Friday, October 11, 2013

We Need a Montage: Advancement and RPGs (Part One)

Part Two Here. 

I come at things from a GM's perspective because I run so much. I fear that colors my sense of the rules, how a session went, and how I feel about the player characters. Ideally I try to play in at least one campaign each year to see things from the other side. But I 'm still worried that issues which bug me as a GM either don’t matter to the players or actually enhance their experience. That’s particularly true when I think about character development and growth.

I suspect players and GMs have two colliding goals in advancement. Players want more things for their characters: enhanced skills, new powers, increased abilities, additional options, and expanded resources. They want their experience spends to matter. They want those to come from their choices. They want to get good enough to kick ass. On the other hand, the GM wants that as well…but in moderation. I want the players to get better, but in a way that makes each gain feel significant. I want an incremental increase in power and a nice smooth curve. I want that to happen over many sessions. I don’t want players too powerful, too fast or they lose some of the challenge of the game. Yet I want them to have plenty to pick from in that process.

Ideally I want every point spend to be tough. Every leveling up should require awful decision-making. Do I buy X or Y? When I see players banking character points away without a specific goal, I know I’ve done something wrong. If they’re storing them for a bigger buy- that’s fine. In that case it becomes my job to get the player to waste them. I taunt them with other options if possible- gaps in their development, new avenues they could go down. By if they aren’t spending because they don’t see anything great to buy then that’s bad.

Solutions? I’ll come back to that- first I need to consider what advancement means.

We generally take as a given that rpg characters will grow in the course of a campaign- and that growth will be mechanically represented. That doesn’t hold for some modern indie games, especially one-shots like Durance, Fiasco, and Last Best Hope. Dramasystem has players accumulating bennies between sessions, a spendable resource. As well characters may have their dramatic poles and needs shift. But that’s a fair distance from classic rpg advancement. The ideas of Hillfolk feel like a logical outgrowth on Laws’ ideas elsewhere.

For example in Laws’ underrated HeroQuest he suggests that in most genres the characters begin competent (or incompetent) and remain there. Fantasy, he points out, is an exception to the rule. Here we’re often treated to full story arcs with the pig-farmer rising to become the heroic knight. But most stories revolve around static characters. To handle that Laws settles on a compromise. “That said, roleplayers really enjoy increasing their PC’s abilities on a regular basis. Regular ability boosts helps to keep them invested in their characters, and thinking of their futures. This is one area where HeroQuest bows more to the demands of the roleplaying form than to precedents set by the source material.”

I’d argue FATE follows a similar path advancement in offering relatively modest and restrained growth. The players begin fairly skilled and advancement tied to milestones makes small changes in the power level of the PCs (in general). FATE also shares another feature with HeroQuest, what I’ll call “spendable” advancement. In HQ 2e your experience points are hero points which can be spent to gain success during a session. So if you spend those to win or do better, you don’t have them for buying up your character. In FATE characters can take significant damage and suffer consequences which rewrite an aspect. Repairing that requires a milestone advancement (which can't be used for something else). Even some crunchier systems use a version of that. In Changeling the Lost, players can suffer Clarity loss- which requires spending character points to restore. IMHO experience players don't like losing experience and advancement- it can make them seriously grumpy.

RPG advancement takes three primary forms: random, level, and purchase. Some systems use a mix of the two. Random’s the least used but pops up in the classic Call of Cthulhu where players have to roll to see if a used skill increases. It works there because it underscores the helplessness of the PCs. Other versions of Basic Role-Playing, such as Legend, use a point purchase system, sometimes tied to a die roll to check advancement. GW’s Warhammer Quest has random advancement which works with its board-game roots. Rolemaster has a little of that with stats gains. Players have a base and a potential to their characteristics. When they level they can check to see if those increase.

Most gamers grok and/or have played level-based systems. Usually those tie advancement to experience points. I used to dismiss level-base games, mostly because I hated the XP mechanics. Rolemaster had a set of guidelines ripe for abuse. I played it a lot in high school so you can imagine we abused the letter of the law. But I’ve come to appreciate the way levels can set benchmarks. Many new games use levels in different ways. For example, Mutants and Masterminds hybridizes the points and levels. Your level acts as a limit on power ranks and is determined by your total power points. Rolemaster had a system of development points spent each level on skills. In the core rules players actually plan out their spends a level ahead. We took that mechanic and threw away the concept of experience points. Instead players gained DPs per level and when they spent enough, they advanced.

13th Age offers an incremental approach. PC's level when the GM thinks a significant series of events have occurred. The book suggests a number of combats which take place each level, but I’m not sure I’d follow suggestion. For one thing it doesn’t cover low-combat games. The system allows for incremental advances. Essentially you can slowly accumulate the pieces of your level advancement as you play. It distributes the experience across multiple sessions. That means you don’t have the wait of many games. On the other hand, dilutes that the actual experience of leveling. You don’t get so much new cool stuff- but you do get to increase the many factors (attack bonus, damage dice) based on levels.

13th Age also includes a factor from D&D 3e/4e that I’m not certain about: magic items as a factor of leveling. I’m old fashioned and missed many of d20’s developments. The idea that items or resources could be pinned to levels and advancement didn’t make sense to me. Over time I’ve come to accept it. It assumes a kind of economy of competence- and offers a mechanic for players to enter into a campaign late. More importantly it allows designers to build challenge ratings that actually work. Magic items serve as a wild factor- if you don’t take them into consideration you can’t actually model an effective foe. It still seems a little strange to be narratively- but I can accept it. A 5th level 13th Age character has to have a certain amount of bonus equipment (magical or mudane) to match the challenges of those levels as spelled out in the book.