Saturday, September 14, 2013


A couple days back, Anthony was commenting on my Cacodemon post when his brain went into a minor meltdown (I don’t fault him for this, BTW, as this kind of thing tends to happen to me all the time when I start musing and muttering). He wrote:
“On a related note, with regard to age of character, character level, whatever…I feel like I’m tired of levels! And perhaps anything related to character advancement! How about a game where the character you make is the character you make, for the entire time you are playing in said campaign. I mean, if campaigns have a tendency to crash and burn (with those decades-long campaigns being the exception to the rule, and trust me I doubt the veracity of those claims of long-running campaigns), then why not create a character that just advances in abilities, rather than have the seemingly superfluous add-on of an XP system. “I’m not quite sure what I even mean by all of that…maybe it’s related to my growing disdain for roleplaying games as being counting exercises. I’m tired of counting XP!”
 Anthony then goes on to write that he’s still interested in some sort of character development (actually, “development” is my word), that may not be necessarily in the traditional, linear, level-up fashion of D&D.

I understand his frustration. I do, really. It was about…oh…nine or ten years ago that I started writing a fantasy RPG that had an XP system that just went from 1 to 9, with each number representing a different, life-changing experience a character might have. For example, going to war for the first time or being crowned king. There were more than nine possible experiences, but a character was limited to nine…and each experience provided its own individual bonus or change or advantage to the character.

In fact, the milestone mechanic in Five Ancient Kingdoms is the direct descendant of this idea, though it was developed into its current incarnation through my (as yet unpublished) B/X Star Wars game, combining my original idea with the destiny mechanics (I think that’s what they’re called) found in the Star Wars Saga (D20) Edition. You can also see something similar in the old school game Villains & Vigilantes, where every “level up” gives you some mechanical advantage (chosen from a substantial list), in addition to bonus HPs and such. I incorporated something similar to V&V in my Land of Ice campaign setting for B/X.

In developing the milestone concept, both for B/X SW and 5AK, it was suggested to me that I return to my original idea of giving each different ‘stone some sort of related “power up.” There are a couple-few reasons why I rejected the idea:

  1. No matter how hard you try to make the game otherwise, some people are going to see certain associated power-ups as “better” than others. If a character gets a +1 to initiative and attack rolls because they’ve been “blooded in combat” that’s going to be more desirable (in a D&D-style game) than certain other advantages…unless you do the dumb-dumb thing of making ALL the various associated bonuses as being “combat-related” (see Saga Star Wars for that kind of stupidity in game design).
  2. Milestones were developed as a bonus for taking “extra action” outside of the normal loot/slay paradigm (rewarding players who engage the world, i.e. “going above and beyond”) but it wasn’t meant to distract from other adventure-related goals (i.e. finding treasure). At least not in Five Ancient Kingdoms since most Arabic folktales tend to fall into the category of “adventurer looking to get rich.” In B/X Star Wars, it’s a different story (and a topic for a different blog post).
  3. I still like the idea of variable XP totals between player characters as a gauge of “how well” players are doing in the game. I don’t like the idea of everyone “leveling up at the same rate.” Call me a curmudgeon if you like but I’m NOT of the generation where everyone on the little league team gets an award at the end of the year. I like to have comparison and variation and tracking individual “points” does that.

[hmm…this might be a good time to note that I am NOT a fan of the Chaosium/BRP system of development for precisely this reason. I don’t like it anyway because I find it to be too slow, too random, and too dumb (only going up), but placing the emphasis on skill use as the only means of “advancement” makes the whole game about finding ways to use those skills (to meet the reward requirements of the system) rather than exploration of the setting, which would otherwise seem to be the desired objective of the Chaosium game designers]

There’re some other pitfalls, too (which is part of why that experiment nine or ten years ago didn’t fly) but I don’t want to get into ‘em right now.

But as I said, I understand Anthony’s venting. It IS a pain in the ass to track and record XP, and the whole idea of linking not just effectiveness but game content to advancement is kind of shitty. I have a mage that wants to explore the astral plane…sorry, you don’t get access to a suitable spell for 12+ levels (and it takes weeks of play just to go up one level). Maybe your DM will let you find a cubic gate or magic portal in the course of adventuring, but otherwise you’ve got to commit to a few years of constant gameplay to open that content…assuming the group and DM are willing to stick together that long.

And, of course, this doesn’t just apply to magic-users. “My character’s a hero! When do I get to fight a dragon?” When you’re damn good and ready in about eight or ten levels…unless I’m a sadist of a DM. And this is, of course, assuming you find adequate equipment along the way. “But isn’t this Dungeons & Dragons we’re playing?”

It sure is. Which means you get none of that “big kid stuff” for a long, long time.

What folks should understand (and what I’ve tried to explain before) is that there are a lot of parts to the game that were not conceptualized by the designers when they first created the game, they were simply added and added and added IN PLAY to make the game “fun.” And a lot of the things that were added were not very well thought out and have caused all sorts of problems for all sorts of reasons over time.

The XP/level advancement system was NOT present from the get go. Arneson wanted a game of underground exploration and fantasy adventure; THAT was his objective. Napoleonic wargame maneuvers underground against the orcs of Sauron or whatever. It was only after a while of playing that players asked “shouldn’t we be getting better [i.e. more effective] at this exploration thing as we survive?” The objective of finding treasure/gold was ALREADY in place…it was a very small leap of concept to adapt that to leveling up.

And it makes sense…but it makes MORE sense when you consider the original scale. “Gygaxian ecology” wasn’t necessarily in effect from the get go. Who knows what giant piles of treasure were pulled out prior to concepts of scaling and “realistic” or “balanced” treasures? The scale of character advancement was different, too…from a "three level" system based on CHAINMAIL (no-name, Hero, and Superhero) to the level seven to twelve range found in OD&D (which quickly scaled up due to infinity potential, Monty Haul campaigns, and the potential of Odin as an antagonist).

2nd Edition AD&D tried to reinvent the game with a revised XP system, but that was pretty much trying to shut the lid on Pandora’s Box…the game needed a rework from the ground up if you wanted to restructure folks’ assumptions. 3rd Edition DID restructure the game assumptions drastically, by making the game entirely about combat (sure, sure…”overcoming challenges,” but those are mostly fighting monsters especially as PCs advance in level) with rewards (feats, spells, etc.) being related to the same (i.e. combat). 4th Edition was a natural “next step” from what had been introduced in 3rd Edition, even though people hated it.

But I’ve blogged about all this before. You can check out my various posts on advancement and development and Arneson’s Blackmoore, etc. scattered throughout this blog. The question isn’t really what D&D is or isn’t or what we’d like it to be. The question is this: given that you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it?

The question is not intended to be rhetorical and is directed at myself as much as any of my readers. Fact is, folks like advancement (not just development) of character. Arneson’s players asking him, “shouldn’t we be getting better at this?” is pretty solid evidence. I think it’s also safe to say that practical experience in one’s craft (in this case “adventuring”) is worth something…most would assume that the wet-behind-the-ears rookie isn’t as effective as the ten year veteran. But do you want the game to model the progress from rookie to veteran? I only ask because, you know, that’s what it does.

And some would say: “That’s the game.” D&D is about young Turks going into an underground world and looking for treasure, eventually becoming hardened vets. Fantasy Vietnam, right?  This doesn’t contrast too much with traditional folklore and hero tales, most of which combine “coming of age” themes with their tales of valor. The difference is in the effectiveness of the heroes in classic legends. Theseus may be on his first adventure, but he still manages to beat the Minotaur single-handedly (and bereft of armor or magical accoutrements). How many 1st level fighters can claim that?

[yes, I suppose one could say Theseus (in D&D terms) got incredibly lucky with his dice rolls, and it is because of this exceptional encounter that he is remembered as a legendary figure. But his is but one example of many, and don’t you want your characters to have the same “literary probability” of heroic achievement? Or do you want your game to be a crapshoot lottery when it comes to seeing if player characters’ names will be remembered?]

Again, we know what D&D is…maybe it's not the game we want to play. At least, not every day of the week.

Do you like variation and disparity in power levels between player characters? Do you think that “good play” (a whole ‘nother line of design theory) should be rewarded with increased in-game effectiveness? Do you want players to have to “pay their dues” before they can access “the good stuff?”

Think about your own fortitude for this last one: does making folks wait for content make the pay-off all the sweeter? Or does it simply frustrate the hell out of ‘em to the point where they want to play something else? Keep in mind that the DM has to wait, too…no excursions into the deepest bowels of hell when the PCs at your table are all under 4th level!

Personally, I’m not much for delayed gratification. That paradigm of doling out points and content over time may be a frigging godsend to the video game industry – who can turn players’ desire to achieve into a steady supply of subscription cash – but that’s the very thing that turns me OFF of such games. I don’t want to have to play and play and play just to reach a point where my character can ride an f’ing horse! Again, I understand that “that’s the game;” it’s just not the game for me.

SO…given all these thoughts, what do I want to do with my redesigned fantasy game? Do I want characters to begin their adventuring career as Harry Potter or as Elric of Melnibone? I’ve already said I don’t like systems like FATE or FUDGE because they’re not “nailed down” enough for my taste, and I certainly don’t want a point-based system like GURPS or a skill based system like BRP (chargen takes too damn long). I like the specificity and simplicity inherent in a random ability, class/level system…it may just be a matter of scaling the game properly.

I’ve talked about level compression before; I’ve also talked about cutting the “XP needed” by a factor of five or ten. It’s possible to write a game so that a “1st level” character has the same effectiveness as, say, a 4th level character (by adjusting HPs, saves, attack rolls, etc.) and making each step of advancement be the equivalent of going up two or three levels. That’s an easy enough fix.

But it still requires a system for awarding those levels, and that would generally be based on some type of “merited action,” whether we’re talking XP or the clearing of a dungeon level.

What if your character went up one level every time he or she found a stairway down? That might resolve some of the problems with the standard system (counting points, opening content, etc.) though it wouldn’t allow for much variation/discrepancy between characters. It would create an objective of exploration certainly; but it would also undermine the traditional premise of “treasure finding,” Maybe you want that, maybe you don’t.

All right, that’s enough for me to chew on for awhile…hopefully, these musings were useful to Anthony.
; )


  1. Thank you, I'm fatter...uh, flattered to get "my own post." Im sorry if I seemed spaz-tastic the other day. Guess I need to up the meds ; ) Seriously though, I suppose I am frustrated with, as you mention above, having to wait through all those xp points to do the cool, iconic d&d things (i.e. slay the dragon). I think 5AK addressed some things like "exceed number to hit opponent by this much and you kill them" that for me cut through the level limitations crap. I feel liie there has to be a way to perhaps give characters access to stuff normally reserved for higher levels, but it's just riskier to us, etc.

  2. Hmm, I'm very rushed again today, so I read back over my comment and I'm wishing I could be more clear with what I'm trying to say. I really do think there's something to the idea that characters, be they warriors or wizards or other classes in between, have access to a range of abilities, but using them at lower levels is just more dangerous/can have serious repercussions, but these risks are mitigated as they advance in level/skill/whatever. I think this need on my part is based on my current gaming life. I am a busy adult who is tired of sitting through all those levels before I can, uh, slay masses of enemies with a few sword swings, raise the dead, summon demons, etc. This lower-level risk would serve to heighten tension during sessions, I think. This might beg the question, though: what creates tension for higher level characters?

    Hmm, this might be straying into Dungeon World territory...

    I'm sorry if I'm stream of consciousness with all this...brainstorming, if you will. I'm on the cusp of doing my own D&D Mine thing again, but will probably crash and burn once more...

  3. Isn't it possible just to generate higher level characters to begin with? I know the 3rd ed DMG had procedures for this, and so does ACKS. It's just a question of deciding how much equipment and so on people should have by then.

  4. This makes me think of some of the things Dave Hargrave ended up doing with Arduin. He initially had an XP system, but ended up chucking it in favor of advancement by surviving adventures: you go up a level for about every five adventures you survive (it varies from class to class). I think you also go up very slowly as game time passes even if you're not adventuring. This is obviously problematic (what counts as an "adventure," and can you survive one by skulking at the back of the group?), but it simplifies and speeds advancement. Also, since Arduin combat is pretty lethal (nasty critical hits and comparatively few hit points), surviving is not as easy as it might seem.

    This doesn't really address the issue of having to wait for access to the super-cool toys, but Arduin also allows spellcasters to learn and cast any spell they can get access to, with the caveat that casting a spell far above your level will probably kill you and your comrades...

  5. I think Classic D&D did it right. It's going to take you weeks of play to gain a level, long enough to feel at least a little bit natural in a campaign where your character might actually age a few years between levels. There ought

    The modern RPG basically tells you that your characters should gain 1 level per hour, meaning that someone could literally be a lowly peasant, shoveling horse manure one week, and a Balor slaying demi-god the next.

    Here's the thing: To me RPGs are all about player wit + character skill overcoming near-impossible odds. In other words, why can't we throw them a dragon or demon at level 1? Your players deserve the chance to prove themselves. No, I don't necessarily mean they have to kill the dragon, but surely there has to be some reward to sneaking past it, tricking it or stealing something from under its nose.

    Bilbo, I assume to be a level 1 character, did this in the Hobbit, so why must we insist you see only kobolds and giant rats for the first 7 play sessions in D&D?

  6. Ah, you might like 13th Age, then. It has levels (only 10) but no XP tables. Characters improve incrementally through play, and it's the player who decides what part of the character he wants to improve. One might get an additional spell, another a feat, another one hit points, another yet backgrounds bonus. After a number of incremental advances are gained, a "level" is gained.