Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for Advancement

Well, if I'm going to start this, it might as well be now.

I signed up to be a part of the "April A-Z Blogging Challenge" as you can tell by the logo at the right. For every day of April (except for Sundays) I will be blogging on some topic. The idea being that if you exclude the Sundays, there are 26 days to blog, then every blog post can correspond with a letter of the alphabet. Since I need an excuse to blog, this seemed like the perfect way to start.

Let's begin, shall we?

A is for Advancement
Unless you are playing in a one-shot game at a con or as a break between your normal routine, you will have to deal with the concept of your character improving over the course of the adventure. Well, you don't have to but the idea that a person can spend time in a dangerous situation and not learn something from the experience. In general, there are two ways that tabletop RPGs handle this, though computer RPGs have added a third method. I'm going to look at all three methods of advancement and weigh the pros and cons of each.

1.) Experience Levels

Perhaps the method most associated with RPGs is the level system. Throughout all the versions of the Dungeons & Dragons, this has been the method in which characters advance. Other systems, such as Palladium, also use this method. The concept is fairly straightforward. As your character adventures he or she earns experience points; either through defeating foes, finding treasure or completing a given task. When the character gains a given amount of these points, he moves on to the next level for his character type. This system is usually tied to a class system, where characters are defined by archetypal professions. Hence you get terms like "5th level rogue" or "13th level paladin". Once a character gains a level, they get all the abilities that come with that level.

The advantages of this system come from it's simplicity. Once you gain the amount of experience points to go to the next level, you do. All of the abilities that come with that level (hit points, spells, etc.) are applied and you continue on your way. In this system, certain levels become milestones for a character's development. The "name" levels of 1st edition AD&D come to mind. But with this comes the drawbacks. Under this system, things are fairly set (The only difference mechanically between two 3rd level fighters would be based on attributes and equipment). Also, some levels have been derisively referred to as "dead levels", given that the abilities gained in those levels pale to those gained at others. For example: a 2nd edition paladin can turn undead at level 4, and goes from 1 attack/round to 3 attacks/2 rounds at level 7, making levels 5 and 6 "dead" since the only benefit perceived are the normal hit point gain and attack progression. This sense of being "locked in" for advancement chafes against those that like to have some say in how their character progresses through the game. This leads to our second method.

2.) Point System
This system is similar to the first in that characters accumulate points over the course of the adventure. The only difference is that these points can be spent right away on the character. Pretty much any attribute, skill or power can be purchased or raised with this system as long as the character has enough points to cover the cost. Games that use a point-buy system for character generation like GURPS and HERO tend to use this system, though the old Marvel Super Heroes game combined random character generation with Karma points.

The main advantage is that the player can spend the points as he sees fit. This allows the maximum customization of the character. If he needs more stealth, points can be spent on stealth. If he needs more speed, points can be spent on speed. However, this method tends to be a bit more time consuming for the player. Some abilities my require more points than others, so players can be left with a pool of points unspent while their teammates take advantage of less expensive abilities. This system also tends to lend itself to munchkinism as some players may spend points based on what they see as an advantage rather than based on any character concept. Some PCs can become dangerously unbalanced if a player dumps all his points into one ability at the detriment to others.

3.) Practice makes perfect

The last method is typically seen in computer games. In this method in order to raise an ability, you have to use it. This makes a lot of sense in that abilities only get raised if they are used. There is no spontaneous boost to little used talents like with the first two methods. But the drawback? The grind, oh the grind. It's not uncommon in games like this to see someone repeat a task over and over, not because it is needed but simply to raise it to an acceptable level. Perhaps one of the worst examples is the original Final Fantasy II (the original Japanese game, the game released in the US for the Super Nintendo was actually a renamed Final Fantasy IV). In FFII every ability a character had was based on this, even hit points. In the beginning of the game, it is actually in the player's best interests to avoid wearing armor and to attack his own party, just to raise the character's hit points. This causes that game's time to be artificially extended as characters spend time between missions working on ability through random encounters rather than facing a task that is appropriate for the character's level.

So which one is the best out of the three? It's really hard to tell. Some systems tend to lend themselves well to a class/level model, while others work well on a point-buy system. Method 3 is limited to computer games for a good reason, as the accounting would become tedious for a normal person. Some games like HackMaster Basic go so far as to combine methods, granting standard level gains with a number of points to be spent on customizing the character within the parameters of the class. Growing up with D&D and Marvel Super Heroes, I tend to see fantasy as a level system and superheroes as a point-buy, though games like Fantasy HERO and Heroes Unlimited reverse that concept and have worked well for me in past games.

Ultimately, the main determinant is whether the players feel that they are accomplishing something. Regardless of the system or the genre, players need to feel that their character's actions are accounting for something. Whether it's a few points in a skill or the gaining of "name" level, advancement is something all players, and their characters, look out for.

(Level Up image from the City of Heroes website.

1 comment:

  1. Great post on the different ways to advance. And you're right, advancement is something that is looked for when playing.