Monday, June 6, 2022

Are Character Advancement Rules Necessary?

I've never made any secret of the fact that GDW's Traveller is my favorite roleplaying game. Over the years, I've played it a lot – perhaps not as often as Dungeons & Dragons but that's to be expected, I think. Fantasy RPGs have always been more popular than science fiction ones and D&D was (and is) the proverbial 800-lb. gorilla of fantasy roleplaying games. Even so, Traveller has had a profound influence on the way I look at – and play – RPGs. Indeed, it might well have had a greater influence on me than even Dungeons & Dragons.

I mention this because twice in recent weeks I've been asked about how I handle character advancement in my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. Though obviously derived from OD&D, EPT includes a number of unique mechanical features, including reduced experience points as characters rise in level. The practical effect of these reductions is that, unless one's campaign is focused very heavily on underworld exploration and the acquisition of huge amounts of treasure, character progression stalls out at about level 6 or 7. That's what has happened in House of Worms.

In Traveller, once you've generated your character, his characteristics or skill levels will probably never improve (though characteristics can decrease, due to the effects of aging). As the game explains,

Characters already know their basic physical and mental parameters; their basic educational and physical development have already occurred, and further improvement can only take place through dedicated endeavor. Experience gained as the character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he or she has assumed.

This is a dramatic counterpoint to the approach of D&D or indeed almost any other roleplaying game, where regular mechanical improvement is, if not the entire point of the game, a major feature of it. Traveller, by contrast, largely eschews this; the "reward" of playing Traveller over time is "increased ability to play the role" the player has adopted. In other words, the player becomes more experienced rather than his character.

Note the distinction I made: regular mechanical improvement, by which I meant things like increased hit points, combat ability, saving throws, etc. Traveller provides little scope for that after character generation and yet, despite their absence, I can't recall a single complaint from anyone with whom I've played the game over the years. Certainly no one in my Riphaeus Sector campaign was aggrieved by this state of affairs. Of course, a lack of regular mechanical improvements is not the same thing as a lack of all improvements. Whenever I've played Traveller, the characters have improved, through the acquisition of better gear, greater knowledge, and more far-reaching influence. None of this is insignificant and, in fact, I would argue that most of these non-mechanical improvements ultimately have longer-lasting consequences (particularly in long campaigns).

This is certainly what I have observed in the House of Worms campaign. Though no player character has acquired any new hit points or spells in a very long time, I don't think anyone involved in the campaign would attempt to make the claim that his character hasn't improved with time. For example, the characters began, seven years ago, as minor scions of the mid-ranked House of Worms clan in the city of Sokátis. Through a combination of skill, cleverness, and dumb luck, they're now in positions of some power and influence within Tsolyánu. In addition, they've learned more about the world of Tékumel, knowledge that has served them well as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of Achgé Peninsula. As in my Traveller campaigns of old, not a single player has ever complained about his character's "lack of improvement."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as I continue to work – albeit more slowly than I'd hoped – on The Secrets of sha-Arthan, the question of the mechanical improvement of characters is something I'm pondering. Are character advancement rules even necessary? Do we simply include them in nearly every RPG simply because D&D did so in 1974? I haven't made up my mind on this matter, but, between a lifetime of playing Traveller and the last seven years of my House of Worms campaign, I'm seriously beginning to wonder about their presumed necessity. At the very least, I'm looking more closely at experience and advancement than I have until now, with an eye toward understanding their purpose and effect on gameplay. What can we learn from Traveller and might its approach not be a better one than the never-ending mechanical escalation of Dungeons & Dragons

28 comments:

  1. I still dream of a "fantasy Traveller" on the Classic chassis (the famed "Wanderer" spoof), even though Sword of Cepheus (based on Cepheus Engine) is a close call.
    To me, advancement might not be necessary where characters were already seasoned veterans with prior careers as in CT.

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    1. That's certainly a big part of it. Traveller characters are (generally) much more skilled to start than D&D characters. To dispense with advancement entirely, you'd need a different style of character generation for D&D.

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  2. I have argues for years that character advancement is just an artifact from D&D and while it should not be tossed out just because of that, it should only be included in a game if it is a game about an external struggle to amass power. Many games would be better served without.

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  3. My personal experience is that, when playing with people who aren’t necessarily as immersed in the source material, the character advancement rules provide a simple guide to what players ought to be focusing on. The experience system in my home rules came out of that; I’d originally had a simple flat rate per game session. The players initially enjoyed the game, but after several sessions were complaining that it wasn’t exciting enough—but this was because of choices made by them. So I replaced it with a more D&D-like experience system that awarded experience for (a) defeating monsters, (b) engaging NPCs, and (c) acquiring and disposing of treasure. They almost immediately began choosing the dangerous (i.e., exciting) situations they’d been avoiding before.

    I had a similar experience with character creation back in college in a home-brew superhero game. Originally, character creation had literally been, make up a superhero, and here are some guidelines on choosing powers, background, skills, etc. The players not immersed in comic book superheroes had no idea when to stop. So I replaced it with a random generation system.

    (When working out my own experience system, I did a survey of character advancement in several games, and put it on my blog.)

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  4. I would argue that Traveller does have advancement rules; they just apply to character generation instead of game play. This may seem a trivial observation, but I don't think it really is. Seeing your character go from nothing more than a UPP to a veteran of one of the services gives you a sense of what that person might be like and what they can do, and then you get to go out and do it. Someone mentioned supers RPGs, where the process can be much the same: you determine what your hero can do and then you go do it. If you do omit character advancement from gameplay inThe Secrets of sha-Arthan, you'll need to include it in character generation somehow.

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    1. Traveller also DOES have self improvement and sabbatical that provide for improvements in a comparable (though slower) time scale to character generation.

      One can also get pedantic with this statement from the 1977 rules:

      ACQUIRING SKILLS AND EXPERTISE
      A newly generated character is singularly unequipped to deal with the adventuring world, having neither the expertise nor the experience necessary for the active life. In order to acquire some experience, it is possible to enlist in a service.

      That implies that character generation is complete after rolling attributes and naming the character...

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  5. I lean more in the camp of the Traveller way- even for D&D style games. I prefer characters to start out relatively powerful/competent and progress over time in small increments.

    One of the things that really grabbed me in the 70s in the LBB was Gary's prose about being a John Carter, or Conan or such: yet almost nobody ever made it to those levels of prowess (especially Fighters under pre GH, Holmes, MCM/BECMI, or AD&D- GH Fighters at least got some good perks) because campaigns would always fizzle out and the Magic Users and Clerics became the most powerful characters in a group at mid to higher levels anyway. And still Fighters were completely dependent on magic armor and weapons to stay relevant, which I also hate. So I've always been a bit miffed about D&D 's "zero to hero" mentality.

    Later versions/variations like 4E, 13th Age, and Dungeon World are more to my liking as PCs are far more competent at low levels (though I always stuck to heroic tier in 4E). In my own OD&D/C&C/S&W games in recent years, low level characters are more beefed up, and flattened out over time on the power curve. For example, I 've been using Dave Hargrave's HP system from AG volume III (Runes of Doom). It's one of the few instances where I'm on the same page as him and his philosophy.

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  6. I always thought that the best advancement rules are those that give characters, and their players, more choices instead of just giving higher numbers

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  7. I firmly believe that characters must be able to grow in how they influence the setting. This can be levels or it can simply be role played influence or it can be concrete wealth.

    Back in the 1980s for my Traveller campaign I did use Paul Gaziz's system from his Eight Worlds campaign.

    I have yet to play a fantasy game that has no improvement and I'm on sabbatical from Traveller having burned out on it so I can't really say what my feeling is with my current self on lack of mechanical character improvement.

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  8. I’ve always leaned toward a skill based personal advancement mechanic and eschewed a level based system. The idea that my fighter can be killed by a single dog bite at first level and go on to survive dragon’s breath at tenth level upsets my suspension of disbelief.

    I feel the “non-mechanical improvements” should be used more. Increased status, influence, reputation, contacts, favors, possessions, property, promotions, titles, recognition, these are more realistic currencies compared to; “If I gain another level I can take an additional sword wound, fight Florentine, and speak Elvish.”

    Although some mechanic should be provided to increase the talent of the skills the characters used or acquire a new skill that they have had experience with or are studying. I like the mechanic in Daredevils RPG by Fantasy Games Unlimited. My character become a little better every session but he’s not going to become a god even after a seven year campaign.

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    1. I end up liking both kinds of game. I love RuneQuest which is incremental skill improvement and static hit points. I also love Cold Iron which is level based (but more skill oriented than D&D). I've even come to enjoy old school D&D again.

      The truth is sometimes I want a game where you can shake off a dragon breath direct hit, and sometimes I want a game where a single dog bite might kill you.

      Non-mechanical benefits should definitely be a part of games, but also sometimes I just want to run hack 'n slash dungeons. I ultimately found keeping my Traveller campaign alive exhausting. I love it when I can dangle a rumor of some treasure and get the players haring off on a new quest, and when the most effort I have to do to provide a challenge protecting that treasure is stat up some monsters or NPCs.

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    2. This captures my feeling pretty much. But even in D&D games in the 80s and 90s, the groups I played in also made real advances in terms of their positions in the game world, their reputations, their friends and enemies and contacts. This was at least half the fun, and mechanical advancement was a means to an end more than the end itself. And shrugging off Dragon Breath was cool. I do think one reason that this happened though was because we all also played Traveller, and Runequest, and other games. Flashing Blades was pretty big with us as well. So we had lots of games where ‘in game world advancement’ was a key part of play, and those games influenced each other in the way they were run and GM’d. Rules may not have been ported between the different games, but attitudes toward play/style of play certainly were.

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  9. While an explicit system for character advancement may not be necessary, it does add a fun dimension to the game, and there are real world analogs.

    The popularity of “leveling up” as a motivator in everything from Boy/Girl Scouts to frequent flyer miles is undeniable. And it never stops. Look at the different levels of Admiral and General (even at that age and level they want further gradients), or the number and variety of Academy Awards for performance art. People naturally look for ways to codify their accomplishments, and this often boils down to some measure of advancement that in turn conveys a sense of greater skill (higher level). When this progression ends, so does some of the fun/motivation.

    Early D&D can’t take any credit (or blame) for this. Gary just copied what he saw going on with high scores in pin ball machines. Players get ever higher scores through repeated play and a novice can’t get anywhere near an expert score. Chasing that higher score, and documenting progress along the way, is part of the fun. I think that's why my 80s RPG group never stuck with Traveller; you couldn't advance in a rule-bound way.

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  10. This is the reason that my group and I couldn't get our heads around Traveller as teenagers in the 1980s.

    As school students, we levelled up every year. We learned more things; we knew our abilities and skills were increasing.

    D&D had that feel. Traveller did not.

    Now, in my 50s, I recognise that my skill levels haven't changed materially in years, and the cost and time for getting new skills at Traveller style levels is prohibitive.

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  11. Some level of character advancement makes sense. In reality, one can learn new things, develop one's physical skills, etc. There are practical limits on it, but it's possible.

    The flatly transformative nature of D&D advancement, taking you from peasant to demi-god, is in my view too much. But if my character can never learn a new skill or get a little smarter or stronger, that's a problem. People grow and change as time goes by, and any long-term game does need some ability to represent that.

    Honestly, if Traveller doesn't allow for character advancement on roughly the same scale as character creation (i.e. you improve roughly X amount every two years), that seems like a weird design decision. People only learn when they're not PCs?

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    1. See, the thing is that Traveller does allow advancement on the scale of character creation, but people consider waiting four game years to get a new skill point or two to be too much and consider that to be "no advancement".

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  13. Characters that change and grow in abilituy are such a common feature of literature that it's hard for me to imagine a story where change is as rare as it is in Traveller. For a character to spend years of game time hopping around spacecraft without picking up basic spacefaring skills like VaccSuit and some useful-to-space-life skills like repair, navigation or something is a story progression that I've got a hard time wrapping my head around.

    At the same time, 5e D&D throws progression at characters so fast that within a few game sessions, they are a vastly different person than who they were at the start. Within a few adventures, your apprentice wizzard from a small villate now weilds fire and lightng powerful enough to anihilate the earlier version of himself. I see the intent, but this is D&D conflating "heroic" with "powerful."

    Far and away my favorite progression system is (was) Chaosium's Stormbringer system. You got better at the skills you used and your progression speed depended on your skill level. This avoided the class-based progression where a bunch of abilities all jumped up at once, and totally new abilities were leared out of nowhere

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    1. A level of Skill in Traveller isn't just random knowledge picked up. A level of 1 is assumed to be professional level of competence that you could get and maintain a career using. In theory, random Skills that are just "picked up" in Traveller would be represented by a level of 0, though to be sure the game never really dealt with that issue in the Official Rules. A lot of Traveller Referees, though, would hand out Skill-0 along the way.

      But more than that, the growth of a character in literature rarely has to do with "picking up skills". It's more frequently a factor of personality and character, or social position and networking—all of which are elements that the game wisely leaves up to the players and Referee, and the only factor of which that would be represented on a Traveller character sheet would be the SOC (Social Standing) stat.

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    2. Traveller describes Skill-1 as professional level of competence. But it also starts a typical character off with a few Skill-1s. And the pre-gen characters in modules have something like 2 or 3 Skill-1 and often a single Skill-2. So there's a bit of a disconnect between whether Skill-1 is presented as "fully trained professional" or "minimum to perform a task".

      I agree with you that picking up new skills isn't the focus of literature. Particularly for characters like Buck Rogers who remains essentially the same person throughout But, at the risk of being pretentious and citing Joseph Campbell, the Transformation stage is part of the Hero's Journey. I think it's a boring campaign where getting more skill points is the motive for the events. But it's also something who's lack I find off-putting. Particularly in a game like Traveller which already has so many fiddly bits for character creation that adding in a skill progression system doesn't feel like adding a big layer of mechanics

      The original post was in the context of design for The Secrets of sha-Arthan so here's a bit of game design theory. The prevalence of video games today has given the "average" person today far more of a mental model for things like skill trees, level progressions and so on, than any of us had in the 80s. A character system that seems like complicated book-keeping to an 80s person seems like a basic game expectation to a modern video RPG person. I think where D&D 5e gets it's feeling of being complex from is that it's various systems don't share a common framework or theme. And that class choice, which you make while new, has a lot of lock-in effect for the life of the character

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  14. One thing that made the negligible skill/characteristic advancement in Traveller palatable was that two alternative advancement paths were offered for characters:

    First, where money in classic D&D was mostly an XP source (plus something you could spend on hirelings or domains) in Traveller it was the primary determinant of individual combat capability. The very high costs of the best armor and weapons (Battledress in the basic book for CR 200,000 and if you had Mercenary, another Cr 700,000 for an FGMP-15) meant that achieving max combat potential could also require significant (trip to TL13+ world, and up to Cr. 900,000 per player character so equipped -- easily a few million for a party).

    A similar power-up path could also be taken for the party's ship, if it had one, as PCs "leveled up" their free trader or scout with better weapons and computer programs, with the growth from single turret sandcasters to things like triple beam lasers and expensive combat programs providing a reasonably clear upgrade path that could eat up millions of credits.

    The second upgrade path in Traveller was psionics, with the efforts of finding a psionic institute and training up eligible characters providing an interesting level-up option as well.

    A third upgrade path did not appear in the core rules but was alluded to in some supplements, that of locating alien artifacts. Of course, this parallels magic item collection in D&D.

    Because - unlike something like FATE or the HERO SYSTEM - Traveller did not have any point-based cost for gear that prevented shopping, and because it also existed in a milieu where ultra-tech gadgetry was costly and limited to certain worlds, the most effective gear was orders of magnitude greater than the starting funds of characters (compare the relative cost of plate armor, say, in D&D), and that the desire to upgrade a starship was more closely baked into the game system's normal modes of play than equivalent desires for domain management in D&D (which usually start only at higher levels), I think the need for purely personal advancement was less strongly felt.

    The lesson is that games that offer such paths don't necessarily need as robust a "level up" system. That said, skipping it is probably a bad idea - just about EVERY Traveller group i ever played with added their own house rules for experience.

    I rather liked the automatic experience system in UNIVERSE, actually. No GM / Referee intervention required...

















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  15. I'm an easy touch. Starting a Classic Traveller campaign recently for my regular gaming group (who've never played the game before) I decided to add a couple skill-related house rules.

    1. Everybody starts with one skill in something prior to joining a service.

    2. After a particular scenario (as deemed by the Referee) each character can try to raise one skill of choice that was used during that scenario. The chance to successfully raise a 0-level skill is 8+. Each skill level above that increases the roll by one. So, a 1-level skill will only increase with a roll of 9+ and so on. (This rule was essentially borrowed from Call of Cthulhu.)

    I feel these are realistic enough, without derailing the Traveller rules as written, while giving the players a little something to chew on.

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    1. Back in the 80s, I used Paul Gaziz's experience system. In his system, a skill cost N points to raise from N-1 to N. During chargen, each skill grant gave 2 points in the skill (which nicely leaves 1, 2, or 3 skill grants giving level 1, 2, or 3). To gain a skill point by training or experience, you had to roll 8+ the new level (similar to your system). If you failed, you would count the failures and add them to subsequent die rolls (so eventually you WOULD gain the skill point). You could also earn failure points by rolling a 12 while using the skill.

      It worked pretty well. We all used Books 4-6 advanced chargen.

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  16. In our AD&D campaign, we've never been focused on player level advancement. Level 10 in 10 years is the result.

    Accumulation of rare magic items affects the personal power of PCs the most, but those can be temporary and dual-edged. They are also obvious hooks for further adventuring.

    On the surface world (as opposed to the mythic underworld), things tend to be more civilized and less dangerous. As a result, gaining XP is harder there. When the party does dive deep (and survive), they return to the surface "changed" --- both in the wondrous treasure the bring back and via level advance. Returning to old haunts, with an elevated status is a big thrill for my player who are eager to interact with old acquaintances again now that the power-balance between them has shifted. For example, NPCs who once wouldn't have given a low-level party the time-of-day, now take notice. It's a nice progression as the PCs go from street-scum to mover-and-shakers in the world.

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  17. I have a different take on RPG's. I love world building, I love the nuances of a setting, and I love watching my players unravel its secrets, gain socio-political power, various goodies & wealth, etc. HOWEVER... I firmly believe that mechanical improvements to the players' characters are a huge draw to any rpg. I think that's always been a facet of the rules that has made D&D so popular, even after 4 decades: There are clear goals set, and means by which to attain them, to increase your character's "power level" within the rules structure, separate and apart from the setting. I think the games that eschew clear character advancement suffer for it: Traveller (and most GDW products, like Twilight 2000) has always had a problem with this. Many players aren't as interested in "exploring the mysteries of the setting" or "socially interacting and maneuvering", and if they begin play pretty much as "good" as they'll ever get, they can lose interest pretty quickly.

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  18. loved traveller and gdw approach to character development. when we switched to Harnmaster ruleset, the diminishing returns system worked out great.

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  19. You say your EPT characters plateaued around 6 or 7? There's a long-running Third Edition variant called "E6" which stops all level advancement at sixth - no further hit points, no additional spells per day, no access to spells above third level. After that point power only slowly accumulates as additional feats, and for the most part only feats that would have been accessible to a sixth-level character. Monsters might have more than six hit dice, but not character-types.

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    1. Yes, I remember it and thinking that it was an interesting variant. Thanks for reminding me of it.

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