Self-Improvement the RPG Way
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By quarkstomperquarkstomper

(originally posted at Pop Thought on Dec 18, 2006)

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
—Émile Coué

I got an early Christmas present from my wacky brother Steeve when he and his wife visited us this Thanksgiving: the DVD of the first season of Stan Lee’s Who Wants to be a Superhero? We watched it while they were visiting and it was great fun.

There’s a scene in an early episode where Stan toasts the contestants with his trademark motto: “Excelsior!” When the hero wannabees return the toast, Stan asks them, “None of you knows what that means, do you?” They sheepishly shake their heads.

Stan explains: “It means, ‘Ever onward and upwards to greater glory.’”

There’s a Japanese business philosophy called “Kaisan”. It means “Continuous Improvement”. The idea is that in order to stay successful, a business needs to constantly work at improving itself.

Both “Kaisan” and Stan Lee’s “Excelsior” are familiar concepts for role-players, because improvement is what a lot of games are all about. Role-playing games don’t have “winners” and “losers” the way traditional games do; (something which boggled my brother-in-law the one and only time I invited his wife and him to game with us; “how do I win?” he asked). But most RPGs have some sort of mechanism to record and measure character advancement. Mike Pondsmith, in his classic wacky teens ‘n’ anime RPG Teenagers From Outer Space, puts it this way: “While we’re of the considered opinion that having a good time playing the game should be reward enough, we recognize the need for Pavlovian reinforcement in a well-run game.”

I suspect that the principle for most types of character advancement was based on video games. For every Blormian you shoot, you score so many points; if you reach a certain number of points, you get an extra life, or a new attack, or snazzy new graphics.

That’s roughly the way the granddaddy of all RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons works. In the old AD&D system, each monster was worth a set number of Experience Points (or XP). In addition, the Dungeon Master would arbitrarily award additional points to players for things like good role-playing, achieving quest goals and remembering to bring chips to the table. In one group I played in, the DM would have each player write down what they thought were the significant actions their character performed that game and then he would judge how many points each action was worth. In the newer editions of D&D, the set XP from the old Monster Manuals have been replaced by a Challenge Rating system, so that the points you gain from a given encounter depends on the difficulty that encounter presents for your party’s level1.

Levels are another integral part of D&D. When a character gets so many Experience Points, he will Go Up a Level. This gives him extra Hit Points and, depending on his Character Class and what Level he’s at, could also give him attack bonuses, extra skills and abilities, or new spells.

In the old First Edition, each level had its own special name, so that a Thief would start out at the first level as a “Rogue.” At the next level he would become a “Footpad”, and then progress through “Cutpurse”, “Robber”, “Burglar”, and “Filcher”. In theory the idea seems cool and even makes a certain amount of sense. In actual practice, however, it just seemed silly. (“Filcher”???) Later editions eliminated the named levels.

One drawback with this system is that it tends to encourage Leveling Up Syndrome: “Dang! I’m only 100 points short of my next Level. I’m going off into the forest to kill a few kobolds so I can level up.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself; a clever Game Master can throw together a quickie encounter or two to make the kobold hunt more exciting; or better yet, devise some way for the kobold hunt to lead into the adventure he had planned out before his player decided he needed more XP. But every now and then you’ll come across a player who wonders aloud how much XP he’ll get for offing that peasant walking down the road. When that player is playing a Paladin, you know you’ve got problems2.

Another problem is that since characters have the potential to become obscenely powerful as they advance in levels, the system makes them pitifully weak when they start out. This is particularly the case with the Magic-User class. In the old AD&D system, Wizards started out with the least number of Hit Points, were allowed to cast only one spell per day, and were prohibited from wearing armor. Not surprisingly, a lot of players just skipped over the first few levels and started off their characters at a point where they could actually do something.

Not all game systems stratify character advancement into levels. Point-buy systems, such as HERO or GURPS, allow players to use earned Experience Points to buy improvements to their characters; adding new skills or abilities, or bumping up stats, or even buying off disadvantages. These games typically recommend that the GM give out only a couple points per player per session, as opposed to D&D which can award hundreds or even thousands of points per encounter. But in GURPS you can make some significant improvements to your character with only a dozen or so extra points where it can take several thousand points to hit the next level in D&D.

I know of at least one game system where experience actually makes your character worse! In Chaosium’s classic Call of Cthulhu, each character has a certain amount of “Sanity Points.” Each time he encounters an Eldritch Horror or a Thing Man Was Not Meant to Know, he loses some of his sanity. Ultimately all the characters will go mad and become NPCs; their only hope is to stop the Horrors before it’s too late!3

I have to admit, I’m usually kind of lax about passing out Experience in the games I run. Unless I’m running a D&D campaign, I often forget all about it. I picked up this habit from the Champions campaigns my friends Bryon and Cath used to run when I lived in Darkest Iowa.

They had a library of nearly a thousand character sheets, (that was when I first met them; they eventually surpassed the thousand mark), converting nearly every character from the DC and Marvel Universes into HERO stats. Each sheet was laminated, because it made them easier to file, because it protected them from soda and pizza stains, and because Bryon had access to his schools laminating machine. Being preserved for the ages in imperishable Mylar meant that the character sheets could not be changed, but that was okay. “Comic book superheroes rarely change,” Bryon explained to me. What changes a character might undergo in the comic, (when the Hulk became grey and smart, for example, or when Superman acquired his “electric look”) were usually significant enough to warrant a totally new character sheet.

(Note: this applies only to American super-heroes. Japanese comics are more likely to follow a character’s development from rookie to uber-hero. The heroines of Magical Knights Rayearth, for example, start out as ordinary schoolgirls who have to grow into the roles of defenders. Goku, from the popular Dragonball series, is a poster child for kaisan and takes the concept to ludicrous lengths).

So in their various Champions campaigns, Bryon and Cath never handed out XP at the end of gaming sessions. Instead, they’d reward players through the social interactions their characters would have with other characters and with NPCs. Cath in particular did her darndest to cultivate romantic sub-plots for characters. Not all players like this approach, but I think it gave a more organic, satisfying feel to character development than a mere shovelling on of hit points every thousand miles would.

Then there’s always the alternative experience system suggested in Teenagers From Outer Space: “Have you ever considered paying your players off in M and M’s? Instant gratification can work wonders.”4

Hey, if it works, it works.


Further Game and Story Ideas

  • In the Discussion Forum, The Colonel mentions another approach to character advancement
    • "… the mention of CoC reminds me that there's a third form of development out there: the usage based improvement (as per RuneQuest, CoC and other Chaosium products) - tag up skills used during the session, test at the end to see if they improve. Also used by cRPGs (notably the Elder Scrolls) series."
  • Considered in a rational way, the D&D system is good for some serious fridge horror - PCs turn into nigh invincible godlike beings by killing literally thousands of other creatures, most of them sapient. Probably ripe for subversion…
    • This is used in World of Prime: experience points are a physical substance called tael, that can only be extracted from the freshly dead.
  • This suggests a few models of character advancement:
    • Flat: The character's abilities are constant over time. Reward is purely narrative, or adjusts abilities without changing total power.
    • Linear: Whether by usage or by spending experience, the character gains new abilities and improves existing ones over time. Reward increases power.
    • Decaying: Appropriate for horror in particular. The character expends resources or suffers injuries over time, reducing their power. Reward slows the decline.
    • Inverted: The character has some end goal (like "gain enlightenment" or "restore my humanity") that involves deliberately shedding power. Reward removes power.
      • Adding a decay curve would also make sense, especially for a "hero's journey" sort of narrative where the character eventually ages and must look to his legacy, ensuring that his son is ready to take his place as king (or whatever). Inverted power would also work for something like Vampire - there is a linear power curve, but that just leads you deeper into the world of the undead, gambling with the Beast and eventually becoming an inhuman monster. The alternative would be some version of golconda where the character sheds his undead powers and nature and eventually gets to (for Wedonverse fans) "shan-shu" (to die … naturally: that is to become human again).
  • Not sure what Gokun and Kaisan are, but I am aware that Dragonball is a Japanese cartoon, and when those involve schoolgirls, sooner or later they always seem to involve tentacles and the subsequent need to expel someone from your gaming group
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