Hey everyone! Welcome to the first installment of “Under the Hood”. For this first outing I want to talk about character growth systems in RPGs. Systems designed with long campaigns in mind have some way for the players to grow and become more powerful as they progress. But how you set up this progression is exceptionally important. Character progression tells a lot about a game and the setting, both from a mechanical standpoint and a flavor standpoint. How do the characters progress? What do they earn that makes them better and more capable from their previous selves?
Traditionally, a level based system has been the corner stone of character progression. This provides set points where the players improve in very noticeable ways. It also gives GMs an amount of power scaling with what to expect from the players at a given level. This approach shines when having to design or balance combat encounters or otherwise purely mechanical interactions between the players and the game. With levels the players are locked into set power bands – be it newbies just coming into their own, or powerful demi-god like individuals – that can be planned around and balanced accordingly. Most importantly though, levels indicate a strong reliance on combat. If combat is to be simply another puzzle or encounter to roleplay through, using levels becomes unnecessary. But if each adventure the players go through during their grand campaigns involves a significant amount of aggressive problems to be solved, levels are a great way to keep encounters feeling appropriately challenging without accidentally squashing the players or the monsters. The drawback to level based progression is having to also take into account the pacing of improvements to avoid large stretches of time when no one is getting better. Boredom can be a killer even with significant jumps in power or proficiency once new levels are reached.
Almost always attached to levels are character classes. These offer a set of abilities and stats that direct how the character grows and what kinds of things they will be capable of as the campaign goes on. Classes, much like levels, have the most bearing on a character’s combat prowess. What class a character is determines the most useful direction they should take in order to maximum their effectiveness once diplomacy has failed. But equally important to having classes as a form of character progression is what each class says about the setting they are employed in. A setting that uses staples such as warrior, rogue, and wizard sends the signal that the game will have a more classic medieval fantasy setting, most likely containing dungeons and even possible dragons. But conventional or not, classes and what they are capable of can tell a lot about your setting. They communicate the relative technology level of the setting, whether or not it is magical, any classes tied to religion or government can gives clues to culture, and so on. Classes also push characters towards certain archetypes by providing them a framework of abilities and requirements that can restrict them to set paths. Giving up some fluidity between archetypes when using classes isn’t a bad thing if the game is designed around having a party of largely disparate archetypes.
Most systems, even those that use levels and classes, rely on stats and skills to provide the backbone of what a character can or can’t do. A list of attributes that measure a character’s overall potential that are then further expanded upon with a variety of skills they possess is a very easily understandable system that provides as much or as little granularity as necessary. Even in a fairly rigid system with little ability to cross-over between classes, a stat/skill system in addition to the leveling system is easy for players to understand and gives them additional freedom to customize their characters in whatever ways they want. A purely stat/skill system can function on its own just fine, but can run into issues with combat if players have to spend too many points or allocations on the same things just to avoid a messy death. It can also blunt feelings of growth if new skills show up at a slow pace while encounters and challenges rise at an equal level.
When designing a system then, the more you can get out of the different ways to go about having characters improve without falling into the pitfalls of any of them the better. A hybridization between the more regular trickle of improvement with skills and the large jumps in power from levels is what I choose for Mu: Age of Adventure. I like the familiarity levels and classes bring, and the focus on combat fits a setting that is full of heroism and adventure. To avoid the pitfall of a slow progression, the system also uses a variety of skills, traits, and other personal descriptors that let players reach smaller goals in between levels to avoid long stretches of homogeneity. Next week I’ll go over the systems I put in place to give players other goals to achieve and rewards to earn in between levels, but for this week my time is up. Until next time!