Leveling up is a big deal for the players. They roll up additional hit points by class and assume whatever powers and abilities are due to them. Points are allocated and new spells added to the spellcaster's roster. A good time for all. But what does this feel like for the characters? How do they experience this windfall of proficiency?
Ok, so 30 years ago I was a meteorology student. Synoptic forecasting was the worst because you had to hand-analyze the surface and upper air charts, identify and depict any important atmospheric features, and correlate them into a coherent picture of the current situation. Only then were you ready to brief the instructor, who invariably knew more than I ever would for the next two decades. It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of six frustrating hours to prepare the charts alone, plus another couple just to figure out what the hell it all meant. And of course, I was wrong about a lot. How could I not be?
Four years later, I'm forecasting in Korea (Camp Stanley). There was a typhoon and the weather station was flooded. I remember standing on a stool and taking calls from legions of concerned agencies. Our Automated Weather Distribution System (AWDS) was down, forcing me to analyze data the old-fashioned way. Only this time, I analyzed the charts in under 45 minutes, and after all that, they only confirmed what I already knew from the satellite imagery we were lucky enough to still have. When the dust settled and I returned to the barracks, I realized that I'd come a long way in four years...
I'm sure everyone here has an equivalent story. Through practice and exposure we gain experience and get better at what we do, often without realizing it until one day we're put to the test and we remember how difficult it used to be. I imagine leveling up feels like this; steady improvement the character doesn't notice until one day they do.
Clerics and magic-users are a little different because they master discrete spells; high-profile abilities which come on suddenly. But it's not all that different. Clerics may experience a spiritual breakthrough. A moment when their faith is validated and their relationship to their deity strengthened tenfold. No doubt the real-world faithful experience something similar; and in a fantasy setting, the cleric can ask, and ultimately receive, more. Magic-users learn from spell books (at least in the OSR). They gradually grow in knowledge and understanding until at last those ancient, obscure spells start to make sense.
In short, characters aren't aware they've gone up in level. Only that they've improved in some way and/or have become more comfortable in what they do. Non-humans with level limits don't perceive any discrepancy between themselves and their human counterparts because they wouldn't. Humans are physically larger than dwarves and elves and hungrier for power. Demi-humans have their own concerns and special abilities humans lack, so level differences are usually written off as human ambition and (sometimes) folly.
Now this makes sense in the OSR, where characters are already proficient in a class, a profession they've entered through some previous, off-screen apprenticeship. Not so for the skill-based game; however, where a character may, presumably, learn blacksmithing mid-adventuring career. Blacksmithing is a skilled trade which requires a lengthy commitment to master at even a basic level. Here I ask the players to tell me what skills they plan on learning in advance and build the time into my game. This gets the players thinking about their desired progression and goals, which is both realistic and helpful...
If Borg wants to become a blacksmith, they must locate a trainer and make the time to practice between adventures. Once they take the skill, I'll assume they're absolute newbies and limit what they can do until they've gotten some time under their belt. Smart players understand this; and when their characters are in town, they make a point of declaring their time spent at the forge. No dice. No mechanics. They've just told me their character is practicing, which makes taking (and improving) a skill reasonable and justified.
Character advancement is a discrete event for the players. But for the character, true proficiency sneaks up unnoticed. Skill-based systems are a little different because the new talent is initiated and mastered well after play has already begun. I'm fairly skeptical of busy adventurers taking on a complex trade (from scratch) in the middle of a campaign, but also understand that these are games. As long as the players document their work in the gameplay narrative I'm good. From here, time and practice makes perfect.
It just goes to show; narrative matters, and the important things that hold a campaign together are often the things that don't involve dice or rules. People play the game, but their characters are the ones who experience it. A little something to think about as your party takes on the world. And that's all. We'll see everyone after Halloween. Enjoy now...