Something that came up while developing one of my game design tutorials was the idea of thinking of “character levels” as a kind of status effect. Status effects normally take the form of poison, sleep, disease, or being turned to stone, and all of these effects are normally viewed as negative. They represent semi-permanent modifiers.

But then some games include beneficial status effects, like magic shields, morale boosts, speed enhancements, and so forth, to offset or counteract the negative conditions. This is cool too, because players tend to like bonuses more than penalties (especially when applied to themselves and their allies).

Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons has an interesting condition called “Level Drain,” which represented the effects of a “negative experience level” as applied to a character. The basic effects of “losing a level” included penalties to a variety of dice rolls, as well as a quasi-permanent displacement of hit points.

“Negative levels” that became permanent actually reduced a character’s effective level, and a player would be forced to earn experience to gain back the lost level. Needless to say, it was a pretty big deal if your character lost a level.

It was only recently that I realized that character levels could themselves be considered a kind of positive status effect. They tend to increase a character’s lethality, if not their essential utility. In Dungeons & Dragons, there are numerous effects that increment as a character’s level increases, most notably hit points.

While writing an email to a a couple of my players, I was reminded of players rolling for their ability scores and hit points, and how it enabled them to establish a connection to their character. “Hit Dice,” as they were once called in D&D, represent a range of potential hit points a character may have, as opposed to a hard number.

In this way, you could almost think of increased Hit Dice as a “variable buff,” which might increase a character’s effectiveness (or not), based on their experiences and whatnot. I don’t know how often I might have players reroll their characters’ Hit Dice, but it’s a thought. They might have a base effectiveness, modified by advancement.

More “permanent” features of character advancement might be seen as new powers and special feats or achievements, while character features can be adjusted between game sessions. I don’t know, it’s an interesting, more flexible approach to the idea of a character as a more changeable (as needs be) avatar of the player.