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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

Who’s Afraid of Levelling Up?

Chris, the Dungeon Mastodon on a blue-skied, sun kissed day, wearing a polyhedral dice face mask and Maroon hoodie with the hood up and a bare tree in the background.
The Dungeon Mastodon

Levelling up in Dungeons and Dragons has been a welcome milestone in every player’s journey - more hit points, better attributes, spectacular spells and the unlocking of remarkable abilities that aid our heroes on adventures untold. Levelling up in life happens as well, learning to walk, the first taste of independence, lessons of love and the experience gained by overcoming the challenges we all face.

The last time the Heroes of Bounty hit that milestone, they reached level three. That’s an exciting level, second-level spells, archetypes and other fun bonuses that really bring characters to life. Ikki, the ranger’s avian primal companion Snoofli became a part of the crew. The increased hit points that accompany early levels are quite beneficial. This reminds me of the ten-year-old me, steeped in fantastical reading, distant galaxies on the CRT and the endless expanse of music, but also the introduction to the fear of whatever may come from those places. Be it the darkness or sudden noises, I was easily startled. The early expansion of awareness was akin to bathing in the afterglow of reaching a new level. But what is reaching that milestone other than the start of the journey to the next level… and beyond?

Before the last session, the experience points had been tallied and it was apparent that all the brave souls that survived this muddy melee would certainly reach level four. This seemed to manifest in game. The tide turned, our heroes, covered in mud (the greenish-brown essence of the Ancient Celestial Meconium) with ever-hungry evil attacking from the ground and air. One by one, enemies dropped while the heroes withstood the assault and in one successful round, the tide turned and the characters could feel the energy build within each of them to usher in the next level by the end of combat.

In the mid-90’s I was working at Borders Books and Music as the Community Events Coordinator with one of my duties to coordinate the costume character event each month. I’d do all the support work for the event beforehand, getting the children’s department ready and making sure everyone knows what to do, then I’d go hide. In the backroom, I would grapple with my mounting apprehension. It must have all started when, at age ten, my parents drove down the east coast in the RV and when we landed at Disney World, it was a dream come true. Better yet, a dream that became a nightmare! A towering, lanky, anthropomorphic giant dog lumbered right up to me and I panicked. Gripped with fear, I spent the next thirty years avoiding the inevitable anxiety whenever a costumed character was around. I still feel some trepidation around them, but one particular experience helped relieve my fear.

I believe it was a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume that needed a tall human to don the love-filled canine and I was the only suitable candidate working that day. I drank a hearty cup of kava tea and had my handler help me into the belly of the beast. As the tranquility of the brew took hold, the big red head was placed over mine and a strange weightlessness came over me. The story being read to the scores of children was done and my handler with delightful exuberance, tethered the parade balloon that I’d become into the mass of children. You’re not to speak while in the costume, so you really just have to sway like the balloon. Finally finished and out of sight from the children, I emerged from the costume drenched in the sweat of exuberance and anxiety. I had levelled up. Not all of my costume character-based fears disappeared but it allowed for a glimpse from inside, knowing that it’s hot, awkward and off-balance in the belly of the beast. There is someone inside each of them that I can relate to and that makes all the difference.

Level four isn’t that exciting, you get a couple attribute points or a feat - that day for me I gained a point of wisdom and perhaps another in constitution so that somewhere down the line, I might have better success with a saving throw or a skill check. That’s what the Heroes of Bounty may come to realize about fourth level, it’s not a world-breaking jump but the subtle improvements will have long-lasting effects and more hit points is always a help!

When we level up characters, ourselves or as inhabitants of this planet, it’s for the better of all. In the game, they all level up at the same time which means they all will be of greater help to each other. As we suffer through a pandemic, deep in the mud with danger all around, at times seeming like an unwinnable situation, that’s when we can look toward levelling up. The experience of struggle, trauma, and hopelessness is the precursor to the next level, if we persevere and embrace the changes. Imagine what the next level could be if we all could reach a collective understanding that prioritizes all life on the planet over profit. If we could imagine a world where all are given the chance to thrive, without oppression and limitation. Where compassion and helpfulness guided the advancement of our lives and the lives of generations to come. As a kid, I watched a lot of Star Trek (TOS) with my dad and that’s when I understood that society could evolve to minimize suffering, inequality and move toward a future of discovery, prosperity and boldly go where no one has gone before. Who’s with me?

p.s. I have a glossary page on this site, just in case some of my nerdier jargon gets lost…

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