Tuesday, February 18, 2014

More on XP and levels

Today I have been ruminating on character advancement.  My thoughts were directed this way by the latest DnD Next blog post which talked about character advancement without using XP.  I greatly support that style as I find the idea of counting up murder points absurd in theory and wretched in execution.  The blog post talked about how the system of 'level up whenever it seems right' will be included in the final version of Next.  This is a great idea and despite the complaints of others I think there was no reason to introduce this earlier in the process - who needs to playtest a system that consists of "do whatever you want"?

What I have been considering is what exactly should be gated by levels in my own game.  At the moment there are three things that change when a character levels up in HBT:  One Aspect (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Will, Pres) increases by one point, the character learns a new Power / Ritual / Skill / Racial Ability, and the character gains a Fate Point.  It is a simple and clean advancement system but the three categories are really different from one another and I don't know for sure that they need to be linked.  Aspects are pretty much about raw power.  Higher Aspects means bigger numbers but they don't add a lot of new options so they are the dial the GM uses to make the characters better at murdering their enemies.  Learning new things mostly improves out of combat options.  Fate Points essentially add an I Win button so that characters can have heroic and unexpected successes when they really need them.

I wonder if it would be useful to put all of these things on separate tracks.  I can easily see GMs wanting to ratchet up character power quickly so they can be superheroes and if Aspects are acquired separately it would be easy to manage this.  In the current system a character that has a ton of combat power is also going to have a bazillion Rituals and be great at tons of Skills and that may not be desirable.  Fate Points are the simplest to separate because they don't permanently change the character's abilities and so having a system where characters are awarded Fate Points for good roleplaying, taking big risks, heroic sacrifices, or other criteria would work fine alongside a level system that regulated learning and Aspects together.

Of course I can simply put all of these things in the GM's guide as optional schemes but I think relying on that is a cop out.  It is fine to have some choices available but it is important to have the best possible baseline that people accept as the standard.  My feeling at the moment is that permanent character sheet changes should be strictly regulated by levels that everyone earns at the same rate.  This also means that it is easy to integrate a new character to a game because they come in at the same point everyone else does.  Fate Points being awarded for doing cool stuff and not being limited to level seems like a fine baseline though.  It adds a way for the GM to reward doing great things in the game without letting anyone fall behind in any permanent way.


  1. I'm both leery and curious of leveling at the whim of the GM.

    Clear goals are a very effective motivator. I think removing those "objective" goals will have more impact than people expect.

    And I suspect it will work well for experienced/mature players, but there's risk that it will cause trouble among new/younger players. "The GM likes you better", "my X campaign character is stronger than your Y campaign character".

    How do you compare at RPG tournaments?

    Do you include suggestions in adventures? "At the end of this adventure, everyone should increase one level"?

    I see the flaws in the existing system. And I'm curious if your suggested system is better. But as I said, I'm wary.

  2. Unless the GM is willing to be a complete slave to the written XP system there is no avoiding GM fiat when it comes to levelling. Except for campaigns where people slaughter roomful after roomful of monsters levelling inevitably comes down to "Okay, so you killed Baroness McBad, I guess you get a boatload of experience, how much do you need to level again?" Given that story XP awards are completely arbitrary I see no reason to maintain the facade that characters level up by killing monsters. They level when the GM says they do and this system just acknowledges that.

    The other argument is that in fantasy stories characters do not wander about looking for things to kill to get more powerful. They get better by doing important things and forwarding the story. I think the game plays much better when players know that the way they advance is to do big important stuff and take some risks rather than farming orcs forever.

    Note that I don't suggest that levels be awarded player by player. Everyone should be the same level, but I think having Fate Points be awarded player by player is fine as it gives a bit of incentive to make your character interesting and do things that improve the play experience for others.

    As far as tournaments go, this is super easy. You start the characters at a given level and then note important story points (defeating major villains, saving the village, etc.) and give levels if those are accomplished. Very straightforward. Much easier, to my mind, then having GMs calculate XP rewards as the players go along.

  3. Personally, playing to level up my character is no longer a motivation for me. But if that's the kind of game that players are interested in, then I think the levels (or XPs) have to flow from a very rigorous and objective system. Any hint of GM fiat renders the PCs' actions pointless. But that system doesn't have to be based on kills or looting. Story goals with clear XP awards attached to them can work just as well. Deposing the evil tyrant is worth 10,000 XP. Rescuing the princess from a Fate Worse Than Death is worth a 5,000 XP bonus. For examples.

    But, like you said, leveling up has no analog in the fiction on which our role-playing games are based. Scraping dungeon after dungeon for power-ups is a ridiculous disservice to the mythic stories that inspired our hobby. It's a conceit of the genre that it's high time we let go. Games are so much more satisfying when played for their narrative value.

    When I set out to defeat an evil wizard, it's because I want to save the kingdom and be a hero, not because I hope to add to my collection of pillaged magic war gear, or earn another +1 on my primary stat. If I go a-questing for an enchanted item, it's a specific artifact that legends or soothsayers tell me will enable me to accomplish a specific objective. The reliquary that hides the lich-king's soul. The only blade that can pierce THIS dragon's hide. The wand of the witch who cursed our princess.

    Imagine a game in which players roll up new characters for every adventure. Would leveling up have any meaning? No. Can this game be fun? Absolutely!

    I recently read about a role-playing game called Barbarians of Lemuria in which, at the end of each adventure, the players narrate how they spend the loot, lose the ancient artifact, and are separated from their ill-begotten gains. And these tales of their profligacy or bad luck set up the next scenario. Basically they start each adventure in the same state -- broke. I like that idea a lot.

  4. How is it not GM fiat if the GM is setting the story awards? You know the players need 100 XP to level up. If you give them 40 for rescuing the prince and 50 for saving the village they don't level. If you give them 50 for the prince and 50 for the village they do level up. This isn't objective at all. No matter what it comes down to the GM ends up setting the pace of levelling directly and I don't feel that trying to obscure that or fool the players is at all useful.

    Normal people get better by practicing or studying. Legendary heroes get better by doing fantastic deeds. How fast those heroes get better is something for the GM to decide and they should decide based on the campaign design, player preference, and their own style. There is no objectivity in "Have we done enough heroic acts yet to increase our power level by the standard amount?" It is subjective and it is far better to just accept that and move on.