2019-12-23 Level up is optional

I enjoyed these thoughts on 2d6 systems, specially the list of Cons for the Troika! system in this well considered blog post: A review of the Troika rpg. I wonder whether the main problem is that characters are at first incompetent and then extreme one-trick ponies. Traveller rules solve that because you start competent and then don’t advance.

@Canageek started wondering about the point of Traveller and we got into a discussion of the importance of advancement. They said it “doesn’t feel very realistic … that you could be working on something for years at a time and not get better at it.”

It’s an interesting thought. I think the counter argument is this: it’s a game; why is advancement important to our enjoyment? There’s the question of verisimilitude, fair enough. But then again, elves, dwarves, magic-users... I play an older D&D variant with levels 1-10 but to me the levels (and the ever more powerful spells) are simply a way to guarantee a changing experience over fifty sessions. Anything that does that will do, though. I’m really all about changing gameplay over time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean getting “better” at the things we do. In all the Fate games, your character simply changes: the skill pyramid gets reshuffled but you don’t “advance” per se. In Traveller, it simply depends on your gear, your ship, your network of allies. That’s fine too as far as I am concerned. I think that the idea that pleasure comes from becoming better and better in many role-playing games (and many computer games as well) is very much derived from D&D but it is absolutely not a given. Players could get better by knowing the system better, knowing the monsters better; knowing the key people of the setting, and so on. My point is you can have changes in the game while the characters remain at essentially the same competence level.

Additionally, I fear that I don’t like the self-improvement angle. Isn’t that the Zeitgeist, getting better at things, individually? But it doesn’t have to be that way. We could be playing games about organizing to get better (improve our network of friends and allies), like a wargame where the individual pieces rarely get better. But the armies get bigger, the ships get bigger, the stakes get higher. It might work.

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The more I play Knave and start to tinker with it, the more I find myself coming to the same conclusion of leveling up being optional. In Knave, the only thing that improves as you level up is HP and base attributes. This is pretty important in Knave, moreso than usual for an OSR game, I think. But there’s so much that isn’t tied to advancement at all: getting better gear, getting better spells is 100% based on finding them in the world...

I handle skills in that game by having it be based on background, and if someone wants to learn a skillset that ISN’T connected to their background, I’ll have them hunt down an NPC that can train them in that skillset... and take a large amount of downtime to learn it. Which introduced the idea of training. Which makes NPCs more important. Which makes town building important.

The end result of all this tinkering is a game where leveling up almost seems vestigial. Characters still get stronger, but everything that truly matters, outside of HP, is gained through interacting with the world. I think I like this.

– PK 2019-12-23 20:10 UTC


I think I like this, too.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-12-24 08:59 UTC


I agree, mostly. I’ve played and run a lot of traveller. There are options to improve, and a lot of hacks were done on that line too. That said, in most games I played it wasn’t the main thing. Character growth was. Exploring the world. The emergent story, where you can after a year’s play tell stories at a con of what your character did, what your party did, the cool things about the game world. Things common to the other games I play(ed): AD&D 1e+2e, RQ2, GURPS, Flashing Blades. I do think that improving in skills in RQ2, Flashing Blades, and GURPS was important, but not moreso than the interaction with the world. In RQ2 our characters also progressed to be Rune Lords and Priests, took on apprentices (acolytes, followers), did missions for our temples: our characters had ‘lives’ in the world, they had ‘careers’ - they were accomplished and had a history. Ditto in Flashing Blades. In these games “levelling” became important in that going up in the right skills got you qualified for positions and ranks - with responsibilities and duties and missions - in the game world. But the end result was an in game, in world accomplishment that was more than mere abstract levelling.

– Alistair 2019-12-24 18:28 UTC


Hah, that is so much better than mere level titles!

– Alex Schroeder 2019-12-24 23:00 UTC


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