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.




Tommi said...

I'd say that in a short game advancement may be totally ignored.

Longer games usually need character advancement simply because characters change over time. Mechanical change is not necessary, though (as mechanical rules are not necessary).

There's also the interesting case of playing without (or barely using) formal system; fiction is the king. What do you think about such play and character advancement?

Gorsh said...


Great to have Socratic Design back, it´s my number one place to go read rpg design in clear and thought provoking terms.

Regarding this post: ¿What do you think about Spirit of the Century? I was amused by the fact that this games follow the pulp-based idea that characters don´t, actually, change between adventures. ( There is a chapter for improvements, but it´s not really mandatory and to my reading it felt like a "well, if you really want it" thing )
However, people do seem to need the advancement, as shown in this thread in SG you might find interesting about the same topic:


In the end and after that thread, i don´t know what´s my definitive opinion, but i´m inclined to think of the need for a character advancement as something not ALWAYS necessary.

As you see, this blog always becomes tasty mind-food anyway...

( on a forgotten google account )

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Tommi,

I'm not sure what you mean by a "short game." Could you explain what that is? Is it a RPG? Is it something else? :)

When you talk about playing without a formal system, I take it you mean not using a rules text. The way I use the word system, I mean "the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play." So no matter how freeform your game is, there's still methods and procedures the players follow to decide what happens in the game and what doesn't.

With that in mind, in a game where fiction is king, I cannot see how the characters couldn't change during play. Unless you are doing some really weird neo-post modern stuff, and that's just stuff I don't really care for and don't even want to start talking about on this blog :)

So...I agree that mechanical change is not necessary. But change is inevitable. In my article, I outlined 3 areas a character could "advance." Not all character advancement is about getting bigger numbers. That is a key concept to get nailed down. Advancement is not at all necessarily tied to stat increases, skill bonuses, feats, powers, hit points, spells, etc etc etc.



Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Gorsh,

Thanks for reading! :)

About Spirit of the Century. First, Fred did a lot of really creative things. I'll give you my experiences with advancement in games like this.

Advancement (character change) is handled in several ways- usually through negotiation between players. One common thing I see is players' characters accumulate contacts with non-player characters. They work to get things like favors, allies, suppliers, friends, and so on that they can use later in the game to achieve some goal. They are advancing their pool of resources, but they are doing it through what we sometimes call "roleplaying" instead of through "leveling up" or something like that.

Another way I've seen characters advance is through equipment. Getting better weapons, cars, or gear, and then tinkering with them to add extra bonuses is another form of character advancement. A scope on a rifle or a turbo charger on a car are two excellent examples. It's not "advancement" in the way that traditional games have used the word, but that's the whole point of pushing the design envelope.

It's important, IMHO, that we move beyond concepts like "characters advance by getting bigger numbers in their damge, hit points, and dice pool values" to concepts like, "characters advance by gaining new relationships," or "charcters advance by obtaining new gear," or even "characters advance by achieving a goal that was stated before play even began."

Does all that answer your question :)



Tommi said...

"I'm not sure what you mean by a "short game.""
A short sequence of rpg sessions. Depending on the speed of play, something between half an hour and three sessions, say. (Roleplay I assumed from context.)

By formal system, I mean essentially mechanics. To be more precise: Formal system is one which has a set of symbols or words with specific meanings, has a syntax or grammar where these make sense and a set of meanings associated with them. The ritual phrases and mechanics and interaction between them create a formal system in Polaris; D&D has one, too. Freeform gaming does not have one. It does have a system in the Forge sense (because everything has).

If you include nonmechanical advancement, the concept has grown large enough that it might be worth it to use another phrase for mechanical character change. It acts in a slighty different way, I think. (In D&D, alignment change is technically possible, is mechanical and is not about bigger or more numbers; hence, a difference between numbers growing and all mechanical change can be made).

Gorsh said...

Of course character advancement isn´t only about "harder better stronger faster", but in SotC this, precisely, could´ve been easily translated to Aspects: in chargen, connections to important NPCs, objects, and groups, are all "aspect-coded", so to speak. And it isn´t.

Well, in the "long game" section, the rules give place to adding aspects, but it seems enclosed to a "long game" and, if i play "pickup" one-shot adventures with my character for a long time, it isn´t explicitly allowed...

So, what you´re saying is that in your experience, people want to "improve" anyway? It all boils down to actually playing the game with real people long enough to see, so i must defer to you on this one; at least until i can see it with my own eyes ( we played sotc once, only ).
I *was* under the impression, though, that you could have fun with, and even off, the lack of change of your pcs in such a pulp-emulating way ( this week: same bidimensional hero against the same villain´s new plot to conquer or destroy the world! )...

Troy_Costisick said...


it isn´t explicitly allowed...

Not all advancement is explicitly mentioned in a game's rules. Just like all parts of a the system used by the players is not mentioned in the game's rules. Like I said, a lot of character advancement is done through negotiation between players, not by invocation of the rules' mechanics.

we played sotc once, only

I'm not sure playing Spirit of the Century once and for the first time will give you a really good idea about how characters can and will change. Note your play over several different instances and see how it goes.



Gorsh said...

I re-read the entry and you answered my point in there already... In retrospect, i was assuming that "game design" equaled "game rules design"; even though i know for certain that´s not all you "design" when you´re creating a game.

My point was that advancement wasn´t ruled, and so it ran counter to sotc rules; but you´re not advocating, in the post, for advancement rules; you´re advocating for advancement to be considered in the global design, be it in mechanics or in some less strict fashion.

My bad... Interesting discussion, anyway.

Unknown said...

All changes to a character relate back to some other part of the fiction.

Take a D&D character, for example.

You level up. You become more powerful relative to the orcs you just beat up. You become able to take on more dangerous monsters.

You gain a new skill, say Craft(armor) You now have an ability to make a change to the setting: namely, you can use the skill to make armor.

You raise your Strength a point. Your character just became stronger... and this is meaningless unless measured against other creatures in the fictional world, or measured as what you can do in the fiction.

You loot a longsword +3. You now have a new tool to use, but it's meaningless without the setting's monsters to whack on with.

As you've said, some character changes aren't codified by the rules.

You explore a new city. You-the-player now have knowledge you can apply to understand how the setting works better.

You piss off an NPC wizard who used to be an ally. Now you have an enemy, and the setting is a more dangerous place to your character.

See how these character changes are tightly coupled with the setting, situation, color, and system? They're not just changes to character.

Nargosiprenk said...

I recomend not to use "advancement", as it's meaning is usually linked to "progress", as do, wrongly, "evolution".

So, I say, as a possible example, "Character Experiences", CHE for the reds, xD.

Now seriously, good article; now I have an idea: desing a game wich will be like Tatami Galaxy: a guy who tells a story one time in one way, and other time in other way, bit with some changes:

-Every session, players will use one and the same character <8one each or one at all).
-Every session has the same initial sittuation, but must somehow derivate in different outcomes.
-Every session ends with the dead of one or more characters.

So, in this game, the character would suffer changes, but will go backwards avery time!!! No real change!!!

What do you say?

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Nargo,

It seems you are still thinking about character advancement as meaning you get bigger numbers. I think that is a bad definition. Advancement could also mean degredation of the character so long as the character is getting closer to his/her goals.

If characters don't change over time, then they aren't interesting. Since we know that they do change, what do we call that change if not advancement? I can't think of a better term.

The details of HOW character advance will be different from game to game. That's the fun of design. Or at least, a big part of the fun. Some games might give you attack bonuses. Some might give you more relationships. Some might give you more dice. Some might have you lose things that are important to you in order to highlight the one thing you care most about. All of this is different types of advancement.

Does that help?



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