Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is Character Advancement Necessary?


When I was looking back over my Anthologies for this blog I was surprised I hadn’t really taken the time to cover Character Advancement. I mentioned it, briefly, in the Power 19, but I never wrote a full article on it to my satisfaction. I am correcting that oversight now.

Character Advancement is something that comes up during just about every design process. There are two questions that deal with it directly in the Power 19 and I usually give a whole section to it in my Design Outlines. The problem is that the P19 and Design Outlines don’t really give the reader any guidance as to what Character Advancement actually is nor do they state whether it is necessary for a game or not. So is Character Advancement necessary? Well… that depends on how you want to define “Advancement.”

The Provisional Glossary does not have an entry for that term, and “Advancement” gets used in many ways in many places. For a game like DnD, it usually means bigger numbers and larger resource pools. For a game like Dogs in the Vineyard, it can sometimes mean that and sometimes not. For a game like Standoff, as characters get more of what they want (Truth), their resource pools diminish- the very antithesis of DnD. So what is needed before we talk about whether or not Character Advancement is necessary for a RPG design is a common and agreed upon definition for it.

Coming to a common and agreed upon definition for any term in a community full of people where many pride themselves on individuality or who enjoy endlessly debating semantics is nearly impossible without years of work and numerous examples of that definition in practice. That’s not something one can really accomplish on a blog. Therefore, I’m not even going to try. Instead, what I am going to do is come up with a working definition for the purposes of this blog and this article. Bearing that in mind, I submit that we define Character Advancement as, “changes that happen to a character over time.”

I like this definition for several reasons. First, it is open to broad interpretation for designers and thus is unrestrictive in its use. Designers won’t be limited to what other games have termed as “advancement.” Second, it is a very inclusive definition. It covers the most traditional methods of Character Advancement as well as cutting edge techniques found in many independent roleplaying games. Third, it would be hard to find a RPG in which the player-characters do not, in some way, form, or fashion, change. And finally, I like it because this definition lets us definitively address the question this article poses.

Given the definition above, should a RPG have Character Advancement? My feeling is that it certainly should. As a story progresses, characters change. On a small scale, they age, learn, add new acquaintances, and increase their sphere of experiences. On a larger scale, they can become injured, deformed, powerful, famous, loved, hated, and so on. Mechanically in a RPG, characters can increase or decrease their resources, gain or lose access to other game mechanics (such as skills or feats), and progress further and further through the range or possible mechanical options or outcomes the game and the actual play have in store for them.

IMO, a game designer should consider all three realms of possible advancement (small scale, large scale, and mechanical) even if he rejects putting some of them explicitly into his rules text. Considering how characters might advance and how their advancement will impact other areas of the game like Setting, System, and Color is vital to ensuring a smooth transition from beginning play to finishing play. It’s been my experience that failure to include some form of advancement in a design will only force players to construct methods of advancement on their own either in conjunction with or in complete disregard of the rules as written. To me, that would not be desirable both from the designer’s perspective and the players’ perspective.

So, to sum up, character change over time is a necessary part of a RPG’s design. I call that change “Character Advancement,” and I truly believe it is a useful thing for designers to consider and implement as they create their game.