Is character advancement a sacred cow?

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A lot of the discussion about 4e has been about questioning (and euthanizing, where appropriate) sacred cows – leftover rules and assumptions that are there because they’ve always been there and have been considered to be necessary parts of the game.

As I was driving Pat home from the last Rebel Scum session, I observed that my PC (Kip Fendo, Jedi Scum) was now, at 3rd level, finally reflective of how I’d conceived of him.

I remember back in the day that I used to run an ongoing Vampire LARP, that most of the problems in the game stemmed from the imbalance between PCs who had been around for awhile (and were, thus, powerful) and those who were starting characters (or close to it). We’d have new PCs coming in who were supposed to be ‘Elders’ – but lacked the power to back up their claims. Conversely, we’d have PCs who were only vampires for two or three years – but had been playing for all of that time, so they were ridiculously powerful.

Angela recently ran into a problem in her D&D game. It looked like one of the players was only going to make it sporadically… and the PC would fall far behind the others. She wasn’t sure how to handle it.

GMing can be exhausting – once you hit your comfort zone and can peg your opposition so that they are an adequate, but not overpowering, match for the PCs… the PCs go and gain experience, and you need to learn how to find that sweet spot again.

A number of genres of fiction feature advancement at differing rates. Yes, some become steadily more competent, but:

  • some change dramatically (for better or for worse) at a specific point in time;
  • some remain at a fairly constant level of competence;
  • some advance in fits and starts; and
  • some characters even become steadily less competent as time goes on.

D&D – and most rpgs – really only handle steady increases in competence as a default. Should they?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Maybe it is a good default… but maybe a better default would be to pick a character level/amount of xp and stay there for most, if not all, of a campaign… with steady advancement as one option among a few.



2 Responses

  1. I think it really depends on how you play the game. The trend I see now is something I like to call “speed gaming”, where your goal is to reach the next level as quick as possible. This means every fight has to be a challenge, every encounter has to dish out the most experience. In that light, advancement is pretty pointless to me, as you don’t ever really see an improvement. Your Open Lock skill went up a point? Guess what, the locks just got 1 point harder. Oh, you can do 10 more points of damage than you could last week? Well, so what, the monsters have 10 more hit points now anyway.

    Now, if you take it a little slower than that, then advancement makes perfect sense. You might fight something that you had trouble defeating before and find it a bit easier with your increased abilities. You might find that locks open a little easier now that you’ve had some practice at it. You might actually see a reward for reaching the next level in addition to the capability to fight the next toughest foe should those locks and goblins get boring.

    I agree whole-heartedly with your view that if your concept for a character doesn’t really mesh with the rules until a later level, then you should probably start at that level. This is especially potent considering a lot of games don’t really “open up” until you’ve got a couple levels under your belt.

  2. Honestly, I find the scaling of challenges to meet the power of PCs to kind of miss the point.

    Why bother to advance if it isn’t going to net me anything?

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