Thursday, March 3, 2016

Advancement, Experience & Power Levels

I remember in old Rolemaster, you got experience for hits and crits dealt to foes. You got more for hitting higher level enemies. Towards the end of a campaign, we ended up facing an elemental lord- strong and boosted by super-fast healing. Rob calculated how much the foe could take. Then the party took turns going in hasted to take swacks at it and leveling up. So, yes, the usual high school play. 
For today's episode of Play on Target we leave power-leveling to the MMO. But we talk about various kinds of advancement and what they mean to the game play. We open with a 3 to 1 vote against my opinion. 
Once again we don’t get through everything, so here’s 12 more thoughts on the topic:
1. Breaking Up is Hard to Do: In the episode I mention I prefer point-buy systems.  I want players buy or plan to buy things after sessions. That’s a nice ongoing incentive, and something I enjoy as a player. I don’t need big jumps, but I like progress. On the other hand, staggered advances focus on holding off rewards and building anticipation. There’s relief and accomplishment when you hit the next tier. Many games build on that; DCC thrives on it. Some games split the difference. I mention M&M in the episode; it combines points and levels. The same thing happens with 13th Age’s incremental advances. If you use the common Rolemaster variant of doling out development points instead of exp, you’re buying each session, yet still desperate to make it to the next level. (That options would have avoided the exploit mentioned at the start).
2. That’s All?: Players are dirty liars. They will tell you they don’t have enough points. There’s never enough points. Don’t listen to them.
3. Costs Cutters: Getting advancement right’s one of the toughest parts of game design. We’ve played many versions of our homebrew for a decade and a half. I tweak costs each time, trying to connect the kind of game to how fast you advance. The problem is that you have to play a long time to really see the cracks in those systems. I’m always surprised at the results. I’ve had the advantage that a couple of the players have tried radically different approaches to their buys over several campaigns. Do games with limited playtesting test experience systems over the long run?
4. What Level Are These Goofs? If adversaries keep pace with the party, how do you show progress? That’s easy in games with colorful and monstrous foes. The players climb the ladder of opposition. (“Hey, a dragon, I think we just graduated.”). In games with exclusively human foes, the GM has to think harder about those conflicts. It can feel unfair if the opposition keeps raising their skills just like the PCs. It’s even more important to up the stakes, changes the fights, and add new elements in these games.
5. The Price is Right: When we play our homebrews, I hate changing costs in mid-stream. I’ll make small tweaks, but live with my bad design choices for the long haul. So I’m always interested in seeing how point-based systems set costs. I tend to go with flat costs- X always costs Y- it makes things easier. Hero System uses flat costs. Rolemaster does though with diminishing returns for purchases. On the other side, many games have escalating costs. The higher rank you want, the more you have to pay. That incentivizes diversity and probably protects player niches. But it can be frustrating, especially late in a campaign when your next dot, rank, or level of something’s going to take months and months of play. I wish games included different cost tracks: one for standard play, one for short run play, and one for extended campaigns.
6. I Get His Stuff: We probably need to do a whole episode on loot and the associated power curve. GMs can use stuff as a substitute for XP, but that can get out of hand. Interestingly the genre I’ve seen this most affect isn’t fantasy. It’s Cyberpunk. High-dollar smart guns and full-body conversions throw things way out of whack.
7. Uneven Distributions: So does everyone get the same points? I’ve played both ways over the years. I recall long crunch calculations at the end of Rolemaster sessions. I can still hear debates over kill stealing. In particular I remember what Brian mentions about Cyberpunk. We played that for many years with a GM who had a degree of unconscious favoritism. End-game evaluations went against players who didn’t do what the GM had planned or weren’t the lead hero. On the other hand, I’ve seen XP power distributed, with players voting extra points to the star of the session. I think that’s called “fan mail” now. While its cool in theory it can fall into a rut or exclude players who don’t play as flashily. (Keith Stetson pointed this out on G+ a while back). On the other other hand, the flat XP distribution I use has some problems. For one thing, it’s anti-capitalist and de-incentivizes active play. Why should players make an effort if they know they’re all going to get the same number of points? Note: I’ve never actually seen this happen at the table, but it could…I suppose…?
8. This is the Most Important Stat: If I know a player’s saving up for something, I dangle baubles in front of them. “Here’s another good talent, you could also buy this, remember last time when you wished you had X skills.” I instill a doubt in them. Even though my players know I do this and I cackle maniacally as I put forth shiny new options, but they still go for it from time to time. There’s nothing better than the moment when you say, “Well, if you’d bought X like you were planning to…”.
9. From Zero to Hero: If a game has levels, I want to know how significantly power shifts as it goes along. Does it feel gradual or have we suddenly flipped a switch? One detail I love from 13th Age: the division of levels into three tiers (Adventurer, Heroic, and Epic). The system tunes power steps to those shifts. You can tell when you make that transition. The power and effectiveness increase significantly. On the other hand, when I’ve run Mutants & Masterminds, it sneaks up on me. We’ll be cruising along and then suddenly the players are taking down city blocks. That’s interesting because normally I associate point-spend games with a flatter power curve.
10. Running CoC with FASERIP: If you’re starting low/weak, think about what you want to get from that. And vice versa. Make sure your starting power level fits with your imagined thematic. Some games handle some types of play better than others- for example many superhero games (DC Heroes, M&M) feel wonky at lower levels. On the other hand, IMHO, GURPS breaks down at the higher levels. But beyond the system, that competency says something. I wouldn’t do a Funnel with Fate, and I wouldn’t do Pulp High Adventure with DCC.
11. Tech Trees: Interestingly, though the power increases as players go up in levels in 13th Age, the range of options doesn’t necessarily get larger. I mean you have access to new feat levels, but these often act as bonuses to previous powers. Most of the classes seem to have a pyramid, which more lower-tier things to pick from. That makes sense in a couple of ways. First, the majority of games will operate in those lower levels. By making those rich, you support the most common play range. Second, rather than creating everything as new effects, the system adds depth to existing picks. The players already know and have figured out how to use these powers. Now at higher level they have a better sense of how they’d want to tweak that. If a particular talent has become the center of your repertoire, you don’t have to ditch it in favor of something higher level. Instead you increase its power.
12. Do We Need Advancement? In HeroQuest 2e Robin Laws talks about the weirdness of characters learning more stuff and getting stronger. There’s an argument to be made that dramatic characters begin with competency and pit that against variable situations. Rather than learning new stuff, they leverage their existing abilities. I suspect that thinking’s behind fate’s milestone approach. But I like stuff. I really like it. I love planning and buying for my characters. I am a slave to the pellet dispenser of XP.
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