This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
In Character Progression Systems in RPGs, I discussed some of the problems with a linearly quantified system of power progression in roleplaying games such as D&D. One of the comments that SOB entry received was from someone calling himself Shackleton, who is apparently developing a new game called Elements Eight. I don’t know much about it at this point aside from the fact that it appears to be intended as an alternative to D&D for fantasy roleplaying games.
Since Shackleton is using Blogspot for the Elements Eight development Weblog, and I find the comment interface for Blogspot odious, I’ll just have to post any comments I have (and consider interesting enough to bother sharing with my readers) here. In response to Shackleton’s comments on character progression in Elements Eight: it sounds like an interesting system. I recommend reading that before reading the rest of this. I’m not going to rehash everything he said.
It definitely has the potential to solve some — maybe many — of the problems of a linear power progression system. It seems to have many of the same benefits in that regard as something involving a superhero system where the sort of thing a player can improve with experience points (or whatever your game system calls it) isn’t the primary factor in resolving most conflicts in the game. Namely, it allows for a primary progression mechanic that doesn’t really change the balance of power in the game, in general. Rather than getting better at everything, to varying degrees, a character simply has strengths and weaknesses.
The strengths and weaknesses in the E8 system that serve as the primary focus of character progression, however, are more dynamic than in a superhero game — which lends the game a very different flavor. Depending on how things are handled, it might even allow for a character to be stronger in melee combat in one game session, and stronger as a spellcaster in another. It also allows for more direct control, by the player, over the success of heroic actions while still allowing for the possibility of failure in conflicts.
The reason it could work, but works so differently from a typical superhero game’s system, is that it actually provides for meaningful progression of the character stats (called “Gifts”) that comprise the primary deciding factor in challenging conflicts — but they’re statistics that get spent, rather than merely used as the basis of a roll. Normally, I find spent character stats (fate points, et cetera) to be more trouble than they’re worth, because of the difficult decision-making involved in deciding how best to use them. Using that kind of character stat serve as a very commonly used, commonly replenished bit of leverage in conflict resolution solves that problem somewhat, though. You can husband your resources, hedging against later need, but you don’t have to agonize over whether or not you’ll need your Gift points more later when you find you need them now. If you really need it, use it — because you’ll still have more later (unless you’ve just been spending these points like water, which might suggest you should avoid carrying a credit card).
Perhaps even more interestingly, this system implies some interesting things about how magic works. That magic system makes some decisions for you about the flavor of your gameworld, I think, but so too does the standard magic system for D&D — so that’s not really a problem in and of itself. In fact, every single decision made in the construction of a game system has consequences for the flavor of any campaigns run using that system. As such, you should understand that my comment about the fact that the way the magic system affects the flavor of your gameworld isn’t a complaint. It’s just something to be aware of, to consider when choosing a system to use for your game. As a result of that, E8 isn’t really a replacement for D&D or Pathfinder RPG (the latter of which, on the other hand, is actually a D&D-replacement). Because of similar “flavor” effects, I’ve never really put much stock in the “Universal” claim in GURPS.
The magic system implied by the progression system for E8 sounds like an incredibly interesting system. Depending on how E8 handles the in-game assumptions behind why Gifts work the way they do, it might even be a system that provides for a much more effective suspension of disbelief than the standard D&D magic system. Because of the largely arbitrary way magic tends to work in D&D, it’s always tempting to replace the magic system — but it’s also very difficult to usefully modify it (while maintaining some game balance, especially) because of the complexity of the system and its relationship with the rest of the game. If Shackleton has done a good job of doing that for us, that’s a heck of a positive recommendation for E8.
In theory, it sounds great. I don’t know enough about how the game will be put together to be able to make any final determination about how I think the Gift system would work in E8. The reference to modifiers based on character stats for normal, non-Gifts task accomplishments being unlikely to ever progress past a +5 bonus does kind of concern me, though. There may be some unreality involved in that, too, unless Shackleton has some ideas up his sleeve in terms of how to smoothly handle cases where things should be particularly easy for one character and particularly difficult for another in the general case because of skill level variations.
I have some vague plans for discussing such things in relation to D&D- and Pathfinder-like RPGs in a future entry here at SOB, but I guess you’re going to have to wait. I don’t think I’ll be writing that today.