I have a love/hate relationship with level based roleplaying games. On one hand levels, under most systems, are obvious gamey constructs that make no sense in the lore of the world. They make things seem ridiculous and break immersion. On the other hand levels make it possible to have balanced combat and to make sure that various characters all contribute both in and out of combat. Levels let you as the designer have control over character power.
Because I want the numbers to work and I want heroic combat I chose to use levels for Heroes By Trade, even though I recognize the tradeoff that this choice required. Today I was wondering if I could bury the level system into the lore of the world so effectively that I could negate the immersion issues that usually come along with having levels.
My design already has classes and levels documented by the metaphysics of the world. Characters with classes and special powers are known as Shards, because they have inside them a shard of one of the long vanished Beings that created the world. Normal people can have skills and use rituals but only Shards can use the amazing magical abilities associated with a class.
I also don't use experience points. I think getting points for whacking monsters or finding gold is silly, and people always just award points to get the progression they want anyway. If you decide to level the characters after 3 sessions and give them 1/3 of a level worth of XP each session, just skip the middleman and tell them to level after 3 sessions.
All this adds up in a way that actually works in a really satisfyingly thematic way. If a Shard from a Being is a connection to magic and/or the divine, then as characters do important things their Shard can become more powerful. It isn't about monsters killed but rather about having an exciting story and doing interesting and important things. Send your soldiers to fight a dragon? That isn't *your* story, it is the soldiers' story! Go into the woods to slaugher 5,000 boars? Not gonna impress the universe with your importance. You need to stride boldly into danger, change the world, and establish yourself as important and this will empower your Shard... which increases your level.
The thing that most pleases me about this is that it feels good from an acting and roleplaying perspective. It explains why the player characters so often level up faster than the world around them - they are doing important things and having an exciting story! It also means that people in the world can actually talk about how powerful someone is and have a context for how that happened. They must have done all kinds of big things. Maybe those things were good, maybe evil, maybe neither, but they were definitely *important*. It also means that telling people stories about all the amazing things you have done inherently implies that you must be immensely powerful for having accomplished all those great deeds, which could place storytelling and bragging as a sort of ritual that important people engage in to establish themselves. Heck, I could even have bards whose job it is to record and verify the stories told by Shards!
Characters will also have a good reason to run off and go fight a dragon. Grand adventure, danger, and the unknown are part of the formula for empowering your Shard... but you actually have to seek out tremendous challenges because beating up foes who are no threat to you simply isn't interesting enough for the universe to sit up and take notice. It will create an interesting dynamic where truly heroic personalities will be making good choices when they take huge risks - sure, they will probably still die young, but the rewards for success are real.
The game already has the idea in it that characters can have a special, personal relationship with the universe. A character's Presence score tells us how important they look, how effectively they can control magic items, and generally how much the world bends to their will. Levels are a similar thing, but are less about influencing others and are more about raw power.
I don't think I would actually include numbers in people's understanding of Shard strength. That is, I don't want the world to actually know that a character is 3rd level, only that Shards come in various strengths and people who have powerful Shards are extremely dangerous.
This whole thing feels a lot more like the Generation stat from Vampire in the World of Darkness setting, and a lot less like the level system of DnD. This to me is a very good thing because both are measures of character power but one is smoothly buried into the lore and one is a bizarre construct that no one really understands.