Character Progression in Roguelikes – Experience Levels

Part 1 of a Series

Welcome to our first discussion of character progression systems in roguelike games.

Character progression, or the system through which a player character develops in strength, ability, and/or personality, is a staple of the RPG genre, including sub-genres such as the roguelike. Without progression of some form, characters are unable to develop beyond their starting abilities and features. The lack of such systems isn’t a problem in genres driven by reflex and timing, such as the platformer, where the primary focus is placed on challenging obstacle and level design. However, most players will probably find an RPG without any kind of character development fails to engage them.

For this series, I’d like to take a look at various character development systems implemented in popular roguelike games, and evaluate the pros and cons of each. First, we will examine the most common of all types of character progression – experience levels.

The Monster Mash

“The monster mash” is my affectionate name for an experience point reward system common to games across RPG sub-genres. Far from exclusive to roguelikes, this system has been adapted, more-or-less directly, from the Dungeons & Dragons RPG system. By defeating monsters in combat, the player is rewarded with experience points. Once an incrementally increasing total of experience points is reached, the player character advances to the next “level” of experience.

Typically, these levels provide increases to primary stats, health, and mana. Level ups may also provide the opportunity to choose feats and skills that change the player character’s abilities in-game. While not strictly limited to combat, these abilities are typically at the service of being able to engage and defeat more advanced monsters. The game is essentially won when the player is able to defeat all monsters preventing them from reaching the win condition.

In the monster mash system, it’s just this simple.

Why It Works

The monster mash is a good choice of progression systems because it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has played an RPG game before. It allows the player to pick up the game and quickly understand the relationship between the player character and the monsters inhabiting the environment. If the game is combat focused, so much the better, as a system of progression through monster-slaying compliments the primary focus of the game.

The monster mash is also a tried, tested, and true design. There are countless examples of games that have successfully utilized this system, and thus there is no shortage of reference material for how to put one together. The system is successful because most players find it fun. The success of monster slaying games from turn-based roguelikes to hack-and-slash RPGs, to run-and-gun shooters shows that there is nothing wrong with a combat-focused design.

Why It Might Not Work

Despite being a classic, the monster mash is far from the only progression system, and it does have its limitations. Excessive combat focus can lead to a game that suffers from grind, or the (arguably artificial) repetition of a task for experience points or other benefit. Grind in the right context and dosage can certainly be fun, and some players look specifically for it.

However, excessive grind can leave a game feeling “samey” and boring. Worse yet, the grind can lure players into putting themselves into potentially fatal encounters that they would have been better off avoiding. Roguelikes are often characterized by the need to run from monsters too dangerous to immediately engage, but when the primary mechanism for character improvement is defeating monsters, it can send conflicting messages to the player. This conflict in turn could lead to the loss of player characters and eventual frustration.

Another reason to avoid monster mash mechanics is to try something new. In a game that focuses on mechanics such as stealth or exploration, forcing the player to engage and defeat monsters can be counterintuitive to the overall experience. Instead, an alternate form of character progression can encourage the player to interact in more meaningful ways with the creatures and features of the environment. It’s important to view progression systems as malleable, because designers are free to create systems in harmony with game play.

Sometimes you can even pick where your experience goes.


Continued in Part 2

Now that we’ve covered the basics, I’d like to visit some interesting alternatives to the monster mash. In part 2 we’ll discuss a less-used form of character progression, and explore some specific examples of games that utilize it.

About the Writer

symbol-representing-authorAlexander Ashpool is a pop-culture enthusiast and writer. Interested primarily in games, books, and film, he has served as a consultant, contributor, and tester for various projects and publications. When he isn’t writing for Living Roguelike, he can be found at or on twitter @weeknightwizard .