OK, so this article is basically me thinking out loud (or, out written, or whatever). From time to time my brain begins mauling over some random idea for a rules mechanic in a game. I don’t have a specific game I want to use this mechanic in, I just look at how a lot of games do something, and I start thinking about how I might do it differently if I were designing a game. These ideas may end up in some future game if I really like them. For that reason, I’m very interested in getting other people’s feedback on these. This isn’t just an opportunity for me to ramble or rant about the latest rules idea that wandered through my head; it’s also a chance to get feedback from you and to further refine the idea.
The idea that came to me today has to do with the way characters advance, mechanically speaking, in a typical roleplaying game. There are all sorts of exceptions to this, of course, but most of the RPGs I’ve read or played handle character advancement in one of two ways. In either model your character earns experience points for doing stuff. In one model you then spend your experience points to enhance your character in specific ways. In the other model, your character “gains a level” after earning a certain number of experience points. When they gain a level, certain traits of theirs automatically advance, and they may gain a new trait.
I’m going to focus on the leveling system right now, because it is probably the most popular. Let’s consider an example, such as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Saga Edition. In this game, at every other level, you gain a +1 bonus to pretty much every roll you’ll make. Since the game uses a d20 for its primary resolution mechanic, that means that every second level, you get a +5% chance of success on every roll. Obviously, that’s going to add up fast. Since this bonus applies to your attack rolls, by fourth level you’ll have a 10% better chance of hitting your opponents with a lightsaber, a blaster, or whatever your weapon of choice happens to be. This is a pretty considerable advantage. Eventually, there would be no point at all in rolling the attack die, because you would be all but guaranteed success. To prevent that from happening, characters also increase their defense scores every time they gain a level. So, even though your average attack roll will have gone up by 2 over the course of 4 levels, your opponents will have higher defenses to match. If this works correctly, the odds of hitting an enemy at the same level as you, should remain pretty much static as you advance.
This is interesting, but it creates a bit of problems in my mind. When designing the game, I imagine that the designers first make sure they’ve got the math right at first level. They need to make sure that average attack rolls will match up well with average defenses to produce the kind of odds they want for an attack hitting its target. Once they’ve got that math worked out, they had better make sure they get their advancement formulae correct, otherwise the odds will become skewed as characters gain levels.
Really, when you think about it, what is the point of this? Why have characters gain levels at all? Imagine, for a moment, that the Star Wars RPG had no levels. All characters were level 1. What would that mean? Your character would be level 1. Stormtroopers would be level 1. Darth Vader would be level 1. Wait. Hold on. Darth Vader isn’t any higher level than a stormtrooper? That’s obviously not right. Darth Vader should obviously be more powerful than a stormtrooper. But what makes Darth Vader stronger than a stormtrooper? If you put a blaster in Vader’s hands, would he have any better chance of shooting Luke Skywalker than your average stormtrooper? (Please, ignore for a moment the fact that stormtroopers are notorious for never being able to hit anything with their blasters.) I wouldn’t think so. Stormtroopers are highly trained soldiers, and should be just about as good as anyone at shooting another person with a blaster. Is Darth Vader any better at avoiding blaster fire than your average stormtrooper? Again, I wouldn’t think so. Vader never seemed exceptionally agile. So having Vader’s bonus to attack rolls and his defense scores way higher than a stormtrooper’s seems like a strange idea to me.
Now, why is this idea in the game? Because: just from watching the movies, we would expect Vader to be able to take down a dozen stormtroopers without breaking a sweat. And, we would also expect our heroes to gradually advance from a point where stormtroopers are a viable threat, to a point where they could take on Darth Vader and win, just like Luke does in the movies. The idea I’d like to propose is that an RPG be designed so that, as characters advance, they grow out, not up. What does that mean?
Well, what really makes Darth Vader so much more powerful than a stormtrooper? How does Luke Skywalker advance in power? Basically, it’s their special talents and abilities – their connection to the force, their skill with a lightsaber, and so forth. In the Star Wars RPG, characters also gain two things called feats and talents as they advance. Both of these grant new powers or abilities to the character. What if you made this the sole means of character advancement? If your character picked up a Force blast power that allowed him to hit five or six enemies with the Force for a single action, suddenly a squad of stormtroopers isn’t as scary. If your character acquired a lightsaber talent that let her attack a single enemy twice for one action, then you might begin to stand a chance against Vader.
To summarize, the basic idea here is to get the math where you want it to be at first level, so that an average attack roll will have the odds you want of hitting against the average defense score. Then, don’t mess with those numbers as a character advances. Instead, have characters acquire new abilities as they gain levels. In this way, characters become more powerful, but you only have to get the math right once, and the game better models what really makes Darth Vader stronger than a stormtrooper.
What do you think? I’m not interested in designing my own Star Wars RPG, but as a general principle, do you think this sort of model would work well in an action-adventure RPG? Are there any glaring flaws? Is there anything I overlooked? I’d love to read your thoughts, but I don’t have telepathy. So, please share them in a comment. Thanks!