Thursday, January 13, 2011

Advancement rules in roleplaying games

Numerical advancement in roleplaying games, where there is a net increase in values (skills, stats, attributes, etc.), is like treading water in a river flowing downstream. You may feel like you're swimming, but it's the current that's taking you along for the ride.

Lets take Dungeons and Dragons in the simplest form. You start with a +2 bonus. Roll a twenty-sided die and add the bonus. Against a goblin, 15 or above is a success. A little later you "advance". You now get a +4 bonus. Against the same goblin, your chance of success has improved. If that's all there was to it, it would be a real improvement. Of course, that isn't all there is to it. If you advance a few more times, your chance of success gets so high that there is barely any point in rolling. So what does the game master do to spice things up? Simple. A goblin with a helmet (need 18 or above). Or two goblins. Or an Orc (24 or above). That is, the game master has to change the odds to stop the game from becoming boring. It becomes an illusory arms race. Once you do the arithmetic, however, you're back to where you started.

If you're someone what doesn't understand maths, there isn't an issue. It's fun to think your character is getting better and better (rather than more and more uselessly complex). But what do you do if you want to play RPGs and you understand maths? You could pretend the issue doesn't exist, find a game without these silly advancement rules or modify an existing game so there is no superficial advancement.

In our next game session, I'm going to modify RuneQuest so it's not tied to any form of net numerical advancement. The only logical way to do this is to completely excise the game system. Drastic, but the entire system is tied to advancement, so it all has to go. What's left? Lots of stuff:
  • An evocative explanation of how ancient forms of combat worked
  • Great descriptions of ancient weapons and equipment
  • Good lists of professions
  • Great ideas for magic and spell descriptions
In fact, hardly anything is really lost. And there is still Glorantha. Glorious Glorantha.

Are there any RPGs that don't try this rather trite gimmick? Everything (D&D/Pathfinder, RuneQuest/HeroQuest, Traveller, Rolemaster/MERP, Burning Wheel, FUDGE/FATE, HarnMaster, T&T, Savage Worlds, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, etc.) but two games; Fiasco and Diaspora. (There may be more.)

I am left wondering how any of this came to be. I've got a few ideas.
  • The market. You can sell a lot more books if you convince people that they'll need tougher monsters and better magic items. You need more and more and more.
  • People don't understand maths. They really don't. (Myself included, a lot of the time.) It can be very confusing. So many dice, so many game systems, so much options and layers. It's difficult to figure it all out.
  • Legacy. Some guys thought it up in the 70s, so it must be right, huh?
  • Bourgeois ideology. The need to reproduce notions of progress is so deeply embedded in all thought and practice in the modern world that any progress, even non-existent progress, is clutched at.
  • People love inventing systems. Even if the system is nonsense, people just love to invent them. I don't know why.


  1. I've thought this through some more (but not fully.) For RuneQuest, at least, it may be relatively easy to remove numerical advancement, without excising the whole game system. I'll post on this soon, but basically, ditch improvement points, you only get a set amount of skill points that never increases, you can't "improve" skills/characteristics (but you can shuffle them around), you can't learn new common magic (though you can exchange). There would still be issues with divine magic and sorcery. Sigh. Not very easy.

  2. OK... What are my incentives for continued play? I ask as the hypothetical player.

  3. Good question. Obviously, as a player, if you understand the maths, numerical advancement is already no incentive for continued play, because there is no advancement.

    A simple response would be: "do you need incentives?" Isn't the story, character development, encounter with more dangerous and deadly foes, loot, and acquisition of fantastical magic sufficient incentive?

    I realise that getting a "+3 longsword" might seem like a great incentive, but wouldn't a longsword called "Edamire, dragonslayer" be far cooler?

    Therefore, advancement - better advancement - remains. In fact, now you have a *real* incentive rather than elementary arithmetic.

    Also, screw advancement. I've never played Call of Cthulhu, but I believe it involves perfectly healthy characters being driven to insanity by supernatural horrors. Fantastic!

    Chris came up with a difficult problem with this re-forming of RPGs, the aesthetic value of rolling piles and piles of dice. I used to love it when I got to add another die to my fireball spell. Sweet, 4d6, now I rule! I don't think there is any good response to this.

  4. I don't agree with your logic - as you increase in skill you get to do more and more cool stuff, if i am lousy at climbing but over 2-3 years I become adept via improvement rolls - my character can now do cool stuff.

    You are focused on the combat side, i can see what you mean - but advancement means i can fight an ogre and win whereas before 4 Goblins were really hard - so I have improved.

    GMs do up the power of monsters to give more challenge but as my skills or magic improve i can do a lot more than just remain static (relatively)

  5. I find your blog interesting but I must admit that I don't agree with these two posts. Sure it is perfectly possible to run a rpg without skill advancements, Traveller shows that, but what tends to happen instead is that characters get greater resources and skills. So you may start off with an old rust bucket and end up with a shiny star destroyer.

    In terms of skills consider boxing. 17 year old dreams of becoming world champion. he trains and he fights progressively tougher opponents. Each opponent is meant to be about the same standard so the fights never get easier, the opponents get harder. Recreating this progression is one way that role playing is both fun and different from many other forms of narrative. It's the game side of it. The challenges never get any easier but the stakes get higher and both players and GMs (hopefully) get more skilled.

    So it has nothing to do with the maths being wrong. There is a play style you're proposing which is perfectly fine as a play style but it is just that, a style.

  6. The reasoning applies to all key-value pairs, especially those that relate to dice rolls. Sure, I used a combat example, but it doesn't make any difference. Re: climbing. What do you with a climbing skill of 126%? With RuneQuest, you'll succeed 99% of the time (1% chance of fumble). The GM will have to start introducing penalties, or there will be basically no point in rolling. I like the idea of having a point to rolling the dice and I don't like having to maths fight with the players.

    It's not so much as the maths being "wrong", but unless. All of this can be performed through the narrative, rather than arithmetic. That's the point I'm trying to make. Sure, you can keep adding +3 here, +6% there, if you want, OR: you can forget all that house-keeping and let the GM get on with it. I'm not sure I can fully express how much simpler this makes everything.

    The boxing example can again be expressed with narrative, you don't have to fudge the numbers. But whatever, if you *really* your character is *actually* improving, rather than staying completely static, sure, keep adding on those plus ones.

    I'd rather provide players with advancements that are beyond arithmetic. That's all I'm trying to get at.

  7. Yahtzee sums up this issue perfectly in his WoW: Cataclysm review (it's in the last 20 seconds or so of the review). It should be clear that a game like WoW suffers from this issue far far more than even 4th edition D&D.

  8. That should be "But whatever, if you *really* [believe] your character is *actually* improving, rather than staying completely static, sure, keep adding on those plus ones."

  9. Well considered. You inspired me to respond at such length that I shoved it into my own blog rather than take up so much space here:

    Short version: I think that there are reasons why the illusion of advancement creates a visceral enjoyment even if the mathematics don't actually change (and it's much the same reason why blowing up the Death Star is cooler than shooting storm troopers, even though the filmmaking isn't actually any better); I also think that sandbox-style play lends itself to taking advantage of advancement in a meaningful way.

  10. This seems largely dependent on your playing group. I play with my wife, who is very casual with the hobby, and three other friends of varying interest. It's really one big experiment, where I introduce new play mechanics and subtract others from time to time.

    I cannot, however, remove bonuses. I get a resounding *NO* whenever I bring it up. I can't even get them to try a tiered system, novice (+1), proficient (+3) and master (+5). Why?

    They love leveling up. The thrill of applying points into something, no matter how useless it may be, is thrilling.

    So I introduced skill caps (10) and a fixed ladder of difficulty (20). They add their skill level and a d10.

  11. Dustin, have you explained that +1 means nothing whatsoever? Why not suggest that they subtract 1 every level, rather than add 1? Do it as an experiment. They *will* be utterly horrified. The game will be *exactly* the same.

    Try to suggest alternative rewards. Do you really think that your players believe arithmetic is a reward? They're probably confusing maths with advancement, progress, etc. It's easy to do. IRL more numbers - dollars, population, etc. - does mean something. In RPGs increasing numbers doesn't mean anything.

    If they are true maths geeks, maybe try giving them a differential equation every level instead.

    If all of that fails, well.... Actually, I have no more advice. Good luck.

  12. While I can see what you're saying, ledpup, I'm going to have to join the chorus of disagreement.

    For one thing, I think you're relying too heavily upon D&D or RuneQuest for your example. Both are very combat-heavy games, and even then, the progression is still valid. If my fighter becomes better at fighting, there's a reputation that precedes him. Instead of just taking on one man, he can take on an entire village of men. He can beat the king's duelist in a contest, instead of getting his ass handed to him. The strongest example is for wizards in 3.5, where you start off being able to make light, and then as the levels go on, you are literally able to move mountains. New strategic and tactical options become available.

    The departure, I think, is when you get to games that don't necessarily revolve around fighting the next big monster. I've been a fan of Shadowrun, and that's the example that came to mind for me. I ran it for years, and saw the characters progress. A player's character shelled out a ton of money for an insanely overpowered sniper rifle; he could practically one-shot kill things. I do think it was overpowered, and it was an obvious sign of advancement. That being said, his opposition never improved -- he was still fighting security guards as he was before, with the same stats, and just killed them better. The problem is, his sniper rifle didn't make him better at coming up with sound plans, it didn't offer him any protection from becoming a wanted criminal in the eyes of the police, it didn't make sure his sister was protected from his enemies while he wasn't there.

    And while you do fight bigger and badder things in D&D, and they can just increase in level with you, thus negating your advancement, they also become more and more tactically complex. They have new abilities; they might summon more enemies, they might temporarily turn you to stone, and in that sense, I think advancement is one way of easing players into situations that are more tactically-rich.

    Basically, while I agree that advancement can be somewhat negated by offering enemies that are constantly at the PC's level, I do think PC advancement can have consequences both tactically and narratively, not to mention combat-wise if the PC's opposition isn't the same level.

  13. Oh, and as an aside, I do think your reference to WoW as commented by Yahtzee is the perfect example of what you're talking about. For that matter, I think MMORPGs are the perfect example of what you're talking about. The advancement is pretty much for show only; you level up to fight enemies that are at your new level, the powers you gain are never truly different (they just do more damage), and there is no narrative to speak of. And that's why I hate all MMORPGs.

  14. Hi Skip,

    I don't mean to be a jerk here, but you don't understand my argument. I'm not having a go at advancement. I never was. I've tried to be fairly clear about that.

    Without a single ounce of numerical advancement, your fighter could just as easily take on an entire village. The GM simply adjusts his figures, when and if it's appropriate.

    Furthermore, I'm not talking about tactical options that might open up as the game progresses. (D&D gets very difficult to decipher at this point, blurring a change in numbers with a change in narrative.)

    The argument also has nothing to do with fighting. It relates to dice rolling and modifiers, nothing more.

    I have no issues with tactical complexity emerging as the game is played. That's a great way to introduce advancement into the game.

    Anyway, there isn't an issue. I offered an out: "You could pretend the issue doesn't exist [...]" If you want to play an RPG where your BAB gets a +1 every level, that's fine with me. Almost all RPGs do this, be they pen and paper or computer. D&D, RuneQuest, HeroQuest, Shadowrun, etc.

    I don't want to play an RPG like that is all.

  15. I just want you to know that I totally stumbled onto this post from link to link and really enjoyed the read. It's something I've been thinking about as well, but from a different direction: Improvement to a point makes sense, but after a (somewhat limited) amount, you've reached human maximum and there's nowhere left to go.

    I don't know if it's quite right to say that you're not advancing when you fight a Giant instead of Orcs, or Orcs instead of Goblins, since you can still fight goblins when you're an Orc-Slayer, and you can still fight Orcs when you're a Giant-Slayer.

    But I digress. I think it's an important thing to think about, and a common mistake for novice GMs to artifically increase difficulty when the players advance.

  16. I understand math rather well (imho) and I very much enjoy character advancement. When my numbers go up, I really do feel as if my character is getting stronger. I know my friends feel similarly about their characters improving. In my opinion, its an adequate way to gauge a character's power level.

    But I agree that in some way it is arbitrary because the GM buff's up the next encounter's numbers so that you virtually have no net gain from advancement (ignoring new spells/tactically evolving encounters/etc). However, it's that next encounter (be it combat, environmental, social or whatever) that gives advancement meaning. It brings up new challenges, for both the players and the GM to overcome.

    The GM is challenged by looking for new ways to engage a stronger character, which I think is most effectively done through both numbers and narrative. The players will hopefully feel the greater challenge their improvement brings. Leveling up, gaining new powers, improving in old ones; to me it makes my character feel stronger as he gets better at dealing with anything on a similar scale to what's been dealt with before (a couple goblins , piece of cake!), and prepares him for new opposition of higher grandeur (is that a dragon i hear?)

    All that said, and I apologize for rambling, I do think I understand what you are saying. An RPG that is purely driven by narrative does sound interesting. Tho, taking advancement out of the equation defeats the need for numbers in the first place. And I think the inherent problem with that is there would be no system of rules or standards to govern play. In other words, why print rulebooks? If anything, they would consist of ideas you can base your game on without complicating it with rules. Not that this is bad, but we already can draw from this in the form of fiction stories, movies, television series and other fantasy, and most importantly our own imagination. What I'm getting at is: there would be no need to print material for what you are proposing, assuming I understand you, because you can just make it up yourself. I think that's the glory of your idea. It's all governed by action and narration, not numbers, which is just another style of play.

    If you can find players interested in this playstyle, go for it! More power to ya. I personally think its not a bad idea. I've only really experienced class-based rpgs, and just recently started looking at skill-based rpgs in an effort to create a rule-system for an rpg idea i've been working on.
    Although I am just reminded of a text-based forum rpg I looked at for a while. It consisted of some base stats and traits, which were more or less arbitrary as everything you did stemmed from how well you roleplayed out your actions.
    My eyes are hardly open rereading this so sorry for any redundancies or anything I've said that doesn't make sense, lol.

  17. "[...] taking advancement out of the equation defeats the need for numbers in the first place."

    Not if the numbers relate to non-deterministic decision making, e.g., dice.

    "In other words, why print rulebooks?"

    I think that's where I ended up. All the rules started to flow into nonsense once I started to be critical of advancement. There is no need for rules and rulebooks. Books on adventures, campaigns and settings, on the other hand, become the focus.

    I don't think I could ever play a published RPG again. Once I saw them for what they were they lost my interest.

    That doesn't mean I'm not interested in Glorantha, Forgotten Realms, or the Traveller universe. In fact, I think I'm more interested in them because now I don't see them as tied to particular rules.