There is something inspiring about reading old session reports where a dwarven character is not referred to as Noto the 5th-level dwarf, but rather as Noto the Dwarven Swashbuckler. It seems to me, therefore, that level names had more meaning in the early years of the hobby. Take, for example, the 2nd Level Wandering Monster Table in Holmes. He does not use class names (fighting-man, cleric, magic-user, thief) but, rather, level titles: Swordsmen, Conjurers, Priests, and Robbers. At some point in our hobby, saying Conjurer translated to 3rd level magic user. Personally, I think that is really cool.
Nevertheless, there is a big however in my thinking — for those of you who think level titles are stupid, I agree with you. They read more like a thesaurus entry rather than a progression of rank. While Swashbuckler and Myrmidon sound cool, they have no real meaning — how are they different and what makes a Myrmidon better than a Swashbuckler? As is, level titles have no real sense of rank.
In medieval Europe, there were guilds that operated on the apprenticeship system. One would get apprenticed to a craftsman, who would train you while you worked for room and board for a period of around seven years. At that time, you would become a journeyman. This word comes from the French journée, meaning one day. This refers to the right to charge a fee for one days work. The journeyman had the right to work for any craftsman, live in their own home and be paid a wage. They could not hire anyone themselves, however. This was the privilege of the craftsman. Historically, each trade and each level within a trade had its own distinctive dress. For example, in Germany a journeyman carpenter wore a wide-brimmed black hat and black bell-bottomed pants and carried a curled hiking pole.
A similar arrangement is hinted at in the D&D class-system. The first three levels are akin to an apprenticeship, for example. It follows that the next three are akin to the journeyman and the next three (up to the name level) are similar to being a craftsman. Even in a sandbox-type of game, lower-level characters can benefit greatly by having some kind of patron. By the time they reach 4th level, they have attained enough treasure and skills to go off exploring unknown lands. Higher levels, in turn, represent the clearing out of those discovered lands, the building of a stronghold and attracting what amount to a bunch of apprentices.
Name levels, therefore, ought to reflect in some way this basic structure. This can be done by various implications in the names themselves. In doing a little extra work — coming up with the names, their meaning and the subsequent behavior/costume/right that comes with the name — can add a lot of depth to a campaign world.
Take the title Swordsman, for example. If one is not allowed to purchase or carry a sword until one becomes a 4th level fighter, seeing someone carrying a sword tells you a lot about that character and about the world they live in. This, therefore, is the key to making name levels truly sing — make them specific to a campaign world.
Here, then, is an example of what can be done with name levels in a world where being a cleric means being a Christian:
- Crucifer — meaning cross-bearer. Wearing a Crucifer's cross indicates the beginning of the path of being a cleric.
- Acolyte — meaning follower. In following the cleric's path, an acolyte learns how to cast divine magic.
- Ostiarius — meaning gate-keeper. This is the level just prior to ordination (they stand at the gate).
- Exorcist — this is the lowest order of clergy. They gain the right to wear vestments. It also speaks to the growing ability of the cleric to Turn undead.
- Auditor — meaning hearer. The cleric gains the authority to hear cases in the ecclesiastical court. They may wear an auditor's cowl.
- Subdeacon — This is highest of the minor orders of clergy. The subdeacon may wear an Orarion — a thin strip of decorative cloth that is wrapped around the shoulders and waste in various patterns that indicate rank.
- Deacon — meaning servant. Liturgically, this major order of clergy is responsible for the preparation and distribution of the gifts, reading the Gospel and leading the people in praying the litanies. For the purposes of D&D, it is the only major order (the others being priests and bishops) that could potentially have the freedom to be an adventurer.
- Vicar — meaning representative or ambassador. This is a deacon who has received the seal of a bishop, granting the power to speak for and negotiate in the name of the bishop.
- Archdeacon — where arch means over. The archdeacon has the right and responsibility to oversee and train lower level clerics.
Please note: this is an adventurer's path. Bishops and priests follow a different path. Therefore, every archbishop or archpriest is not necessarily a 9th level cleric. Depending upon how magic-heavy or readily available you want spells like Raise Dead to be, priests and bishops could all simply be the equivalent of 1st or 2nd level clerics.