Leveling by Climatic moment: a more immersive way to increase in power

An open source image by Artie_Navarre on Pixabay that sort of portrays how I view Ulfgar’s level up, though there was actually only one tree

Ulfgar Lightbringer walked forward, placing his hands against the blackened tree. Having used all his magical energy, he would be in a bleak situation if the dark spirits that inhabited that tree ordered their shadow minions to attack. Ulfgar said a short prayer to his god Lathander, hoping to cleanse the tree of Shar’s influence before it was to late.

As he completed his prayer, Ulfgar felt a burning radiance well inside him, and his divine magic was restored . He burst with divine light, which dissipated all the shadows in the room. The dark spirits fled to the dimmest corner they could find before the light destroyed them as well.

-PC Ulfgar Lightbringer progresses to 5th level in my D&D campaign

Leveling in Dungeons and Dragons is what the Alexandrian blog would define as a disassociated mechanic, meaning it is disconnected from the game world and doesn’t equate to a choice your character made.

Leveling is dissociated because it occurs in discrete, sudden chunks, while real world skill improvement is more gradual and continuous. There’s no in game explanation for why killing a run of the mill goblin with an ice themed spell could give a wizard the ability to cast Fireball when months of training and scores of comparable enemies made no visible difference. It’s pretty odd that fighters and paladins never seem to notice when they suddenly gain the ability to swing their swords twice as fast after weeks of no improvement.

You might say that these sudden jumps in power don’t actually happen in the game world. Wizards study long hours to be able to cast Fireball, and fighters slowly gain the ability to attack faster after months of practice. But even if that’s what’s happening in game, it definitely isn’t what players are experiencing. This difference between what happens to your character and what happens to your character sheet can be somewhat immersion breaking.

While for most groups this isn’t too big a problem, it is noticeable enough that at least a few solutions have been proposed. I’ve seen Youtube videos and Reddit threads talking about how characters should practice the abilities they’ll get next level on screen so the level up feels more earned (sadly, I lost the links to those threads). And on page 131 of the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, Wizards of the Coast suggests a forced off screen training period once you’ve earned enough XP as a variant rule.

I haven’t tried either of these variants, so I’m not qualified to analyze what playing experience they result in (If you have tried either of these ideas, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments). However, there are a couple major problems I could see happening at my table, which make me not want to implement them.

  • I would forget them super easily. When DMing, I have a hard enough time remembering to describe major NPCs; I’d rather not have to describe (or remind my players to describe) the PCs doing training drills every session, or summarize a montage between each adventure.
  • I could easily see myself trying to create huge mechanical subsystems to make them as realistic as possible. These would probably take a lot of time to create, and they’d likely end up being somewhat boring and detract from the main plot (or maybe I’d just forget to use them) After all, no one likes listening to an awkward description of monotonous training.
  • If I forget too many descriptions, or my mechanical systems aren’t good enough, the players won’t feel like their characters are actually training, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of changing how leveling works

When it comes down to it, D&D leveling just isn’t meant to emulate the traditional, continuous nature of skill improvement in real life. Any attempts to “fix” the player experience to conform to the slow improvement the characters are going through would require a lot of work and could easily fail at making the players perceptions of the world line up with the fictional reality. Luckily, this isn’t the only way to be immersive.

What if, instead of trying to make the player experience represent realistic training, we change how the characters perceive a level up to make it more like what the players experience. For an example of how this might work, let’s take a look at Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series.

In the Stormlight Archive series, many of the main characters become Knights Radiant, members of a paladin-like order where characters gain large amounts of magical power at once by swearing oaths to uphold their orders’ ideals

Before swearing an oath, characters always complete a major arc where they come to understand the value of the ideal they will swear to uphold. Often, these oaths come right before major battles or other climatic moments, and are accompanied by cinematic descriptions of Stormlight, a form of magical energy. One such description is pasted below.

A crack shook the air, like an enormous clap of thunder, though the sky was completely clear. . . Kaladin exploded with energy.

A burst of whiteness washed out from him, a wave of white smoke. Stormlight. The force of it slammed into the first rank of Parshendi, knocking them backward.

-Chapter 67 of The Way of Kings First book in the Stormlight Archive Series.

After reading one of these scenes, I’m always left with a feeling of awe; the character development giving emotional impact to the evocative spectacle of the magical wave.

These kind of power increases would work perfectly in a D&D game. The current leveling system already has giant leaps in power. All you’d need to do to make them as epic as a Stormlight Archive oath is put them right before the climax of your adventure, and give a decent description of the amazing magical energy flooding into the characters (a momentary spell-like benefit that damages enemies wouldn’t hurt either)

I only came up with this idea recently, and have only had a chance to use it twice, (both times in a single player campaign) but it worked really well both times. My player loved how epic and immersive it was, and all I had to do was prepare a single description per level and look for or create a climatic moment to trigger the level up.

Granted, this system wouldn’t work for everyone. To justify it in world, you’ll probably need to give each PC some connection to magic, preferably thematically similar magic if you’re trying to level everyone at the same time. To keep your game running smoothly, you’ll want to make sure every player is ready to level up before the moment where it happens.

To get the most out of this system, you’ll want to make sure it occurs during a character moment. For example, before the level up I described at the beginning of this article, the shadows told Ulfgar (the PC) that his god was weak, and threatened to kill him if he refused to relinquish his faith and paladin powers. By calling to Lathander in that moment, Ulfgar showed faith and perseverance, making the level up more meaningful.

This leveling system has made my game much more immersive, and I hope it can do the same for you as well. Thanks for reading!

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