Saturday, December 11, 2010

Experience and Advancement

I was reading Space Opera yesterday, starting from the beginning rather than skipping around to read topics of immediate interest to me, when I came to section 1.9, entitled "Winning in Space Opera." After starting off with boilerplate blather about there being "no winners or losers in a roleplaying game," we get to something a little more interesting:
Each player will have his own idea of what it means for his PC to 'win' or 'lose.' The player must decide for himself. If he aims at making Admiral in the StarForce, that is the chief priority in his PC's life, and the PC will conduct himself accordingly. If it is to have his own StarShip and to set out on the life of a Free Trader, well and fine. But there will be no 'easy' measures of superficial 'success' like experience points and experience levels. Success is something that satisfies a person at the moment. There are always new horizons, new worlds to see and win, new adversaries to best in combat or hard trading, new adventures to excite one and make life worth living. He will likely get there too, if he is competent.

We suggest that players try to get rid of the hyper-competitive spirit that marks some kinds of role gaming. The measure of a character is whether or not the player gets him to the goal that the player/character sets for himself. Then, having attained that goal, the way is opened to 'retire' from the game and start a new character as a replacement or to seek still greater goals.

One wins in role-play in the manner that one 'wins' in life -- you get to where you are going. And that can include a lot of living a lot of countryside!
The italics above are mine to emphasize the most immediately interesting thing the cited paragraphs, namely that Space Opera has no mechanical system of character advancement, aside from in-game training, which is both time-consuming and potentially expensive. Traveller employs similar assumptions, as did many Basic Roleplaying-derived RPGs to some extent, but there's no philosophizing to justify the design decision. Having played a lot of Traveller, I've never had any problems with the idea characters who didn't improve mechanically much over the course of play or who did so at a glacial pace. In fact, as I get older, I find I like the idea more and more, although, like all such things, I don't think it's appropriate for all game systems. I think a more generalized XP system works well in D&D for the most part, given its literary inspirations.

I am amazed, though, how commonly used D&D's approach is. Most RPGs I've played use experience points that can be applied broadly without regard for how the XP was gained. It's a conceit of gaming I'm more than willing to accept, but, when you think about it, how much sense does it make that a character should be able to use XP gained from an adventure where he spent most of his time fighting evil wizards to raise his skill in, say, diplomacy? Or better yet to suddenly manifest the ability to pilot a boat? It becomes even more bizarre when you factor in things like "story awards" or "roleplaying awards." Again, I understand the logic behind such things, but, if the bonus XP you get from skillfully portraying your character as a conflict-averse nebbish can be used to gain fighting skills, then, really, what's being rewarded here?

I'm starting to ramble already, which just goes to show I'm not entirely sure what makes for a good experience and advancement system in a RPG. I can only say that, from a "realism" perspective, limited and slow advancement based on actually practicing the skill in question (or studying) makes the most sense to me. Most other approaches strike me as game artifacts, none of which inherently make more sense than any other. I often see D&D's XP system lambasted as "illogical" and, in truth, there's some weight to that criticism. But it's a criticism that rings pretty hollow if one's own preferred system gives XP for "good roleplaying" or "number of hours played per session," to mention just two types of alternate XP awards I've encountered.

All this makes me wonder why more games haven't adopted something like the systems in Space Opera or Traveller. Why do we need XP and advancement at all?


  1. What I did in my AD&D game, that I really liked (only being 22, I have no idea comparatively due to lack of experience), was I had each character come up with 3 short term goals, and 1 long term goal. And you only got experience for the session if you advanced towards that goal.

    I combined that with a rule that you can only increase things you use (inside the leveling system, it mostly applied to skills.) Much like Chaosium's Cthulhu system. I felt it worked out well and everyone agreed the characters felt like they were more human due to it.

  2. A few years ago when running D6 Star Wars, I instituted a houserule along these lines. I had players put check marks next to the skills they used in game. Those were the ones they could spend CP on without having to pay for offstage training. If it was a skill they didn't already have, and they successfully made the check at the default attribute, I gave them the skill at one pip for one CP, and then they'd advance normally after that.

  3. We “need” some sort of unreal advancement system because much of the fiction we think of as cool is unreal. When the Coward of the County can kick as because he hasn’t been fighting, and the Nerds are great at sex because they haven’t been getting any, checkboxes and in-game training aren’t sufficient.

    I tend to see XP as a sort of facetime mechanic. They measure how important the character is to the narrative; and in fiction, the more central characters improve more, even if they have to use convoluted logic to explain where the improvement came from. (c.f. The Karate Kid, for a more serious example taken to extremes).

    Character improvement is a reward. The improvement mechanics should encourage what makes the game more fun.

    Sometimes that means character epiphanies that transform a nebbish into a warrior. Other times it might mean encouraging characters to deliberately use skills they’re not yet good at, because they are in fact insignificant pawns in the games of Ancient Evils.

    The players handbook had a similar section to what you’ve quoted from Space Opera:

    While praying and religious-oriented acts are more properly the activities for which a cleric would gain experience points, this is not the stuff of exciting swords & sorcery adventure. So too, fighters need physical training and weapons practice, magic-users long hours of study in tomes of arcane lore, and thieves the repetition of their manual skills and discernitory prowess; but none of this is suitable to gaming. It is, therefore, discarded and subsumed as taking place on a character‘s “off hours”.

    It all depends on what gameplay should consist of in any particular game.

  4. experience points don't all have to be the same score. We could have a game with battle points, skill points and social points for example and reward players the appropriate type of points. Mazes and Minotaurs takes a similar approach and it leads to playing a character that needs point sin a different area to be played differently from one that needs points earned elsewhere.

    Do we need exp? No. Do they make book keeping simple? yes.

  5. XP isn't about the players advancement per se, rather a bulwark against DM arbitrariness. If the DM is a neutral referee then having him decide on "story awards" or other subjective criterion of advancement can't work.

    Having players "set goals" etc is also flawed as the the referee is encouraged (or discouraged) to help guide the players to this goal. Which is where 4e ended up with players literally giving the DM a list of stuff they wanted and then the DM just giving it to them.

  6. Story awards are already integrated into d&d with the acquisition of henchmen and followers and armies and castles and the building of keeps. All they require is gold! Even if characters never advanced past 1st level the idea of the "gold standard" in dungeons and dragons remain.

    Indeed, after absconding with 6000 gold pieces a DM could decide a player has earned enough money where he could then hire a band of followers and be their hero, after 64,000 gold peices earned he has enough to build a small keep on the outskirts of civilization and attract followers and then be level to super-hero/paragon status.

  7. "It becomes even more bizarre when you factor in things like "story awards" or "roleplaying awards.""

    Bizarre? How so? Story awards are a device that allows characters to advance without having to play a game of looting and killing. To me, breaking into a monster's lair because it's "evil", killing it, and getting a power up because you emtied its pockets of gold is bizarre.

  8. I've found that systems that do say "the only way to improve this is to do or train this" generally just end up way too complicated for their own good. And complication leads to silliness all its own. While it's not a tabletop RPG, I'm going to use the original Final Fantasy II as an example simply because it's funnier. You can't really argue with its logic when it tried a system like this and said that taking hits and surviving should very gradually improve your defence... until it became a wildly accepted strategy to club your own party members over the head to gain this same advantage.

    Really, any game that makes the assumption that bonuses are "purchased" or "gained" in a short period of time without a supernatural explanation is going to stumble into complete lunacy sooner or later unless its players are willing to just shrug or laugh it off. Only the slow progression games (some of the BRP games, early edition Talislanta) come close enough to reality to live without the giggles. Frankly, I think both work just fine in their own ways.

    I think most gamers are aware of this issue these days, instead of say, running with it blindly. Video games have done it to death (for the reasons above) on top of their tabletop games. And of course, there's widely read lampoons like The Order of the Stick, which has made this joke several times, turning ambushes into skill with lockpicking and such.

  9. Gary Gygax defended the way D&D uses experience points, see AD&D DMG page 85. Heavily paraphrased to be short he said, "In a game certain compromises must be made. It is more "realistic" for clerics to study holy writings to gain experience, fighters to be exercising, magic-users deciphering old scrolls and thieves "casing" various buildings. All very realistic but conducive to non-game boredom."

    If the OSR teaches anything it is that rules matter and dictate the tone and the type of game we play.

    Horses for courses then.

  10. @UWS guy:

    When I think of "set goals" I think of character-based story arcs. "Dethrone the evil usurper" or "find my sister" are good multi-session, even campaign-length goals. Progressing toward these is certainly worth awarding XP for. Though a bit subjective, it could also be put to a vote among the other players as a "check" for the GM.

    In defense of "story-based" XP, if you have definite guidelines as regards what to award, then you have no problem with "subjectivity." I award XP based on Major Goals (the point of the adventure) and Minor Goals (things you did during the adventure), modified by level. That gives a certain amount of subjectivity while at the same time giving standard values that scale upwards as the players rise in level. It works because it doesn't rely on neutrality or anything else. It becomes just another way to award XP.

    IMHO, gold is all great and good, but there isn't too much "story" to a guy getting rich. By contrast, Cugel, Fafhrd, the Grey Mouser and Conan never kept gold in their possession very long. And, of course, there's the module UK6 "All that Glitters" which held riches as the promise, yet that tale was relative to the teller.

  11. In answer to your question why: because the character development aspect of RPGs is just as seductive and addictive as their adventure-having aspect. More "realistic" modeling of this would involve primarily advancing in social status, goods, and social network.

  12. Why do we need XP and advancement at all?

    We don't, not really. I myself got bored with XP years ago; thankfully 4e D&D made it possible to effectively swear if off completely without needing further house rules to cover XP costs and different XP tables.

    We don't need advancement either, but I think it's too much fun to give up myself. One of the big appeals of rpgs is the ability to play a larger-than-life character. 'Course, you can always start the players with larger-than-life characters, without further advancement, but for some reason not many GMs like that idea.

  13. When it comes to actual experience I like doing BRP in reverse. That is, you get a skill check if you fail your skill use, and the skill is increased if you then roll under your skill (understanding what you did wrong and applying this lesson). This is because my philosophy is that you tend to learn from your mistakes, rather than your successes.

    Of course, the easiest way to increase a skill is still by getting someone to train you in it. I always preferred the RQ2 approach to this.

    [Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies does a similar thing, you only get experience (training) points by failing. Works well, especially when you can get characters who are mega-awesome. Why would they learn anything from succeeding at what they do?]

  14. I don't have my copy handy, but in the newer editions of Tunnels & Trolls, Ken St. Andre addresses this disconnect, suggesting that the gods of Trollworld seem, strangely enough, to reward the bold, audacious, and adventurous with increased power and good fortune.

  15. Experience awards and advancement are certainly not necessary. Many games have demonstrated this (RuneQuest, et al). The key word in your question however is not "experience"... it's "advancement".

    At a strictly primal level, people play games to obtain something. For most board games, this is simply defined as winning. For more ambiguous media like RPG's, where there is no winning per se, there has to be another goal to satisfy players. In XP-based games, the obtaining of wealth, power, and glory through advancement is the name of the game. This has also worked well in the video game industry.

    Games like RuneQuest aren't too much different. While there is not an XP/Level system, players are constantly seeking to improve their characters in any way possible, whether it be increasing skill levels or obtaining powerful items.

    Traveller is a unique case. Characters are already advanced via a prior career; further advancement is close to impossible. Players are then unleashed on an unsuspecting universe where just about anything goes. The reward is being able to step outside the player's current real-life career path, and step into the life of a retired Marine Major (or whatever) seeking his/her fortune in the effectively limitless universe. In a game like Traveller, one is not bound by the normal social conventions and means of accumulating wealth and fame. Acquiring these things through adventure and misbehavior is a reward in and of itself.

  16. " It's a conceit of gaming I'm more than willing to accept, but, when you think about it, how much sense does it make that a character should be able to use XP gained from an adventure where he spent most of his time fighting evil wizards to raise his skill in, say, diplomacy? "

    This is a classic issue of gameplay vs. realism. The Chaosium systems (including Runequest) rewarded you in the skills that you used during the adventure. This was seen as more realistic, as you are getting on the job training.

    However, it is also a positive feedback loop, and we understand pretty well these days that this is a horrid game design feature. It encourages super-specialization and makes game balance extremely difficult. Unless you have a very creative GM, you can easily get parties where players are marginalized in the adventure, because their specialized skill set is not a good match for the scenario.

    The D&D system is a compromise. You allow people to make characters with breadth without penalizing their advancement. In the real world, this would happen in training "off screen". However, few people want to role play training outside of adventures, unless we are talking about a character ability so significant that obtaining a trainer is a quest in itself. So you make experience fungible and chalk it up to an abstraction.

  17. We need advancement because it drives desire to play the game.

  18. As a player, and the player of a magic-user character especially, I find XP to be my main motivator in the game. I started out pathetically inept, unable to help the party except with the occasional good idea. That was fun enough in itself. Then I hit level 2, and got another spell per day. That was a LOT of fun. Now I'm a complete XP whore, and I love it. A session where I nearly get killed and walk away with 41 xp is enough to make my blood boil; a session where we get lucky, kill something big and bad, and find its treasure trove just makes me happy for days.

    The takeaway? DMs may not like XP, or find them realistic enough. Players love them and find in them a reason to play.

  19. Like you, as I grow older I gain more respect for systems in which character advancement is slow and realistic (and like Roger the GS said, quicker improvements that drive character choices could come in social status, networks, and goods - I'd add special knowledge, such as spells or the like). This may also have to do with my increasing preference for a model of gaming in which the game is an event generator (from which events we can tell stories after the fact), rather than a means of modeling the process of traditional fiction.

  20. Since I don't play D&D or like systems very often its difficult for me to say what the best way to handle it in those games would be. Generally I've never liked the idea that XP obtained in combat or looting would grant your Wizard more spells or your Priest more healing.

    At the same time I will say that seeing your character improve over time is fun and one of the rewards of a 'game' nature that make RPGs different from sitting around with your friends and telling each other stories. I love story, I love character AND I'm playing a game. Games deal with points and rules. I get it and I agree with it.

    I've always used the house rule that you can spend XP points in a skill based system only on skills you've used. Now if you were given an XP bonus for role playing in character or gain a story related bonus, that bonus can only be spent on social skills or abilities reflected in the story. I've also tended to allow training, to gain mini-XP points of a sort that can be cashed in for an increase latter down the road.

    Its late, I'm a little bleary eyed and not certain I've explained this correctly. Alas its too late to turn back now...

  21. "Why do we need XP and advancement at all?"

    Because rewards are an effective way of creating engagement in a game. You can really hook people with multiple different paths of earning rewards so that the player constantly feels like they're making progress, and receives rewards on a relatively frequent, but a bit erratic, schedule. It creates a desire for just one more room, one more door, one more monster, one more level, one more dungeon. D&D does pretty well: you can get XP which builds toward the reward of a new level. You explore, which builds toward finding better items. You earn money, which builds toward buying or creating better items. You finish slay big monsters or finish difficult quests, which hopefully earns renown. A lot of very fun and successful computer RPGs have the exact same mechanics.

    It's not the only way to create engagement, but it works. One advantage that even in the hands of a mediocre GM it works okay. Something fuzzy like renown or political advancement (if not mechanically simulated) might not fair so well at the hands of a mediocre GM.

    "I think a more generalized XP system works well in D&D for the most part, given its literary inspirations."

    In which way? XP and leveling always struck me as running a bit against the literary inspiration. Looking to the stories of Vance, Leiber, Zelazny, Moorcock, and Lovecraft (To take authors both in Appendix N and that I've read), I'm struck by how little the protagonists grow in personal physical power. Such growth is modest, if present at all.

  22. While GURPS doesn't come out and state it as an alternate xp option. It has a rule that 200 hours of learning equals one GURPS point in a skill. That if you doing stuff on the job you are at 1/4 rate so 800 hours on the job will equal 1 skill point.

    It would conceivable to have a campaign where you adhere to this strictly. That every 100 days using your skills (8 hours on the job so to speak) you get a skill point. 1/4 of the time or 25 days per point if you spend it training.

    My friends talked about this option because the way I referee my Majestic Wilderlands the campaign often goes day by day through the character's lives. Awarding the typical 3 points results characters advancing rapidly in relation to game-time.

    It took a few rounds to realize the problem wasn't advancement but how fast it is in relation to the events of the game setting. If the characters took a few years nobody would find it unreasonable to come back 20 or 50 points more than they were. But packing it all into three months of game time felt off.

    I don't have anything further to add so far as we haven't tried anything with this yet.

    Just food for thought

  23. "Why do we need XP and advancement at all?"

    I would say that character advancement is the single most important game-design invention that D&D brought to the table. Increasing the power of your playing piece is what makes the game addictive for a wide swath of players, more so than many other aspects (and those other aspects all existed in other types of gaming before RPGs).

    You might ask, "Why does coffee need to be caffeinated?" or "Why do cigarettes have to have nicotine?" They don't, but for many people -- that's the whole point, or close to it, at least (in this case, I hope, in a good way.) Therein lies the magic.

  24. Why do we need XP and advancement at all?

    1. To better gauge the experience of the PC.
    2. it's part of the reward system in the game
    3. To help DMs design adventures based upon the levels of the PCs.

    That's how I see it. I don't know if I'm right or wrong, but the aforementioned explanations are good enough for me.

  25. I agree that the prospect of levelling is a great motivator.

    And it also gives the game a lot of texture-- D&D plays a lot differently as a low-level character than as a high-level character. I noticed it last week in playing a character who had just advanced from 1st to 2nd. Imminent instant death is no longer a prospect of every battle. I've got enough money for plate mail. My character can take a greater interest in the survival of hirelings and other PCs.

  26. Why are they needed in fantasy games? Because of NPC's.

    NPC's need a quick and easy method of representing their abilities & skills. The abstraction known as levels provides a method to easily approximate how powerful & skilled they are in comparison to all other entities in the milleau.
    PC's need to be judged by the same criteria - only they are dynamic creations, as opposed to mostly static creations NPC's are. Granted, every campaign will have some long running antagonists who are 'upgraded' over time and who grow parallel to the protagonists, but the majority are fixed in one moment of time; there is no reason to apply concepts such as experience to them.
    But the player, as an active entity not controlled by the ref, needs a method of accommodating their successes, failures and growth over time. XP & levels provided a balanced abstraction between number crunching & loosy goosy 'well i guess your better now so, +1 on this and that'. For an example of the former, look to Mythus; for the latter, look at story-telling games.
    now as to the applicability in modern & sci fi games, things like a level 5 scout or a level 9 investigator falls flat. I think the reason there is twofold: as a game setting gets more realistic it moves away from abstractions that are difficult to quantify (such as magical skills, etc...) and thus need a more abstracted method of representation. There also seems to be less autonomous agency in modern and sci-fi settings; the gap between the sword-skill of a 0 level character and a 10th level one is wider than that of a o level character who picks up a laser gun and a 10th level character - the former may not have the accuracy and reaction time of the latter but the learning curve is not as steep.

  27. One of the things an advancement system does for D&D is that it helps stop it from being stale, again, in a way that's more or less DM independent. You fight enough goblins, you're ready to fight bugbears. You fight enough bugbears, you're ready to fight giants. The advancement system means that it's the nature of the game for your opponents to keep changing. It also means that you can start with a low-level character with few options, then advance as you learn to a more complex, more powerful character.

    With the "only get to advance skills you use" rule, what about a character who can't climb a rope to save his life? Unless he has to, he's not going climb a rope when it matters because he's going to fail. In real life, he would set up a training area where he could practice climbing a rope without having illithid chasing him. With this rule, either the players have to play through setting up a dummy climbing area for him to practice with, or (if the DM doesn't count skills used just to count) he's going to have to use his zero climbing ability in a situation where it gets him hurt, or more likely give up any idea of ever being able to climb a rope, and get ring of climbing or something.

  28. I didn't give experience and advancing that much thought when first playing rpgs - D&D had experience points and RQ had the dot-mark system and both worked well for us.

    For advancement, at least the long RQ campaign we played used the training rules to good effect. Our characters wanted to become better at magic, or fighting, or something else, so we sought out people who could train us. It created instant adventures and relations with NPCs other than "kill it, and take its stuff", or "buy stuff from it".

    On the other hand, the first Traveller game I played in (some very houseruled T4) we got some experience but the GM never really specified what the experience could be used for. It was very much fun, still.

    So, I think advancement in rpgs is a good thing, if it drives the motivation, but it's not necessary in every game.

  29. Perhaps this is similar to the T&T approach noted above, but I like to think of XP not as a measure of increasing skill, but of the spirit that is essential to a D&D adventurer. Advancement is about getting better as an explorer of the unknown; the specifics will differ according to the character (and can pretty much always be explained away with a little bit of training).

  30. I agree with the comment above that advancement was a huge contribution to subsequent games of all kinds (especially video games). I've always thought roleplaying games really described two acivities that don't easily or necessarily fit together - roleplaying and gaming. People who cite advancement as a major hook are, I think, talking about gaming.

    I remain ambivalent about it, though; I largely gave up (1e A)D&D for 20 years or so because it occurred to me that (a) it was the only game that, inexplicably, charted a character's arc from near-normal to near-godlike, (b) it had no adequate explanation of what either normal or godlike meant in the gameworld, (c) from its rulebooks you'd pretty much gather than being a near-normal and being a near-god were basically the same thing, just that the scale and variety of opponents would change, and presumably more property damage would attend the fights, and (d, contradicting c) once you were godlike it became difficult to think of plots you could get involved in.

    So I played CoC where there is a deliberate mismatch between PCs' and monsters' powers, and where, if you get the scroll of ultimate usefulness, it's really only useful in this exact situation here - you can get a "heroic" powerup, but your heroism comes from being positioned to use it, not from possessing it and applying it to the world at large. And advancement there really never became an issue...

    On the timescale/credible powering up question, I think the 2 most interesting games are Ars Magica and Nephilim. The former generally has a multi-decade structure, allowing for radical changes in character power AND characters of very different "level" adventuring together, and it works in a way a mixed level party in D&D never does: it made me re-examine what D&D levels do to a game. The latter has experience from multiple lifetimes and a really distinctive powerup arc, with the goal of a fundamental powering up as a campaign end-game.

    I think if I were to run D&D-with-levels again I'd want to borrow this powerup arc from Nephilim and/or GURPS Goblins: I'd make level advancement self-consciously competitive, give it visible in-world effects and tie it to social status, with all professions having structures very like Freemasons' lodges or the Catholic church. I'd set rites of passage - gate points in level advancement like "name level" that the PCs would have to decide to co-operate or compete around. And I'd run gp for xp, so the PCs really could trade, the economy of the gameworld acknowledging that xp were the most important currency, and gp merely their physical shells.

  31. I know that "story" in games is one of James' bugbears, but XP and character advancement are, IMO, D&D's way of turning games into stories, and (as many others have pointed out) may be the key innovation that caused D&D to catch on the way it did.

    By "story", what I mean is that the gameplay adheres to the Campbellian "Hero's Journey" structure: normal person descends into the Underworld, faces adversity, then comes back with something valuable, stronger and wiser than when he started. "Realism" doesn't enter into it, except insofar as mythic story structures correspond to something psychologically real in human experience.

  32. My gut thought is that for a game to be long term successful, it needs a way for characters to mechanically improve. I used to think that it could just be change, but I really feel like it does need to be improvement.

    Traveller is an interesting case to look at. It provides only minimal skill improvement, though it does allow for improvement by wealth (with mechanical effect by using that wealth to acquire equipment and star ships). However, my only long term Traveller campaign introduced a faster paced skill improvement system (which did actually feature a significant boost from practice/training).

    Lately, I am starting to really be taken by the Burning Wheel system. It has skill improvement only through use of skills or practice/training which always feels good. It also has a "hero" point (artha) system that has some significant effects. First, it helps enable the risk taking that is required to advance skills (you have to make some number of skill attempts that are close to impossible to succeed at without artha expenditure). But rather that artha being awarded arbitrarily, it comes from the players stating beliefs/goals for their characters and pursuing them. Another layer is traits, which are acquired through votes that the character has exhibited the trait (traits can also result in artha awards). The result is a tight loop between mechanical improvement and engaging and driving the fiction of the game. It's also nice that it enables goals other than acquiring wealth.

    I've always liked RuneQuest also, again, it features skill advancement by use and training. Additionally, there is cult advancement (which of course has mechanical benefits) that provides an interesting dimension. On the other hand, the mechanics best support the goal of acquiring wealth.


  33. Isn't "leveling up" one of D&D's great contributions to gaming history? As others have pointed out, it has become ubiquitous in computer games. Are there any precedents prior to D&D? All I can think of are the properties in Monopoly which get more "powerful" as you acquire all the deeds in a color-group and then add houses and hotels... but that's not really the same thing at all. With D&D, leveling up means that the gameplay itself is constantly evolving as you gain experience. How cool is that? Chess, Yahtzee and Parcheesi are positively static by comparison. Was there anything like this in gaming prior to D&D?

    Of course, leveling up is abstract. Right from the beginning Gygax said that realism took a back-seat to gaming. I've always regarded gold and monsters (the sources of XP in D&D) as conveniently quantifiable proxies for general experience. As James pointed out, basing XP on actual skill use is no more "realistic." In reality, one gains skills from hours of practice, not from using skills in an adventure.

    I'm reminded of Raggi's eloquent defense of the "XP for gold and monsters" approach as concrete, objective, easily tracked and awarded, fair, etc. See here. I especially appreciated his criticism of XP for role-playing. Raggi wrote: "That usually means somebody is grading someone else's game performance on a completely subjective basis. Nobody should feel pressured to engage in amateur dramatics if all they want to do is say, 'My guy asks that guy there if he knows where that thing is.' Someone who's had a bad day at work, just got dumped two days before, maybe they're glad to get out amongst friendly types and play the game but don't want to engage. Maybe they don't really even feel like being there so much just this one week but don't want to screw the game up for the rest of the group and so show up anyway and just do the minimum on their end to keep everything going. I don't want to be a dick to those people by penalizing them in comparison to other players."

    I think a more generalized XP system works well in D&D for the most part, given its literary inspirations.

    James, can you elaborate on this?

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  35. don said, "We need advancement because it drives desire to play the game."

    I haven't found this to be true. Good games don't need artificial drivers to create desire to play. Playing them is its own reward.

    Some of the best games I've ever played didn't have any mechanical character advancement.

    James said, "I think a more generalized XP system works well in D&D for the most part, given its literary inspirations."

    I'm not sure what is meant by that either; the XP system certainly doesn't emulate or remind me in any way of any literary inspiration. It's clearly a gamist element, I think, that if anything, divorces D&D from its literary inspiration.

  36. @richard:
    I'd make level advancement self-consciously competitive, give it visible in-world effects and tie it to social status, with all professions having structures very like Freemasons' lodges or the Catholic church.

    This sounds similar to the druid, assassin and monk classes in 1E AD&D. At the upper levels there are only a limited number of characters. For example, at 12th level there can be but nine druids, each of which is the leader of a body of lesser druids. Above them are only three 13th level Archdruids and one pope-like Great Druid (14th level). To become 12th level, a PC druid must challenge and best one of the current nine Archdruids. The situation is similar for assassins reaching 13th level. Monks start having these duels for advancement at 7th level.

  37. Advancement has been a part of these games since the beginning so it's a default assumption by most players now. It's technically not required but you might as well ask if we need dice or if we need combat rules or if we need physical ability scores - clearly the answer is that while they are not required to have an RPG they seem to be required to have the kind of RPG most people like to actually play.

    For D&D levels are needed (as someone else mentioned above) for variety - there are a lot of monsters you cannot fight or places you cannot go without a certain amount of power and levels are how we measure that. If you never advance beyond 1st level then you're not going to see many dragons in "Dungeons and Dragons" except at a distance or from the inside.

    When I first ran across GURPS Time Log idea for tracking hours of training I thought it was a pretty cool idea but the flaw in it is that the players can just decide to take a month or 6 months or a year off in game time and do nothing but train skills up and come back better than they were and mechanically there is nothing wrong. At least with the looting for XP approach and the use-it for XP approach the in-game mechanics are a little tighter.