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.