Posts Tagged ‘character advancement’

The Preamble

In the comments on my post about Falling Damage, Brenden mentioned his mechanisms for making falling “always scary” but allowing good luck to save you from even extreme falls.  I liked the system but noted that I don’t think falling is always scary, because eventually the PCs are at near-god levels, and Superman isn’t afraid of falling off a building or two.  From there, Dr. Gentleman posted this:

I think the idea that higher-level characters in D&D are akin to demigods is one that makes the system make more sense (and actually makes me want to look at 3e again), but I don’t think that’s the intent of D&D. Heroes go on adventures, gain experience, skills, abilities, and treasure, but they’re still essentially human (elf, dwarf, or whatever). The idea that an exceptional person can gain experience and thereby become the equivalent of a demigod or superhero is not a basic assumption when it comes to D&D, which leads to a lot of complaints about realism. I think that’s a pretty fundamental difference in assumptions, and needs to be explicitly cleared up straight away in these types of discussions.

Except that I think that this is the intent and, if a little buried, that it is fairly clear when you look for what the system ask for. (more…)

I’ve been mulling over this post for a little bit now, but John Arcadian at Gnome Stew just made a post about running a no-character-advancement game which has spurred me to actually put pen to paper and say what I think.

The Gnome Stew post talks about the idea of playing a campaign where characters do not advance in level, or alternatively only advance during downtime between story arcs.  It lists a number of benefits to this approach, not the least of which, in my opinion, is eliminating the sense of “my character will be awesome at Level 5.”  Your character is awesome now.  John makes a few other good points and it’s worth a quick read; this post is more about the assumptions and expectations of rewards in D&D.

One of the trends that bothers me about D&D rewards is that it seems like the expected reward, from both players and DMs, is experience points.  When characters complete some goal — rescue the princess, kill the goblins, solve the puzzle — they might get some treasure, they may get some in-game renown, they could open up previously-inaccessible areas.  But across the board it’s expected that they’ll get Experience points.  The concern and the danger is that the difference in power from one level to the next is a bit more than most people expect, and the assumption of Experience-as-default-reward will tend to move you quickly up that scale.  If “regular people” are 1st or 2nd Level and “historical legends” are 4th and 5th Level, an assumption that has characters advancing to Herculean-tier power in a handful of adventures is problematic.

Because of this, I think that reigning in experience rewards in favor of gold, magic items, renown, and influence over the game world can lead to a richer (heh) gaming experience.  I almost always run my games with Pathfinder’s “slow progression” XP scale, which is about 150% of the standard scale, but even before reading the Gnome Stew post I’d considered removing XP rewards entirely and tying Level Advancement directly to story-arc milestones and accomplishments.  If going up in level means developing skills beyond a character’s professional peers, or at the mid- and high-end of the scale becoming more than human or even godlike, it makes sense to tether that to a pivotal moment when the character accomplishes some feat or destroys the Big Bad.  Hitting 4th Level because you killed your 47th Goblin just feels wrong.

Of course, I’m not sure I care for a game with no character advancement, but that’s something that should be seasoned to taste.  As John says, if you start in the sweet spot, when your character is awesome and the situations you face and interesting and challenging, who needs character advancement?

One of the biggest take-aways from Justin’s Calibrating Your Expectations is the meaning of levels.  He says that he began writing the post in part to address all the people who said that “D&D Can’t Do Conan” because making a Level 20 Barbarian gives you a guy who can do things the actual Conan never could.  Or “D&D Can’t Do Einstein” because a Level 20 Expert would have way too many hit points for a frail old math geek.  The argument he makes is that people are looking at Level the wrong way, and they’re expecting Level 20 (or Level 5, or Level 12) to mean something that it doesn’t.

Justin makes the argument that pretty much everyone you’ve ever known would be a Level 1 character.  Really exceptional people might be Level 2 or Level 3.  Level 4 characters are some of the most talented and accomplished people in the world, and Level 5 characters are the people who get written about in history books.  From there he calls 6th level superhuman, a 10th Level character is challenging gods to contests of skill, and a 20th Level character is essentially a god themselves.  He bases his argument off of skill bonuses available at level 1 and DCs attached to certain activities.  But there are other clues, too.

A 5th Level character is taking on manticores, trolls, and young dragons; the exploits of Beowulf.  Heroes of Greek myth fought a minotaur (CR4), a hydra (CR4), and Medusa (CR7).  At Level 10 characters are fighting Greater Elementals and huge extra-planar spiders. Above level 15 characters a fighting high-level Angels and Demons, and when they reach level 20 they are literally beating up gods and taking their stuff.   Think that those who have made creatures higher than Level 20 are well-meaning but misguided, and I personally believe that Zeus himself can be built as a Level 20 creature. (It gets futzy when you’re talking about CR versus Level, though.)

The long and short of it is as Justin puts it at the end of his post: the 3.X system expects that you’ll move from one power level to an extremely different power level as you level up, but people expect there to be a much more uniform performance from Level 1 to Level 20.  They bend over backwards trying to make the system fit that expectation, so that a 20th Level character can be treated as King Arthur instead of as Thor.  (As an aside, this is precisely why the trend of D&D 5E worries me; they’re trying to flatten the playing scale so that a 20th Level character is still threatened by orcs.  You lose a lot of variety in what the system can model when you do that, and it isn’t necessary.)

And of course, these kind of expectations are really harmful to the game.  If you expect that Aragorn is Level 15 instead of Level 5, then that colors what sorts of adventures you can have at low levels.  You spend the first 5 (or more) Levels of D&D killing rats and goblins and bandits, instead of leading armies, storming castles, and fighting Nazghul.