But it really doesn’t seem to me like it should be a default assumption in a fantasy RPG. Why is there seemingly always leveling up involved? A lot of design problems plaguing D&D across its whole history would be resolved if we removed leveling. You’d never get power creep. Numbers could stay small and simple forever. You don’t get HP bloat and eventually start seeing combats drag out longer and longer as you level up. You never get the weird situation where taking an arrow could kill you instantly at level 1 but you can take like 50 of them at level 10 and be fine. Where the troll was a nearly insurmountable foe at 2nd level but you can easily handle 3 or 4 of them at level 15. Bounded accuracy never would have been needed. Things could be so elegant!
At the same time, it’s hard to argue against the obvious potential for characters to grow over the course of a story, and without levels and XP then you don’t have a strong mechanical framework to represent that. How do mages get new spells? Sure, it could come from finding new spell books. But can you always fit that into the story/scenario? How do people learn new skills? How can monks learn new moves? These are all still possible with a level-less system but obviously they are trickier to achieve.
Meanwhile, I was watching a video about some of the OD&D supplements and apparently back then, druids and monks, after a point, could only advance to the next level in their class by replacing another individual ranked directly above them within their organization. The max level for druids is 13, but technically there is only one 13th-level druid in the world and they are “The Great Druid.” Likewise, for you to advance as a monk you’ll have to seek out another monk higher than you and beat them in a fight. If you lose the fight, you also risk losing a level.
This reminds me of one of the more common variants of Jeff Rients’s famous Carousing-for-XP rules. The idea of his houserule is, “you get to enjoy the payoff of your XP only once you’ve done some partying,” which is really just a way to incentivize PCs to roleplay in a way the DM thinks is fitting for their table and campaign. But since not all campaigns are about drunken, carousing, Conan-types, you could also reward them for doing another activity in character. So clerics could get their XP for donating that gold to their temple, instead. Wizards could get it for doing research for awhile.
So now I’m wondering: what if every single class came with a table telling you “ways to level up/earn new features” and they all entailed action on the part of the players. This would be the perfect system for creating a truly player-driven campaign because they have a checklist of 1) goals and 2) mildly specific ways of achieving them. Probably nothing like, “defeat the demilich Acererak” but instead things like “convert an evil cleric of an opposing faith to your own faith/alignment” and leave it open-ended.
I think it would be better, instead of keying specific abilities to specific accomplishments, that they were all compatible with each other. So like, doing any one of these many possible accomplishments could unlock whatever next barbarian ability you want. One simple category in every class could be, “spend enough money” or something (i.e. still using the basic carousing idea). Or maybe for rogues it would be, “steal X thousand worth of treasure from someone” to level up. So instead of using the abstract system of “experience points” that can be earned by doing any activity that the DM deems worthy, both PCs and the DM know more precisely what kinds of adventuring should be expected and aimed for within the campaign. A DM can do a lot to characterize their own campaign world by tailoring the accomplishment lists based on their setting. My instincts say that the DM should try to plant at least 3 intentional opportunities for every accomplishment somewhere in their world. So if a wizard accomplishment is, “defeat an arch-wizard in a 1-on-1 magic duel” then you should have at least 3 arch-wizard NPCs populating your world map. The PC can have some options in picking. That being said, they already do have quite a lot of options just deciding which accomplishments to even pursue at all. I’m inclined to say that maybe they can’t keep repeating the same accomplishment, since we want variety in our lives.
Maybe, if you still need a generic motivating through-line to get them through dungeoncrawls, a universal accomplishment could be, “acquire a lifetime total of X thousand gold worth of treasure” that PCs can all keep track of ongoing and have it as a “backburner” accomplishment to be chipping away at.
I also think this would be way better in a system where every possible improvement you can unlock is a non-numerical/bonus feature. Nothing to improve the fighter’s attack bonus or health or whatever, just new fighting maneuvers and skills known and retainers and maybe a magic weapon bond and access to a stronghold of some kind and so on.
I think I might test this out by making a Knave mod for it.