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!

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!

Sleepaway by Jay Dragon

April 15, 2021


“Sleepaway gives us long hazy days, chilled summer nights, kids screaming and chasing fireflies, crackling campfires, and a gaunt, cruel monstrosity forever hiding just out of sight, always asking, “What do you do next?”’ 

Sleepaway is a masterpiece of a game by Jay Dragon. It’s as heartfelt as it is absolutely heart-wrenching, and that’s exactly what it sets out to be.

The game is set in the wooded summer camps of our youth. The camp is a haven for the young campers who come here, isolated by the outside world. It’s a wonderful metaphorical (but also literal, in Jay’s case) reference to the safe spaces that are so essential to marginalized communities. Players act as camp counselors and help the kids have fun, discover themselves, and stop them from wandering a little too far into the woods. Because as you soon find out, Sleepaway is actually a horror game.

This camp that is so special to the campers and counselors, is haunted by a horrible monster known as the Lindworm.

As Jay writes,

“The Lindworm is a shapeshifter, or so the stories go; a creature that flays the skin of humans and hides within. As counselors of this summer camp, you’ve each been traumatized by the Lindworm, in your own ways.”

So right from the get-go, the game asks you to provide a safe space for campers to grow, while simultaneously making you VERY aware of the terrors that lie just at the edge of the woods around you. It’s a dichotomy that in and of itself makes for very good roleplaying material.

But I think it’s so much more than that. This game is a wonderful example of how to make a system work to its advantages. It’s written in beautiful prose that makes you feel each pang of the heart as you read it.

Because I think this game is so powerful, and frankly I could talk about it for a long time, I’m breaking the review up into several sections. I’ll try and keep them as succinct as possible.

TONE

Jay’s writing is some of the most evocative and inspiring that I’ve seen in a tabletop game. It’s full of this very warm, nostalgia for a time while still being very upfront with the pain that comes with it. It feels like it’s simultaneously looking to the camp as something to be loved and feared all at once. 

But even more than that, reading this game just makes you excited for all the possibilities that could happen when it comes time to actually play.

For example, here’s a list of details that you define when you create the summer camp.

  • Where the fire pit used to be.
  • Where the frogs used to sing.
  • Where the faerie houses used to be built.
  • Where the path used to go.
  • Where you used to sneak away to watch the sunrise.
  • Where you realized you weren’t straight.
  • Where the oldest cabins are.
  • Where the witch was spotted.
  • Where kids kissed when you were young.
  • Where you confessed your childhood crush.
  • Where the great battles of youth took place.

I couldn’t help but get a little giddy while reading through it. I can imagine each of these places in my mental image of what camp looks like. How each possible location might change the whole camp itself.

And EVERYTHING is like this.

Reading this book in its entirety feels a little bit like reading through a whole menu from front to back. There are so many options that you feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. But you know what you’re gonna get when it’s time to order.

I was nervous I was gonna get that option paralysis the first time we played. But as soon as the other players and I started talking about what we were thinking, it became pretty clear which options from this list weren’t going to make much sense for this version of our camp.

And that’s where the magic tone from Jay comes in.

Each option, each detail feels so powerful and so vivid that you can just picture it in your head. But it’s not all so overstimulating that you can’t figure out which one to pick. All these options and choices are really just suggestions. They never feel so crucial that you HAVE to pick one of these. They’re all substantial enough and different enough to create their own unique version of camp without feeling incomplete or lacking.

Another example of this is in the Character Sheets. Instead of a bunch of stats or weapons, the Characters are defined through their emotions, their needs. It feels so much more visceral to know things like your “Childhood Fear” or “What You’ll Never Live Down.” And the definition that comes with it is exhilarating. Each option offers a different angle of your Character, and each makes a bold statement as to who you are, who you can become.

GENDER & SAFETY MECHANICS

But the best part about the Character Sheets is the section where you describe your gender.

In most games this isn’t even a question. There’s this (unfortunate) assumption in many circles that you play whatever gender you normally identify with. This, of course, has several implications that are worth untangling. For starters, roleplaying games are a wonderful opportunity to explore gender identity. It’s a place to negotiate the world and how you want to exist within it, without the prejudice that too often comes with it. Stripping that to the simple default of your “typical” gender is presumptuous at best.

Sleepaway takes this assumption and blows it the fuck up.

There’s very few genders here that could be construed as a simple binary. Genders like the Lifeguard’s “Nice Boy” come to mind. But when it’s placed next to “Eagle”, “Castle”, and “Lighthouse in the Darkness” you can see that it probably isn’t as cut and dry as it seems.

Which strikes me as being exactly Jay’s point.

By writing a section like this in each playbook, Jay is prompting everyone who plays to have a discussion about gender. And not just a casual descriptor, but a real dialogue about the meaning of gender expression and what that can be. Past simple binaries or even a spectrum.

This makes even more sense when you’ve read the various sidebars and safety mechanics in the How To Play section.

If there was any doubt about Jay’s viewpoint, it’s made very explicit here.

From Jay’s sidebar on the use of pronouns and how some Characters might use them, to the sidebar about the need for respect in the inherently hierarchical relationship between Counselor to Camper, Jay says so much about the respect actually needed for one another in order to play this game.

It seems it would be impossible to misconstrue Jay’s point.

“Sleepaway, like the summer camps it’s based on, doesn’t care whether you’re cis, trans, or something more tangled. Gender here is more abstract and raw. Sleepaway cares how your gender shapes you, and what pronouns you use at camp.” On the other side of the page is a long list of pronouns, with the corollary of adding more if you have different ones in mind.

It goes so much further than so many other games, and it’s one of the most simple but effective tools a creator can put in to be more inclusive and explicitly affirming.

Jay does also put in Lines, Veils and Highlights, which helps facilitate BEFORE you start playing and bring up potentially upsetting or disturbing topics in play. Tools like these are fairly common in many indie RPGs, and it’s always nice to see them, given how simple they are to implement.

THE SYSTEM

Apocalypse World (2nd Ed) - lumpley games | DriveThruRPG.com

The game works with the Belonging Outside Belonging/No Dice, No Masters system by Avery Alder, an emotionally-driven game system that uses a token of economies to make Moves. The system is designed for use in games that focus on marginalized communities. It itself is an iteration of the Apocalypse World system by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker.

Sleepaway is a case study example of a game being written to suit the system it is for. This game would be totally playable with things like hit points, gear, etc. 

But that is so not what Sleepaway is about. 

Sleepaway plays into the advantages of the BOB system by trusting the players with figuring out the nitty-gritty details of health and gear. What it cares about are the EMOTIONS behind that stuff. 

The game leverages everything it has at you and wants to see you succeed, fail, lash out, and rejoice in all of it. How did you FEEL when you saw the body? How did you ACT when you needed to run away?

I have some deeper thoughts regarding the Belonging Outside Belonging system that I’ll hopefully be getting into in an upcoming post soon. So I’ll spend the rest of this section focused on the deck mechanics for the Lindworm, which is pretty unique to Sleepaway.

The game uses a standard deck of cards. At the beginning of the session, someone is secretly chosen to act for the Lindworm. The game is very clear that you are NOT to act as the Lindworm, under any circumstances.  

When someone makes the Weak Move “Invite the Lindworm to act upon the group,” everyone closes their eyes. The player who must channel the Lindworm picks up the top 3 cards of the deck, and selects one. This is the Lindworm’s play.

The cards range from severity based on the suit and number of the card. Each card has a set of cues, things to react to in the fiction of the game. From the mild but evocative Hearts, to the horrifying and mysterious Clubs, all the way to the absolutely nightmarish Spades, each card is so perfectly written that it never feels redundant. Likewise, if the last action was a Spades card and the next one is a Diamonds, it doesn’t feel anti-climactic. It’s all paced really well, so that even a well-placed Hearts action is terrifying.

A frequent thing I run into with a lot of deck-based games is that the cards feel like they’re abruptly being interjected into the fiction, instead of flowing naturally from it. I think Jay has solved that problem by having the Player act for the Lindworm choose from one of three. It circumvents it by letting them select the one that seems most fitting, and ignoring the ones that clearly wouldn’t be so sensible in a given moment.  

RITUALS

The final thoughts I have regarding this game are about the Rituals.

esoteric3.jpg

A Ritual is like a brief mini-game that you play when you see fit.

As Jay writes:

“Rituals pause the normal structure of the conversation and briefly replace it with a new structure. The Ritual may represent a game of Truth or Dare, a romp through a meadow, a quiet moment among friends, sneaking down a path, or crafting a powerful spell. When a Ritual is happening, only communicate using the Moves printed on the Ritual itself.”

The Rituals are varied and differ in both their tone, actions, and prerequisites. Some require that other elements of the game be in play before they can be done, while others are free to use as players see fit.

I really like these. From a design perspective, a lot of them work as ways to connect some of the more abstract or loose ideas presented here without having to make them tie into the typical structure of the Lindworm’s cards or a Character’s Moves. They feel very similar to one of Jay’s other games, Esoteric. (I haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet, but even if I had, I couldn’t tell you about it.)

This idea of Rituals is really interesting, and I think is a wonderful way to connect longer, more narrative-driven games like Sleepaway with Jay’s other style of writing for games, which are primarily Lyric games.

(Lyric games, for those unaware, is an interesting genre of tabletop gaming that has been thriving on itch.io for the last few years, pioneered by creators like Jay Dragon, Riverhouse Games, and Maria Mison. The games vary wildly in terms of approach, design, and rules. It seems that they are largely abstract games of play, much more akin to games that children play than even a more out-there indie game.)

Here’s a link for those looking to explore the genre a little bit and see what Rituals are all about!
https://itch.io/physical-games/tag-lyric-game


Tone: 5
Writing: 5
Art: 5
Cost: $30 Print, $20 PDF
Created by: Jay Dragon, Ruby Lavin
Buy Here: https://www.possumcreekgames.com/shop/p/sleepaway