In Dungeons & Dragons, and most other role-playing games, player characters earn experience points as the game progresses and then can spend those points to become more powerful.
Levels vs À La Carte Advancement
How a character advances varies from game to game with character levels being one of the most common mechanics. Character levels offer a pre-determined set of improvements to a character’s abilities. Other games don’t use levels and instead allow for players to pick and choose which traits and abilities improve as their character gains experience. For example, in the Warhammer 40k games, players can spend their XP directly on new skills and specialties.
Pre-packaging advancement benefits in levels is useful for game design because it can ensure that characters advance certain traits at a reliable rate. For example, in D&D the game system is designed to ensure that all characters advance their attack bonuses, defenses, and skills each level so that they follow a steady progression. This allows the game’s designers and DMs to more easily predict how difficult challenges will be for the character at some cost to character flexibility.
When players are instead able to allocate their own advancement benefits, there is a risk that they can either over-specialize and be extremely good at a single skill while being unable to handle even simple actions related to other skill sets.
In truth, most games opt for a middle ground between fixed benefits and being completely chosen by a player. For example, in recent versions of D&D a player is able to choose from a list of feats as their character progresses rather than only getting pre-determined benefits. Likewise, in Dragon Age, a character can’t pick to advance the same ability score every level and instead has to alternate between improving abilities associated with her class and unassociated abilities.
Levels as a Style of Play
Because character advancement gives characters new abilities, it can change the style of the game over time. This idea was made explicit in the three tiers of D&D 4th Edition, but has existed to some degree since the earliest RPGs. For example, as characters gain the ability to scry, teleport, and resurrect one another, D&D progresses from a game of gritty dungeon crawling to a game of fantasy superheroes. While those styles of play could arguably be separate games, offering them as a continuum with the same core mechanics allows players to progress their characters in a more interesting way than simply becoming better dungeon crawlers. Other games though constrain characters to a single play style even as their skills improve. For example, many horror games focus on regular people trying to survive and don’t offer enough character advancement to really change that dynamic.
My personal model for styles of play changing as a character advances is:
Proto-Heroes: The player characters are regular people in a bad situation. They aren’t especially skilled at the task at hand, but circumstances require them to step up or at least try to survive. There is a high risk that characters will die in the course of the game. This is roughly where 1st level characters fall in AD&D.
Heroes: The characters have become capable and now seek out adventure. Other people begin to recognize them as heroes and they can take on dangers than normal people would avoid. This is grouping holds heroic tier D&D 4e, Deathwatch marines, and Leverage characters.
Legends: The characters have a wide reputation as the best at what they do. Patrons seek them out and they travel around the world to confront major problems while leaving local issues to delegates such as other groups of adventurers, hirelings, or followers. High-level characters in D&D, characters in Rogue Trader, and less powerful superheroes all fall into this tier.
Myths: The characters have advanced to the point where they are closer to the gods than to regular people. They travel the multiverse, confront mythic forces directly, and potentially save the entire world. For mythic characters, death is often only an inconvenience. This is where I put epic D&D characters and the more powerful superheroes.
Advancing via Equipment
In addition to character abilities and traits, equipment is another means to provide character advancement. For example, in MechWarrior a character gaining the C-bills to purchase more advanced weaponry or a heavier BattleMech can be just as meaningful and important to the player as getting better at hitting targets. Many games, particularly fantasy games, are designed so that characters advance their own skills as well as gain more powerful equipment as the game advances. More modern games seem less likely to expect improving equipment. Some games even require characters to purchase improved equipment with the same experience pool as they use to improve skills.
Advancement as a Player Goal
Another important role of character advancement in games is that it provides players with an incentive to continue playing the game. In addition to in-story quests, character advancement opens up a metagame system for players to unlock new abilities by spending more time playing the game.
Is Advancement a Must Have?
While most role-playing games include mechanics for character advancement, there are also games that don’t feature any mechanical advancement. For games to be designed to be played in a single session, such as Fiasco, character advancement isn’t necessary since the game isn’t designed for characters to be reused over time. Even in games with mechanics for character advancement, the rules are largely unnecessary for anyone who only plays one-shot adventures at Cons or other get togethers rather than an ongoing campaign. The only reason that I say largely unnecessary rather than completely is for games where the style of play changes enough with level where a group of players might want to play an “epic” one-shot rather than a “heroic” one-shot (or whichever tiers/styles are appropriate for the game).