On Character Advancement

June 3, 2021


Something I’ve been messing around with in the last few weeks is character advancement – the out-of-game way to show in-game growth for a character. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the implications of advancement mechanics on the overall tone of a game.

Most games seem to follow the de facto advancement style, using experience points and levels and such. But even back in 1974 when this was first introduced (See OD&D), there were complaints from people who didn’t like the abstractness of it, or the bean-counting that was required by it. Pretty soon, plenty of other games were creating alternative systems for tracking your character’s experience. (Early games like Runequest, Traveler, and GURPS come to mind.)

Even in our more modern times, in the post-Forge/itch.io era of roleplaying, where everyday gamers create games, and most have meaningful discussions about game theory, it isn’t uncommon for a game to still fall back on the typical experience point system. Games that have totally reshaped the RPG landscape like Apocalypse World and Blades In The Dark still use XP points. 

(To be fair, they have also done away with levels and created more individual paths towards character specialization: in AW for example, you can choose what you want to boost your stat in. These games have also streamlined the XP-gaining process, there are specific cues to gain XP, and you only need a few to gain a new improvement.)

But what I’ve been thinking about with character advancement isn’t really about a character’s in-game experience, or about whether XP is a useful metric for tracking it. What Apocalypse World, OD&D, Traveler, and a game like Troika! all have in common isn’t a similar XP system; these games all use drastically different ways of measuring character advancement.

What they do have in common is what that advancement is focused on.

WHAT IS ADVANCEMENT FOR?

I think the idea of advancement behind most roleplaying games (both mainstream and, to a lesser extant, indie games) is still based around the premise of acquisition.

In most games, when a character reaches that point of “leveling up” (whether or not that is the term they use,) and the character gains some kind of boost, it’s almost always about getting a better tool, getting better stat modifiers, or being better at fighting stuff. Occasionally, a game might shake things up by making a certain kind of advancement more focused on something like sneaking or using magic, but this is still rooted in the premise of getting better, in a seemingly endless pursuit for power.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with these kinds of games – most games follow this template, and I certainly play a lot of them.

(If anything, a game might be the only place where I am comfortable with this as the modus operandi. There is definitely something to be said about the implications of this in the real world, and lots of good thoughts about the implications of this. That discussion just exists outside the scope of this one post.)Dream Apart

But I do think there is something to be said here about what kinds of stories these games are equipped to tell.

Benjamin Rosenbaum sums up this kind of game mentality well in his design notes for Dream Apart:

“The dice and the hex paper and the books with their lurid covers (fiery idols, muscled barbarians with swords) made it easy to tell a certain kind of story: dreams of conquest, of accumulating power and violence, dreams of being at the center; dreams in which you wielded the sword, whether for greed or vengeance or the smiting of evil.”

What games do when they tie advancement up with stat boosts and gear upgrades is promote a certain kind of story where the characters need to get better at doing things. If your character has a high stat in something like fighting, you’re going to want to use it.

As a result, the continual story arcs of these games will continue to focus on increasing drama and ever-higher stakes. It’s the same reason why a lot of shows start with characters of relatively humble beginnings and end with Demi-gods deciding the fates of the universe.

What these shows and games have in common is that their very premise is rooted in acquisition. It’s based on power, fame or capital. These are what most games that have any long-form play-style focus on. They’re inherently based on a desire to improve and become larger. More stat boosts mean more fighting, more gold, more.

THE PURSUIT OF EXPERIENCE

So, what is the alternative? If a game isn’t going to focus on becoming a bigger, badder version of yourself, then what is it focused on?

To be honest, I’m not totally sure. I haven’t encountered too many games that ask this question. There are some that come to mind that play with this idea, but I haven’t developed fully formed thoughts on this whole thing yet.

I know that what I’m not looking for is games that just change up the method of gaining experience but don’t mess with the fundamental nature of what that experience is then used for. An example of this is Over The Edge. It offers a really interesting way to advance (you choose to advance when it feels appropriate for the story) but it’s still based on the idea of becoming an expert in something, which you can then use in turn to affect the world around you. It’s still focused on the accruement of power.

I guess I’m leaving this post with that question. I’m probably going to spend some time thinking about this, so I’ll be in need of games or design thoughts to look at and dig deep on. I’m excited to see where this takes me. This isn’t something I have read a lot about on any discussions, so I’m wondering if this is kind of uncharted territory. I’d love to have some dialogue about this, so if you have any thoughts definitely let me know!

And of course, if you have any suggestions for games that address this idea, drop a comment or reach out to me!

What I’m Playing – 05-26-2021

May 26, 2021


Babes In The WoodThis is the log of games that I’ve been playing recently. It’s mostly for my own records, but I figure I may as well make it public so anyone who’s interested can check it out. Expect to see tabletop games of all kinds, from classics like Catan or D&D to more out-there indie games. Particularly expect to see mostly board games here, as I get to play a lot more of those than I do with RPGs (unfortunately!) I try and include some mini-reviews of those when I can, but I make no promises.

I try to update this page semi-regularly can’t always get around to doing it. If you ever check out a game because of reading it here, let me know your thoughts! 


Recently, I’ve been playing:

  • My group of friends has been loving Jay Dragon’s recent release Wanderhome. I love the collaborative nature of the game. We’ve only gotten to play a few times, but it’s really been an amazing few sessions. Perfect for anyone who’s been looking for a tabletop RPG with the same bucolic feeling from Animal Crossing (with less of the capitalism.) (Possum Creek Games)
  • Catan is still reigning supreme in my home. I’ve hit a winning streak, much to the chagrin of my roommates, one of whom has taken to “training” by playing online a lot.
  • Not much to say about this, but a couple of my friends have been spending a little more time than necessary playing chess.
  • I haven’t actually played it yet, but I’ve been very excited to run a game of Babes In The Wood by Adam Vass. It’s a PbtA game where you play as a group of kids who travel through the Wood. It’s meant as a big homage to Over The Garden Wall, so you know it’s gotta be good. (World Champ Game Co.)
  • Gloom is a weird card game, where you control a family and try and make their lives as miserable as possible. I think it’s very fun, but you have to get the right mix of people who are down to tell a story. It can really fall flat if you go in half-assed. (Atlas Games)

I’ve also been running my weekly OD&D game. Things are finally feeling pretty natural with it (meaning I’m relatively comfortable with the rules.) If you’re more interested in reading about that game, check out my Running the Open Table series.

Finally, we’ve been playtesting a game I haven’t talked about here yet, but one I’ve been working on for a few months. It’s a game set in a quiet and strange town, where you try to resettle your life while investigating a sinister force that plagues the town. It uses the Belonging Outside Belonging system, and I’m hoping to have it up on itch.io for playtesting sometime this summer!

To see other games I recommend or have played recently, click here.

 

Condition Tagging – A Tech Jam Submission

April 26, 2021


The text below is a recent post I made available on my itch.io store, submit as part of the (currently ongoing) Tech Jam. It’s a mechanic devised by myself and Steven Savage for a yet-to-be-released apocalypse survival RPG. The mechanic itself is available as part of a Creative Commons license.

You can view the license and download the PDF of the post at the site. But for those just interested in reading it, here it is!

CONDITION TAGGING

Condition Tagging is a mechanic that is specifically focused on the scarcity of needs. It tracks what you have available to you, and what you don’t, but desperately need. arrow

It shows the emotional and physical well-being of a single character or an entire group by providing narrative cues for what the group is focused on. It also keeps track of the resources or capabilities available to a party, without needing to get into the slot-by-slot inventory tracking used by many games.

This is a fiction-first mechanic, meaning that you provide the in-game fiction before resolving the effects mechanically. It is also a self-sufficient mechanic, meaning that it uses a closed-loop system to resolve itself. No other mechanics are needed to track health, inventory, sanity, or any other type of meter. But it can also be grafted, used in place of existing systems in other games for inventory or resources.

Above all, Condition Tagging follows the basic law of energy – doing something causes some kind of change.

In mechanical terms, we follow this law through the use of Conditions.

CONDITIONS

There are three types of ‘Conditions’ – Positive, Neutral, and Negative. They represent the various states of well-being that a character or party might be in. For example, being hungry would be Negative Condition, while having just eaten would likely be a Positive one.

Conditions are valuable because they help us keep track of what we want – if you know you’re in a Negative Condition, you also know what you want to be on the lookout for within the game.

It’s not enough to just have a Condition applied in the meta game though. This isn’t detailed enough to have any sort of real meaning within the fiction of the game. Knowing that you have a Negative Condition is good, but unless you know what it’s related to you’re just aimless as you were. We could go around with Positive or Negative Conditions, but we’d have no way of knowing what they represent.

TAGS

tag

Because of this, a Condition will almost always have some kind of descriptor associated with it. These are called ‘Tags.’

Tags are the in-game descriptions that you use to associate the effects of a ‘Condition’. They give you the freedom to apply to whatever Condition you’re in at the time, meaning you can use whatever words you want to describe how the Condition affects you. So, someone with a Negative Condition might have a “Starved” tag or an “I need a snack, man” tag to describe the Negative Condition of not having food. Someone who has just eaten could have the “Stuffed” tag or a “Well-stocked Pantry” tag for their Positive Condition. Mechanically these Tags mean the same thing, but their application is changed by the circumstances surrounding them in the fiction.

NEUTRAL CONDITIONS

So where do Neutral tags come in?

Positive and Negative Conditions don’t come into relevance naturally. What that means is that in order to get either of those Conditions, something has to happen to cause it to stop being a Neutral Condition.

Positive Conditions come about when something good happens. If you have a fulfilling conversation with a friend, you likely feel pretty happy about that! That’s a Positive Condition. Conversely, if you have a really stressful conversation, you might feel a little more bummed out, a Negative Condition.

balance

But if you didn’t have a particularly impactful conversation, the relationship with that person hasn’t really changed. In other words, there’s no cause for a Condition to apply here, so it stays Neutral.

Neutral Conditions are like a balance of sorts: there’s not really a pull in any kind of direction. It’s just stagnant there.

It’s assumed that something is in a Neutral Condition unless something is enacted within the game world to make it change.

It’s easy to think of Tags for the polar Conditions (Positive/Negative), but it can be a little challenging to come up with more lukewarm Tags that matter. Because of this, Neutral Conditions don’t usually have them.

And because of the potentially limitless number of Neutral Conditions that we could come up with, and because most of the time there won’t be any Tags associated with them, we don’t really deal with Neutral Conditions unless we need to. There would be way too much to try and track if we tried. So, unless something is constantly in flux, like your food supply, don’t bother keeping too close of an eye on it until it changes Conditions. If something simply doesn’t exist (unlike hunger or an abundance of food, which are self-evident), it’s not offering any kind of interesting narrative cues to make use of.

THE APPLICATION

So what are we supposed to do with all this info then? What is the benefit of tagging and conditions? Why create all this jargon? How are you supposed to actually use this in a game?

We’ve established that you don’t want to have a Negative Condition; no one wants to be “starving”. Neutral Conditions are okay, but they don’t do much to advance you. What we want is Positive Tags.

Here’s the catch; in order to create Positive Tags, you have to spend an existing Tag.

Let’s use an example to explain. If a group of post-apocalyptic survivors are traveling through a rural area and haven’t been able to find food, they’re likely “Hungry” (Negative). After holing up in a barn for the night, they awake “Well-rested” (Positive). But, this hasn’t changed their situation; in order to find some food, they’ll need to keep pushing on.

They travel further, spending their “Well-rested” Positive Tag in order to push ahead. This new state of energy is a Neutral Condition. Thanks to their search, they come across a boarded-up restaurant with plenty of canned food still intact, bringing their Negative “Hungry” up to the Positive “Stocked Up”.

We see that a spent Positive tag becomes a Neutral one. Similarly, if you spend a Neutral, it will become Negative. You can’t spend a Tag that’s already Negative, since there’s no stage below that.

The simple way to remember this is that any Tag you spend gets downgraded by one stage.conditions

We also see in our example that when a Negative Condition is changed, it becomes a Positive one. The same is true for Neutral Conditions; when you spend your Condition to change something in the fiction, whatever Tag you are increasing becomes Positive, regardless if it was Negative or Neutral beforehand.

Generally, it’s best to spend Positive Tags first; there’s nothing wrong with being in a Neutral Condition but spending it will cause you to have a Negative tag, and you can’t spend Negative tags. But there’s nothing actually preventing that.

To return to our example, let’s say our survivors want to search the area for weapons, so they decide to spend the evening scavenging the nearby ghost town. They find an old armory that still has some weapons they can snag. In mechanical terms, the group has spent their Neutral Condition of energy, making it a Negative tag, “Exhausted.” In exchange, the group has gained much-needed weapons, giving them the Positive tag “Armed to the teeth.” They could have spent their “Well-fed” Positive Tag but didn’t for whatever reason. (Maybe in-game they decided it would be the last search for the day, since it’s getting dark.)

ADDENDUM: OTHER USES

SPLIT TAGGING

You can also do things like split tagging, which lets you have multiple Tags in for a single facet of the game. This is something that works well when you are tracking a group, rather than an individual character, but still gives you the flexibility of something like tracking loads.

Say that our survivors found the armory. But instead of finding a bunch of weapons, they only find a single blade. If the rest of the party is unarmed, with the Negative Tag ‘Defenseless,’ it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make it Positive; there’s a lot being left unsaid by that.

In this case you can split the tags, having both a Positive Tag, “Armed,” with a Negative “Defenseless.” It provides a more nuanced overview of the situation in-game. Now you know that you have some kind of weapon for your group, but you’re also not satisfied with your weapons count. You’ll still need to keep looking for some if you want to get rid of that Negative Tag.

GROUPING

So now there’s a bunch of Tags flying all over the place. What helps keep it organized so you can remember what everything is being tagged for?

This highlights the other part of using Condition Tagging – it helps if you create groups for the various types of Tags you might have.

Since it’s likely you’ll have multiple Tags for one thing, especially when you’re split tagging, it’s important that you can easily group them together based on what they’re affecting. That way you know you have 2 Positives and one Negative in the Food group, you know that you could probably just spend one of your Positive Tags to negate your Negative one, and still have a Positive Tag leftover.

These groups are also good if you want to develop some other kinds of mechanics around certain groups. Maybe you want to make it so that the Well-being group replenishes to a Positive Tag every time the group sleeps. Or if you want to make Tags in the Weapons group have a certain number of times they can be used before breaking. It opens up the space for a lot more variation within the kinds of unique sub-systems.

Some other examples of possible groups are: Weaponry, Social, Spiritual. There are plenty of other groups that could exist, like one for magic, or happiness. This mechanic was just initially devised for a zombie apocalypse game, so those don’t apply as much.

USE IN OTHER SYSTEMS

If you’re using this system in another game, a simple way to help integrate it is to use the stages of Conditions as bonuses or penalties.

So, say you come across some kind of enemy and end up getting into a fight. If you’re playing a game that uses dice, having a weapon (A Positive Tag) could pretty easily just be a +1 to a roll, and not having one (Negative) counts as either a bonus to the opponents roll, or a -1 to yours.

In this case, I don’t think that this counts as spending your Tag. You’re just utilizing it to use with an outside system. You’re not making an exchange to increase a different Tag.

Though this would also be a way for you to introduce new Conditions without utilizing the core mechanic.

For example, if you’re in this fight, and end up getting hit and badly damaged, it would make sense that your Condition for well-being changes to a Negative one. You didn’t spend it, it just happened. The outside world enacted something on you.

So similar to the first example, I think you wouldn’t be gaining anything as part of this change. You would just gain a Negative Tag.

This seems like a fair trade to me.

That said, this system is fairly unpolished, and I am sure plenty of people could make some cool hacks to make it better. I encourage you take this idea and run with it! If you make anything cool, please show me what you’ve made!