon Age Inquisition, and as much fun as it is, I absolutely hate the drudgery of leveling up my characters. Whether it’s the pointless combat against random opponents in the wilderness, or the extensive side quests finding goats, rams, horses, flowers, jewelry, or lost spouses, these activities become tedious after a handful of times, serving little purpose other than to give you the experience points (XP) you need to level up. There are main quests that pertain directly to the storyline, but there’s no way to just do those and level up according to the challenge needed to continue. You either engage in the so-called “XP farming” activities, or you don’t play the game.

This is more than a little annoying, and it’s gotten me thinking, why do we do this? Why do we have the whole leveling up thing in the game? Why can’t we just focus on playing the main story? I think of the experience I had playing Uncharted 4, a game that features a main story, with puzzles and exploration and combat to mix up the gaming experience, featuring a main character who is already capable of achieving the story’s goals, and I can’t help but wonder why aren’t fantasy roleplaying games modeled this way?

The answer, of course, is that computer RPGs are all modeled to some extent on Dungeons & Dragons, so they borrow the elements present in that game, including (and especially) levels of experience. I don’t know exactly why Gygax and Arneson decided to use levels to measure experience when they came up with D&D (I suspect the root of that lies somewhere in wargaming), but I can see how it works for tabletop. When playing tabletop RPGs, experience is handed out by the gamemaster, and while there are lists and formulas galore on how to hand out XPs to players, ultimately the GM has subjective control over what truly garners the player characters experience. In a tabletop game, it is entirely possible to achieve the XPs needed to level up according to the challenge of the adventure by meeting the story-specific goals without engaging in random encounters or side-quests. In a computer game you don’t have this level of subjectivity, so XP awards need to be hard-coded into combat and quests encounters. It’s similar to when a novel is made into a movie in that just because something works in one medium doesn’t mean it’ll work in another.

In terms of tabletop RPGs, my preference has definitely shifted to games that measure experience in ways other than levels, usually by increasing or gaining new skills or abilities. Seems that this might be the case with computer RPGs as well; I’d much rather have a competent main character right off the bat rather than build competence up via tedious gaining of experience.

The irony isn’t lost on me, by the way. I play Dragon Age precisely because it provides that D&D-esque gaming experience I haven’t had in years, but it means I have to put up with the tropes inherent to the D&D-esque gaming experience.