Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Experience in world-based role-playing games

Jerry Stratton, October 7, 2006

Most “world games” were, and perhaps still are, based on pre-existing game systems. If it was a licensed product, the company buying the license added the world information to a pre-existing game. Chaosium’s 1981 Stormbringer, 1983 Ringworld, 1984 Elfquest, and 1986 Hawkmoon used the RuneQuest/Basic Role-Playing system. Palladium’s 1985 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and 1986 Robotech used the Palladium system. TSR’s 1990 Buck Rogers game used AD&D as its base.

Some, such as Chaosium’s Thieves’ World, included no rules, instead providing statistics for several games.

Even today, Steve Jackson Games licenses many properties and adds them to the GURPS lineup.

“A game which doesn’t include an entire pre-designed universe is frequently considered a throwback,” wrote Ian Harac at the end of the eighties (January 1988 Gateways, issue 7, “Spectral Analysis”).

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu cover

Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, introduced in 1981, was on the cusp of a new wave of games that fit the rules to the world, in this case the literary worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. Like most Chaosium games, Call of Cthulhu was based on the Basic Role-Playing system derived from RuneQuest.

“As you go through this book, you’ll learn a basic role-playing system. The booklet explains the game mechanics which define Lovecraft’s world.”

What makes Call of Cthulhu especially interesting from a character advancement perspective is the sanity characteristic.

Other than the addition of sanity, there wasn’t much difference—in the rules—from the Basic Role-Playing system. But that one change was a big one. Sanity changed the game. Character improvement, while important and useful, often took a back seat to avoiding sanity loss. Character improvement was not as important as stopping character degeneration.

Sanity pretty much never improved; it only declined. It might fluctuate over the course of an adventure, but from adventure to adventure sanity spiraled downwards. The lower it went, the harder it was to keep. When sanity reached zero, the character was taken out of the player’s control. The character didn’t die (necessarily), but was no longer played either. They became a non-player character under the GM’s control.

Losing a character in this way wasn’t losing the game. It was, for many of us, a goal. Keeping a character alive long enough to go stark raving mad was a successful outcome. In that respect, it was a little different from later, similar mechanics. But sanity was clearly the forerunner of Cyberpunk’s “Humanity”, Shadowrun’s “Essence”, and Vampire’s “Humanity”. Just as in Call of Cthulhu, those stats pretty much never went up, only down, and when the statistic reached zero the character was out of the game. But unlike Call of Cthulhu, that was rarely considered a successful outcome.

The death of a single investigator matters little if it means the repulsing of part of Cthulhu’s master plan to enslave all Earth!

Characters who survive will gain in power from arcane volumes of forgotten lore, knowledge of horrendous monsters, and experience in their skills. Characters will continue to progress until their demise or retirement.

The means of improving skills was the same as that of RuneQuest. Call of Cthulhu’s second edition uses the same basic rule as RuneQuest’s second edition: roll a d100 higher than the skill’s current score and add 1d6 points to the skill. The fourth edition gave characters 1d10 points to the skill on a successful check. In neither version could the character’s Cthulhu Mythos skill be increased in this manner.

Cthulhu Mythos skill is gained only by insane insights into the nature of the universe or by reading forbidden books. Increases due to insanity and reading books are permanent. This skill will decrease a character’s maximum SAN. A character’s Sanity may never be higher than 99 minus his Cthulhu Mythos skill level. Once learned, Cthulhu Mythos cannot be forgotten.

Sanity had its own chapter in the rules. Characters began the game with a Sanity score equal to their Power (3d6) times five. Whenever a character found themselves in a situation which could cause insanity (such as viewing a mythos creature), they needed to roll their Sanity or less on d100, or lose sanity points.

In the game’s second edition, some circumstances could cause Sanity to rise: if a character improved a skill to 90%, they could increase their Sanity by 2d6. If they defeated a creature that caused Sanity loss, they could improve their Sanity as well (as long as they were not currently insane). These methods were optional rules in the fourth edition, but among those optional rules was also a suggested sanity increase for good role-playing and for completing an adventure.

However, the character’s knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos reduced their maximum Sanity. When characters saw things involved with the mythos, they might go insane. If they went insane, they gained 5 points to their Cthulhu Mythos score the first time, and 1% each subsequent time. As their knowledge of the mythos rose, characters became more and more susceptible to insanity, and came closer and closer to becoming permanently insane non-player characters.

Since the purpose of the game was to learn enough about the mythos to oppose it, Sanity inevitably went down. The further down it went, the more likely it was to go down further.

The threat of insanity in the Call of Cthulhu rules characterizes the Mythos in a way which allows no compromise. Exposed to it, few sane humans freely choose the Mythos, for the Mythos is intrinsically loathsome and foul. The connection of Sanity points and Cthulhu Mythos points emphasizes the power of the Mythos, which corrupts and ruins by proximity and association. The sanity rules prove to us our own fragility. All that which we thought strong becomes delusory and false, while madness sometimes becomes a necessary condition for truth.

Players were also encouraged (in the fourth edition) to voluntarily remove their characters from play when their Sanity dropped to ten or lower. “In such straits in real life, most people would pull back from the action and perhaps put themselves in sanitariums. So should investigators.”

In a very real sense, the more successful the CoC investigator, the more likely they were to be removed from play. Sanity represented one simple change to the basic rules, but they made the world.

Recon: The Roleplaying Game of the Viet Nam War

From Role Playing Games, Inc. in 1982, Recon focused specifically on the Vietnam conflict. You can download the whole thing from the Palladium cutting room floor (Palladium bought it “back in the mid-80s”).

Recon’s experience system was interesting in that it was very specific that experience was a group benefit.

In most role-playing games there is a system where the characters can earn points to improve. The points in RECON are awarded to the unit; you are part of a team. That total will be divided by all of the members of the team.

Points were acquired for individual activity as well as for group activity, but all experience awards went to the group’s total.

Characters gained points for “every incident” where the character used one of their skills. An incident might well mean lots of uses of the skill. Hand-to-hand skills resulted in a 20 point award per incident, small arms and heavy weapons a 10 point award per incident, and non-weapon skills a 15 point award per incident. Points were awarded for skill use, not for any skill-like action.

Points accumulate only if the character is using a particular skill. You would get points for throwing a grenade using the Grenade Throw Skill, not for throwing grenades against your Agility if you didn’t possess the skill. You would get points for using the Detect Mines or Detect Ambush Skills, not for every Alertness roll made by a character.

This would appear to reward unarmed combat over armed combat and non-weapons skills over armed combat as well. But it also rewarded using a variety of techniques during each incident and letting the character with the appropriate skill perform the action. It would also have rewarded breaking large incidents into smaller incidents. All of these were likely to encourage the kind of gaming appropriate for combatting or engaging in guerilla warfare as the game saw it.

Team actions also resulted in experience awards. Teams gained 25 points of experience for “every human Contact situation the team successfully avoided detection” of. A human contact situation might be an individual or an entire village. Teams lost 25 points for unnecessary human contact situations the team failed to avoid.

Teams gained 10 to 20 points for each individual enemy “involved in the mission”. They gained these points whether the team fought those enemies, contacted them, or completely avoided them.

Characters had the ability to survive 2d100 points of wounds damage (their Strength). Damage suffered by any team member reduced the team’s experience award, even if the damage was successfully treated by the team’s medic. If a character died, the team’s experience award was reduce by twice the damage needed to kill that character.

Once the team’s total experience was calculated, it was divided by “the number of recons [characters] that started the mission (a recon that is killed may have added points for skills before he was zapped). Each recon will receive the same share; if one character is skating and not doing his share, it is up to the team members to get him into line.”

Players could use experience points to purchase new skills or improve existing skills. Hand to hand skills were less expensive than non-weapons skills, which were less expensive than small arms skills, which were less expensive than heavy weapons skills. Basic characteristics (strength, agility, alertness) cost the most to increase.

A character could not get a bonus with any skill of greater than 99% (improvements appear to be purchased in 5% increments). If any of a character’s skills “approached” 99%, the character should be “rotated stateside” and taken out of the game.

James Bond 007

James Bond 007 cover

Victory Games’ 1983 James Bond 007 was one of the first games to really start from scratch and create rules specifically for the world.

Experience Points were a lot like character Generation Points, but, as in GURPS, improvements cost significantly more using Experience Points than they would have if paid for using Generation Points. The difference was especially marked for characteristics. Skills remained relatively inexpensive to purchase. New skills cost the same as when generating a character, but skill improvements were more expensive.

Characters gained 500 experience points for each session. If the player “role-played well” they gained up to 50% extra experience. If they “role-played poorly” they lost up to 50% experience. The experience award was doubled if the session completed the mission and the mission was successful, quartered if the session completed the mission and the mission was unsuccessful. Rookies gained only 3/4 of the experience award, 00s (i.e., 007, etc.) gained twice the experience award.

New GMs were cautioned against modifying experience for role-playing, “until you are experienced as a GM and can tell good role-play from poor”.

Experience Points could also be used to borrow equipment from Q Branch for one mission. If the equipment survived it needed to be returned when the mission was completed.

The characters could also gain Hero Points. Unlike Experience, Hero Points were awarded during play. Whenever a player made a “Quality Rating 1” roll for a non-combat skill, they gained a hero point. This encouraged players to have their characters attempt lesser Bond-like actions on the path to the great confrontation: a Quality Rating 1 seduction attempt meant an extra hero point for use in a life-or-death situation. Gamesmasters were encouraged to deny hero points if they thought the players were bogging down the game with extra rolls solely to gain hero points.

The Gamesmaster was given the option of awarding hero points for “accomplishments that do not rely on dice rolls, such as successfully completing a mission or coming up with an ingenious escape from a trap”.

Hero points could be used to modify the results of any roll made by the player’s character or directed against the player’s character. If the character’s roll was a failure, one hero point would change it to Acceptable, two points to Good, three points to Very Good, and four points to a Quality Rating 1, Excellent. Similarly, rolls directed against the player could be reduced to lesser quality or even to a failure.

James Bond 007 was the first major game to include points for modifying rolls in this manner. Other games had house rules for experimenting with Luck, but Luck was something that the character had. Hero Points were something that the player had. Luck was part of the world, but Hero Points were part of the game.

Another one of the things that player characters gained as they were successful in James Bond 007 were Fame Points. The more Fame Points the character gained, the more likely they were to be recognized, and the less useful they were as a secret agent. This made Fame Points very much like Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity: success led to being taken out of the game.

It may happen that your character has such a high Fame Point total, he will be recognized by almost everyone he meets. At this point, your character may have to retire from the field and accept a desk job at M.I.6. You may then create a new character.

Players could use experience points to remove Fame Points, but this was expensive: 100 experience points reduced Fame by 1. A character gained 15 Fame Points for each “Major Villain” killed, 10 points for each “Privileged Henchman” killed, 5 points for “each person the character kills intentionally”, and 3 for each completed mission, whether successful or not.

This was justified as “a deterrent against the pointless killing of insignificant NPCs by characters”. But it must have also acted as a deterrent against killing major NPCs, too. Each major NPC killed would eventually cost 1,000 to 1,500 experience points if the player wanted to keep playing the character.

Marvel Super Heroes

Marvel Super Heroes cover

As with the James Bond game a year earlier, the Marvel Super Heroes rules were designed to emulate a specific fictional world, in this case Marvel Comics. Abilities were kept in simple, wide levels from (for randomly-created characters) Feeble through Monstrous. Above Monstrous were Unearthly and Class 1000 (beyond human comprehension). Unearthly was reserved for characters such as The Watcher (Reason, Intuition), Dr. Strange (Psyche), and Thor (Fighting, Strength, Endurance).

As in James Bond 007, characters gained points that could affect dice rolls. In Marvel Super Heroes, these points were called Karma. Characters began the game with Karma equal to the sum of their Reason, Intuition, and Psyche numbers, which would likely mean from around 30 to around 150 Karma. Die rolls in Marvel Super Heroes were d100, so at most 99 points were required to turn a failure into a success; fewer points were required to turn a success into a better success.

At the end of each game, the characters gained Karma “for doing heroic things, like saving innocent people and arresting criminals… Besides these hero kinds of things, though, we get Karma for everyday things like getting together with friends, working at a steady job, and keeping our personal lives in order.”

Characters lost Karma for letting their “personal life fall apart” or avoiding their friends. They also lost Karma for unheroic things such as committing crimes and being defeated. The bigger the crime, the more Karma they received. They gained four times as much Karma for stopping a “global conspiracy” (40 points) as for stopping a theft (10 points), for example. Characters lost all Karma if they killed someone or took no action to prevent the death of an innocent person that they “could have saved”.

Even characters “with a penchant for killing”, such as Wolverine, lost Karma if they killed someone. Such characters would find it useful to join a supergroup so as to place their Karma in the group’s Karma pool: pooled Karma was not affected by Karma losses.

Characters in Marvel Super Heroes did not generally improve their powers and skills. Unlike the Bond game, players were generally expected to play pre-existing characters, heroes from the Marvel Universe. All of the adventures from TSR came with pre-made versions of the Marvel characters for the players to use. In this environment, change wasn’t necessarily seen as good.

The ability for a character to “advance” was a special ability that the player needed to pay for with Karma. The player needed to spend 200 Karma to create an Improvement Fund; those 200 Karma were lost. Once the character had an Improvement Fund, they could place Karma into that fund for use “only to improve powers and abilities or gain new powers.” These also were expensive. Increasing an Ability or Power from Excellent to Remarkable, for example, cost 3,000 Karma. Poor to Typical would cost 600 Karma. No Ability or Power could be raised “more often than once per game year.”

New powers cost 3,000 Karma, plus several hundred to a few thousand more depending on the Rank of the new power, which was randomly chosen. For example, gaining a power at Excellent would cost 5,000 Karma.

Characters could gain new Talents for 500 Karma. “Only one new talent can be gained each game year. The hero must spend time learning the skill, either by going to school or through on-the-job training.” Taking on this responsibility also opened up the hero to new possibilities for Karma loss if the character failed to meet their new school or job requirements.

DC Heroes

DC Heroes cover

DC Heroes introduced nearly completely universal statistics. A Strength 6 could lift a weight 6 object. A character with Flight 6 could travel Distance 6 within a single phase of time.

Starting at 0, these “Attribute Points” measured ranges that doubled for each succeeding number. A 0 distance was 0-10 feet, making a 6 distance 101 to 200 yards. These numbers could be subtracted from each other; multiplication and division were generally unnecessary. For example, the time to get somewhere was found by subtracting speed from distance.

A character with Flight 5 who needed to move Distance 8 would take Time 3 to do it. Since Time 0 was 0 to 4 seconds, Time 3 was 17 to 32 seconds. That character with a Strength 6 lifting a Weight 4 object could toss it Distance 2 (or 21 to 40 feet).

This allowed DC Heroes to have an open-ended statistics system that still handled characters as diverse as Green Arrow and Superman.

As in James Bond 007 and Marvel Super Heroes, characters gained points—Hero Points—that could affect die rolls made on behalf of a character, as well as improve the character’s statistics.

Hero Points are the currency of DC Heroes. They are earned, like money, in various ways during your adventures. They are also spent like money, and they can help you obtain Powers and Skills, or temporary increases in your character’s Acting, Effect, Opposing, or Resistance Values.

In DC Heroes, both player and non-player characters got to use Hero Points. If a player and the Gamemaster tried to use Hero Points against each other, they got to keep bidding higher and higher until one of them gave up; then both spent their points and the dice were rolled.

As in earlier point-based games, players used the same points to build their characters as they did later to improve them: Hero Points. New characters were usually built on 250 Hero Points. As in James Bond 007, improvements cost more after play started than while creating a character.

New Powers were especially expensive, costing ten times the cost listed for character generation simply to get to 0 Attribute Points in the Power. New Skills, by contrast, only cost five times the base cost. Characters could even gain new skills by training rather than spending Hero Points.

Characters gained Hero Points based on the level of their opposition, how many “critical noncombat tasks” needed to be accomplished, and on “how large an area” would be affected if their opposition succeeded. Generally, the Standard Award would be from about 20 to about 50. Characters gained one Standard Award for each of:

  • Participation: the character took part in the adventure and did not “deliberately” enter “Killing Combat”.
  • Role Playing: “If the Player’s role playing is consistent with the character’s personality and Motivations.”
  • Saving Innocent Bystanders: “If the conflict between the hero and the villains endangers the lives of innocent bystanders, DC Heroes will always attempt to save the bysanders. If the Player character succeeds and saves innocent bystanders, this award is given.” Deliberately targeted victims did not count as innocent bystanders.
  • Thwarting the Villain: If they foiled the villainous plans of their opposition.

If the player showed “exceptional creativity in role playing” the GM could award an extra Hero Point and up to an extra Standard Award. If the player generated a subplot and role played it, they gained either a Standard Award or 15 Hero Points, whichever was greater. Players chose subplots and then presented them to the GM, who could choose to bring them into play.

You, the Player, can create your own Subplots by using the guidelines below. You get to write some of the ongoing saga of your character instead of just letting the Gamemaster have all the fun. A Subplot is a way for you to directly particpate in the creation of the story in which your hero is the central figure.

If a subplot got out of hand, the player had the option of “pulling the plug” on it, though their character would then not gain any Hero Points for that subplot.

Creeks & Crawdads

Creeks and Crawdads cover

Comedic (deliberately, anyway) games began to be popular in the mid-eighties. Paranoia and Toon came out in 1984, Ghostbusters came out in 1986, Teenagers from Outer Space in 1987, Macho Women with Guns in 1988. TSR even jumped on the bandwagon with Rocky and Bullwinkle in 1988.

M. Martin Costa’s 1986 Creeks and Crawdads spoofed Dungeons & Dragons and provided satirical commentary on then-existing post-holocaust role-playing games. There would be “no mutants, no crazed war vets returning home, no cryogenic sleepers trying to change civilization. Not even the vultures to pick their bones.”

In other words, no Gamma World, no Twilight 2000, no Morrow Project. The most intelligent creature to survive was the common crawdad, which “found itself evolving towards intelligence.”

The running joke of the game is that “no matter how smart a crawdad gets, it’s still pretty stupid.” Failure in this game was supposed to be more fun than success.

…in most other games the point is to role-play a clever character and do clever things (or violent or heroic or whatever). In C&C the idea is to play a stupid character doing stupid things. Think of the dice rolls as a vehicle by which you are given an opportunity to do very stupid things at unexpected times and have lots of fun at everyone else’s expense.

Characters didn’t even generally gain capability by finding things, because they usually didn’t remember how to use it in the morning.

Experience in Creeks and Crawdads was very simple, probably because it was also one of the first acknowledged “beer and pretzels” role-playing games: at the end of each game, players added one to one of their nine characteristics. They could not add one to that characteristic again until they added one to all of the other eight.

There was an exception “when you make a spectacularly successful role” against a characteristic. At the Creekmaster’s discretion (with a unanimous vote from the players expected to “carry some weight”) the player could put a checkmark next to that characteristic. Three to five checkmarks later (“CM discretion, again”) that characteristic was increased immediately by one.

Characters could not have any given score raised above the maximum rollable for their profession during character creation.

Ars Magica

Ars Magica cover

Ars Magica created its own world, an edgy shadow world of near-immortal misfits descending from ancient Houses with names such as Mercer, Tytalus, and Tremere. If that sounds familiar, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was written (in 1987) by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein*Hagen. Rein*Hagen would go on to write 1991’s Vampire; Jonathan Tweet would write 1992’s Over the Edge.

In Ars Magica, players had multiple characters: a magi, a companion to the magi, and one or more underlings (grogs). The rules recommended that players take turns as storyguide. A group of players with their multiple characters was called a troupe.

The rules advised storyguides to “reward roleplaying”:

Just like children, we want rewards for a job well done, even if that reward is nothing more than verbal praise. So, if a member of your troupe plays above and beyond the accepted norm, don’t let his efforts go unrewarded. Publicly thank him for the session. With luck, this will inspire dramatic competition in the next game session.

More tangible rewards came in the form of “story experience”. Experience points could be used to increase Abilities (skills) and to master spells.

At the end of each story, the storyguide determines how successful the characters were and to what extent their actions reflected their natures. They are then rewarded with experience points in proportion to their success and roleplaying skill.

Stories of moderate magnitude meant one or two experience points, stories of high magnitude meant two or three experience points, and stories of extreme magnitude meant three or more experience points. Characters also received one or two points for roleplaying: one if the character “was decently roleplayed” and two for “exceptional roleplaying”.

Players could only spend experience on Abilities if the Ability was used during that story, nor could they invest “more than one experience point in any given Ability per story.”

Players needed to keep track of the experience invested in each Ability (or spell). Each Ability ranged from about 3 to about 5 to 9, and required the current score, plus one, experience points to improve. Increasing an Ability with a score of six would mean investing one experience point in that Ability over seven sessions.

Depending on the kind of Ability, characters could also accumulate experience points in an Ability through training, practice, various forms of lectures or seminars, and repeated exposure. Repeated exposure worked best if the character had an above average intelligence.

Characters also started with three Confidence points. Confidence points measured “a character’s solid belief in his ability to accomplish his goals.” Confidence points could be used to improve the character’s chance of success on a stress roll. Stress rolls were used whenever there was both a chance of extraordinary success and a chance of extraordinary failure.

Whenever a player needed to make a stress roll, the player could, basically, bet some or all of those Confidence points as a bonus to the stress roll. If the bonus meant the stress roll was successful, no Confidence were lost, but if the roll was unsuccessful even with the bonus, those Confidence points were lost “temporarily, gaining them back in a week or two, or when you succeed at some vitally important task without using Confidence.”

Characters could gain Confidence if a stress roll on which they used Confidence came out to exactly what was needed to succeed. The player would then roll d10 and if the result exceeded their current Confidence total, they gained a Confidence point.

If the player expended confidence on a botched roll, one point was lost permanently. However, they never lost their last Confidence point in that manner.

A character with high Confidence was very likely to succeed in tight situations.

Finally, magi in Ars Magica moved towards Wizard’s Twilight. Twilight was good and bad: Temporary Twilight gave the magus “new insights into their arts”. But once a character accumulated 24 Twilight points, the magus “passes into final Twilight and departs from this realm”.

Magi could gain Twilight points from botching a spell, from using longevity potions (each twenty years gave them one Twilight point), and from studying Vim, the magical art concerning raw magical power.

Magi with more Twilight were more likely to gain even more Twilight: they added their current Twilight score to their roll when checking to see if they entered temporary Twilight. Temporary Twilight rolls were made when the character encountered “a powerful, uncontrollable magical force” such as multiple botches on a spellcasting attempt or exposure to powerful, wild magic.

Teenagers from Outer Space

Teenagers from Outer Space cover

Mike Pondsmith’s 1987 Teenagers from Outer Space was a light-hearted comedy, where characters were teens making sense of high school and why their date occasionally turned into a big monster. In this game, experience was given to encourage the players to do all the strange stuff the game wanted them to do.

Many roleplaying games have something called “Experience Points”—a sort of scoring system that lets you win points to make your character better. While we’re of the considered opinion that having a good time playing the game should be reward enough, we recognize the need for Pavlovian reinforcement in a well-run game.

At the end of each game, players were awarded zero to three Teener Points by secret ballot. Each player voted zero to three for each player (including themselves) and the result was averaged and rounded up.

Players used Teener Points to increase their Knacks (basically, skills). A Knack could be increased to a maximum of six, and each Teener Point increased a Knack by one.

While this theoretically meant that Knacks could increase very quickly, there was a limit to how useful that was to the player. TFOS included the concept of rolling too well.

In most roleplaying games, the higher your Stats or Knacks (sometimes called Skills), the better your Teenager does. But in Teenagers (just like in Real Life), we reward mediocrity by grading on the curve. This means if you make a successful Stat or Knack too high, it will start to backfire on you.… A smart Teenagers player never, ever lets his Knacks or Stats get too high—or else.

Depending on the game, “too high” meant that the roll was from 1 to 6 more than it needed to be. If a player rolled too high, their action was too successful. The girl they asked out fell madly, stalkingly in love with them. Their new mustache gained a cult following.

Players could also “cash in those Teener Points for cold hard cash on a one to one basis (1 point = 1 Teener Buck).”

Living Steel

In the January 1988 Gateways (issue 7), Ian Harac’s review of Living Steel included a note about the experience system:

The experience system, however, has a few twists that are unique. Experience is gained in the usual manner, experience points, and also by fulfilling ones [sic] “Karmic Path”. If you have chosen a Karmic Path of Honor, for example, then you gain points (slowly) by being honorable. Experience is rather slow in coming in this game, and with death such a common occurance [sic], it might seem that characters have little chance of improving. However, this is mitigated by the fact that if a players character is killed, his/her next character gains a portion of the deceased characters experience. Thus, the dead characters ‘dreams and ideals’ can live on.

Shadowrun

Shadowrun cover

In 1989 FASA’s Shadowrun combined D&D-style fantasy with Cyberpunk grit and took the roleplaying world by storm. Characters in Shadowrun gained Karma “for surviving an adventure” and more Karma for doing “well in the process”. Specifically, characters gained Karma as a team and as an individual.

Teams gained one Karma Point for surviving the adventure, 1 Karma Point for each objective that the team achieved, and zero to three Karma Points depending on the level of danger in the adventure.

Individuals gained one Karma Point if the player “mostly stayed in character” or two points for “really good roleplaying”. They gained one or two points for “guts”, that is, being “brave and/or effective”, one point if the player came up with “a clever strategy” or solved a puzzling clue. “This includes those smart enough to know when to surrender or run.”

They gained one point for being in the right place with the right skill when they didn’t know ahead of time that skill would be needed. They also gained one point for “a surprising and effective strategy”.

A player gained one point if, “acting in character, [they] paralyze the entire gaming group with laughter… We are in this for fun, after all.” They also could gain a point if “acting in character” they impressed the group “with a particular piece of high drama (maybe even if its high melodrama)”.

Thus, characters generally gained from four to twelve or so Karma points for any adventure.

Karma could be used on die rolls, or to increase a character’s abilities.

Shadowrun used dice pools to roll for successful outcomes. Most die rolls involved multiple dice. Each die that come up at or above the target number was a success. Each die that didn’t was a failure, and if all dice came up ones, that was a disastrous failure.

Players could use a point of Karma to reroll all failed dice in their roll as long as all dice were not ones. They could use a point of Karma to avoid that “rule of one” and turn “a disaster into a simple failure”. They could use two Karma to buy a single success either for themselves or for a non-player character who was trying to help them. Or they could use two Karma to “buy off” one of an opponent’s successes.

Players could also use Karma to permanently increase their capabilities.

A character could have their physical and mental attributes (body, quickness, strength, charisma, intelligence, willpower) increased by no more than one point. A player could not increase a character’s attribute more than once. Attributes (for humans, anyway) ranged from 1 to 6, and the cost to increase them was the current score. “For example, raising Strength to 5 costs 4 Karma points.”

Skills cost twice the current score to increase by one. Shadowrun also had the concept of “concentrations” within skills and “specializations” within concentrations. For example, the character might concentrate in Urban Stealth rather than just Stealth; or a Beretta Model 101T rather than Pistols, or Pistols rather than Firearms.

Concentrations cost one and a half times the current score, and specializations cost the current score.

This made that one point of attribute enhancement very practical. It was significantly less expensive than skill enhancement or was more generally useful.

Magicians also used Karma to bond enchanted items, such as spell foci, “so that they may use it.”

Shadowrun characters also had Essence. A character’s Essence began at six. If they installed cyberware, they lost Essence. A character couldn’t install more cyberware than they had Essence, or they become non-player characters.

Normally, Essence loss was under the control of the player so that all it did was limit how much cyberware they could install in themselves.

Magicians, however, had their Magic Rating tied to Essence, and their Magic Rating was susceptible to permanent damage if they received a Deadly Wound or underwent surgery where the surgeon was not extra careful (did not take a +2 penalty to success rolls), they ran the risk of reducing their Magic Rating by 1 point. If their Magic Rating dropped to zero, they were no longer a Magician.

In the rough world of Shadowrun, Magicians needed to maintain enough Karma to keep from suffering Deadly wounds, if they wanted to continue being a Magician.

Vampire

Vampire cover

Mark Rein*Hagen’s Vampire followed Shadowrun’s storm with a hurricane. Vampire spread outside of the gaming community into the goth community where it became a huge part of the Live Action Role Playing movement.

Vampire had a special chapter describing “all the ways a character can change during the course of the Chronicle.” Among those ways were Experience and Humanity.

One of the most exciting things about playing characters is seeing them change over time. Watching them develop and grow is like watching a child grow up before your eyes. However, in Vampire, development doesn’t always mean the character gets better. Oftentimes it means the character is slowly and steadily sinking into the abyss. Such is the nature of this game. Focus on getting better and surviving the rough periods, and try to appreciate the artistic impact of losing your Humanity or your mind.

Vampire’s Humanity appeared to be heavily influenced by Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity. As a vampire gave in to their nature, they lost their Humanity. Humanity, for a vampire, “indicates how much the Beast [vampirism] has taken of their soul.”

Whenever a character took a morally questionable action, it might warrant a Humanity roll against one of three Virtues (Conscience, Self-Control, or Courage). If the roll failed, the character lost one point of that Virtue as well as one point of Humanity.

Characters might well take morally questionable actions outside of the control of the player: vampires could go into Frenzy when they needed blood.

While it was rare, a character could gain one point of Humanity through a “prolonged and consistent artistic or aesthetically-based behavior” but Humanity was generally “nearly impossible” to maintain over the long-term.

A character with no rating in Humanity becomes a totally inhuman monster and is no longer under the control of the player. A new character must be created if the player wishes to continue playing. There are no exceptions to this rule.

While a player wasn’t allowed to play a character with zero (Monstrous) Humanity, they could play characters that fell to Bestial or Horrific (two and one Humanity).

Characters also gained one to three experience points at the end of each game session, and one to three additional experience points at the end of each story.

Besides an automatic point for playing the game, session experience was also awarded for an “educational experience”, if the player could describe what their character learned, and for exceptional roleplaying. “In most cases, only award this to the person who did the best roleplaying in the Troupe.”

At the end of the story, each player gained one point if the characters achieved “at least a marginal victory”, one point if the characters “experienced great danger” and survived it, and one point if the player “exhibited great wits or resources and came up with an idea that enabled the story to result as a success”.

Story Guides were given the option of coming up with other categories if they wanted to “award even more points so that the characters will develop more quickly”.

Players could use experience to increase their Attributes, and to gain or increase Abilities (skills) and Disciplines (special vampiric powers).

New Abilities cost 3 points, new Disciplines cost 7. Abilities could be increased by spending twice the Ability’s current rating and Attributes by four times the Attribute’s current rating.

Improving a discipline cost three times its current rating if it was within the vampire’s clan, and five times if it was outside the vampire’s clan.

During character creation, the player was guided through prioritizing disciplines, abilities, and attributes, so that choosing those scores was not purely a point-cost character creation system. But at the end, the player received 15 point to allot to any of their character’s scores. Attributes cost 5 points per extra “dot”, or number. Abilities cost 2 points per extra dot, and Disciplines 7 points per extra dot.

On a relative basis, improving Attributes and Disciplines became easier after character creation than improving Abilities, probably because vampires didn’t learn as easily as mortals did. “We mortals are learning machines, and we learn constantly—almost despite ourselves.… Vampires do not find it as easy to learn, for the inertia of their deaths is hard to reverse.”

Summary

Where older games had suggested retiring exceptionally powerful characters, world games began to provide rules for doing so. Call of Cthulhu was strict: any character who knew so much about the mythos that their Sanity dropped to zero was taken out of the game. James Bond 007 “suggested” it, but provided a score by which to measure it and which also made playing such a character exceedingly difficult. Recon was fairly vague, but at least provided a specific measurement.

Ars Magica’s Twilight was a bit like Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity. The more powerful a magus became the more Twilight they likely had. Vampire’s Humanity was a bit more like Sanity.

While this didn’t mean that these games had an ending—different characters would achieve insanity or fame at different times—it did define an ending for individual characters.

In Teenagers, this concept didn’t apply to characters but did apply to their skills: depending on what “too high” meant for that game, players may have chosen to put some Knacks off-limits unless they were ready to role-play the comedic effects of being too successful.

Karma was also in the air. Earlier games had talked about playing characters like those in novels and movies, but when the game actually had that fictional world’s name on it some deficiencies were obvious: characters in role-playing games didn’t always win. The dice did not always come out in their favor when it came time to confront the major villain just before the closing credits. Games like James Bond 007 and Marvel Super Heroes solved this by letting players alter the results of their rolls using special points saved for that purpose.

Karma was especially useful in gritty worlds such as Shadowrun, where any combat was deadly. In such worlds, Karma was what kept player characters in the story.

Sometimes, improvement was not a good thing. The Marvel Super Heroes didn’t need players altering the abilities of Marvel characters, so they made improvement expensive. Teenagers from Outer Space didn’t see improvement as a worthy goal of the player characters, so it made improvement more likely to cause dangerous results.

This is the fourth in a series surveying character advancement through the history of role-playing games. The next article will survey thematic games such as Amber, the Burning Wheel, the Shadow of Yesterday, and Polaris.

  1. <- Generic Experience
  2. Thematic Experience ->