When I started playing role-playing games they were new. D&D was still the ‘three little books’ and I read about it in a copy of Battle magazine, which I still have.

At first, the idea of levels seemed natural and inevitable because, after all, there was no other example. After a very short time, however, it seemed strange and unnatural. What was this business of charging around adventuring and then heading to a school to be qualified to perform the next ‘level’ of skills and then suddenly you were ‘better’? How did that work?

Then came Runequest and to an awful lot of people this made more sense. You do stuff and simply by practice you got better.

As I got older I became more cognizant of the martial arts systems of gradings and belts. The system of levels could be fitted into this framework, I supposed. You became a ‘blue belt fighter’ and the trip to the school was to confirm this attainment of ability. By a system of examinations, perhaps. Still, the mechanism seemed artificial. The attainment of the level was just a rubber stamping of the skill you had already attained through the crucible of actual combat. In which case the level was a qualification that one could, or could not, have, but this had little impact on your actual ability.

The years rolled by and new systems came and went and the rules for games became more complex and more simple and added innovative mechanisms for handling growth by experience and training. After all of the development I came to the final realisation that the system of levels, from a rules standpoint, was perfectly adequate. All the other aspects were fine, in their own way, but levels did the job. And they were easy to understand. So why bother with anything else, even if levels were unrealistic?

I have recently been made aware of Koryu: traditional Japanese martial arts training. And I have a very weak understanding of this body of knowledge so I won’t even attempt to offer a real analysis. But I can say this so far, for the purposes of looking at role-playing games: unlike modern martial arts it is not an evolving tradition. It is not interested in advancing the art with new techniques. Nor does it have a rigid ‘class’ system. It is, instead, interested in preserving the original traditions of techniques and cultural mores that were proven in actual (Japanese) medieval combat. It does this to preserve and understand the old ways, not to prove itself as a valid, modern fighting technique. This training happens by learning ‘kata’, sequences of programmed moves that, when combined, would form the basis of the attack, parry, reposte flow that I learned in my fencing days. One practises each kata until they become second nature, unconscious, like learning a musical instrument. As one progresses, one learns more kata.

Translated into the fantasy or correct historical context, this system reflects reality. Those ryu whose kata were flawed or whose teaching methods were ineffective became extinct as their practitioners were slaughtered on the field. Only those that conveyed genuine knowledge survived.

In a world of thugs, practiced thuggery would yield results. But I’d back a trained professional any day. Wouldn’t you?

And this, oddly, since it does not have ‘grades’ fits the level model very well. One knows only so many kata at a level. One practices and practices, perhaps through actual combat. To learn more kata, and to improve your technique, you must spend considerable time in your ‘ryu’, or school.

And so the AD&D level model has finally found a conceptual framework that I can appreciate. A thug with a sword will always be a thug with a sword. No amount of natural talent or dry-gulching will substitute for rigorous training from a teacher with decades of experience who has a continuous connection to the great masters of the past who demonstrated their mastery by surviving through the use of these techniques.

So what is this incremental percentage improvement in skill business about then? Is this the artificial approach? Is this a piece of social political propaganda? Is it trying to tell us that anyone can do anything if only they approach it through personal trial and error? That there is no right way to do anything? That anything is as good as anything else?

Technically, of course, this is true. One has to fill the time between cradle and grave somehow and when we are all dust it does not really matter very much what one did. However, if I limit myself only to the idea of skills and ability in role-playing games then it matters a great deal. A fighting technique has only one measure of correctness: whether it facilitates your survival. And lots of wishful thinking and blundering about will not achieve that end. That is legislated fairness. That is an illusion.

It is, in fact, a specific anti-tradition, anti-class, almost anti-intellectual assertion. It perpetuates the ‘out with the old and in with the new’ social imperative that has guided western civilisation for quite some time.

And that has delivered unparalleled success and happiness…

Anything that jibes so hard against nature is never going to be satisfying as a model for a role-playing meta-universe. Levels are the way to go.

I rest my case.