Chad Perrin: SOB

18 June 2008

Character Progression Systems in RPGs

Filed under: RPG — apotheon @ 03:01

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.

Unreality

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?

Metagaming

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.

Nonlinearality

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.

Respectability

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.

7 Comments

  1. Progress isn’t about respectability nor is it a crutch. It’s not even about power. Progress is simply about progress – something of intrinsic value to most people. You don’t need a reason to value progress, it just does.

    You also missed out on the fact that the power level treadmill nullifies any meaningful progress. In some computer games it’s especially bad because the same NPC will magically have the same power level as you possess, no matter what you do. Sometimes the NPC has a different name, which of course makes no difference.

    The more intelligent the player is, the more they’ll abstract NPCs into categories, thus the more repetitious and boring they’ll find the whole combat experience. You can only have novel combat experiences if the NPCs are genuinely different or if there is genuine advancement against the NPCs.

    Finally, another drawback of most linear advancement systems is they make combat more and more predictable as you advance. Combat becomes ever safer and ever more meaningless. The standard deviation of 10d10 is a lot smaller than 1d10. Combat actions average out a lot more quickly.

    Comment by Rick — 23 June 2008 @ 02:13

  2. Good article. Very insightful.

    Comment by Shackleton — 23 June 2008 @ 02:27

  3. Rick:

    Progress isn’t about respectability nor is it a crutch. It’s not even about power. Progress is simply about progress – something of intrinsic value to most people. You don’t need a reason to value progress, it just does.

    You’re mixing up player psychology here (the intrinsic value for progress) with the actual topic of my essay (the reason we include progress systems in RPGs). The valuation of progress for its own sake may well be some of the reason behind our assignment of some sense of respectability to an RPG system — but it isn’t all the reason for it, and it doesn’t change the fact that what people consciously think about when comparing a Mary Sue story with an RPG tends to involve things like “Would I admit to other people that I was involved in this Mary Sue story?”

    You also missed out on the fact that the power level treadmill nullifies any meaningful progress. In some computer games it’s especially bad because the same NPC will magically have the same power level as you possess, no matter what you do. Sometimes the NPC has a different name, which of course makes no difference.

    That’s something good to bring up, and I did neglect it when I wrote the essay, but it doesn’t really alter any of my major points particularly. It may reinforce them, though.

    The more intelligent the player is, the more they’ll abstract NPCs into categories, thus the more repetitious and boring they’ll find the whole combat experience. You can only have novel combat experiences if the NPCs are genuinely different or if there is genuine advancement against the NPCs.

    This is actually another example of what a superhero-based game brings to the experience that a linearly progressive fantasy game neglects: variety as opposed to simple numerical advancement. 3E actually did introduce slightly more variety on the part of PCs and NPCs by way of feats and certain classes’ higher level special abilities, but it didn’t improve very much in that regard, and it largely neglected to do the same for monsters. Eventually, advancement of the power level of monsters tends to look like nothing more than a bundle of numbers with more zeros after them than the previous bundles of numbers. A superhero game, meanwhile, pretty much demands greater variety — you are challenged by variety, by enemies with very different capabilities and motivations than the previous enemies.

    This is, in fact, similar in some ways to what I’ve always liked best about the most enjoyable D&D games in the past: they focused more on challenging circumstances and interaction than simply numerically challenging foes in combat. City-based encounters that hinged on social interactions, that required quick thinking to avoid suddenly being outnumbered and outgunned (so to speak), and that otherwise challenged the mind more than the dice (without involving insipid improbabilities like arbitrary trap-and-puzzle challenges) were among the best. Outside of the city, the most interesting challenges involved long-term pursuit, sweeping changes to the gameworld such as the strategy of war, political imbroglios, and dealing with new cultures and new organizations whose motivations might be new to the PCs made for more interesting gaming than simple random encounters and monster lairs.

    It was continuity and variety that made such games successful, in my estimation, rather than the hazards of a linear progression system — which is exactly the sort of “progression” of challenges to which a superhero game lends itself. I wish I had managed to make some of this more explicit in the original essay.

    Of course, you talk about NPCs advancing along with the PCs so that nothing really changes except how many dice are being rolled and the scale at which the same outcomes are decicded. The problem with not advancing individual NPCs, however, is that it starts looking unreal again. Why would NPCs fail to ever do anything that improves their abilities while PCs are going around gaining levels hand over fist? This becomes especially troublesome from the perspective of suspension of disbelief for the more intelligent players (which tend to be the players I deal with most) when a given recurring villain’s motivations are related to raw, naked power lust, but the NPC never gains any power, even while the PCs climb quickly in power. How does one explain that away?

    As such, you’re essentially forced into a treadmill-like approach to dealing with power progression, even when using recurring characters. The unreality and eventual dullness of a linear progression system is self-reinforcing.

    Finally, another drawback of most linear advancement systems is they make combat more and more predictable as you advance. Combat becomes ever safer and ever more meaningless. The standard deviation of 10d10 is a lot smaller than 1d10. Combat actions average out a lot more quickly.

    True. I spend a lot of time thinking about the statistical effects of game systems (as I’ll surely address in the future, particularly with respect to attack success chances and critical hits and misses), and this is one effect I’ve considered — the fact that, with more dice in the roll and more rolls necessary over the course of a single combat, the variability of results are reduced, and the results more predictable. The more six-sided dice you roll — to make the point simply — the closer the average will be to 3.5, assuming unweighted dice.

    Thanks for commenting, and welcome to SOB.

    Shackleton:

    Thanks. I appreciate the compliment. I notice you posted something at your own Weblog that references this, and I’ll go read it at some point today.

    Comment by apotheon — 23 June 2008 @ 09:44

  4. Thank you for the very good response. But on this point

    > You’re mixing up player psychology here (the intrinsic value for progress) with the actual topic of my essay (the reason we include progress systems in RPGs).

    you seem to be hairsplitting mightily. With respect to the crutch appelation, it isn’t a crutch to give players what they want. With respect to respectability, it seems to me that adding progress widens the appeal which widens the potential pool of players so that you can actually play role-playing games socially. There doesn’t seem to be that many Mary Sue writers out there, not nearly as many as RPG gamers. But it’s not the wider appeal per se that lends RPGs their respectability. It’s the fact they’re a social activity. Mary Sues are to RPGs what masturbation is to sex.

    Comment by Rick — 23 June 2008 @ 02:15

  5. you seem to be hairsplitting mightily.

    No — I’m pointing out the difference between what I was talking about and what you said.

    With respect to the crutch appelation, it isn’t a crutch to give players what they want.

    Um . . . if what you want is a crutch, it’s a crutch. I’m not talking about crutches for the GM in the form of “giving players what they want”. I think you’re having difficulty seeing the perspective of the essay. Maybe I didn’t do a good enough job of making its perspective clear, or maybe you’re so locked into a particular perspective that you’re not willing to see the alternative perspective. Either way, there’s a perspective you’re not seeing.

    With respect to respectability, it seems to me that adding progress widens the appeal which widens the potential pool of players so that you can actually play role-playing games socially.

    . . . which is why a sense of respectability for the game is important.

    There doesn’t seem to be that many Mary Sue writers out there, not nearly as many as RPG gamers.

    In my experience, you’re very wrong. Mary Sue writers are fucking everywhere. I’m dismayed by how many of them are actually published by major publishing houses, in fact.

    But it’s not the wider appeal per se that lends RPGs their respectability.

    No, it’s not — but the air of respectability contributes to wider appeal. I have no idea where you get the notion that I was saying that “wider appeal” lends RPGs “respectability”. That’s not what I said at all.

    Comment by apotheon — 23 June 2008 @ 02:46

  6. […] Character Progression Systems in RPGs, I discussed some of the problems with a linearly quantified system of power progression in […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » Character Progression in Elements Eight — 23 June 2008 @ 05:02

  7. I always thought that the perfect RPG would reward characters with things that were outside combat… fame, recognition, glory, castles etc. These are more rewarding than statistical bonuses, I think.. but it’s very hard to model!

    Thanks very much for the comment, which I read with great interest :)

    Comment by Shackleton — 23 June 2008 @ 07:51

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