[Excerpt from a HEMA discussion, where a NF person had read Steve Kamb's Level Up Your Life, and wanted to apply the superhero alter-ego concept to his new HEMA venture.]
You are probably familiar with the concept of gamification as applied to real life tasks, challenges, and struggles. It's one way to repackage the concept of achievable milestones with some fun, nerdy window dressing in order to hijack our mind and emotions that are already predisposed favorably towards things like D&D or video games.
A major challenge for new people entering a field of study is identifying recognizable and credible/meaningful landmarks or reference points. What IS progress measured by?
TL;DR: HEMA is currently a sandbox game, and some/many of us would prefer to keep it that way. You have to define your own metrics for progress. Are you in it for the killing art in practical application? The historical academic aspects? The competition and fitness of it? Perception skills, physical fitness, fighting psychology (your and the opponent's), and body awareness/coordination for skills learned to a deep level of instinctive reflex are all topics you can use to measure your progress.
In an RPG, you measure it through fungible XP, which is kind of boring by itself, just as money is in the real world. But XP lets you quantify the relative value, importance, or invested effort of disparate special feats, skills, and attributes. We both get this; this is just review.
Modern Asian martial arts evolved in a pre-Internet era and in hierarchical, group-oriented cultures where individual granularity of tracking skill progression was not a recognized or feasible concept. If you were a white belt, you learned ALL these things: X, Y, Z. You had to level up your character across the board to get to level 2, at which point you had those skills or feats as a total package deal, non-negotiable. Ditto up to level 20 cap, perhaps crudely equivalent to getting a 9th degree black belt or something.
Our post-Internet culture developed a taste for highly individualized personal preferences and the pursuit of uniquely genuine experiences or specific fields of study, which are enabled by the Internet's ability to record, share, and quickly research what ANYONE else has publicly said about any topic. This non-linear, individually-tailored approach began with crude multi-classing or smaller sub-packages of feats and skills, and ultimately reaches the logical extreme of totally a la carte XP purchase of individual feats and skills disregarding any character class structure whatsoever (e.g. the GURPS RPG system or similar). Gamification has a spectrum of choices available, from totally worthless achievements that are only valid for bragging rights, to achievements that have certain in-game credits, resources, or equipment unlocks attached, to actual feats and skills with level or attribute requirements that are fully integral to gameplay advancement.
How does this framework tie into HEMA progression? Short answer: However you damn well structure it. Several schools exist which use their own 2-5 tier ranking systems similar to old-school blanket level advancement. Many less formal schools, clubs, groups, or individuals use a sometimes-poorly-verbalized nonlinear and branching progression of skills and achievements (e.g. fitness, knowledge and use of stances and actions, speed, power, diversity of weapons trained). The latter model is far more flexible, and in fact most private or high level instructors I've trained with tend to evaluate individuals in small student groups this way anyway.
Which method or metrics you choose also depend on how you choose to approach HEMA. In any martial art, and specifically in HEMA swordfighting, I have seen 3 major paradigms for training (just ask others, and you'll get several other equally valid schemas):
1) Academic: Learn the catalog of historical moves. Properly place the sword as tool in the context of the clothing worn, fighting situations in which to employ it, socioeconomic circumstances of its evolution, creation, use, and decline, etc.
2) Sport: Compete for points in tournament events, to roughly gauge relative skill against other practitioners. Whether it's the NYF single hit tournaments, Longpoint rules, Swordfish/PHO rules, or BOTN/ACL bohurt rules, there are 1) significant restrictions on what's safely permitted, and 2) significant conventions and habits in terms of what judges will be able or willing to identify as scoring hits.
3) Combative: I mislike the term "martial" b/c it's been watered down, but most people use it. Both terms are intended to mean training to theoretically kill someone in completely unpredictable and often uncontrollable circumstances. Ultimately, do whatever it takes to stay alive and kill the other guy.
These can be compared to fighter subclasses like rangers, berserkers, paladins, etc.
As it stands, actual historical fighting treatises cover a wide spread of the above, clustering around judicial combat, which was largely combative but in a defined way (mutually agreed upon fight with matching weapons). To further complicate things, you'll encounter students in each category who believe in strong or weak interpretations of their systems. Strong = God created the world in 6 days, full stop. Weak = Genesis is a recorded form of a preliterate oral tradition, more of a metaphor for the 6000, 10,000, 4.3 billion, or 13.8 billion years of the creation of the earth or universe. This means strong interpretations literally read the manuals, sometimes claiming that if the manual doesn't describe a concept or movement, it was simply not done. Weak interpretations allow for unknown unknowns, such as the implication that medieval people must have engaged their core muscles in order to effectively strike, even though use of the core is not often explicitly described in a way that we understand it through sports science today.
This is related to how some strong academics and most sport participants in effect view HEMA as a prescriptive system, where you define the permissable actions to some greater or lesser degree. Other academics and sport participants, and pretty much any combative/martial practitioner, see HEMA as a descriptive system that provides fundamental concept and principles, a few illustrative examples, then sets you loose to see if you can make hay with the tools provided.
For instance, I happen to enjoy SM Stirling's Dies the Fire books far more than any Robert Jordan bullshit (but may he rest in peace). Understandably enough, I like to think of the fight in terms of: Did I die? Did he die? THEN assess did I get maimed or merely sliced for 5-20 stitches? That's pretty basic and combative, in terms of metrics. But I'm also a bit of an academic, and I enjoy periodically working the winding actions and long/short edge bladework simply for the joy of exploring openings and Fu:hlen (feeling or sensitivity). But also, I formerly enjoyed blowing the hell out of it with suicide sprints, box jumps, and other physical conditioning that made me far more athletic and capable of performing many of these actions at a level comparable to that of medieval knights who could do handstands, climb up the underside of ladder rungs like monkey bars, and vault into the saddle without touching the stirrups.
So pick your art, pick your personal level of interest and type of focus, and pick 3-5 things to work on. Periodically revise them, adding or removing topics to work on. If your life, work, school, family time do not permit the energy to reinvent the wheel from scratch, train with a group and follow their set of performance standards. It's all good, so long as you're swinging a sword and learning to be a fighter class PC.