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

Facets of character improvement rules

Jerry Stratton, November 4, 2006

One of the nice things about the AD&D rulebooks is how the author rambled. We know why Gary Gygax chose some of the game’s rules, because he tells us. Characters gained experience points for killing monsters and stealing their treasure because those were the kinds of exciting fantasy activities that he wanted the game to reward. Rewards for characters equalled rewards for players.

Except for a few notable exceptions, such as Erick Wujcik and Kevin Siembieda, later game authors don’t go into that kind of detail. Did Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford design Runequest so as to encourage skill use? Do games that offer experience per adventure or per game session do so because play is itself worth encouraging? We don’t know: they didn’t say.

Whatever the system, players, especially of AD&D, who disagreed with what the games rewarded could and did offer alternative systems. AD&D gamers offered systems in which meeting the game master’s goals resulted in the reward; and systems in which any kind of combat that resulted in hit point loss resulted in the reward. All encourage different game styles. The latter would be likely to reward “swordplay” that lets the opponent go; a living opponent is more likely to provide the opportunity for further rewarding combat later.

In an abstract sense, one might think that the joy of gaming and the social rewards offered by the game ought to be reward enough. But if a game doesn’t offer any advancement system, players are likely to add one in, assuming that they continue to play the game.

The obvious lesson from all of this is that while rewards come in many forms—from character improvement to a spectacular finish—they had better make play more interesting. Otherwise you’re going to need to call Herbie.

How is advancement triggered?

However advancement is gained, there are two basic kinds of character advancement rewards: those that come simply by the player showing up at the game, and those that are themselves a game. Runequest and AD&D made character advancement a game; they could be “gamed” in the sense that different play styles would result in more or less character advancement.

There is also the difference between on-screen and off-screen advancement triggers. Most games trigger character improvement off of things that the player has the character do “during play”. But some games, such as Traveller and Space Opera, require off-screen (or mostly off-screen) activities for the character to improve.

When is advancement awarded?

Rewards can come immediately, they can come at a reasonable break point, they can come at the end of the session, or they can come at the end of the adventure.

Rewards that come immediately are usually rewards that are coupled to specific actions, though they aren’t necessarily rewarded directly to that action. Experience points in The Shadow of Yesterday come for doing or confronting specific things, but may be applied to anything the player desires.

Runequest also rewards for specific actions, but holds off to the adventure’s end to make the rewards.

How much is the action used tied to experience gain?

In level-based games such as D&D, where all advancement is tied to level increases, experience benefits don’t have to match the means by which the experience was gained. It doesn’t matter how the thief managed to kill the dragon, the experience gained from that encounter will make them a better thief.

Other games will also often untie experience gain from experience use. In superhero comic books, heroes are (or were in the seventies and earlier) continually showing off surprise powers, skills, and allies. Champions allows players to do this for their own hero characters: experience points can be used for any purpose regardless of how they are gained.

At the other end of the scale are games like RuneQuest, where there isn’t even any need to track experience points. Only the skill that triggered possible experience is eligible for improvement. Games like Traveller don’t even use on-screen experience. If a player wants their character to learn a skill, the character needs to take time out to learn that skill.

Most games fall between the extremes. Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes does use experience points, but tracks them separately for each skill. When a skill is used, “it” gains experience points, and each skill has its own level separate from the character’s main level. But a character level increase also allows the player to choose any attribute and increase it.

GURPS is a bit more like Champions, but still requires some significant use of a skill during the adventure, before the character can spend bonus character points to improve the skill.

Creation points vs. advancement points

One common character advancement system, at least for point-based systems, is to use a similar system for character advancement points as used for character creation points. This makes it easier for authors to make some character improvements more (or less) expensive after play starts. They can thus encourage buying some things over others in the character creation phase of the game, and encourage leaving other “purchases” off until play starts.

More importantly, there is an implicit (and perhaps often unrealized) recognition that, as Ron Edwards wrote in a recent Forge posting, character creation is the first step of the game’s reward system. This doesn’t mean that they have to be the same mechanics, but it does make things easier. And both systems should appeal to the same players.

Game world, real world, or both?

To what extent are the advancement rules justified as being about game play, and to what extent are they justified as being realistic within the world? AD&D, for example, went to great lengths to justify the advancement system as being useful rules to encourage game play; AD&D 2 went to similar lengths to justify the advancement system as being realistic for the characters.

The generic games that immediately followed D&D tend to justify advancement in terms of realism; thematic games tend to justify advancement in terms of game play. In the end, of course, it’s all game play, but how advancement is justified will affect how players view the advancement system and will affect the form the advancement rules take.

Going along with this, do the changes happen in the game world or just in the game? When a character’s skills or abilities improve, the character “knows” about those changes. When the player gains more chips or Hero points to affect either the world or the character’s actions, the character most likely doesn’t “know” about those changes.

What actions does experience gain encourage?

Perhaps the most important question of all—what in-game actions does the experience system encourage? AD&D knew what it was encouraging: fighting and looting. The stated hope was that this equated to fun adventures.

The Shadow of Yesterday puts characters through life changes, and rewards players for doing this by giving them twice as many points for losing a Key as they paid for the Key in the first place. The cycle of gaining and losing keys is a rewarding process in TSOY.

Some games offer rewards for game time. On the surface this appears to untie game play from character rewards. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that character advancement will not provide more benefit to the characters depending on the actions the characters take in the game. For example, if the rewards come at the end of every session, it may be beneficial to delay critical events until the next session, when one or more characters are more capable.

Gods & Monsters also awards experience for time played. Characters in Gods & Monsters gain extra experience when the player uses mojo on archetypal rolls. Gods & Monsters also has an optional “competitive” experience point system that resembles experience in Dungeons & Dragons. This is the only optional rule in Gods & Monsters that I use, and it was precisely to encourage the players to take actions that were what the game was designed for: encountering exotic creatures and acquiring exotic things. That is, kill monsters and take their stuff. It worked. The players vocalized their understanding of it, and appeared to have more fun after it was implemented. Before, they complained that they weren’t doing anything; afterwards, they talked about what they’d done.

I’m considering two changes to the Gods & Monsters character creation and advancement system:

  • Allotting Mojo Points at first level and allowing players to use them throughout the first level of experience at reduced costs;
  • A simpler and canonical experience point system that more clearly states how experience is gained: confrontation and danger.
  1. <- Thematic Experience
  2. Crosstraining Fields ->