The Levels of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda

I think I’ve mentioned before that I consider the original The Legend of Zelda an almost perfect example of a game design. The game flows beautifully, challenges the player, and provides lots of rewards for exploration.

It’s also one of the finest dungeon crawlers of all time, despite a surprisingly small number of clones to its name.1 Despite clearly adapting the wilderness/underworld model of tabletop roleplaying, Zelda doesn’t adapt the experience/level model.

The original Dungeons & Dragons leveling scheme has four elements:

  1. Increased hit points.
  2. More spells/skills.
  3. Magic items.
  4. Money.

In D&D, these are presumed to be gained by trekking across a dangerous wilderness and completing more and more challenging dungeon levels. Just so in Zelda.

Zelda takes the brilliant step of combining the effects of leveling with the completion of dungeons. In the middle of each dungeon, you gain a magic item which is (usually) key to your progress. At the end of each dungeon, you’re rewarded with additional “heart containers,” or hit points.2

But what about wandering the wilderness to gain a few levels and gain an edge on the monsters? Zelda‘s got you covered there, too. Additional heart containers can be found in out of the way places on the overworld map. And some magic treasures (like the equivalents of +1 swords) can be obtained only by exploring the wilderness.

I admire the elegance: one reward halfway through each dungeon that you can put into play immediately, with an increase in power provided at the end of the level. Plenty of cherries for players intent on scouring the map. There’s both an economy and completeness of design that only a few games have, even those from the early eras of video gaming.

I’ve often thought of incorporating a variation of Zelda‘s leveling scheme into one of my games. Much as 3:16 requires a successful mission to advance, I’ve considered making a full exploration of a dungeon the key to leveling in one of my own fantasy heartbreakers. Here’s an excerpt from something I’ve been playing with:

In order to gain a level, a character must check 8 experience boxes and fill one experience line.

An experience box may be checked by:

  • Rolling the same number on every die on a core roll.
  • Finding a cache of treasure unguarded by monsters. (Doesn’t count if you killed them.)
  • Killing a monster.

An experience line is a special accomplishment, such as:

  • Defeating a special monster.
  • Completing a small dungeon.
  • Completing a level of a large dungeon.
  • Performing a deed of legend.
  • Being recognized by a non-player character authority figure in some significant fashion, such as knighthood.



  1. Most of them developed under the same brand.
  2. The game coined the brilliant metaphor of hearts and half-hearts for these, which you can see in this very site’s logo.

One thought on “The Levels of Zelda

  1. Interesting take on leveling and experience. It looks like it might work. I’ve been struggling with those issues as I work on my own homebrew RPG rules. In fact, I’m working on something besides treasure = experience. I always liked how Runequest did skill advancement. Tough issue to resolve…

    Shameless plug…

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