Thursday, February 17, 2011


There are two things I’m musing about today. The first is people hunting dinosaurs with guns…that’s going to be its own post. The second is an adequate development system for characters in a Fantasy-Punk RPG.

As in, “character development,” as opposed to advancement. I’m tired of the term “advancement.” Characters can develop in a number of ways, including “in-game effectiveness” without necessarily becoming “advanced.”

For example, in a world where characters are members of a freelance covert ops team doing black ops missions for competing corporations (and others able to pay their bill), there are a number of ways characters can develop (good and bad):

  • Karmic Development: Doing good things reaps good returns and bad things the opposite.
  • Reputation: Success and integrity (“professionalism”) increase rep; screwing up and hosing your buddies wreck it.
  • Experience: Skills and abilities develop with practice, but age and fatigue build up as well.
  • Relationships: These can be built or burned over the course of a career.

One thing that’s always semi-disgusted me with certain RPGs (like D20, though there are many) is the one-way development of characters: it only goes up. Characters get better and better only facing penalties as/if applied by a GM.

For example:

  • D20 provides no “karma” penalties to dice rolls based on prior actions.
  • A poor “reputation” has no required effect on reaction/skill rolls except as applied by GMs (perhaps as a “circumstance” bonus)
  • Experience points only go up unless characters on subjected to permanent energy drain; aging penalties are only enforced if GMs keep a strict record of “campaign time,” and generally won’t affect most demihuman races in a “human scaled” campaign
  • With regard to relationships…well, there’s always another adventure right? Always another meet in the local tavern and a tale of treasure and danger to pursue. Otherwise, there’s no game, yeah?

Again, GMs can certainly create their own house-rulings on this issue (“Your Chaotic Evil character is no longer allowed in the campaign as he’s created too many problems.”) but many times, GMs will attempt to find a way to justify the PC continuing to adventure as if nothing has happened. Only a failed save or reduction of hit points is going to end a character’s adventuring career, never blacklisting or fatigue or their “sins catching up with them.”

Personally, I’m tired of it. Stagnation and “player/GM burnout” are the outcomes I’d expect with a one-way advancement scheme.

I suppose you can keep your game fresh by continuously adding new game content (tied to advancing to new levels or purchasing new source books or whatnot). But it seems (to me) to be more elegant to include the balancing act, the tension, in the game rules.

Look at Call of Cthulhu. Yes, you have a constant upwards trend of character effectiveness (skill percentages only go up)…but you also have a downward spiral of Sanity. AND that sanity is inversely tied to one of the most useful skills I the game (“Cthulhu Mythos Knowledge”), which ensures the better your investigator gets at investigating, the more likely he is to end up in an asylum, gibbering and drooling.

In the past, my Shadowrun “campaigns” never lasted very long as characters generally went one of two ways: cybered to the hilt (the money sink) or magicked to the max (the karma sink). Either way, it was just “play until play gets boring because all the players are ultra-effective” and then FINITO. Great…so much for entertainment "limited only by one’s imagination."

But maybe my imagination IS limited. Or maybe players’ attention spans are too limited these days to care (“we only play for a year and it takes us two months of sessions to get through a single mission anyway”) and it’s effectively a non-issue. Fine and dandy; I have had my bouts with “gamer ADD,” myself.

However, I still think it is more interesting to look at character DEVELOPMENT over time rather than character ADVANCEMENT. And while some games may be better as one-way development trains (my space opera game only differentiates between “slow” and “fast” development in Old School style…reward the good game play, baby), I feel that any game with a dystopian setting (say, any game with the term “punk” in the theme or title) should have the possibility of two-way development (positive AND negative).

Just what I’m thinking. Today, anyway.

[***actually, this is just what I was thinking about two weeks ago...I wrote this February 3rd and never posted it (nor did I get to the "dino-hunting" post). Since that time, I've accounted for 21+ pages of the new 64 page game, and it DOES incorporate most of these "development aspects" in its design...all four plus a fifth, in fact. However, the "negative development" is definitely "toned down" compared to my earlier fact, there are no rules (currently) for decrepitude or age...though they might not be a totally bad idea to work in somehow!***]


  1. There's a story from 2000AD called "Flesh", which is about cowboys going back in time to hunt dinosaurs for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in The Future™.

  2. I'd also add development of resources, which was perhaps left off of your list since loot is something we've had in rpgs since... well, forever! ;>

  3. re: Reputation. I don't know if it's the sort of thing you're after, but you might look at Hackmaster's Honor mechanic.

  4. Re: Ageing - you could always speed up campaign time ala Pendragon - perhaps not to the extent of one adventure per year, but at least understanding that the seasons for raiding and pillaging are limited by the weather for large parts of the year in most faux-Medieval Europe games, and by tying higher level characters to offices and commitments - teaching at the Academy of X, vassal duty to Lord Y, solitary monasticism, family, business, farm, etc.

    Not only do you get the chance to age your PCs, but those kind of ties also mean that reputation and honor, or however you conceptualise (mechanise, even?) that aspect of character development, will start to have very real consequences.

  5. Well, there are games out there that truly reward development. WOD is one that makes character growth a key element in how the story goes- but up AND down. Things like reputation and morality are pretty important also, and give players things to keep in mind at many turns (if not all).

    SR is a weird game in that I never had the sense that it was meant for long term playing- because if you do it right, no one ever sees you do anything and you only gain rep that you self-generate by way of non-denial. (See Neal Caffrey in White Collar for a prime example of this.) being invisible is really hard to get a whole GROUP of guys/gals to do, it really is.