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.