advancement

Oh advancement systems how we love you in the RPG world. By “we” here I mean you, and maybe not you specifically. Personally, I dislike them a great deal.

The problem with character advancement is that opposition either scales with character advancement or it doesn’t.

When opposition scales with you, the best advancement systems have the following features:

  • The range of options available to the player increases
  • The range of options available to the ref increases
  • New chapters of the monster manual are brought to the front — you are revealing new pictures of new opposition

For myself, the first two of those are not appealing to me. I don’t want my game to get more complicated as I play it. I’m not saying you’re bad, stupid, or evil if you like it, but let’s acknowledge that it’s a very important design choice that people are going to react to differently.

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A possible hero to me without being a secret fireball-throwing wizard.

Especially as ref, new complexity can feed my anxiety and lead to me violating the rules. There’s no way I’m managing a spell list for a high level dragon and deciding what they do from round to round as though I was playing my wizard character. At least in part because this dragon is probably going to die soon and there’s another complicated monster in the next room.

As a player I can cope, especially if there’s a type of character that doesn’t change much in complexity. If my fighter has increasing bonuses to scale with the baddies but not a lot of tactical choices that increase over levels, I’ll probably play the fighter and not the sorceror.

Revealing new parts of the monster manual is valuable: changing up the nature of opposition is cool. And the implication that these increasingly powerful monsters imply increasingly existential threats to the low level societies I am protecting is pretty cool. But this is a very specific kind of story arc and not one I want to play every time I sit down. And, frankly, not one I have the patience to work through from zero to hero. It’s just not for me. I’d rather start where the fun is, wherever that is for me today.

Everything else is basically the same except the numbers are bigger, and this can get to feel pointless, especially if the monster manual is weak. If the gnolls just keep getting bigger and better at magic then I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere interesting. I’m just doing more damage against larger hit point pools.

If the system doesn’t scale opposition (like an asymmetrical system where the opposition model doesn’t change or where the opposition isn’t really modelled at all) then something very different happens: you just get more successful. Now I actually find that pretty interesting as long as it happens slowly and as long as failure is rich — the whole tone of the game should change over time. But it has a cap and not a very well defined one: at some point there are no challenges any more and that’s an unsatisfying way to end a story. It might make an amusing allegory once. Just once.

Again these are matters of personal taste. I know there are people (because I was one) who get a rush from advancing. Accruing enough points to ring the bell and get a new power is intrinsically satisfying regardless of its relationship to the story (and sadly there often isn’t one — maybe I’d be keener if something happened in the fiction to explain and explore my sudden leap in ability). But this makes it a mode of play, not a necessary feature of play. I like playing cards for money but it doesn’t mean that money needs to be on the table for every card game.

This is why advancement figures weakly if at all in my games: it doesn’t sing to me. It’s important that there are games that have it because it sings to a lot of people. But it’s important to have games that don’t as well, because that thrill of improvement ties a reward to the accrual of experiences that help you advance, which can distract you from the fact that sometimes these things are abhorrent and rewarding them should be questionable. When the thrill comes from this reward, this advancement, questioning the underpinnings of the idea of rewarding murder and robbery (for example) is uncomfortable and unproductive. I think we need to play without mechanical reward for a while to get a grip on what kinds of things we love in a story that aren’t murder and robbery. Maybe that leads us to games that reward different things and in different ways. And sometimes we find that it’s fine that that changes from session to session, and maybe advancement as a reward isn’t always necessary.

And sometimes, for sure, we want to ring that bell as we stand on the corpse of a wizard-dragon that took hours of smart choices to slay. But not always. And, for me, not even mostly.

Postscript

I wanted to talk a little about heroism but I forgot to. I don’t think a hero should be defined by their capabilities. I mean they can be, but it feels insufficient — even Superman is a hero for reasons far beyond being crazy strong and largely invulnerable. Powers enable hero or villain. A hero to me is about how someone responds to adversity — about the choices they make when the choices are hard. So “heroic” gaming to me is gaming within a context where its’ not obvious what the right thing to do is and, most importantly, where you’re celebrated when you make a great choice. People treat you like a hero when you’re heroic. Scale of conflict is not strictly relevant, though it’s a cheap way to get action that could resolve heroically.

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