Nice essay (I don't mean that sarcastically--well-spoken and nice formatting).
I'm not sure how feasible it is, either in terms of developing or in terms of providing a good experience, to let L40s "shackle" and go through lowbie tags (if I understood the gist of that correctly, anyway?). Shackling, as is, takes advantage of a few things that probably enable it to actually work well (both development-wise and "balance"-wise). First is the fact that post-40, there's no more actual "levels" (as NWN defines them, anyway), just artificially-tacked-on power boosts that serve as a very cunning and effective simulacrum of real levels. So to compensate for artificial levels, you tack on some artificial penalties. Second, there's xp gain, and level caps. After 40, everyone is L40 as far as NWN is concerned, so the level cap disappears, not because it's no longer relevant (it is to a degree, which is why some mobs only spawn at or below a certain level, or at or above a certain level, and of course level requirements for gear and run entry apply). Of course a lot (most? almost all) of the codes and scripts (vague here, I have no idea on specifics) that HG uses are "automated" or proceduralized to an extent that (afaik) the wheel doesn't need to be re-invented every time a new change is made, but nonetheless, unless I'm mistaken, there's a few more zots that go into distinguishing a L54 character from a L55 one, than base NWN distinguishing a L10 from a L11.
On the first point, although there's some feedback that says shackling penalties are a bit too harsh for PLs (caster DC hit is pretty brutal), and although I found the xp calculations to be really out of whack at some points, the system works very well, generally speaking. Now would it be impossible to have shackling similarly apply some centric penalties (AB, DC, hp etc) to a pre-LL character? Probably not. But would it be some effort? Probably. That's before even getting into the nitty-gritty of how those penalties would scale, or what statistics should be penalized.
In LLs, shackled toons are, on the elementary level, on an even playing field, in several crucial ways: regarding casters, you have all your epics, but most importantly, all your real spells (whereas going from 20 to 10 should rightfully remove L9 spells for example); regarding tanks, you have all your "1-40 build" feats; regarding hybrid builds and quasiclasses, you have all your stuff. Not sure how shackling a L40 pariah, herald, DSM, etc to L30 or L15 would work. In terms of tag and gear usage: you can still wear some really OP stuff while shackled, simply because of the idiosyncratic loot that has only a tag requirement, not a level requirement. There's some rhyme and reason there, but in general it's hard to say why item X can be used at L40 with the tag and item Y has a level req. Yet, URs are usable at L40, as well as some notable LL set gear, so a non-shackled L40 will be missing quite some spiffy LL setloot (like loot from runs that aren't doable until after L55), but can still wear some very powerful (for L40) gear. I'm not too sure how gearing would work for a L40 shackled to a much lower level, since pre-LLs, stuff is generally reverting to a vanilla-ish scheme, with normal level limits on gear; would it be reasonably doable to make NWN think that a L40 character is actually lower level for purposes of gear? Maybe, but again, prolly quite some dev effort there. Then there's stuff like SP; prolly doable to trick NWN into thinking that a L40 character is actually a L20 character for SP calculation, but again, it's prolly a decent bit of effort, and probably more than tricking NWN into thinking that the L59 character is "actually L59" and not L40--because that framework is already in place.
Third: LL shackling works fairly well because there's only a few reasonable "stopping points" in LLs. There's no need to worry about xp/loot sharing without vanilla level cap, just respecting the places that LL structure dictates as milestones or cutoffs--either by run entry or specific mob spawning/loot dropping. For lowbie tags, it would be quite a mess; we'd need virtually every level between 5 and 40 to have its own shackling point. Of course, the next question would be fine, well then why not streamline the tags a little bit, clump them up and group them together? but honestly I think that starts eroding the entire aesthetic and process of the tags in the first place. Also, I don't think it would be much of a QoL improvement to do 10 tags in a row without taking a level vs doing 2 tags, taking a level, 2 more, taking 3 levels, etc. I think the way they're broken up now is actually the lesser of the evils--actually we hate not incrementally progressing and levelling up so much that it feels very annoying to have more than a couple tags on the same level (in those infamous chokepoints that every HGer ever has groaned about at least once). Whereas if they were all situated in 5- or 10-level segments, imo it would feel even more sloggy and obnoxious. I digress, but anyway, I think even assuming that pre-LL shackling would be an easy hump to get over dev-wise, having a 40-option-long shackling dialogue screen and all that work behind it doesn't sound like a breeze.
Of course all this could be missing the mark of your suggestion, but it's just to say: I really just don't see pre-40 shackling as a realistic route (not even if it was suggested years ago when dev input/time was far higher and fresher). As for possibly missing the mark because maybe we don't want to "balance" shackling, and all the issues I mentioned aren't relevant because we could just let LL or L40-shackled toons run amok--no, ugh; just go with one of my pet semi-joke suggestions and give people the option to join the server and start a toon at L40 if they want, aka !delete PoA
I think you have some good points (and a few great ones), and I very much like the fact that you mention tagging could be a great thing (as opposed to just dismissing it and/or pushing for its removal); kudos and thank you, there.
Maybe there's a way to happily marriage highbies and lowbies, but again, without coming off as too jaded or looking down on new players (or casual players), and keeping in mind that I agree with the substance of the analysis you gave, the 1-39 stuff really isn't that long or hard. I'm aware that the slogginess or annoyance factor has driven off players, and I definitely think that (after years of spouting "yes, yes, we shall weed out the weak!" rhetoric), you hit the nail on the head when you said that a lot of this game serves to weed out casuals (actually, 100% of the game if we're being honest, but that's another thread), and it's unfortunate. Yet I still have trouble believing that it's --really that bad--. It honestly may be just a product of being so jaded that it's impossible to part with on an identity level, because after going through LLs, the perspective changes so much. Nonetheless, it's just difficult to internalize the idea of 1-39/tags being so heartbreaking that we need to enable vets with their most-prized-possession pet L60s to screw around with newbies in Anduin's.
We have shackling for L40, and even pre-immo shackling for those darned no-immo-help tags, and actually L40 tags alone compose a lion's share of all tags, so it's nice to have shackling as an option for the final (arduous) stretch of tagging. We have RAA doable with un-shackled LL toons, which was a very friendly change. We had the "somewhat" recent re-structuring of tag levels, with stuff like Bandit Chief bumped up to L20, which was pretty friendly for both newbies (in particular) and vets' QoL in general. I'm not mentioning this to say "look, we did this and that, gosh isn't that enough <rolleyes>", but rather to say, ehhhhh I think without tearing the entire garden up from the roots, we did as best as we could to enable whatever extent of highbie-lowbie inclusiveness was feasible. Now is there a lot more that could be done to make 1-40 better? Yes, I think so, and honestly I think a lot of the tag problems and threads like this would lose much or all of their impetus if a lot of other (non-tag-related) things were redone or improved. That said though, and I don't remember if I mentioned it here or in the last thread like this, but to give some people some credit, these issues are/were viewed as pretty high priority, and work is/was being done on this area. I know it doesn't mean much to say "we're working on it, be patient, blah blah free game blah blah lack of zots blah blah grownups with jobs and kids, take it or leave it", but yeah... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ it is what it is.
I was not suggesting pre-40 shackling, but more removing he 6-level range requirement for grouping. Adjust the rewards accordingly, but let me help my friends. Also think the proxy system should be kept- do t let shackled 40s also get the tags, just the unshackled lowbies.