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Experience and Diagetic Advancement

edit 4/11: I think that Arnold K.’s solution of Treasure is an excellent marker for when to level up.

Originally posted 1/28/20 

Following this tweet by Jared (@Infinite_Mao on Twitter), I’ve been thinking a lot about about what advancement means in terms of character progression. Read the comments, they’re excellent.

As always you mileage may vary.

In 5e and to some extent the D&D and its retroclones, progression and advancement go hand in hand. Kill some baddies, get some XP, level up, get better at killing baddies, fight some more baddies, get a new toy to beat baddies with, rinse and repeat. However, advancement isn’t something that is unique to RPGs. People get better at what they do over time, gradually learning more and accumulating information.

(Blah, blah, real life doesn’t have experience points, do our games need them?)

Perhaps its as simple as advancement vs. improvement. People improve themselves over time, naturally. People don’t advance in bits and starts or in a linear progression of skill. People lose skills just as they gain them over time, as they improve in one area, they lose in another.

This doesn’t get to the core of the issue, as progression for progression’s sake isn’t interesting in my opinion. I’d rather keep people engaged through a compelling game then a piece of ticker tape that holds no memories of the challenges they’ve overcome.

(Maybe there are better ways to keep your games interesting than watching a number go up. That’s just my opinion)

Alongside this discussion of advancement, someone mentioned progression in the Legend of Zelda as an example of alternate progression. Find an item that enables further exploration and can be used to interact with the world. In the first Zelda game, these items were given with no expectation you needed to be told where to go, or what to do. Heart containers gave small advancements as enemies got more difficult, but most were rewards for exploration and discovery.

Firstly, I think one way to combat this (if you want to try something different) is to lose the concepts of level altogether. If advancements are necessary, keep them small and granular. Improvement of HP or take a feat? Improve a skill or increase a stat?

Removing the idea of the level could help this. You never gain a level, just slowly gain piecemeal additions to your character. Attach the improvements to a random result on a carousing table or a high result on a random loot table or they need to be bought. When someone rolls it maybe only they level up. Maybe everyone levels up.

Second, as an alternative to linear progression I propose the following:

When you level up, level up as normal. Increase your health in 5e, add to your skills in Troika!, upgrade your saving throws, etc.

However, you also roll a d6. On a 4-6 nothing happens. On a 1-3 you lose something. Perhaps a stat. Perhaps a level or your faith or your love. Perhaps you lose a feat or a skill or a bond with another character. Perhaps another saving throw goes down. Perhaps you haven’t practiced Thieves’ Cant in years and have gotten so rusty you don’t remember it.

The next time you improve, you can take what you lost (or some variation thereof), but you’ll always run the risk of losing something else every time you improve.

This isn’t a perfect system. Its not even a very good one, but something I’m going to try out. It at least gives players a chance to try out different areas of play if they’re interested, their characters changing as they go.