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Empty Levels
While characters generally gain in power as they gain levels, not all levels are created equal. Sometimes you get a major new ability that makes the game easy. Or you might end up just gaining some small stat increase or a few Hit Points for that level. But hey, at least it's something, right?

But wait a minute! Those Hit Points don't even add up to one more hit from my enemies.

If you start getting these late into the game, you have a Parabolic Power Curve. Inversion of Unstable Equilibrium, where doing badly leaves you further behind. That's not to say that this is always a bad trope, especially if one can exploit it by beating the game while avoiding level-ups. Big factor in creating the Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards. In rare instances creates an Unwinnable situation.

See also Dynamic Difficulty, Level Scaling, Rubber Band AI, Anti-Grinding.

For actual empty game levels/rooms, see Empty Room Psych.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Action RPG 
  • While the levels never become truly empty, the level progression toward the end of the level cap in Diablo III increases your power much more slowly than in the beginning, culminating after you hit 70 and start unlocking "Paragon Levels", which give comparatively tiny bonuses that apply to all characters on your account. At this point, Equipment-Based Progression becomes the more efficient way of growing more powerful and the game becomes even more focused on Loot Grinding than before.

     Driving Game  

  • Some racing games, eg Need for Speed Underground, do this, making the opponents faster and cheaper the more your car is upgraded.

     MMORPGs 

  • In City of Heroes (And, by extension, City of Villains), this basically happens every 5 levels. Rather than having actual equipment, you slot your powers with 'upgrades', each of which has its own level. You can equip enhancements that are as much as 3 levels higher than your own level, which makes their effect greater - it then decreases as you level up, while they remain static. When their level becomes lower than yours, they begin to lose their effect. Enhancements of every level Randomly Drops, but rarely the exact type YOU need. And the stores only sell enhancements with levels divisible by 5. The end result is that you're at your strongest when your level ends with 3 or 8 (since enhancements have a chance to merge for a +1 level bonus), and then steadily become weaker as you level up, until you're able to buy your NEXT set of upgrades... putting you back at roughly the same level of strength you were at 5 levels ago. Fortunately, this has largely been superseded by the addition of craftable Invention Origin Enhancements, which don't degrade (instead, higher levels ones are stronger).
    • A more conventional use of the trope is the way that some levels provide a new power choice, while others only provide you with a few enhancement slots. While enhancements are the key to building a truly powerful character, these levels are rather less interesting - especially at lower levels, when the only available enhancements are rather weak, or higher levels, when all of the most important powers will already be fully slotted.
  • EverQuest suffers from this as when you gain levels, you have to fight tougher monsters to gain experience. However, something called Alternate Advancement (AA) points can make a big difference in your power, and you can earn them at the lower levels. So gaining levels actually can make it harder to earn AA points. It is also the case that as players get more powerful, they also get more specialized, so that the steel armored warrior has a much greater defense proportionately at higher levels than the leather wearing druid. And since the monsters have to hit harder to be a challenge to the warrior, they now can kill the druid in just a few hits.
  • Extremely common in Korean-styled MMORPGs, where levelling just gets you a couple stat points and a skill point, making the character only marginally better at most levels. Usually it's every 10 levels or so, when the next equipment set becomes available, that the characters actually make a significant advancement in strength. What this means is, as the enemies you are fighting start giving less experience, and you're forced to move on to stronger enemies, your character isn't meaningfully stronger until those key levels and the fights get harder.
    • Trickster Online, a Korean MMORPG, has "hell levels." For each class they are slightly different. The toughest class to play is the Lion who uses firearms, because his hell levels start at level 1. The lion's gun damage is determined by the accuracy stat, while melee damage is given by the strength stat. Every character starts off weaponless, making the Lion's high accuracy useless and his low strength a huge liability. Until level 20 he is denied quality weapons, cannot use a shield, and cannot move while attacking. You're like a Glass Cannon, except just glass and no cannon.
  • In Nexus War, leveling up means penalties to recovering from death.
  • Runescape has a fair bit of this in Player Versus Player combat, mainly only on Bounty Worlds. Leveling any combat skill raises your combat level, and since what level range of other players can attack you is a range from your own combat level, keeping your combat level as low as possible while maximising your combat capability (by training certain combat skills more than others, in approximate order Str>Atk>Magic>Prayer>Ranged>Hits>Def) allows you to have an advantage over other players at the same combat level who have not focused on keeping their combat level low. Unfortunately for many would-be "Pro PKers", a vast majority of all active PKers between combat levels 20-110 (PKing unavailable below level 20, and at level 110-126 the only way to get combat levels at all is to max out those stats which increase combat level without boosting combat effectiveness all that much) have their stats set up in such a way to maximise Power-in-combat to Combat-level ratio. There is even a disclaimer in the website's FAQs stating that it is impossible to undo level-ups; once you have them, you're stuck with them for good. In addition, in the non-PvP potions of the game, new armour and weapons become usable at specific levels in specific skills, for example, the differences between level 80 attack (Chaotic Rapier) and level 79 attack (Still using Abyssal Whip) or level 70 attack (Can use Abyssal Whip) and level 69 attack (still using that oldschool Dragon weaponry) are far greater (in terms of how much it boosts your ability in combat) than any other single attack level-up.
  • In World of Warcraft, the effectiveness of stats on gear decreases in proportion to your level, forcing you to upgrade to remain as strong relative to your opponents as you were before. Similarly, the talent trees contain a lot of "filler" between major upgrades (at ten-level increments), and skills are purchased in ranks that skip quite a few levels. The upshot is that you get weaker with each level-up until you hit the next gear/talent/skill threshold, at which point you're suddenly overpowered again. Blizzard, recognizing the issues with this, is launching the largest overhaul of these systems to date in the Cataclysm Expansion Pack, making skills scale automatically with level and scaling back the talent trees so that each point is significant.
    • Under the Cataclysm system, starting at level 10, nearly every even numbered level grants you a new spell, while every odd numbered level grants you a new talent. Some even levels don't grant abilities, but still unlock new features (such as Dual Talent Specialization at level 30). Though there are empty levels now and again where nothing but base stats change.
    • The system was once again overhauled in Mists of Pandaria, where new talents come every 15 levels, new abilities are relatively few and far between, and characters no longer need to train new abilities - class trainers now exist solely to offer class quests and reset a character's talents. That said, all of a character's spells and abilities now automatically scale with the character's level, and the stat boosts and additional health a character gains from leveling up are fairly significant. As a result, while many levels feel empty to the player, there's actually nearly always something going on to make the character better-suited to continue combat.
  • In Digimon Masters Online, one will notice that by around Digimons' level 70 up to 90, these levels don't increase the Digimon's stats anymore at all. There is only a visible slight increase in the Critical Hit Rate per level from this point on. This is easily notable in high level grinding where the Digimon's relative strength is dictated almost purely by its offensive power (making Digimon meant to be tanks almost useless due to a sizable number of factors). However, Evasion and Critical are affected by the level gap between the Digimon and its target; generally, if your target is of a lower level then criticals happen more often, where as the reverse is also true (higher level target = much less criticals). The damage dealt by a critical is also increased with higher critical rate (e.g. a 1400 base damage strike with 60% critical hit rate's critical hit is less powerful than a 1400 base damage strike with 80% critical hit rate's critical hit), so this trope is somewhat averted. It still applies heavily though, making the end-levels Level Grinding even more frustrating.

     Platform Game  

  • In Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, the Chao Karate has a feature like this where the amount of damage the enemy does and how much you do to them seems to be rooted in the swim stat. To elaborate: if your chao has all (just for the sake of simplicity, B-rank skills) level 84 skills except for swim and stamina, which are level 70 and you get your ass kicked in chao karate, you'd think that leveling up your swim (doubles as the defense stat) would make you more resistant to damage, right? Wrong! While leveling up swim increases your defense to the point where every single hit doesn't do extreme damage, it also makes the enemies themselves more resistant to damage, faster, more likely to dodge, and for some weird reason, hit harder (at a certain point, increasing defense will reach an equilibrium with their attack (power) stat resulting in a minimum level of damage). However, the fact that they also grow generally tougher too after you stop reaping the benefits of higher defense means that you are actually making this stronger. Now take that chao of yours and give him a level 91 defense state and keep everything else the same. Suddenly, even though you used to be faster than the guy who beat you and he never evaded, he's dodging every other hit and beating you to the punch.
    • To cut it short: keep your swim a bit below your other stats (except for fatigue, which really doesn't ever need to go any higher than level 60) and focus on increasing your power and run stats, as these will let you hit harder and more frequently.
  • When playing An Untitled Story on the higher difficulties, the amount of damage you take in later areas accelerates faster than the maximum health you have, even if you collect every health power-up possible. So, while you might take six hits to kill at the beginning, eventually, you'll go down in one or two. Since the difficulty settings also subtly tweak the platforming sections, this can be a sore point for players who still want the more challenging platforming of the higher difficulties without virtually being a One Hitpoint Wonder in later sections.

     Puzzle Game  

  • Due to how the stat system works in Puzzle Quest, every other level is empty, because you don't have enough points to raise anything important until two levels have passed.

     Real Time Strategy  

  • Early in Ogre Battle, alignment does this. Later in the game, your lawful characters are so lawful, their levels are meaningless for alignment. You do need both lawful and chaotic characters to get the best ending, however.
  • Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2 features squads that level up and can collect ever more powerful gear, but rather than facing more powerful types of enemies, you simply face the same old enemies leveled to match you. You fight level 1 slugga boyz at level 1, then level 15 slugga boyz at level 15. At first glance, there is no apparent point to leveling up, as doing so merely results in smallish stat boosts with every skill point, but every 10 skill points would provide a powerful new ability that could change how each of the squads played. This, combined with new unlockable wargear options that were exponentially more powerful than the initial loadouts(thunderhammers, orbital bombardments, and Terminator armour were the most egregious examples), caused massive spikes in the power of the player's squads every couple missions with little noticable gain in between.

     Roguelike  

  • NetHack monster difficulty is the average of experience level and dungeon level. If you are playing a class that gains little combat ability with experience levels, gaining a level can be a step backwards, especially if the new monster difficulty introduces some particular early-game terror.
  • In the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, the stat gains you get from leveling become so small at times that you're much better off hunting for stat boosting items instead. Exactly when this happens varies from species to species, with some having it occur at the higher levels, others at the lower levels, while still others don't really follow any sort of pattern at all.

     Role Playing Game  

  • Hyperdimension Neptunia has this only when you try and increase your level with DLC past the cap of 99. You only get one point per stat and with no increase to HP or AP. The only upshot is that Item Points still increase by two, so you can at least use your item skills a bit more.
  • In Breath of Fire (the first one), when you get to about Level 60+, sometimes you will see see "Character reaches level yy!" and... that's it. Not even a single hit point. Not much reward after the ridiculous grind (especially since the game divides XP gained by how many group members total you have, up to 8) to get to those high levels...
  • In Earthbound, any level-up that's not a multiple of 4 can be very wimpy. You might get as little as only a single point increase to your max HP.
  • The Elder Scrolls:
    • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, levels are not simply worthless, but actively want you dead. Simply leveling up when you have the option is likely to result in an insignificant bonus to your abilities, but all the enemies still get harder. Everywhere. And your actual strength in combat is linked to abilities that aren't governed by your level. Fortunately you don't have to level up, as it only happens when you go to sleep, and your player has no biological requirement for sleep. Rather than deal with all the annoyance of making sure you get stronger by increasing level a lot of players simply avoid sleeping. This can all result in the land being saved from a horde of extremely feeble monsters by a strangely competent chronic insomniac. Even worse, Skill Levels are more important for your character for everything except Raw HP, and you don't need to level up to get higher skill levels. The only real consolation you get for leveling up is that the Infinity Plus One items are only available at higher levels. It is highly likely that you are going to need them. There is a point, however, when enemies will stop getting stronger when you level up, reducing the difficulty when you reach much higher levels.
    • Unfortunately, even if you level up effectively, NPCs do not, making escort missions with non-essential NPCs very difficult as your allies get torn apart in seconds.
      • Particularly hilarious in the quest where you protect (what's left of) the city of Kvatch. If you do this quest early on, as the game expects you to, the town guards fighting alongside you are wimps being terrorized by the goblin-like Scamps, who don't do much besides flinging slow-moving, weak fireballs. Postpone it until you're level 20 or so and the guards' reaction will finally look appropriate, now that they are facing humanoid crocodiles, magma golems and demonic sorcerers.
    • The difficulty has a tendency to spike after about the tenth level as much tougher and different enemies are suddenly introduced without any warning and without your equipment getting much better to keep up. Up to this point, you've gradually been doing better and better, gradually taking control of the game. Suddenly, you'll start seeing intermediate and advanced enemies, and they are far deadlier than anything you faced up to this point. Between level 12 and level 18, you'll die a lot. It gets easier again past level 25 as you once again firmly pull out far ahead of your foes.
    • In Morrowind the leveling system was based on a few of you major skills increasing, but the stat increases were tied to all skills that used that attribute. The result was that if you didn't remember to train your secondary skills inbetween leveling from using major skills, you could end up with a character with a high level and pitiful stats. The most effective builds ended up tagging many of the least used (or at least hardest to level) skills as primary ones, so that you wouldn't "accidentally" level and cheat yourself out of stat bonuses.
    • For the most part, this is averted in Skyrim. You don't exactly have stats other than health, magicka, and stamina. You're guaranteed one at level-up, and you're always given one perk. The perks are basically the replacement for stats. It's possible to, say, grind a skill like smithing or alchemy and get to a fairly high level without upgrading any combat skills, but even then, you would have good enough gear or potions to offset this.
      • Skyrim seems to be a little inconsistent on this one, though; whilst actively increasing level will grant you more of the stuff that helps you to fight longer (Magicka for a mage, stamina for a warrior, and HP for both), increasing your skill level in skills directly related to combat (One-Handed, Two-Handed, Archery, Block, Light/Heavy Armour) will directly increase the amount of damage dealt/blocked with weapons/armour from those skillsets. Makes sense, but increasing skill in magical schools only really helps in decreasing the cost of casting spells in those fields; you have to get perks to increase their effectiveness overall (higher maximum level for Illusion, increased damage for Destruction, etc). You can be at 100 skill level in Destruction, but if you haven't gotten the increased damage perk, your spells can still be extremely pissweak.
      • Also, non-combat skills count just as much towards levelling as combat skills do, and unlike Oblivion, there's no way to forego leveling up without also foregoing perks. Which means it's entirely possible for your master Alchemist/Pick Pocket/Locksmithing to get curb-stomped by random monsters because you didn't take time out to learn how to fight. But then, it serves you right for being a non-combatant who tried to investigate monster-infested ruins without using some of your by-now-enormous profits to hire a bodyguard.
      • Averted with Smithing and Enchanting, though - they are the two most powerful skills in the game and even with minimal combat skills a fully upgraded/enchanted set of equipment will make you unkillable and able to obliterate most enemies in a couple of strikes.
  • Fallout 3, if you have Broken Steel. It's particularly egregious because the new monsters it introduces would be Demonic Spiders to even a character who reached level 50, and the cap is 30.
    • It's even possible for a character to gain no stats at all from a level up.
    • Fallout 3's system was actually implemented as a direct response to Oblivion. Oblivion started with a basic NPC and added levels and improved gear as the player leveled. By level 20 or so, this created a bizarre world where every random bandit wears a suit of top-shelf armor and has an artifact-level enchanted weapon. Fallout instead uses a list of pre-built enemies with a short list of random equipment. These enemies rotate in and then out as the player levels. For example, a level 8 character will start encountering Super Mutant Brutes in addition the garden variety Super Mutants. By level 15, there will be almost no regular Super Mutants to be found, having given over almost entirely to Brutes and tougher-still Masters. (This system was used again in Skyrim.) Similarly, standard Mirelurks are mostly replaced by Mirelurk Hunters at high levels. The Demonic Spiders of Broken Steel start appearing among their lower-level brethren around Level 15, and can almost completely supplant them in some areas, e.g. the Super Mutant Overlords in Vault 87 and Feral Ghoul Reavers in Franklin Metro.
    • On the other hand, Broken Steel also subverts it by leveling up your nonhuman party members as if they were monsters (and monsters get stronger far faster than humans). This results in the nonhuman companions being horribly, hideously broken, and while Fawkes was already broken to begin with, Sergeant RL-3 and Dogmeat become veritable death machines.
    • It was arguably the point, as the endgame didn't provide a decent batch of new enemies to constitute a real challenge without them.
    • It is one of the most literal examples of the tropes because your attributes and skills only provide a minimal boost to effectiveness in combat outside the combat skill you are using (which you can max out at the very beginning of the game). Gaining levels causes enemy variant with higher health and generally better weapons to appear. Your actual combat effectiveness is based on what weapons and armor you have. So the level scaling is not actually related to the aspect of the game that defines how good you perform in combat.
      • This is somewhat of a moot point in any case. The effectiveness of late game weapons is so ridiculous that even mid-tier pistols would liquefy Behemoths, Overlords, and Hellfire Troopers with ease.
    • In Mothership Zeta, the aliens with Deflector Shields increase their Damage Resistance as you level up, as well as increasing in frequency. By Level 30, they can be Nigh Invulnerable, possibly creating an unwinnable situation.
  • Fallout: New Vegas makes things both better and worse. The list is less obvious, with Fiends using low-mid level equipment the whole game and ubiquitous NCR and Legion troopers peaking around level 8. On the flip side, Deathclaws are terrifying murder machines at every level, especially in Lonesome Road where they level with the player, as do most other DLC enemies. While this reduces instances of "These guys are nearly killing me, I must have leveled up!" the decision to only award a Perk every even level instead of every level makes all those odd levels feel emptier.
  • Tellah of Final Fantasy IV actually has his physical stats decrease as he gains levels to simulate the effects of old age. Fusoya is a more straight example, since his stats don't change after a level up.
    • Most characters have a chance of not increasing any stats, or even decreasing them, when they level up after they reach level 70. Oddly, the one with the best post-70 level-ups is Edward.
    • If you want real ultimate power in Final Fantasy VI, put off gaining levels until you start getting a selection of Espers. The only thing you get for gaining levels before this is a pile of hit points and a tiny bit of Mana. (Well, the damage algorithm does take levels into account, but you're still not increasing your base stats without Espers.)
      • This also means equipment selections are more important than usual.
    • Final Fantasy VIII is undoubtedly the king of this trope; the game becomes much easier once you disable random encounters and just abuse the crap out of GF-junctioning by playing the card game for items to transmute into spells.
    • Final Fantasy IX is similar, although not quite as bad because your characters' base stats do increase somewhat when they level. However, their base stats increase more when wearing gear that increases that base stat. Therefore, to get the highest stats possible, you need to keep your characters at level one until you get gear with high stat bonuses. note 
    • Final Fantasy X zig-zags this one. The game had several empty spots on its "spheregrid" leveling system, and several abilities required you to follow a sidepath and then waste time moving back to where you left off. Fortunately, you could retrace 4 previously crossed spaces for the cost of moving to a single new one, and later in the game, you got both the ability to teleport around the spheregrid and the ability to fill in the empty spaces with new bonuses. (Heck in the "post-game," you could rip out weaker stat bonuses and replace them with stronger ones!)
    • Final Fantasy Tactics can also fall into this trope if you Level Grind excessively without advancing the plot. Monsters get a lot of power just from leveling up, while human characters (especially physical-based classes) only get some power from leveling up and get more power from improving their gear. Since the enemies in random battles are tied to the average level of your party (while story battles have pre-set levels for the enemies), and many random battles contain monsters. Unless you go through the pains of nicking off gears off the humans from random encounters (their equipments are appropriately upgraded for their levels), those monsters can become a real pain very quickly.
  • In the browser RPG Heroes Of Ardania, levels mean almost nothing to most classes except HP. If a player "plays as they should", their rise in levels and their rise in power should mostly be around the same.(Power will go faster for a player that really knows what they're doing.) But if a player just gains empty xp without doing quests or getting good items, in certain areas the number of monsters will rise depending on level and the player won't be strong enough. Of course, that is the player's own damn fault, and level only matters in a few instances anyway.
  • Knights of the Old Republic suffered from this to an extent. The max. level one could get was 20. However, the protagonist would not become a Jedi until a few missions in to the game; party members also joined at whatever level the protagonist currently was. Thus it was of more benefit to not level the protagonist until they had become a Jedi so that the more useful abilities (i.e. Jedi) could be levelled up more.
    • The exception being a handful of builds that benefit from having more sneak attack from Smuggler levels.
  • Happens in The Last Remnant. Your battle rank goes up according to how many fights you have fought. The more battles you fight, the harder the encounters become. And the more upgrades a character gets, the longer it takes them to level up that stat again. So if you thought you could ignore recruitment and just turn Rush into a One-Man Army through fighting monster after monster in the Ruins of Robelia Castle, you're in for a nasty shock.
    • Balanced in the PC version. While BR still scales HP/stats/art levels, it's not as detrimental to the player anymore, allowing stat gains later on for newer recruits. Additionally, characters all have their own individual (albeit invisible) battle rank in addition to the party's, allowing them to gain stats at their own pace to a certain extent.
  • Muramasa: The Demon Blade zig-zags this. Bosses, bonus dungeons and the Sword of Plot Advancement do require you to level up. However, the bosses are the "normal" level up rate, the bonus dungeons are sporadic, and the swords start with the rarer need to level up and then force you to level up faster to get them. The biggest example of Empty Levels, though, is that the enemies level up with you, so that you are always challenged, and generally more so if you were trying to gain levels at even a slightly faster rate.
  • Due to a bug, Phantasy Star IV characters would actually lose stats and abilities when they hit level 99.
  • Utilized in Risen; levelling requires a Double Unlock where you have to expend "level points" to increase your strength, speed, special skills, etc. Otherwise, all you get is a HP increase and the ability to use leveled loot.
  • The SaGa series has a variation: characters don't gain levels in the traditional sense, instead powering up based on the player's actions. However, these stat gains don't always scale well with how the enemies grow stronger, resulting in Nintendo Hard difficulties. The worst of the lot by far is Unlimited Saga: around the middle of the game, finishing a map is likely to give you worse rewards than any of the stats you've already gained, and you can't skip an "upgrade", meaning you have to have a dump slot on the Grid that drags your stats down.
  • Long before Oblivion ever hit the scene, Ultima III (at least the NES port) was dick-slapping players with this trope. At the beginning of the game, all the overworld enemies can be mass-exterminated with spells that cost nothing to cast. On the other hand, leveling up makes all the enemies tougher (quickly phasing out the ones that can be easily exterminated)... without increasing your base stats. As a result, it was best to play as much of the game as possible without gaining any levels!
  • The Throne of Bhaal expansion for Baldurs Gate 2 raises the XP cap all the way to 8 million (allowing for level caps somewhere around level 40 for non-multi or dual classed characters.) There's not much point in leveling up that far, though, as by around level 30 all leveling up does is give you a little more HP and an extra high-level ability to choose from (and if you're a mage, you'll have probably already gotten all the possible high-level spells and extra spell slots you can possibly get before then, and thus won't even get that option.)
  • In Video Game/Soulblazer, levelling up through most of the game increases your HP, as well as your Attack, Defence, and Luck scores (higher luck slightly increases your chances of completely dodging an attack). At level 24, however, these stats are maxed out, but you still get an extra 2HP per level thereafter (which can be useful in the Final Boss battle). However at level 47, you max out your health at 100HP, and the final 3 levels you can gain give you actually nothing; they are merely there to bring the level count to a nice round 50, and to give you Bragging Rights for reaching level 50 - as level 47 is reached at 59million experience points, while level 50 is reached at a nice round 100million EXP. (So yeah, that's 3 useless levels totalling 41million out of 100million EXP).
  • Rune Factory levels tend to not give you too much along the line of stats, especially late game. Thankfully, the equipment you can make more than makes up for this.

     Sandbox  

     Shoot Em Up  

  • In Battle Garegga, the Dynamic Difficulty increases the further you go without dying, the more you shoot, and the more you power up, etc. If your rank is too high, the later levels may become unwinnable.
  • The arcade shooter Twin Eagle can suffer from this, due to its piss-cheap and unbalanced Dynamic Difficulty system. For example, if you make it to the high-speed sequence fully powered up, there's a great chance you will encounter the Demonic Spider red jets, which will often deliver unavoidable death with their missiles and rapid-fire bullets, making these sequences a Luck-Based Mission. And the game has Unstable Equilibrium too, which means you lose all your powerups if you die, meaning you are fucked in the later levels. And those goddamned mini-choppers appear a lot more often and shoot more rapidly on the higher dynamic difficulties, also often causing unavoidable deaths.

     Survival Horror  

  • While the levels in Dead Island do increase your total health and give you points to spend customizing your abilities, zombies level with you. Your damage is mostly dependent on your weapons, meaning your expensively upgraded weapons fall a little more behind the zombies each time you level up and you need to find, upgrade, and modify new weapons.
    • The problem is even worse at higher levels since by level 30 or so the player has probably picked all the best combat abilities and only has weaker ones left to choose from. A level 40 character who has spend six ability points on increasing their number of inventory slots (no help in combat) and increasing their resistance to explosion damage (very situational) is barely any better off than a level 34 character without those perks, plus their level 34 weapons aren't so powerful any more.

     Turn Based Strategy  

  • The Fire Emblem games have this happen sometimes, due to the random level-up system. One playthrough may invoke this trope by having every one of your party members with level five stats at equivalent level 40; the next may see you with an entire party of Game Breakers with maxed-out stats at level 25.
    • Averting this is the biggest change Radiant Dawn made to the series level-up system. The game will always force a character to gain at least one stat-up during each level up, so it's mostly getting more than one increase per level. But Empty Levels won't happen from Radiant Dawn.
    • On the other side of the coin though, you may well have a character cap all of his stats midway through his last tier (Nolan says hi), and the final levels cannot yield any further stat gain.

Non-video game examples:

     Tabletop Games  

  • Dungeons & Dragons is the Trope Maker. While early-edition clerics and magic users could gain new spells with every few levels, fighters and thieves were mainly stuck with the standard increase in attack bonus, saving throws and hit points that everyone got upon leveling up, in addition to increase in skill percentages if you were playing a thief. Combine this with increasingly-horrifying supernatural enemies against whom sharp-sword-swinging was a decreasingly recommendable tactic (powerful undead in particular, whose Level Drain attacks didn't care a whit about your armor and turned anyone they killed into more of them), and it wasn't too long before the Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards thing took hold (course, there were some enemies that were very resistant if not immune to magic, so the casters weren't immune either). Each edition has attempted to fix this, but ultimately only succeeded in making the problem worse. It is such that in 3rd/3.5 if you are not a caster you are required to take short dips in many different classes - something that only works because the martial classes are front loaded in addition to being loaded with empty levels. In 4th you might get features, but rarely are these features actually meaningful in any way. So not only are you required to heavily optimize your character just to keep your attack up at the same rate that enemy defenses scale, but you are most likely still using low level abilities to do this as the higher level abilities are not even necessarily better!
    • Also literally an empty level is Rogue 20 (the Level Cap) in edition 3.5- unlike almost every other level or class in the game, you get actually nothing for it. The standard bonuses to health, accuracy, and defenses are given to all classes, so Rogue 19/Anything 1 is better than Rogue 20
      • Even worse was Fighter 5, the absolute most pointless level in the game, which only increases attack bonus, hit points, and the minimum possible number of skill points, with no class features and no increase in saving throws. The only reason to take it is to get to Fighter level 6, and a serious optimizer only has about three reasons to do that (two specific 20-level builds or a particular alternative class feature at level 6). On the other hand, serious optimizers seldom recommend taking Fighter past level 2... or at all.
      • The "Truenamer" class from the Tome of Magic splatbook was perhaps the most sorely afflicted with dead leveling. Its core ability was based around using a skill check to invoke its powers. The problem is that skills have a maximum rank of 4+level, and the difficulty of said check increases by 2 each level, meaning that the Truenamer winds up getting further and further behind each level. This could be ameliorated by buying skill boosting items, but the officially published items only scale to mid levels, and not all DMs would allow getting higher level skill boosting items using the custom item creation rules.
      • Sorcerer Level 2 was an arguable example. Other than the standard increase (and being a Squishy Wizard, it was barely noticeable), your gain in spells known consisted of one new zero-level spell. Paladin gets Lay on Hands and Divine Grace, wizard gets two new first-level spells like Mage Armor or Protection form Evil, sorcerer can make a small light now. There's a reason that delayed casting was a Scrappy Mechanic for sorcerer players.
      • There's an online Character Class article that tries to fix dead levels with "minor special abilities" that you can add if there's no existing class feature present.
    • Pathfinder took a look at 3rd Edition and carefully designed the revised base classes so that all of them get something new (either a class feature or a new range of spells) at each level. The aforementioned fighter is a good example. It used to be that every odd level (except for first) was a dead level but the added armor training and weapon training abilities gave fighters a small bump in power. It was also made less boring by various archetypes (specialized sub-classes) that give it more flavor, such as gladiator, crossbowman, roughrider, corsair, etc.
      • Sadly, the proliferation of extra abilities didn't necessarily make the classes significantly more powerful - just load them with more description text and things to keep track of. It should be noted that an online supplement for 3.5 already suggested minor abilities be added in any "dead level" of a class, but restricted dead level abilities to very weak ones that would not affect game balance. Pathfinder was less timid, adding abilities that were more useful and powerful, but despite claims made by the designers, if anything, the Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards gap actually grew rather than shrank in Pathfinder, since almost every class received boosts, while many melee-oriented feats were nerfed or split.
    • 4th Edition went to great lengths to avert this, with a standard level progression for all classes, PC and monster attacks and defenses scaling pretty evenly (although characters generally need to spend a few feat slots to keep up with the 'expected' progression, leading to the much maligned 'feat tax' abilities), and the paragon paths and (especially) epic destinies adding new and (usually) awesome powers for all high level characters. As a result the game is pretty balanced for most classes across most levels.
  • With the introduction of Levelers in Magic: The Gathering, this trope is intentionally invoked, as your creature could in theory gain levels ad infinitum, but will only gain abilities at certain thresholds. These usually have a small gap (usually 1 or 2, and rarely 3) for the first effect, and large gaps (sometimes reaching 12 or more) for the second ability. Everything else in-between does nothing but chew up your mana for the turn and since the levels are marked as Counters, a simple counters-wiping effect can ruin your effort.

     Real Life  

  • In any martial arts with a belt ranking system, simply attaining a higher rank does not make the practitioner more powerful. In some organizations with extremely low standards for promotion such as McDojos, their students end up Overrated And Underleveled, especially if they are black belts.
  • The case in most educational systems: although you need to pass every year, the last year of any given phase of your education (primary, secondary or tertiary) counts a lot more than any other does.


Competitive BalanceGaming Stat TropesForced Level Grinding
Conviction by Counterfactual ClueFake DifficultyUnexpected Gameplay Change
Empathic HealingPower at a PriceEquivalent Exchange
Linear Warriors, Quadratic WizardsTabletop RPGLive-Action Role-Play

alternative title(s): Dead Level
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