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
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.