This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
As I already mentioned, there are some problems with a linearly quantified damage and injury system like hit points. A linearly quantified, level-based character development system has its problems, too.
First, there’s the obvious problem of unreality. It lends itself to a wholly unrealistic means of resolving conflict between individuals of differing levels of experience. Consider, for instance, two people in a modern style of RPG, both armed with .45 caliber Colt 1911 handguns. One is first level, and the other is 12th level.
Using D&D-like rules with Fighter-like base attack bonus progression, the first level character needs to roll a 20 to hit the 12th level character, while the 12th level character only needs to roll a 9 to hit the first level character, assuming they both have the same armor class. The same kind of imbalance applies to saves and skill checks. While it certainly makes sense to give characters a way to develop, to advance and improve, the kind of linear advancement that occurs in a game like D&D becomes quickly ridiculous from a realism perspective.
The only way to cover over that as a GM, of course, is to make sure the PCs never encounter any enemy that is too low a level. At the other end of things, you need to make sure that PCs never encounter any enemy that is too high a level, either — or the PCs will die. Unless you have some built-in explanation for why the encounters in your campaign world get progressively more dangerous for the average human being all the time, though, that creates yet another unreality issue. Why would everything a group of characters meet miraculously end up being within a particular range of nearness to the power level of the group?
Second, it creates an inherent metagaming motivation to make the character more powerful as quickly as possible. In other words, it creates out-of-character explanations for in-character behavior. There will probably be a little metagaming motivation in every enjoyable RPG campaign you play, of course, such as the ever present motivation you have to make your character get along with other PCs, but there are reasonable (and hard to define, heuristic) limits to how much metagaming motivation there should be in a game.
Linear character development systems drive a player to make his or her character progress as quickly as possible. I suppose, in some respects, that’s the “game” aspect of “roleplaying games”. It can become sort of a competitor for the player’s attention, however, against the roleplaying experience itself. It’s my experience that some of the best roleplaying occurs when character advancement is the last thing on my mind — when the character development that most holds my attention is psychological and social development, rather than power progression. A game system that tends to motivate players to pursue power progression first and foremost can really get in the way of that.
It’s habit-forming — and the fact that MMORPGs are only more advancement-oriented and less conducive to psychological and social character development than real RPGs like D&D, Pathfinder, and the World of Darkness games only serves to underscore that point.
Of course, it’s difficult to design a roleplaying game that people will want to play for long while remaining as open-ended as most traditional style RPGs (as opposed to having a set plot path like a Choose Your Own Adventure book) without including some kind of character power progression system. Many RPGs use a less linear system — where, instead of everything (or nearly everything) progressing in a singular linear fashion, differing aspects of character power progress or not in a somewhat parallel fashion.
In such systems, one might spend experience points to increase skills individually, to improve attributes, to add benefits and buy off flaws. Points are spread around to improve various characteristics individually, rather than all being poured into a single bucket and the level measured to determine what level of advancement all your characteristics together might receive. To some degree, this alleviates the unreality problem of a linear character development system. It might even mitigate some of the metagaming problem — but generally not by much. There’s still going to be some of that inherent metagaming motivation.
Of course, if the primary level of power for a character is static, that eliminates pretty much all the inherent issues with linear character development systems.
Static Power Level
If nothing on the character sheet advances, something intangible and difficult to describe or even identify is lost. When the system provides no mechanism for any quantified power advancement at all, something goes flat. Trust me, I’ve tried it. When power progression is forgotten, it can make for some of the best gaming you’ve ever had — but when it’s prohibited, it can make for some of the worst.
There’s exactly one type of RPG I’ve played that manages to basically solve the problem, and that’s superhero RPGs, like GURPS Supers and the old Marvel Superheroes game of the early ’90s. I haven’t played some of the other superhero games like Mutants & Masterminds or the Hero system, but I imagine they probably get pretty close to solving this problem too.
The secret of such successes is that the primary power level of a character in these games can be effectively static without hurting the game at all. You can spend experience points to increase skills, of course, but you don’t need to worry about that too much — because that’s not your main power level. As a result, it doesn’t need to progress quickly. It just has to progress barely enough to give you a sense that your character is progressing. That’s it.
You don’t have to fight creatures that improve in power level with you to present novel challenges, either. You can always just encounter enemies who have different strengths than you have. The very specific, limited range of a given power can in and of itself provide all the challenge you need, so that even an enemy who seems considerably weaker than you in some way can still present a very real challenge. Pit an enemy’s strength against a PC’s weaknesses, and it doesn’t have to matter if that strength only has about 10% the impressive power of the PC’s main strength.
It seems that a significant part of the reason that a traditional RPG needs a power progression system of some kind is respectability. An RPG seems a bit like some kind of mental masturbation, like what you encounter when someone writes a Mary Sue story, when it lacks the major quantified system properties of a traditional roleplaying game like D&D. All those point system details lend an air of respectability to the game.
Maybe it’s mostly a mental crutch, and I generally pride myself on my resistance to the need of mental crutches, but this one’s pretty damned tempting. I’ll lean on it — but it’s always nice if there’s some way to do so without incurring the problems generally inherent in linear character development systems.
Screw all that.
Still . . . I enjoy playing D&D and Pathfinder. I’ll keep playing them. Sometimes, I just have to forget all that high-minded nonsense and have fun.
On the other hand, sometimes I miss having a good superhero game to play. There’s just something about the way it feels to play a game whose core premise makes it so easy to avoid the problems of linear character development systems.