Home > Mastering the Game, The Way > Character Advancement is Overrated

Character Advancement is Overrated

I subscribe to Drive-Thru RPG‘s weekly newsletter. Generally, it has been a way for them to showcase interesting and new products. Recently, they’ve started including some other content to do with roleplaying. Of interest to this post is a column they’re calling “A Better Game”. Because the newsletter is distributed via email, there’s not really a good link to point you at, so I pulled out the relevant article to this page, hosted here at MR for convenience’s sake. Go ahead and give it a read before you go on. They’ve also got this thread going on Facebook, if that’s your thing.

A lot of what Sean says in that post is good stuff, but I felt, as I read it, that there were some underlying assumptions in the post that were going unexamined. Basically, he outlines three problems with the idea of assigning experience points (or Character Points or whatever your system’s currency is for buying character ability) asymmetrically among your players:

  1. A player who missed a session because of some other commitment has a less capable character and thus less fun.
  2. A player whose character died restarts at the same level as the initial character creation and so is less capable and less fun.
  3. A new player starts at the same level as the initial character creation and so is less capable and has less fun.

These are all valid points. A character that is significantly underpowered compared to his peers can, except in very carefully controlled circumstances, often lead to a frustrated player. That’s not fun for anyone.

Sean also stresses the cooperative nature of roleplaying several times, saying that the players, “aren’t there to compete or win against each other; they are there to share in the world and story you are presenting for them.” This, too, is true. The most reasonable way to construe of imbalanced character rewards as fair or unfair is if you’re thinking that comparison between characters is framed as a competition.

Sean has the right idea on many fronts, but that last sentiment really illustrates something it seems like he’s missing that Stewart and I feel is of primary importance: a concern with fairness between players and the envisioning of character points or XP as a reward might indicate that you’re thinking about the game too much and not enough about the roleplaying. That might seem like an inflammatory statement to make, but bear with me for a moment, as I examine some of the underlying causes of the things that Sean is worried about.

How did your characters get big discrepancies in points, anyway?

I sort of feel like if your PCs get into a place where they’re at vastly different point totals even though they started at the same total, then there’s probably one of three things going wrong: Your campaign has been going on too long, you’re handing out too may points for incidental stuff or you’ve got a serious attendance problem. I’ll elaborate in reverse order.

If one of my players has something come up, or can’t make it for some reason, we don’t play. I know a lot of GMs just want to play and so they’ll settle for a quorum, but I think that’s destructive to the narrative. In a character-centric campaign, each character is important enough that having them be absent suddenly or uncharacteristically quiet is very disruptive. So we’ll plan to play a different day or, because we play every other week, we’ll push the schedule a week. This can be a bit of a pain, but it maintains consistency at the table.

Also wrapped up in this is the idea that just because we’re roleplaying doesn’t diminish the fact that the evening is a social engagement and you have a social commitment to show up if you said you would. If a player is having a really tough time making my bi-weekly sessions, then maybe my game isn’t for them. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever hang out, or anything. I hadn’t really thought of it until I read Sean’s article, but this also handily avoids the case where one player is missing out on the minimum you-showed-up-and-played point award.

Eliminating that discrepancy essentially leaves incidental rewards; for good roleplaying, for single-handedly doing something awesome, for coming up with the brilliant plan that the PCs execute to wonderful effect. If these kinds of things are quickly leading to some PCs outstripping others then you may be over-rewarding. It’s important to think about why these things earn points: Chiefly it’s because they’re behaviors you want to encourage. So if one of your players consistently gets the good roleplaying Oscar, you might dial it back a bit over time. They get it. Really, these kinds of things should be worth just enough to say, “I see what you did and it was good.” More than that can get you into trouble independent of PC power imbalance: it can quickly lead to PC power creep, which can lead to campaign scope creep. By the time your players can slay a god easily, your plot about saving their home town from goblin barbarians starts to look a little quaint.

The final way I can envision a big discrepancy coming about is if your appropriately little incidental point awards pile up over a long period of time. If you’re running into this problem, you’re probably well into campaign scope creep. It’s a red flag that you missed with your campaign’s narrative arc. It doesn’t mean your campaign is too long, but this is a symptom of long campaigns that has to be carefully managed around and seems like an easy trap to fall into. I don’t plan campaigns to be super long because there are a lot of things that get bent into funny shapes when you draw them out so much, not least of which is the narrative.

Another thing that bears mentioning, though it’s not in my list of three, is something Sean brought up which I hadn’t really considered. He mentions that you might have, “a new player entering an existing campaign, one where the other players have been playing and gaining experience before they arrived.” I read that and thought, “What?!?” I’m so used to thinking of finite-length campaigns that I’d forgotten people did this. I would be very wary of bringing in a player in the middle of an existing campaign. I feel like if you don’t have campaigns ending and beginning frequently enough to bring in new players, that’s another red flag on campaign length. If you’ve built the setting and plot around your existent PCs strongly enough, having PCs come or go for out-of-universe reasons should be really hard to accomplish with any finesse at all.

The system I use

So, you might ask, what is it that I do that’s so awesome it avoids all this? Let me give some context first. As I’ve mentioned in several posts, my system of choice is GURPS, which is a point-based, classless system. A character that is made from 300 points is pretty epic, but unlike most class-based systems, a straight comparison of points doesn’t tell you who’d win in a fight. Those 300 points could mostly be in research and gadget-inventing skills, with no combat skills to speak of. Also of importance is the fact that I hold a play session every other week for 3-4 hours in the evening. So every other session, I do character point awards. You get one for having showed up and played. Everyone gets one if some major plot point was passed. An individual can earn one for good roleplaying or being especially effective, etc. The latter two aren’t very commonly handed out. Over the course of the campaign, the discrepancy in point totals just can’t get that big.

One thing that makes this work is the point-based-ness of the system. It means that they’re spending their points every few reward cycles and the characters improve gradually, rather than all at once. I also require that they justify what they’re spending the points on. If they want to raise a skill, they have to have used it, tried it untrained or at least seen it used in the last few sessions. In a level-based game, where character improvement is much more stair-step, if someone is only a small number of XP ahead of everyone else, it’s entirely possible they’ll gain a level several sessions before the others and have a significant effectiveness advantage. That’s part of why I prefer GURPS, but other point-based systems have this feature, too. Notice, too, that I don’t assign CP for dispatching enemies. That really reinforces the game aspect and side-lines the story-telling aspect of roleplaying.

Intentionally metered growth

There’s an philosophy I have that has been an undercurrent throughout this whole post and it’s that character advancement is overrated. In his article, Sean says, “[improving their character’s stats] is, frankly, one of the most compelling aspects of RPGs for many players.” That may be, but that isn’t the way we do things. In my experience, the protagonists of most fiction don’t increase in power very much over the course of the story unless that’s a central aspect of the story its self. Captain Picard isn’t several levels higher in season seven of Star Trek: The Next Generation than in the pilot episode. Han hasn’t dumped points into his piloting skill between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Aragorn didn’t seem to get in any way more effective or pick up any skills or perks in The Lord of the Rings.

My point is that in most fiction, the characters have a more of less set level of effectiveness and character growth comes from personality shifts. In GURPS, you can switch out Advantages and Disadvantages for other ones to reflect this kind of character growth but you maintain the same point total. And, really, you don’t need a system to mediate this kind of growth if you don’t want (I just happen to find it helpful). So rather than starting your PCs at level 1 and working their way up to the really cool adventures, why not start them at level 12 and get straight to the awesome stuff? Admittedly, this is another thing that works better, I think, in a level-less system.

So where did Sean go wrong?

As I stated in the introduction, Sean isn’t really wrong. He has an admirable goal and the right idea: promote cooperativeness. This isn’t a competition. But the problems introduced by imbalanced PCs aren’t symptoms of giving out asymmetrical awards. They’re symptoms of not emphasizing the narrative structure of the campaign enough, of not focusing on the characters as central and basically of over-focusing on the game aspects of roleplaying. If you keep the story in mind as the primary concern and the PCs as of primary importance to the story, the actions that make most sense to serve that also dissipate the imbalanced PCs problem.

Before I let you go, I do want to say that Sean’s audience is probably very different from ours at MR. He’s not in the business of evangelizing a certain (less common) way of running a campaign; he’s trying to give advice that can be used by the most people. I don’t want it to seem like I’m hating on Sean at all. I just thought it was another great example of why Stewart and I think the way we do things is best.

  1. ken
    June 22, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    My players know that they are part of an ongoing story. I reward roleplaying, as well as storyline awareness. They know that nobody advances at the same rate, in-game is just like RL. They also know that should one of their precious characters dies, they’re going to start out as a level-one character, and have to keep up. (which two of them have managed to do nicely.)

    We play on a set schedule (once a week). If a player can’t make it that night, they are “grayed out,” a condition similar to having been petrified. They have to be toted around in some fashion (once having being dragged behind a horse by a long rope), plus suffer the indignities of graffiti. (sharpies do exist in my world) They gain no experience from that session, and learn very quickly to make every session.

    I try to be flexible, but “the play is the thing,” according to the bard.

    • Ben
      June 22, 2010 at 7:04 pm

      I feel like the tactic of “greying out” one of the main characters of a story is very disruptive. Without an in-universe reason, it’s this weird thing that happens apparently at random. What if you’d stopped when the missing player was alone with an NPC? How does the NPC react? Do the other PCs have to stop what they’re doing to go grab their statuesque (hey-oh!) compatriot?

      I am have mixed feelings on the new character after PC death. My inclination would be to start them off at the same power level as they’d started with, but in a short campaign, that isn’t really that far behind. If I played D&D it would probably mean they were just a single level behind everyone else. Stewart and I need to write a whole post on our philosophy regarding player death.

      If you were doing a campaign where growth in power was part of the story–say at a university for mages–and a PC died, it would be very disruptive to start them out as a Freshman if the other PCs are all Juniors. I’d be much more inclined to start them off as a Junior. Especially if, as is desirable, their PCs death wasn’t a slip-up but was a cool addition to the narrative. A protagonist dying needn’t always be considered a mistake.

      • Stewart
        June 25, 2010 at 10:13 pm

        So I have written one post about player character death. It has the super-original title Killing PCs. I’m assuming that you are referring instead to the whole idea of backup PCs, and how to implement them?

  2. Ben
    June 26, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Stewart :

    So I have written one post about player character death. It has the super-original title Killing PCs. I’m assuming that you are referring instead to the whole idea of backup PCs, and how to implement them?

    It won’t let me add a 4th level of reply, so… Yeah. I meant about how to handle things once they’re dead. As you say.

  1. December 14, 2010 at 7:10 pm

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