Sunday 11 May 2014

Approaches to levelling in RPGs

I burst through the wooden door, sending a cascade of splinters over the stone floor. Stepping across the threshold my eyes fall on the gaunt, pale creature standing above the black altar, eyes like hot brands and teeth like nails. The lich and I meet in glorious battle, exchanging blows and flinging spells. Finally I land the killing blow and the creature, screaming, evaporates into the netherworld.

Suddenly I feel myself get a bit smarter, stronger and, strangely, more charismatic. I discover I know skills which were previously hidden to me, like how to summon a great bear from the earth. I feel...healthier. What the hell is going on?

From a purely gaming standpoint, levelling absolutely makes sense (and by levelling, I mean character advancement in general). You usually reach a pre-determined number of experience points, which rewards you with a bounty of new upgrades for your character. It's a tried and tested formula that gives players more reason to continue with the campaign.

But if you look at it from a logical point of view, levelling is a strange thing. Having you acquire a bevy of new knowledge mostly from whacking things until they can be whacked no more is a weird notion. Sure, you may get some experience points for great roleplaying, or using your wits in a clever way, but on the whole with games like D&D you're advancing because you're killing.

Call of Cthulhu takes a slightly more logical approach to levelling by having characters advance in skills that they have used. Moreover, they're more likely to advance in skills that they are new to, rather than ones they have almost mastered. I took a leaf from this method with my own USR system, having players acquire new skills only if that's a skill they had tried out during the session.

Pure skill progression like this makes sense as it fits with both character and story, but, let's face it, people really like to have cool new abilities to look forward to. How can this be rectified if you're looking for a more logical way of advancing a character?

One option could be to tie this part of advancement directly to the story. Rather than a druid suddenly learning animal shape because they have hit a new level, perhaps as part of the story the druid must describe how she learns her new power at the end of the session. Maybe she seeks out a known druid master around the area to seek his guidance, or perhaps she sees the ghost of one of her ancestors, who imbues her with the power. This option uses the current traditional design, but encourages a little more flavour when it comes to levelling.

Another option is to put levelling into the hands of NPCs in your story. There would be no intrinsic advancement within a PC, but instead certain NPCs would be 'advancement characters'. These characters would be met at certain points in the story to train the PCs, give them new equipment or to do something else that increases their abilities in some form. PCs could meet advancement characters everytime a storyline wraps up, or when an important story thread is about to open up (such as taking a country to war or storming the big bad's fortress).

There are many other considerations when it comes to levelling, but it's interesting to ponder how character advancement could be tied more to the story. Still, sometimes you just want a game where smashing a lich in the face nets you the power to create a fire tornado.

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