Character Advancement?

Since MK’s post about playing the beginning of a game, but not staying in for a long haul, she and I have talked a lot about character advancement. Character advancement is an oddity of game design. It’s something I thought about a lot when designing my own game — and I still wasn’t satisfied with the answers I came up with. Ultimately — PCs in a game, ideally, start off at approximately the same, somewhat balanced, power level and then — assuming a steady rate of play and attending all sessions, progress at a specified rate. Now, as I already mentioned I don’t have an answer yet for the questions I’m about to ask, but I do have questions about what exactly character advancement is modeling.

Overall, I see three types of advancement in games.

1. Class and Level systems — such as D&D and Pathfinder. You earn a set number of experience points, you go up in level. In some games — like Pathfinder and Saga system, you can mix and match character classes when you gain each level, but ultimately, the game works better if PCs advance at a standard rate.

2. Point Buy style systems — like World of Darkness and Shadowrun. You earn the game’s version of XP and you spend this pool of points on advancing stats according to a formula worked out to balance such spending.

3. Advance Schemes — like Savage Worlds or Warhammer Fantasy 2nd Edition. Almost a hybrid of the two systems above, you gain experience points (whatever the game calls them) but instead of spending these on a 1 for 1 basis like Point Buy, you save these up until you reach a certain threshold, (for example in SW you need to earn 5 XP) and then you earn an advance — which may be spent on something specific in the game — like raising a stat or buying an edge.

I’ve seen one other type I like, but I’ll come back to that in a minute. I have two problems with this kind of modeling in game. The first is that it seems that in most RPGs, since things like training and “downtime” are ignored, characters advance at a ridiculously accelerated rate. A PC in Savage Worlds could go from Novice to Veteran in a fairly short amount of in-game time. The second issue is the way that characters all advance at exactly the same rate. Barring a PC who misses sessions a lot, most games everyone is going to earn roughly the same XP. While I realize that this method makes for better balance and fairness at the table, it doesn’t seem to model the fiction we base our games on very well.

Fast advancement is an issue in many games because a PC who starts off as a 17 year old farm boy can become a Jedi Knight in, well, a few months of heavy adventuring (game time). It took Luke Skywalker years of adventuring to get to that point. And I don’t think he was adventuring any less than the typical PC. Now, technically, a Game Master can pull the same trick as Lucas and simply say — “6 months have passed since the last session.” For most groups though, that doesn’t fly real well. After all, what kept them inactive for six months, what did they do, why weren’t they training if they were in down-time? Lots and lots of questions to answer. Ultimately, I don’t feel that this is a problem as much as an oddity.

Look at super heroes. Mutants and Masterminds 2E, in the Mastermind’s Manual, offered advice on creating characters and allowing them to be built to whatever spec the player wanted — from the beginning — and then not really advancing much as the game goes on. Because superheroes just don’t often grow that much more powerful, that often. I was reading my old D&D 2E DMG last night and it has a whole section devoted to using time requirements on leveling (and manipulating these requirements) to help PCs who don’t always adventure together balance their leveling. It’s interesting to see the little places in gaming where this type of thinking slips in.

The other issue — equal advancement — suffers from what I call — the Buffy Problem. What I mean by that is, if you take the Buffy show as an extended campaign and compare characters across the seasons, an interesting thing happens. Buffy grows more powerful (considerably). Willow spends a double bucket ton of XP. Angel gets better (though you see more evidence of this once he has his spin-off). Giles improves in interesting ways — but mostly, he seems to adjust his points, shifting resources, contacts and responsibilities — more than actually gaining anything (though this is also a bit of an exception since you assume he started off with more points than the girls). Then you have Xander and Anya. Anya loses a lot of points when she loses her demon status and powers — and she never really seems to get any points back. She never really gets “better.” Same with Xander. Yes, he does learn a profession — and gains mundane resources — but he can’t nearly have spent the XP the girls have spent. Nowhere close. Except — he’s there for every adventure, just like them. If this were a game (and, well, there is one) and even just the three main cast members were the party, then Xander’s player is just sitting on unspent XP. A lot of it. This happens in other fictions as well, but Buffy makes the point pretty clearly.

Now, as for those other advancement systems. Well, Amber DRPG does an interesting thing in that PCs don’t actually know how much XP they earn at any given advancement. They make wish-lists for the GM as to what they’d like to do with their XP and whether or not they are willing to accept negative points to buy those improvements. This is fairly profound, because having a positive surplus of points or a negative one in Amber DRPG is actually a game mechanic (Good Stuff or Bad Stuff) which plays the role of “luck” for PCs. So old Xander, in an Amber game, would be one lucky guy — cause he’s just sitting on a bundle of unspent experience. And Willow, well, she suffers and goes through weird stuff because she’s been willing to “go negative” for power. It’s a pretty handy mechanic for a diceless RPG, and explains a lot about why you’d want to save some of your XP.

The old Star Wars D6 system has a similar idea in its XP system. Since you can spend character points in play to modify die rolls, and these same points are also your Experience points, you are kind of managing your “luck” by deciding when to spend points on rolls and when to save up to just raise that skill. As a player, I actually found it so frustrating to watch XP disappear on modifying die rolls that I separated XP and CP when I ran Star Wars myself.

Chaosium’s system is also unique in that it doesn’t use any form of experience points — you raise skills either by training or by using them in ways that push you to be better — earning an opportunity to raise skills used this way after sessions are over. It’s a very clever mechanic and I like it a lot. But I’m running long enough here that I think I’ll leave discussing that until another time… I guess my point in this little exploration is mostly to ask questions?

How do you manage XP in your games?
Would you play in a game with very slow or no “advancement”?
Would your answer change if you got to make a more experienced PC from the beginning?
Do you do anything in game to slow down PC advancement in terms of the game world?
Am I the only one thinking too much about this?

Thanks for reading.


8 responses

  1. How do you manage XP in your games?

    I run Pathfinder so we are currently handling the “normal” advancement table. For the current campaign, I make a determination as to how much time a module will take and also add an upkeep time to it as well. For example, if I know that if the PC’s have to travel to another kingdom that takes 1 month of regular horseback riding, then the module will be at least 2 months (1 month there and back). Then I always add half the module time for upkeep duties (buying equipment, upgrading magic items, research, profession checks, etc.) so now my module is 3 months. If I know that the PC’s have a lot to do in that other location such as a major dungeon crawl, I’ll add maybe another month, so now my time is up to 4.5 months (3 months for module and 1.5 months for upkeep time).

    For my players, this system works for us because it’s similar to how we borrowed it from the RPGA from Living Greyhawk when characters used time units in one week increments. If you gamed in your “home” region, the module cost you 1 week, if outside your home region, it was 2 weeks. If you did other stuff, you had a total of 52 units and if you used them up, you had to play a different character until LG started its new year.

    What made this work for me is that it was really easy to tell the players upfront the module time and that translated easily into upkeep costs, training time to be set aside, profession checks, merc costs to bring on the adventure, etc.

    It also dealt with the issue somewhat of the 17 year-old farmboy becoming the Jedi Master in 2 months. Right now, because of this system in place, almost three years has passed and the characters have recently made 9th level. The campaign is projected to end around 15th level, so likely to be another 3 years. I can deal with a 17 – 23 years old in a rpg setting for power scale. For someone who needs a more realistic campaign of time management, Mouseguard and Pendragon have rules for slower progressions or adventures that take a lot of time.

    Would you play in a game with very slow or no “advancement”?

    Not really unless it’s a one-shot. The games I play have levels or point buys so I expect my character to earn them, advance, and then retire or go down in flames. Being 4th level for eight months of physical time is boring in my opinion.

    Would your answer change if you got to make a more experienced PC from the beginning?

    Not really.

    Do you do anything in game to slow down PC advancement in terms of the game world?

    The system I outlined above is what I’m currently using to slow down game time, but not advancement.

    Am I the only one thinking too much about this?


  2. Good questions.

    I like to keep houseruling to an absolute minimum, if possible, largely in part because I feel that the system directly influences the feel and flow of a game.

    If something feels out of alignment with ‘how things should be’ in a game system, I do my best to ascertain from what perspective the rule or guideline was written before I alter it.

    Like you, I have a really strong appreciation for Chaosium’s stochastic experience/advancement system and when I do feel compelled to houserule experience in a game, it is always my first thought.

    At the moment, I am running a Palladium Fantasy game and returning to the days of specific experience rewards for specific actions to hit a specific target for level advancement whereat all skills advance feels stranger than I expected after years of point-buy experience, or limited-run campaigns at clearly delineated, primarily static ability levels. Strange, but strangely refreshing as well.

    I think dealing with things like this is to help players break the bias produced in part by some video game advancement systems (where you instantly advance to the next level no matter what is happening in the game) and have some things require downtime for training. For purely physical skills, you may not always feel compelled to require downtime – the skills are being practiced through the process of adventuring itself. Sometimes, such as when that physical skill is going to undergo a significant alteration or improvement, you might require time for training.

    For academic skills, I tend to find the reverse. Training time is assumed to be necessary, unless the adventure specifically addressed it repeatedly and required application and discovery rather than rote memory.

    Rules for this sort of thing tend to be implied, not explicit, and really only in Chaosium’s system do you see a mechanic that reflects it (in my opinion) although it doesn’t come out and say that that is what it is doing.

    I tend to manage experience according to the system presented in the game with an eye toward what the experience points are meant to reflect, and what the “levels” themselves are supposed to reflect.

    I have no problem playing in a game with slow or no advancement as long as it was made explicit that it would be that way, and the characters were all designed with a specific ability level in mind and allowed for reasonable chances for success/failure within the framework of the setting and genre. I would expect to fail a lot if I were playing Teen: The Whining, but expect a high rate of success when playing Short Order: The Cooking. I would probably be most comfortable if the character creation process produced characters which feel like they are competent at what they do, not beginners.

    Running an experienced character from the start, reduces the need/desire for improvement – usually. The genre and expected degree of difficulty/failure are significant factors, however. In a system which assigns threats based on character level, rather than on what might reasonably be encountered regionally, situationally, or according to the story, then it doesn’t really matter what level you are – it will always feel like Level One.

    Like YongKyosunim, I tend to control the passage of time, and make it very clear rather than concern myself with the rate at which XP are acquired.

    Apparently, you are not the only one thinking about this~

  3. I handle XP pretty much as whatever system I’m running dictates, except for 3.5. Level-based is actually my least favorite way to advance characters, because of the long stretches of nothing about the characters changing, and then a sudden increase in every aspect of the characters’ capabilities. I usually just tell my 3.5 players to assume they have enough XP to level up at the end of every even-numbered game session. Yeah, I run fast 3.5 games.

    I’d be fine in a game with little or no advancement. I actually think systems that are not trying to portray supernatural fantasy shouldn’t have much in the way of advancement. On that note, have you played old Chaosium Call of Cthulhu (from the 80s-90s)? It has really slow advancement that’s based on skills used during the game.

    I don’t deliberately do anything to slow PC advancement. I’ll admit, the rate at which the PCs gain power is usually ridiculous, but arbitrarily slowing it feels just as ridiculous (“And you spend two months doing… things. Gain a level.”).

    I’m thinking about 2nd edition Exalted (which I will probably run at some point). It has hard-coded times for advancement.

  4. I am running a 3rd ed. campaign and a 4th ed. campaign in D&D, and I am using two different approaches to XP.
    In the fourth ed. there simply aren’t any XP, and levels are gained at regular intervals. Usually after some 4 or 5 sessions, when there is a fitting situation in the game.
    In the third ed. campaign the characters are all wizards attending the Great School of Magic. Here XP’s are only gained by attending classes and passing exams. Each semester the PCs have a list of courses, they can attend. Each course lasts a few weeks and ends with a test. Each test is skill check and each course has a Challenge Rating. If succesful all the XPs are gained and if failed only half are gained. Each day spend adventuring prolongs the courses by one day – so optimally the PC’s try to stay away from too much adventuring, but there is always an intrigue catching up with them 🙂
    This system is inspired a little bit by Ars Magica, where you either study and gain study-XPs to buy magical skills with, or you go adventuring and gain adventure-XPs to nuy mundane skills with. In Ars Magica you often skip whole seasons or years as a part of the play and follow the progression of the wizards.

    There is also Mouse Guard (and other Burning Wheel-games), where you need to use a skill a certain amount of times to improve it, but you not only need a certain amounts of successes, you also need a certain amount of failed checks to improve it. (Also failing skill checks in Mouse Guard is handled a bit different, so it ain’t all bad failing them).

    A different approach is The Shadow of Yesterday (or Solar System), where XPs are gained from “Keys”. Each character posses one or more Keys, which represents beliefs, ideals, concepts, which the character adheres to, and when ever a Key enters the game, the player gains XP, and to increase the amount of XP earned, you have the Key create problems for you, e.g. a Key of Friendship – whenever the appointed friend is in the game, you gain 1 XP, whenever you get into trouble because of your friendship, you gain 3 XP etc.
    In other words the players manages their Keys and they make sure, they gain XPs and you as the GM takes manages the plot and the challenges, and it is often quite easy, since the players assist you in creating trouble for their characters. We have had some amazing moments with this system in my group.

  5. Thanks guys — I appreciate the responses. Actually very helpful. Much like Yongkyosunim I tend to make overland travel a big part of most of my games (and tend to clamp down on teleport magic for mostly this reason). I find that creating a sense of travel and movement in a game not only makes “actual time” passing less weird, but it even gives players a sense of time passing.

    One thing I did in an old D&D game — I made all the players tell me when their characters’ birthdays were (on the game calendar) and I recognized those birthdays when they came up. That actually felt pretty neat. I didn’t remember that until last night when I was reading responses. I don’t know why I’ve never tried that again…

    Anyway, thanks for writing. It’s good to know that all these weird thoughts running around in my head are shared…

  6. One of my favourite “advancement” systems was in Pendragon (now published by Chaosium, I believe). The XP rewards were “Glory” awards, which were given for various events. Obtaining a manor house would give you glory. Attending a tournament gave glory. Wooing a fair lady gave glory (if she was not beneath your station). Additionally, there was a fabulous mechanic for role-playing, which set out your “religion” as a set of diametrically opposed traits, for which in any given religion, 5 were considered important, and should be either high (or low) for the individual to be in good religious standing. Your total was evaluated, and if you had a good score, your character had a significant benefit (rather like a feat – but a bit more powerful).

    As an example, (and I am going from memory and probably mixing things up here) a Wotanite would be proud, lusty, honest, brave and generous, whereas a Christian would be humble, chaste, honest, pious and forgiving. Each related act performed in game could move your point score in each trait up or down, and qualify/disqualify you for your religious virtue.

    1. I think that system from Pendragon sounds Awesome. I really like that idea. I’ll have to see if I can borrow a book from any gamer I know and look into that.


  7. you should look up the Dresden Files RPG, they do a fairly interesting trick with XP and power

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