It has been my observation (or, at least, my unfortunate experience) that one of the gaming subjects near as likely to provoke a flame war in certain arenas as much as any edition debate is the idea of "games with levels" versus "games without levels". The basic gist seems to be that the first side doesn't fancy the fiddliness of point- or -grade-based advancement (or just doesn't see any reason to not use levels) and the second side thinks that levels lock characters into a grind of same-same advancement with no customization.
Or something. I fancy games that use either system and in fact Anima -- one of my current love-to-poke-at games despite occasionally dodgy translation -- uses both concepts. A character in Anima gains levels as they accumulate XP, and once a new level is attained said character gains a bunch of points that can be spent on various things.
I can hear the screams of outrage from all sides, truly ~
Once upon a time in my earlier post-secondary career I was presented with an especially ... interesting rebuttal of level-based advancement. This particular individual loathed leveled games (and (A)D&D in particular) -- I've known a few people with peculiar notions about D&D, I need to find letters for sharing some of the other stories really -- because they steadfastly believed that point-based advancement was "more gritty" and "made for lower-powered characters that had to either think or [die]". (the actual phrasing was, I think "take the consequences" but the intent was fairly obvious.)
It's a shame I never had a chance to introduce this person, one way or another, to a nice low-level D&D game. We'd see about "gritty" and needing to think, I daresay ... ;3~
I think for me it's more about classes vs. skills. A class is essentially a skill package. A system based on skills instead allows a lot of customization but lacks coherence and theme in character types. There is something powerful and primal about the Magic-User or the Fighting Man which is to me analogous to Fire and Oxen and Wood and Soil.
Anyway, the main thing for me is that the system shouldn't have both classes and skills. I can see why people would want the convenience of classes along with some skill customization, and a hybrid seems like a good idea. But you have the rules overhead and pagecount real estate to consider - why have a horse-drawn Chevy?
In a class game, just assume that any skills not subsumed by some class are more for roleplaying, so if you want your Elf to know tap-dancing, it's fine to just say he knows it. Not a big deal. It's up to the players to not get greedy and make a huge list of secondary skills.
In a skill game, don't limit which types of characters can get what skills. Some exceptions are fine, but largely you should be able to spend your skill points anywhere you like.
A class game like 1st edition AD&D or the Basic/Expert set is nice and clean. So is Shadowrun 2, or Dogs in the Vineyard. Try putting classes into Shadowrun or DitV and you start to grind up against the existing rules. I think the best skill hybridization in AD&D was Secondary Skills (one per PC) rather than Proficiencies. You effectively had a second little class, which really worked.
My problem with levels in D&D has always been the increase in HP. Just getting better at stuff I'm fine with: then the level is like a lump of skill advances all at once, and it recalls hierarchies of initiation or belts for martial arts. No worries, if a bit stuffy. But the extra die of hit points each time just pulls those characters away from everyone else. Suddenly it's absurd to got adventuring with people of half or double your level, and that I think is a strangle on the game: it launches it in one decisive direction and prevents many others. It also strongly suggests an attitude about what challenges characters should be doing at various levels that leads toward 4e's judiciously balanced encounters.
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