Since we all know life exactly parallels games, how do infants advance? Do they gather experience and then make great leaps forward, as with a brooding drow yearning to be free in the Forgotten Realms, or do they advance bit by bit over time, like a vorox munching on al-Malik in the jungles of Ungavorox?
One of the complaints about D&D is that characters can adventure like mad, traveling the world, without learning a blessed thing. Then they kill one more kobold and immediately level up, gaining all sorts of powers and abilities. Contradictorily, that is also one of the fun things about D&D – the anticipation of that moment. Skill-based RPGs feel more real but lack that golden moment of leveling up.
Skill-based RPGs have always appealed to me, with their incremental growth mimicking the way we slowly develop in day-to-day life. However, we also have structured lives, like leveling systems. This is especially true when we are young. Graduate from sixth to seventh grade, and you are thought to have accumulated the abilities and traits that go with such a dramatic progression, as have most of your peers.
The more I contemplate childhood (and the impending birth of our
playtester daughter), the more it seems that an amalgamation of the two systems is the best way to replicate the mix of minor changes and dramatic initiations that make up this period of our lives. Day after day we improve, growing slightly faster, stronger and more coordinated. Yet major transitions also happen seemingly overnight, with us suddenly able to sit up, crawl, stand, walk and talk (kind of like the aftermath of one of our Atlanta Bourbon and Whiskey Society meetings).
On the other hand, literacy grows, starting with a few letters, then small words, and suddenly the full ABCs. Counting proceeds similarly, starting with the fingers of one hand, then two, then onto 20 and beyond. Math concepts start as vague notions and then blossom into understanding as we translate 1+1 into #+# (that is, number plus number, not hash tag and hash tag, but feel free to tweet this anyway).
I have been trying to classify childhood development into these categories, with most going into the skill-based system but some (especially the more consequential transitions) going into a leveling system. Remember how Second Edition D&D gave titles for each character level? Instead of being a third-level Swordmaster, an infant levels from Speech Level One (Howler) to Level Two (Vocalizer) to level three (Soundmeister) to Level four (Wordcrafter).
However, instead of happening when the baby kills enough goblins (which should occur before we leave the hospital), it happens when the baby achieves certain developmental milestones (makes distinct sounds, repeats sounds, says “mama”, and so on). For instance, by the time they are six months old (Vocalizer), most babies are making distinct sounds using a variety of consonants. Part of the reason for this is that babies memory works differently from even a small child’s, being more procedural than semantic. For a baby, the world is like a poorly procedurally generated dungeon, where what appears in one room has little relationship in the baby’s mind to what happens in the next (kind of like every room in Module B1: In Search of the Unknown). This helps explain some of the sudden developmental leaps babies seem to make.
The next update will include a more in-depth look at the initiation form of the level system, or Leveling Up Baby.