A while back, someone on an ENworld thread mentioned how 4e disillusioned him to D&D advancement. It cleared out the smoke and mirrors, allowing him to see the level-up treadmill. If you already know what the level-up treadmill is, skip the next three paragraphs.
What’s the level-up treadmill? For example, take a 1st level PC. That PC goes adventuring with his party, kills a few orcs, takes their stuff and then levels up. During level up, he gets a few more hit points, and another bonus or two. Maybe he identifies his first +1 weapon amidst the orc spoils. Now he’s a 2nd level PC, and he goes on another adventure to fight hobgoblins.
Despite his improved combat ability, the PC isn’t any better at killing hobgoblins than he was at killing orcs, because the hobgoblins also have a few extra hit points and another bonus or two. Essentially, he’s fighting orcs with hairier costumes and a different label.
The level-up treadmill isn’t unique to 4e, but the 4e dev team went out of their way to make monster stats fairly uniform and more importantly to make monster design transparent. The 4e DMG is the first DMG that takes an honest stab at monster-writing guidelines: a DM assigns his monster stats based on what he wants the monster to do, and then adds 1 to each of those stats per level. In this way, a monster can be made more or less challenging simply by adjusting numbers up or down. That’s an oversimplification, but it demonstrates the fundamentals of D&D monster design, and the level treadmill — no matter a PC’s level, he’s essentially using the same numbers to fight the same monsters.
Back to our disillusioned ENworlder: I was actually surprised when he explained his problem to us. Not surprised that the treadmill exists, but that he never recognized it until the 4e DMG pointed it out, and that the treadmill is a problem for him. Maybe I’m more tuned in to what lies behind the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of game rules, but I recognized the treadmill not long after I started gaming in my 2e days. (The dragons I fought got older and bigger, but weren’t all that different when it came down to rolling dice.) I’ve always assumed that most D&D gamers recognize the treadmill too, and enjoy it. (Or accept it, at least.) After all, fighting bigger and meaner monsters is a simple way for DMs to give their players a sense of accomplishment and advancement within the game world.
So my question is: have I assumed wrongly? Did you already know of the treadmill, or have I just shattered your blissful ignorance? Is the treadmill a feature or a problem? And is it a mistake for game writers to make the treadmill clear for all to see?