Sunday, September 15, 2019

Improving For The Worst

Today I’d like to tip a sacred cow and go against my own preferences for a time with an idea that came to me recently…

Do we need Player Character Improvement to enjoy RPGs?

I am questioning, or perhaps even challenging, the notion that RPGs need any sort of progression of skills and abilities for PCs to make the game enjoyable.

Bear in mind I am not necessarily trying to find or put forth a particular answer to this question here and now. My goal is just to get people to think about and discuss it. After all, analyzing and questioning these corner stones of our hobby is kind of my thing. Well one of my things. I have several things. I'm sure that generates some interesting mental images. You’re welcome. 

The idea for this post first came up because one of my player asked me for the third time in the span of a few weeks just how and when we would be improving the PCs in our FRONTIER Science Fiction/Horror RPG.

I said, as I had twice before, that we would be upgrading the PCs at the end of the current four episode story arc. Basically, when we complete Episode III, Session #4, we will 'level up' as it were. That would be at the very end our next episode/session by the way.

I was a little disappointed me because I feel like his character isn't really a developed personality yet but he (the player) is concerned about upgrades to his PC's abilities. Why? Our story so far has taken place over the course of maybe 6-9 hours of time. Why would he or anyone else necessarily improve significantly over such a short period?

For many players, a big part of the game is the achievement of linear progression. It can certainly be fun but if that’s all you want, there are countless video games that do the same thing.

Don't get me wrong, I like increasing skills and upgrading my ship and such very much. At the same time the power creep of games is what often makes them unwieldy and ends the campaign faster since its hard to challenge PCs mechanically. In other words, while experience points and upgrades are the norm for the RPG hobby, they also generate one of the largest problems in the hobby, and that is enabling a system to sustain prolonged play with the same characters. 

I recently played a short series campaign of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ( read that correctly. I played D&D 5E. On purpose). We started the game at 3rd Level, because the DM and other players agreed that was a level where you can do some cool stuff but you aren't inherently particularly powerful. It was universally agreed the high level characters (10 or above) are a chore of bookkeeping and low level characters (1-2) are too fragile. Most thought the 'sweet spot' was around 4-6. 

This rattled my brain. I have sooo many questions! Why doesn't the game start with 1st level characters being what is currently 3rd level. What is the purpose of a game where it sucks at the start? Why design at game that begins boring or overly deadly? What would make you want to keep playing?

If the range generally considered the most fun is 5-6, what's the motivation to go to 10? Why isn't the game about creating starting characters and fighting enemies who all function around the levels that are the viewed as the best and most entertaining?

For another take on the subject of linear progression or lack there of and what it means to an enjoyable RPG experience, let's consider Marvel Heroic by Margaret Weiss Productions. 

I know I myself scoffed at Marvel Heroic, a game with a very interesting way to obtain XP, but no real system for improving the power or effectiveness of your character. One of the game's key creators, game designer Cam Banks, made a point that in his view comic book Superheroes don't actually improve in comics.Sure they might get a new costume or have their powers change, suddenly increase or decrease, but it's usually plot driven and eventually they return to the same power levels and abilities they had prior their last story arc. I discuss this further here.

These are really separate but related topics I suppose. The point is, wouldn't it make more sense to create a game where the PCs begin fairly effective and competent but then maybe only increase in ability once every few sessions or even less often? Maybe not a all? Why must we have increases? Why should they gain new abilities? What would a game lose or gain by not having that aspect to it. 

I'll note that in my current Star Trek campaign, now in its 4th year or 'season' as we call them, our PCs have only improved once, getting a +1 to each of their two different stat sections and gaining one new talent or special ability, Meanwhile the campaign starship has been upgraded twice in that same length of time. In FRONTIER, as mentioned above, we are only going to improve a little bit every 4 sessions. 

In conclusion, I am not personally advocating the elimination of character improvement or XP systems. I like them from both a player and Gamemaster perspective. However, a feel the best systems have a slow, incremental progression, enabling the characters to be engaging yet effective over the long period of time. 

Furthermore, if the reason you are playing is to win points and improve your scores, go play with your Xbox. I am sure you'll have a much more enriching experience battling your friends online with a Playstation then you will engaging with other people physically and socially at a table. At least for me, I know I enjoy it when my character gets better but I also know that is not the reason I am there at the game. 

I am there to play a part and tell a story. A lollipop and a gold star are nice but not strictly necessary. 

What do you think?

Barking Alien


  1. In the Hero System and GURPS the advancement is quite incremental - about 1% every adventure more or less rather than in big chunks like level based systems.

    Gamma World started with guys at about the level of 6-8th in OD&D. HERO and GURPS give 1% at a time more or less.

    In any case the best resources to gain in d&d are not better to hit bonuses but rather better contacts and better knowledge. (Spells excepted.)

  2. I will agree that the small, incremental advancement of games like HERO and GURPS is my preferred way to go but really, is it necessary at all? That's the real question.

    Again, I am trying to pose a question not an answer. At the same time, I may have accidentally reached a sort of verdict. PC progression and improvement may not be required but it is expected and enjoyed by the majority of players.

  3. Great topic! My biggest problem in starting a Star Trek Adventures campaign has been one of my friends more or less refuses to play a game without PC progression (receiving orders and having a code of conduct also play a part, but I'll leave that for another post). Yet I myself prefer to start with a fully formed character rather than having to wait five levels to get the abilities needed to play as I want (and, in the worst cases, having those abilities become obsolete later on).

    In addition to a slower progression, I like games that allow you to change. Because, you know, I have a much deeper knowledge of History than I used to, but I neglected my web design skills to the point they are no longer useful. My confidence and interpersonal skills have improved, but my endurance is droping as I age. And in high school I was able to do mathematical operations which I don't remember anymore. Even Tony Stark forgot about skating when he started flying everywhere :p. That's how skills work in real life.

    Finally, last week I read this post (in Spanish, I'm afraid) titled "Protagonists Don't Start at First Level":

    It complains there is a dissonance between players often wanting to play tough veterans, like many fiction protagonists, and their real abilities as 1st level characters.

    A lot of words to say that you are right, I think.

  4. I played the entire DarkStryder Campaign for Star Wars with the FATE rules and no advancement at all. It worked because the characters were powerful and capable from the beginning.

    Also: Traveller.

    1. This brings up an interesting sub-discussion. I have a number of friends who weighed in on the subject elsewhere and many noted wanting their characters to begin 'powerful' and, if they can do this, progression and ability increases become less important to them.

      I agree with this idea, though I wouldn't use the term powerful. I would say capable. I don't need my Fantasy character to show up day one as a peer to Gandalf or Merlin, but nor do I want him to be a 1st level nobody from nowhere.

      I most enjoy running games I myself would like to play and many of those feature characters who begin with some dirt on their boots. They weren't born the moment the game started but instead existed within the fictional universe we're playing in for some variable length of time prior to our initial session.

      Star Trek, Mekton, Ars Magica, and even Champions and Star Wars D6 allow for back stories that help define PCs by the past either mechanically, contextually, or both.

      Traveller as you mention, is a very curious beast indeed. You don't really know how much experience you are going to start with, nor how long it will last. That is to say, I have seen PCs go only one or two tours before stopping or dying while others have started the game at 10 tours and the robust but seasoned age of 58. That's a pretty wide range of skill differentiation for two starting characters. At the same time, it is part of Traveller's charm.

      'A feature, not a bug', as my pal Leo would say.

  5. Why doesn't the game start with 1st level characters being what is currently 3rd level. What is the purpose of a game where it sucks at the start? Why design at game that begins boring or overly deadly? What would make you want to keep playing?

    In 5e, levels 1-3 are 'tutorial' levels. The number of mechanical doodads from class powers you have to keep track of are minimal, and classes are mostly distinguished by a HP differences and one major class trait. New mechanics are introduced at 2nd and 3rd in order to space them out, and give the players enough time to get used to the basic game (movement, exploration, combat, the action economy) that they modify. Similarly, levels 1-3 have extremely low XP thresholds compared to the rest of the game, meaning that even if you *start* at lvl 1, you have a reasonable chance of getting to lvl 3 in as many sessions — and a lvl 1 character tagging along with lvl 4+ characters will likely accrue enough experience to level in one session.

    As for 'overly deadly,' CR has always been a crock.

    1. I get what you're saying but it still seems very silly to me.

      Star Trek Adventures (or Last Unicorn Star Trek or FASA Star Trek), Star Wars D6, classic Traveller, Champions, Ars Magica, Mekton - None of the other games I run or play regularly (or irregularly for that matter) have tutorial levels or a buffer zone between starting out and it being fun. I don't see what you're describing as a feature in the nature of the game but rather a bug.

      Again, this is just my personal opinion. D&D's approach to gaming is not my preferred approach. Your tastes and mileage may vary.