Leveling/advancement systems - Good, bad, ugly?

edited April 2014 in Make Stuff!
It feels like advancement and leveling up is almost a requisite of a roleplaying game. (I know it's a big assumption; is it really necessary? Or is it just an expectation?). Sadly, I'm stuck coming up with one for Uncharted Worlds (shameless plug whee), and was hoping for a bit of inspiration and/or discussion about various good (and bad) leveling systems, what they bring to the table, etc.

What advancement system stands out as being particularly well designed? What makes a 'bad' leveling system? Is there a way to make a narratively satisfying leveling/advancement system that doesn't feel forced?

Comments

  • I like how the *World games tie advancement to a lateral spectrum. As you keep going, you unlock different ways to deal with the world.

    I think that lateral advancement is better than vertical advancement, because it encourages a world where everything can still be engaged with, no matter how advanced you get.
  • edited April 2014
    My 2 CP... Levels aren't strictly necessary, but character improvement is. This can be handled on a skill-by-skill basis, which is more realistic, but it also makes for more bookkeeping.

    Using Character Classes with Levels aggregates or simplifies this bookkeeping, by deciding that certain skills (based on your Class) always automatically advance in a regular order, but this seems (to me) to run counter to player agency in character development. Levels can also represent literal Ranks but it's also possible to handle Rank separately from Level.

    So ultimately it depends on the game world you're presenting. For pulpy adventures, camp, satire, or rules-light games, Classes are great because they represent ironic packages of character tropes. For more "realistic" worlds and long campaigns involving complex character development arcs, a skill-based system is probably a better approach.
  • edited April 2014
    I like how the *World games tie advancement to a lateral spectrum. As you keep going, you unlock different ways to deal with the world.

    I think that lateral advancement is better than vertical advancement, because it encourages a world where everything can still be engaged with, no matter how advanced you get.
    I'm just rephrasing to make sure I understand; advancement that allows you to do more is more desirable than advancement that allows you to do better.

    I'd agree with that. For one thing, there's a balance issue; where performing better and better necessitates bigger and bigger challenges. And if those challenges increase at the same pace as the advancement, then you're not really advancing, you're just staying in place or falling behind (I'm looking at you D&D).
  • What you need is change. Advancement is one way of achieving that.

    So I don't agree that advancement is required. You can change personality. You can change character. You can change setting. There are a lot of uncharted water out there when it comes to producing new experiences with a game.
  • edited April 2014
    That's true, Rickard. And timescale is important here. My answer was coming from a place where I'm picturing long-term campaigns and complex character development, worlds in which the mastery of practical skills carries at least as much weight as psychological events, settings or conversations. Obviously that is not true for every game, but it is typical for players in long-term campaigns to expect their characters to literally get more effective as they master old skills and learn new ones. It happens in real life, if you practice anything long enough you get better at it, even while all the more abstract changes you mention are also going on.

    Another phenomena worth noting but rarely ever mentioned in game rules because it complicates things a whole lot: In real life, if you DON'T practice a skill, even one you're good at, it tends to decrease. Although having once attained a level of mastery it's easier to ramp up to that level again by practicing.
  • edited April 2014
    Another phenomena worth noting but rarely ever mentioned in game rules because it complicates things a whole lot: In real life, if you DON'T practice a skill, even one you're good at, it tends to decrease.
    I rather see it as a change of skills, and it doesn't have to be complicated. Decrease one skills one step to raise another skill one step ... or raise two skills one step, if you want advancement.
  • Nice. Although strictly speaking you're modeling a "change of focus", rather than the "decay" that is suffered by unpracticed skills. This is probably perfectly serviceable in most cases.
  • I like how the *World games tie advancement to a lateral spectrum. As you keep going, you unlock different ways to deal with the world.

    I think that lateral advancement is better than vertical advancement, because it encourages a world where everything can still be engaged with, no matter how advanced you get.
    I'm just rephrasing to make sure I understand; advancement that allows you to do more is more desirable than advancement that allows you to do better.

    I'd agree with that. For one thing, there's a balance issue; where performing better and better necessitates bigger and bigger challenges. And if those challenges increase at the same pace as the advancement, then you're not really advancing, you're just staying in place or falling behind (I'm looking at you D&D).
    Yeah.

    Vertical advancement: like leveling up in D&D. Your numbers go up, your overall power goes up, you become able to fight bigger things. It gets a bit inflationary.
    Lateral advancement: like gaining new moves in Apocalypse World.

    The most interesting use of numerical leveling-up is in something like the browser game Fallen London, where stats are used (among other things) to unlock further parts of the world for your perusal.
  • For my hack-in-progress, I'm experimenting with something like Loresheets, and that might work for UW too.

    The idea is, instead of getting Advances at fixed XP increments, you store your XP until you spend them to buy moves from a Loresheet. Each move has an associated cost (which might be 5xp, or more, or less).

    But more importantly than buying a move, when you spend XP you're buying into Lore—in essence, you're introducing new elements into the game that affect everyone, not just yourself, and which enrich the worldbuilding and character background aspects of the story. If you're familiar with D&D 3e, think of these like a "prestige class" analogue to Playbooks.

    I think this would work really well in conjunction with what you're already doing with Origins and Careers in UW! Like, oh, you fought in a war? It didn't come up during chargen but now it might be interesting. Buy the shellshock move from the Great Space War Loresheet, and we can introduce that aspect of your character now. Maybe a war buddy will show up later, or you might open things up to the MC to show you the consequences of war crimes your unit perpetrated.... If you want to spend your XP that way, of course.
  • edited April 2014
    Thanks folks, this is all fantastic stuff. Keep it coming! :) I'll do a quick and dirty write-up of what I'm toying with (after reading this) when I have some free time to put my thoughts in coherent order.

    In the meantime; how would you pace the rate of advancement? For example, an XP system requires actions/activity/events that earn xp, a rate of xp earned per action, and a threshold of xp that signifies actual advancement.

    Obviously I'm not too keen on an actual numerical xp system, but it does bring up pacing questions that applies to all advancement: 'what causes advancement' and 'how many times does it have to happen before advancement happens'.

    As a side note, I'm not sure I agree that mere 'change' is satisfying enough, without it being growth or evolution in some form. Regression (while realistic) will put off a lot of players (though, to be fair, there are some games in which regression is a core component). Zero-sum change and apples-oranges change are both interesting, and there may be design space for it, it would require a fine touch to avoid the feeling that you are spinning your wheels, however.
  • Honestly, I don't think that XP should be considered apart from advancement. The type of advancement you have is very tied into the type of XP you earn. For instance, in Burning Wheel, XP only advances the shade* of a skill/stat, while the raw numbers are adjusted by continual testing and practice. Because XP isn't the only way to become highly proficient, it makes a lot more sense to reward it based on how players play their characters.

    *"Shade" meaning, for instance, "instead of needing a 4+ to get a success on a die, I only need a 3+".
  • I always support going back to basics, and asking, "What do I want to incentivize?"

    You're all having a conversation about these characters, and telling a story. What behaviours make a character more interesting? What behaviours make you say, "Oh, I want to know more about this person, and how she deals with novel situations"?

    In the game I'm working on that I've been talking too much about this week, most XP comes from being involved with other PCs. Being either party to "aid or interfere," and being the target of "read a person" or "persuade or coerce," are the main ways I want to deliver experience. They'll be dungeon-crawling for the fun of it anyway, but what I really want them to do is create drama along the way.

    I've also got a rule that says, you can only gain xp from a given move once per advance, and you can only gain up to 3xp per expedition. I haven't tested this in play yet.
  • edited April 2014
    Honestly, I don't think that XP should be considered apart from advancement. The type of advancement you have is very tied into the type of XP you earn. For instance, in Burning Wheel, XP only advances the shade* of a skill/stat, while the raw numbers are adjusted by continual testing and practice. Because XP isn't the only way to become highly proficient, it makes a lot more sense to reward it based on how players play their characters.

    *"Shade" meaning, for instance, "instead of needing a 4+ to get a success on a die, I only need a 3+".
    Oh no, definitely the 'xp' equivalent (i.e. how you earn advancement and how quickly you do so) is intrinsic to the advancement itself. The reason I ask is essentially that; a cool way of 'How' or the speed at which you earn could inspire what kind of advancement there is.
  • Again, depends on what kind of feel you're trying to get across. I think this is what @creases is saying. For instance, in the DayTrippers project my own take on XP is that you literally SPEND it for cash, character points, and other stuff. But that's because the game is supposed to be fast, skittery, pulpy, even silly, and the characters are basically ironic stereotypes. If I was building a more "serious" game there's no way I'd advocate that approach. It all depends.
  • While I do agree on the lateral advance, why should it be measured in xp? I mean, f X event will trigger XP handling and an amount of XP handed will eventually mean the character unlocks an ability, why can't it be made so X event gives the characters chances to unlock directly an ability through roleplaying means?

    A long time ago I ran a campaign where PCs didn't get XP for killing monsters of behaving in a certain way. Instead they get to meet NPCs that had certain abilities and by helping them they agred to teach them something. So, we had these sort of "training sessions" where their characters roleplayed their training and unlocked new abilities for things they did at those moments. Then they returned to the ongoing story to show and put to use what they learned on their training, surprising everyone with their new skills.

    It was certainly more fun than spending a session redoing your character's math and coming up with some crappy excuse about how it suddenly learned a new trick on the road, that didn't dare to use earlier when the whole party was up to their last legs.
  • edited April 2014
    I agree that numeric xp is probably not the way I would want to go. As designers, it's useful to at least have rudimentary numeric equivalencies to our systems, hence talking about xp without intending to use actual xp. It just makes for a simple shorthand to talk about Advancement Conditions and Advancement Pace, especially when considering equal access to advancement between characters and giving players meaningful choices in how their character advances.

    Also, the 'I learned something new out of nowhere' is something that always bugged me. :P
  • edited April 2014
    For characters getting better advancement, you need to decide how long a standard campaign should be, then figure out how fast PCs advance based on that. This will not please everyone, because people and campaigns all tend to move at different speeds. I've run dungeons crawls with the AW rules straight-up and PCs advance way too fast. But for a 14-session campaign of normal AW, the advancement is just about right (or maybe just a little too easy to advance). If you have a longer-term game with a similar formula (5xp = 1 advance), you can also add a super-truncated version for one-shot play (1 xp = 1 advance, which is much too fast for a normal AW one-shot).

    You can also do something like use pieces of fiction. Like, maybe the players have opportunities to write down things they did, places they went to, people they met. They can use these later for mechanical bonuses or even just to create fiction. Maybe this is the only kind of advancement and stats don't change. Or maybe you advance based on how many you collect (they are like XP in D&D). Maybe players cross off these items when they use them, and if you cross off enough you get an advance, which could also be fictional ("gain a holding"), or mechanical ("+1 stat"), or even apply to the party's ship instead of the PC (add the "agile" tag, gain +1 maneuver, add a laser cannon, etc). Maybe, players write down people, places, and things they feel they owe a debt to. While in debt, it's a slight, situational, mechanical bonus. When they repay the debt (or perhaps betray the debt), they cross off the thing. Cross off enough, get an AW-style advance. Just some ideas, they might be good for a game about wandering the universe, I dunno.
  • Thanks guys, great stuff. With all that in mind, I think I have something that might work. It's inspired a bit by the Mouseguard system, and taking a lot of stuff from this thread into account. I'd be interested in your feedback/suggestions.

    Since it's specific to Uncharted Worlds, I posted it over in that thread (linky)
  • Would it be too out there to get rid of XP altogether and just make adjustments to abilities based on a group review of what happened in-fiction?

    Say a thief disables a particularly difficult trap, then that would be grounds to give a generous boost to his ability, since she likely learned something about traps and is likely to repeat it. If it's a run-of-the-mill trap, then a smaller bonus (possibly with a cap until a more difficult trap is bested).
  • edited April 2014
    In a system where skills increase in power (skill ranks, etc), then yes, certainly, it would be possible to reward more difficult uses of the skill, and even reward failures to use the skill (we learn more from failure than success). In that situation, one might consider a per-Skill xp system, rather than global xp. The main disadvantage is that it's a lot of extra book-keeping, which is why you see that kind of system in videogames more than PnP RPGs
  • edited April 2014
    Actually, I think is totally doable, Dreamer. But instead of giving a boost to their ability, why not a simple "now you have Advantage (yep, that cute mechanic from D&D Next) whenever you want to disable a trap that uses the same mechanism" which sounds more logical than giving the character +2 to disable device on the spot (why should she suddenly know everything about every trap ever created?) or handling out xp so she can put more ranks on stealth three sessions later.

    If it is this way, I'm not afraid of book-keeping, since the players are the only ones that would need to do it. After all, it will be there on their character sheets whenever they come back looking desperately for options later in the game.
  • There are other ways to handle "advancement" in an RPG/story game which have nothing to do with the character, as well. I'll brainstorm a few.

    * Options open up for the player. Your character may not be more powerful, but you get access to creative input to the game in a different way. Maybe now you get to affect other characters' rolls, or you can change the rules of the game in some way to change the nature of the world, or play multiple characters, or to have a chance to GM a game or two.

    * Legacy. Participation in the game allows you to change the game or gameworld permanently. Maybe it's a question of inventing new character classes, or maybe it's accomplishing something in-character. Either way, you collect XP (or whatever) not to improve your character, but towards one of these goals.

    * Changing the game-state. You play in order to "win" some kind of condition, with your character's actions as tools towards this end. For example, in My Life with Master, you're working towards overthrowing the Master and freeing the innocent people from the Master's yoke. As you play, you work to get Reason and Love to overcome other game numbers - it's not about your character improving his or her abilities, but about getting closer to achieving their destiny.

    "Character decay" is also an interesting version of "advancement" - "change" is really what we're looking at, after all. Warriors can collect horrible injuries or scars, wizards can use up their magical resources, and so on. This can be very fulfilling, in the right context.

    I like the idea of designing a dungeon crawl game where the adventurers start with a certain amount of luck/hit points/magic/whatever, and see if they can amass enough wealth to retire before those resources run out.

    In In a Wicked Age..., decay and advancement are combined. As you player the same character from session to session, they might grow weaker or stronger - stronger by amassing Particular Strengths, but weaker by losing die sizes from their Forms.

    A good example of "lateral change" combined with "character decay" is seen in Seth Ben-Ezra's game Showdown. (I don't know if it ever got published.) The idea was that your character concept consisted of a list of statements. (For example, you might say, "I am a veteran of many wars and a great warrior.")

    As the game progresses, your opponent can reveal your qualities to have been wrong. So, we might discover that your character is not, in fact, a veteran or a great warrior, as that quality is changed to some less desirable version.

    In essence, your character concept itself "takes damage", leaving you with a very different character than you thought you had by the end of the game.
  • My favourite forms of "advancement" are ones which bring about change.

    The way Apocalypse World characters "graduate" from one playbook to another makes for a fascinating character arc. A badass warrior settles down to rule a town, then, after it burns down, becomes a wandering cult-leader. That kind of stuff. Awesome. (Although I don't think it's handled all that well mechanically...)

    Traditional character advancement is useful for a few things:

    * The "carrot" of watching something improve ("building" your character) is a good way to entice people to play and to care about playing.

    * Changing the scope at which your character can affect the fictional world. Increasing power a la The Shadow of Yesterday or Apocalypse World becomes a very natural backdrop for the resolution of a dramatic story. At first your character doesn't have a hope in hell to change the world against the powerful force arrayed against her, but by the end of the game, she can overthrow them against all odds. The stakes your character can confront rise, which is very satisfactory from a narrative perspective.
  • Paul's mention of "Legacy" reminds me of how RISK: Legacy did such a good job of bringing that idea into board games.
  • This is a really great topic. Have enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts. I have many thoughts regarding it, in different related areas, so forgive my meandering.

    First up, just what is 'advancement'. Initially advancement could mean a few different things: getting better at what you did, getting new things to do, getting more of something, or some combination thereof. On the one hand this made both realistic and meta-game sense. When someone practices piano all the time, they get better at it (usually). When someone plays a game they expect to be rewarded somehow; especially in such a way as to create a comparison to others (ie who came in first, who had the most money, who can kick who's butt, etc). Experience (or karma, or levels, or whatever) was a nifty device to somewhat account for both. Coinciding with these measures was often money, which was seldom handled well (in my opinion) but could carry as much (or more) impact upon survivability and options as levels or skill ranks or whatever.

    After some time there came rules (or occasionally even whole systems) predicated on other facets of 'advancement', such as rank within the story/world, evolution of ability or technology along a timeline, prestige/renown, and a host of other measures or rewards. More recently the idea of narrative/story advancement has been embraced as a potential reward all its own. This has given rise to largely static games where players don't see much direct mechanical improvement, and are instead 'slice of life snapshots'. These are, however, fairly rare...and successful ones even rarer still.

    Whatever the vessel being used, the point seems to remain threefold:

    A) Change - to keep the game from feeling or being static, and getting boring.
    B) Reward - to reflect effort or achievement within the game.
    C) Improve - an interesting, nebulous aspect...very likely rooted in various psychological desires and cultural myths/mores as much as reflecting any specific reality.

    One thing I want to touch upon is the 'improve' segment of the above. Fact is, we get better at what we do. Focus on it enough, and have the time, money, and equipment necessary, and we can get very VERY good at what we do. That doesn't mean we don't fail, or that others can't beat us...but it does change the odds somewhat. Put Mike Tyson (or any professional fighter) up against any non-professional fighter in a ring and the odds are about 99:1 that the pro is going to obliterate the opposition. They didn't always though. While young and training they lost more than won.

    Similarly, if you're playing a truly novice soldier a single, average opponent will be all you can possibly handle. If you make it through dozens or hundreds of those, however, things change. This is why orcs and goblins cease to be a threat after a few levels in D&D. That being said I've always felt that it went too far with that...in D&D a 10th lvl fighter can wipe a score of orcs, with plenty of HP left. No real fighter, however good, stands much of a chance against 20 average opponents at once. Not to mention there shouldn't be any reason a single goblin/orc can't become as practiced/skilled as the PC. That makes it a fine line to provide rewarding advancement without unrealistic bloat/inflation.


    Next, the joining of 'leveling' to 'advancement'. The rift between level-based and skills-based games is about as old as RPGs themselves. As has already been talked about in this thread, while levels aren't very realistic and are often unsatisfying they are also a fairly simple and generally adequate method to achieve the goals of advancement. Even in skill-based games the 'level up' paradigm is present - it's just micronized and distributed. So rather you need 50xp to level up (and receive 10 new or better skills/numbers as a result), or rather every 5xp (or uses) you can pick which one gets better, the idea is still the same - a threshold at which something changes, gets better, or you are otherwise rewarded.

    Even if we remove the mechanical/mathematic aspect completely, the core IDEA remains the same. So let's say there's a purely narrative game wherein the players can 'learn' a new ability whenever exposed to them from another player. The threshold for change/reward/improvement becomes participating in new stories rather than a specific number of an arbitrary measure, but otherwise it's no different. In a game where it's entirely roleplayed without rules it's likely that players ability (in storytelling, personification, creativity, props, etc) will increase with practice and time in exactly the same way killing 20 Aztlan security goons can raise your pistol skill from a 3 to a 4. Again, the threshold is still there - just as real time rather than an imaginary metaphor for the passage of time and effort.

    If we think about it this way then we're left seeing that the core ideas of 'leveling' and 'advancement' are the same because the former is merely a method of the latter...it's just an example of a crunchy, pre-packaged way of doing it.

    As to how you, or anyone, chooses to represent advancement within a game, well that's largely personal preference. It may also be a facet of unified/complimentary game mechanics - ie creating a game where the rules encourage or work to achieve the gameplay desired in the telling of the story or playing the game. This leads me to my next point.


    Point the next. For me game mechanics and gameplay (ie the game itself) are, or should be, inseparable. I realize this is an often unpopular view, but the more I've analyzed it (and believe me, I've spent a LOT of time, effort, and words doing just that) the more I've had to accept that for me this is an absolute, inalienable tenet of RPGs.

    For instance, for me D&D isn't a fantasy rpg. It's a race and class based non-gonzo high fantasy rpg rooted in medieval european tropes utilizing 6 polyhedral dice sets to play. If you alter ANY one of those facets it ceases to be D&D for us. Now, that doesn't mean that those aspects are what is 'best', or even preferred' apart from the game itself. It's just that the game, in the incarnations I prefer, have that commonality. Attempts to change it to a skill based game for instance (ala 3rd edition) create an entirely different type of gameplay. Now, 3rd is a fine game, but it's DIFFERENT than pre-3rd precisely because it alters a core mechanical component which is essential (in our opinion) to the original gameplay.

    The dice pools mechanic and d6 nature of Shadowrun is another prime example. There's lots of different 'cyberpunk' games, but Shadowrun is Shadowrun as much because of those two mechanical aspects as it is because of the cycle of magic, dunkelzahn, or any other story elements.

    This isn't merely a grognard/traditionalist thing either. There are games that aren't quite...right, when they come out. Over time a new edition is released with a different mechanical aspect (or sometimes a complete system overhaul/change) and suddenly it's perfect. It's all about the mechanics/rules fitting the game you're trying to make.

    Game mechanics, or at least rules, can fit a game, be discordant, or have no appreciable impact. It's also important to note that different people will feel differently about which of those is true (usually based upon varying warrants or playstyle preferences). To me the epitome of game design is serving that axiom as your primary master, and using it to craft a coherent game where the mechanics/rules compliment and mesh perfectly with the desired gameplay. While this will exclude people, it's not up to you to make something right for everyone...in fact that's impossible. If one aspect of your game makes it unplayable for someone else, they can always make the changes they need based on their own biases. No harm, no foul.

    With regards to this topic that all should encourage you to first decide what gameplay you're trying to achieve, and then create a system which encourages, not inhibits, that goal. It's all good and well to compare and contrast existing concepts and rules snippets, but it's vital to realize that what works perfectly in game 1 would disrupt game 2 and utterly ruin game 3. Mechanics/rules and gameplay are not, CANNOT be, separate. They have to work together to accomplish the same goal.
  • Our groups appear a bit unusual in that we generally think games make characters FAR too powerful, at least starting out. We almost never want to play heroes...we want to play ordinary people (or whatever) with the potential to become heroes - if we're very very lucky. We crave low power, average man games. There's very little fun for us in being Bruce Lee beating up a bad guy. Being a 97yr old grandmother beating up a bad guy, however, ROCKS!!! Even in superhero games we strive to begin with minimal power, or lack of control, and then grow into whatever is possible.

    For these reasons the advancement rules are especially important in our campaigns. Because we're largely realist types we further like to add detail rules like training, time, skill decay, teacher/mentors, costs, age, gender and racial differences, and so on. The more 'real' we can make the minutia, the more immersed we can become in the fun parts and the overall story.

    I mentioned it in another post or two, but one way that we've trained ourselves to really be aware of these things is to almost always have a campaign where we play ourselves in whatever game we're doing. We sit at the table, and the entire table crafts each player AS a character within the game, giving them only the actual attributes, skills, and so on that they themselves possess. Doing this gives clarity of perception regarding what the numbers on a character sheet really represent. Further, they let us accept training and advancement rules, or discount them immediately. When you think about how well you can shoot a bow, and how long or how much money was spent getting to that point, you quickly embrace what it would really take to make you better enough to be quantified as an increase in skill/ability on the character sheet. This also has the added benefit of clearly showcasing the difference between talent, knowledge, skill, and equipment. I assure you, while all four factor into what we do, they are entirely separate things which do not 'advance' together, or reliant upon each other. In fact, a system overtly acknowledging this four-legged stool of action might be a godsend.

    We've also had great luck running games as child characters. The potential for roleplaying is enormous and it's another fabulous way to highlight advancement systems. It can also lead to wholly unique characters with skillsets never seen before. You'd be surprised how well jumprope, dodgeball, and sugar tolerance translate into some adult-themed games.


    With all that being said, what systems do I like or hate?

    I like systems that match the game they're in. Pre-3rd D&D, despite all its heinous flaws and shortcomings, works perfectly well FOR D&D. Despite not enjoying the overall game, the unification and balance achieved with 4th edition D&D characters had merit. The 5th edition concept of 'advantage' is interesting, even though I don't think it fits within the D&D game. Oh, and the weapon mastery system in basic D&D is FANDAMNTASTIC, along with the zero-level character rules in the original greyhawk hardback. The Shadowrun system using attributes, skills, and dice pools to achieve multiple layers of advancement was unique and interesting, though I think it could have been better balanced and unified. What's more, the karma system (as reputation, advancement, and luck pool) was really really nice. The Top Secret skills dossier system was VERY clever, and I refined and ported it to form the basis of our historic old west game. Especially when combined with the single roll resolution system they came up with. The FASA character background system for Star Trek was EXCELLENTLY balanced for that type of gameplay. Our own M&E (Magnitude and Expertise) system is pretty darn good if I do say so myself (not that anyone else knows it, since Stupid Heroes isn't out there yet). Combined with our FIAT (Fate-In-Action-Table) it's a highly workable mathless system that highlights advancement. Warhammer FRP (especially the first two editions) had some truly awesome innovations. Too bad the system itself was so convoluted and clunky.

    Gamma World (pretty much any edition) still hasn't gotten it right, unless you view it as the story arch of the alpha/beta etc modules. I don't like D&D as a skill based, or multi-roled game (ie 3rd edition). The system works well as its own game, but it's really nothing like D&D and trying to save to the old beloved aspects while moving to the new system is a mistake to us. If they'd kill the sacred unicorns and release it as its own, non-D&D game I think it could be very good. As much as I loved the mech combat aspect of battletech I never thought the mechwarrior system merged well with it, and had nothing special of its own (especially with regards to creation/advancement). I always saw advancement in BT as being more about reputation and money/equipment. The first video game, building up your mercenary unit, was FAR superior to the tabletop attempts in this regard.

    Other games aren't standing out as good or bad with regards to advancement, though I'll probably think of more later.
  • * Archangel3d Archangel3d April 18
    In a system where skills increase in power (skill ranks, etc), then yes, certainly, it would be possible to reward more difficult uses of the
    skill, and even reward failures to use the skill (we learn more from failure than success). In that situation, one might consider a per-Skill xp
    system, rather than global xp. The main disadvantage is that it's a lot of extra book-keeping, which is why you see that kind of system in
    videogames more than PnP RPGs
    Hmm, I hadn’t considered that, though what I had in mind was probably a lot more fast and loose. I was envisioning more of an after-session debrief, so to speak, where everyone can bring up instances where they think an increase in ability might be warranted.
    @WarriorMonk
    Actually, I think is totally doable, Dreamer. But instead of giving a boost to their ability, why not a simple "now you have Advantage (yep, that
    cute mechanic from D&D Next) whenever you want to disable a trap that uses the same mechanism" which sounds more logical than giving the character
    +2 to disable device on the spot (why should she suddenly know everything about every trap ever created?) or handling out xp so she can put more
    ranks on stealth three sessions later.
    If it is this way, I'm not afraid of book-keeping, since the players are the only ones that would need to do it. After all, it will be there on
    their character sheets whenever they come back looking desperately for options later in the game.
    I wasn’t aware of that D&D Next mechanic. It sounds pretty cool.

    I hear you on what you say, but I think that some cases can be generalized like that as often some complicated systems are just simple systems that are built upon. Certainly no everything, but it’s a good rule of thumb to assume, until there is a reason not to assume so anymore.
  • A fast-and-loose per-skill reward system might look something like "Roll for Shoes".
  • Levels are the thing I like the least about RPGs. They are so much outside the fiction, and so much a focus for the players to fetishise. I quite like how Minecraft handles XP in that it can be used to repair things and make enchantments.
  • edited April 2014
    Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, let's consider that playstyle aside, levels do make sense for certain types of magicians and hierophants, for whom they are a mechanical representation of tiered initiations and access to new gnosis. For cops, military or intel characters they make sense if they are fictized as Rank. The "Rank" approach can also work in highly structured organizations like crime mobs, thieves' guilds or corporations (which are all the same thing in a way). I'm just saying that there are applications for Levels that aren't strictly mechanical. But if your game involves people who live outside of such hierarchical structures, then yeah, they tend to make very little sense.
  • Levels are a nice way for players to conceptualize characters' ability to shape the world. If you play Pathfinder, you instantly understand what a "10th Level" adventure is compared to a "1st Level" adventure. It allows for a small bit of granularity. In that way, they're actually really convenient for helping you situate your character within the fiction.
  • edited April 2014
    I haven't played Pathfinder, but if the math actually works out as you imply it does, then that's supercool for those who want to quantitatively ensure oppositional balance before play. Alternately, if your system has a LOT of granularity and no big numbers (like say, Fudge), there can actually be a big semantic difference between one level and the next. (e.g. "I'm a Superior Warrior" has a distinctly different meaning than "I'm a Legendary Warrior".)

    ETA: The question about Levels is just one of many design questions which can never (and should never) be stabilized into a single "best practice" that everybody follows. What we keep finding is that "It depends on what your game is, what your setting is, how your characters are defined, how your operational space is defined... what your game does and how you want your game to feel while playing it."
  • My impression of levels in D&D is that they serve as a very convenient shorthand which serves to organize game materials (monsters, traps, spells, abilities) into a coherent whole. In this respect, they make a lot of sense.

    It becomes interesting when experience is separate from levels (in most versions of D&D, different classes take different amounts of experience to "level up"), but that's a different conversation...
  • I haven't played Pathfinder, but if the math actually works out as you imply it does, then that's supercool for those who want to quantitatively ensure oppositional balance before play. Alternately, if your system has a LOT of granularity and no big numbers (like say, Fudge), there can actually be a big semantic difference between one level and the next. (e.g. "I'm a Superior Warrior" has a distinctly different meaning than "I'm a Legendary Warrior".)
    I wouldn't say it's necessarily about oppositional balance (although that factors into it); depending on the d20 game you're talking about, someone who's a couple levels above you may be in an entirely different weight class. With a five-level difference, the higher-level character may as well be untouchable in a lot of circumstances.

    For reference, there's a variant of D&D 3.5 called "E6". The premise is as follows: the first six levels of D&D encompass heroic fantasy, so when you hit 6th Level, you stop gaining most of your level benefits, instead picking up little tricks here and there when you would gain a new level. Those first six levels are able to encompass characters like Aragorn, Beowulf, or Captain America, the action/adventure heroes of stories.

    Now consider that the entire level scale stretches far beyond that (up to 20th level in Pathfinder's case). We're talking a game that spans from "dungeon-crawling muckrakers" to "the Epic of Gilgamesh" and beyond. It's rather insane, both for better and for worse. It's a lot more idiosyncratic than a lot of people realize.
  • Ah the old "why doesn't Elminster just deal with this himself? He could blink and rid the city of these [insert level 1-6 enemies that the players have to fight]!"
  • edited April 2014
    Very much so. (Though in that case, the best explanation I've heard is "because he's dealing with some much bigger stuff".) You know, it'd be funny to, when players achieve a high level, send adventuring parties to them making requests like that.
  • Hah. You'd have to play it very tongue-in-cheek, because sending adventurers to face dire rats in some forgotten basement is just silly and nonsensical when you have the power to walk through walls, teleport and have flesh of iron. You could just do the task yourself faster, better, more efficiently, and you wouldn't be risking the lives of other people who might actually die in such an encounter.

    That said, a game where the players play characters with wealth and political power rather than actual adventuring powers might be interesting. How would a bishop, nobleman or merchant prince deal with an undead horde or orcish slavers, etc.
  • I've played a PF campaign from 1 to 20 level. I admit that the GM rushed us through it, we were leveling like, every two sessions. So, while we were able to get a hang on the different feats and class features of our characters we couldn't get used to hanging on to only those options for a longer time, and thus enjoy every level of difficulty. Yet, even with the wide amount of options PF gives to players and the freedom to roleplay any of them in different ways, leveling by the book felt a bit constrictive, though we didn't mind since it was something you character was getting for free.

    Yet there are all those things your character really earns trough effort or tricks, that players definitely value more. Weapons nicked from fallen enemies, alliances you forge that later support you at war, places you discover and make your own... I'd give away every single class feature to earn them the hard way on the road, to remember how my character learned them while doing something as a part of an adventure, instead of suddenly popping up on my character sheet on a rest between levels, making my character grow the same as every other character played by anyone, when we are actually in love with these characters for whatever makes them unique.

    I'm not even asking for Fate Aspects, I do like to have lists to choose from, otherwise I get a blank page syndrome and fall back to any known D&D class feature, or find myself straying away from the genre. I can stand a couple numerical bonus here and there, as long as these don't break the system, make math cumbersome nor turn characters into gods (Actually you just need to adjust the scales to go there, no need for a whole scale between comon goblins and god-like entities to encompass everything). But what I really crave for are more options, I agree there's where real leveling is.
  • Honestly, I don't think that XP should be considered apart from advancement. The type of advancement you have is very tied into the type of XP you earn. For instance, in Burning Wheel, XP only advances the shade* of a skill/stat, while the raw numbers are adjusted by continual testing and practice. Because XP isn't the only way to become highly proficient, it makes a lot more sense to reward it based on how players play their characters.

    *"Shade" meaning, for instance, "instead of needing a 4+ to get a success on a die, I only need a 3+".
    I think equating Artha to XP is a little bit misleading here. Artha is Burning Wheel's equivalent to Willpower/Fate Points/Hero Points. Shade increases as you use Artha on rolls using the stat (for the most part). That makes it a much different reward cycle than a typical XP/level system.

  • Eh, I personally think the artha-as-XP is a fitting connection. XP represents your character's progress in the game, which is exactly what artha does: you get more artha as your character develops, both in personality and in ideals. As a plus, it takes care of a portion of advancement. It does help you level up, in one way. Shades are a pretty major sort of level, I'd say. (In fact, shades in BW are what differentiate between tiers of characters. They're just not as cut-and-dried as D&D levels.)
  • Except that Artha has a fundamentally different role in the design than in a traditional XP system.

    There's also a disconnect in the way Artha advancement is handled. Earning Artha does nothing for you. Spending Artha on important tests in game changes shade. That seems sufficiently distinct from an XP system to prevent conflating the two reward cycles.

    Torchbearer handles Artha somewhat differently, and I might see the comparison to XP there. It doesn't seem to function that way in BW to me. I think calling Artha XP stretches the definition of XP to the point that it's no longer a useful concept.
  • edited April 2014
    I think it's different, but they're definitely related. Siblings or maybe cousins. They fulfill a very similar role in two very different games. The differences come from their contexts.

    (Also, I'm pretty sure artha is descended from Shadowrun's karma, which is definitely XP.)
  • You're right about the antecedent, but they changed a lot. Among other things SR1 Karma that they changed was that SR Karma could EITHER be used for advancement, OR be used for "Hero Point" type stuff. In BW Artha ONLY functions for advancement if it's spent to change rolls, and most of advancement is offloaded onto the tests system (which actually pretty closely resembles CP2020's advancement XP).
  • edited April 2014
    There was an article someone wrote when Marvel Heroic Roleplaying first came out, it was about the time I was first reading Fiasco, and the article changed my entire perspective on roleplaying.

    It essentially talked about how super heroes never level up like normal roleplaying characters. They rarely get smarter or stronger, they rarely change much form who they are. Internally, they are them. If a change comes along it's not some gradual thing. Sure, they could train in skills over months or years and edge up in them slightly, but no one wants to roleplay a two year training program in athletics. They want it now. They want it immediate. And changes to a lot of super heroes are immediate, a type of change that isn't reflected by leveling up. Spiderman grew four additional arms. Speedball went all emo and became Penance. Superman became electricity for a while before they thought it was a bad idea. Most of his argument was how Milestones and advancement in the game really well represented what he termed lateral advancement.

    The problem I have with vertical advancement, I might first interject, is that I noticed it always created a problem. Having 20 levels in my D&D games meant players wanted to rush to level 20, max all their stats, and have no challenges any more. In WoD, everyone wanted six dots in everything, and only cared about reaching the end. It was a race to them, and it always felt like when they eventually won they lost because the game became unplayable. To win, in these games, was to become something the game could no longer challenge. And their boredom made them quit or force us to switch to a new game. It's a vicious cycle, leveling.

    But lateral advancement was something else entirely. Because a character's own limited body was not just the only thing that they could improve. They could gain responsibilities, becoming Kings or leaders or officials. They could gain clout. They could get authorization, from the government or perhaps from a powerful criminal organization. They could get followers, or land, or vehicles, or equipment. None of which ever felt comfortable in a leveling mechanism. Because it feels weird to level up from exp and get x number of loyal followers. They could gain things exterior, but not through a leveling mechanic.

    Which is to say that Marvel's system represented a sort of narrative monetary resource. Like plot dollars. And those plot dollars didn't just add numbers to stats or grant new spells or abilities or whatever. They could buy new plot elements to the story itself. Like a shop, only the inventory is their imagination. And they can say "I want my character to be become a SHIELD agent" or "SPECTRE has granted me use of their men to kill Bond" or "My character develops a psychotic Hyde personality" or "I want a nemesis who tries to kill people close to me". You can grow in all directions without breaking the game's internal mechanics by becoming undefeatable, yet feel like you are opening new avenues of plot and story.

    Growth without hitting a ceiling.

    So in my current games, I'm shifting the focus of experience and levelling into how the character's plot and narrative changes as opposed to the numbers on their sheet. Now, granted, I know this isn't for everyone. I just personally don't prefer a race to the finish line. Because then the character makes the rolls pointless. When a character is so powerful they are maxed out you face a nuclear arms race where any threat is either too weak to stop them or so powerful they can't fight it (alternatively, so powerful it destroys the world).

    Some people do like following the tracks so they never go off course. Because then they have a finish line, a goal, and it inspires them to compete to complete the race. That works for them, so be it.
  • edited April 2014
    "Character decay" is also an interesting version of "advancement" - "change" is really what we're looking at, after all. Warriors can collect horrible injuries or scars, wizards can use up their magical resources, and so on. This can be very fulfilling, in the right context.
    This is similar to something I was wondering about reading this thread. What games are out there where character progression is essentially only downward? The only good example that comes to mind to me is Call of Cthulhu with the slow (fast) eroding of sanity. I guess Grey Ranks maybe? I haven't played that one, but as I understand it the characters are pretty much inevitably doomed.

    Is there a game where this sort of degrading of capability is handled mechanically like leveling?
  • Oregon Trail?
  • Ha! At the risk of responding seriously to a joke, isn't that more like resource depletion than true decay-type-leveling?
  • Yes. What's the universal symbol for rim-shot? I forget.
  • edited April 2014
    Grey Ranks is a good example of that, but there are certainly others. Polaris comes to mind, as does (in some less direct ways) Fiasco.

    In a Wicked Age... does this, although it's balanced by an advancement mechanic at the same time.

    Heck, in another thread, we were discussing a variation on D&D where your pool of hit points is a "lifetime" pool (they never heal or refresh)...

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