Mechanical Character Advancement | KingSpoom's RPG Design & Theory Junkyard

Mechanical Character Advancement

Mechanical character advancement is useful. The longer you plan on playing the same campaign, the more useful mechanical character advancement is to the system. Without it, you will be stuck playing the same game, over and over again. A large portion of board games also feature mechanical advancement. I believe it is an important part of RPGs and RPG design. Why is mechanical character advancement useful?

One way it is useful is to keep the mechanical aspect of the game from being repetitive. By constantly changing, the mechanics are able to keep a fresh face. This also allows a system to offer mechanical choices throughout play, rather than just during character generation. It also allows the PCs to adapt to current and future situations. For example, a party that is going to be stuck in the desert for a long time has the option to learn survival skills, but also has the option to do without. Without mechanical character advancement, they would be stuck with the skills they had at creation.

Another way it is useful is by showing the mechanical growth of a character in comparison to himself or to another person. Revisiting an old challenge or rival is a great way to show how hard you've been working in the meantime. By showing growth, you lend verisimilitude to rising scales of action. As such, mechanical growth can be a great pacing mechanic for a campaign, especially if advancement is capped.

Mechanical character advancement is not without baggage. Along with it comes issues of balance . Any sort of staggered progress of advancement leaves an opportunity for exploitation. However, if advancement is done in parallel, it can become trivial. Advancement caps may or may not seem right, but a setting is more difficult to use without caps. Without proper consideration, mechanical character advancement may become nothing more than a bait and switch tactic.

Short games, such as those intended for one-shots, work well without mechanical advancement. For longer games, mechanical advancement is almost required to hold interest and to maintain an active setting. If you choose to include mechanical character advancement into your rpg design, make sure to highlight the reasons for its inclusion. If it's there to justify costume changes or sell splat books, you might be better off working on an interesting challenge subsystem.


Anonymous said...

So, given that most of the usefulness of advancement comes from change, why not stick with it? There are many stories where the character does not advance significantly, but change does still happen.

Why advancement, not change?

KingSpoom said...

Would you mind giving me an example of a story where a character changes mechanically, but doesn't just advance? I'm stuck thinking of something like Star Wars. Luke advanced as far as I can tell.

Why not mechanical change instead of mechanical advancement? I'm not sure I see how that would actually make sense. I forget how to sail and learn how to survive in the desert? Then I have no aptitude in sailing until I change back? I see merit in how it could work, but the drawback is still significant in my mind.

I think change would work better in a game where you don't control just a single character, or where you're a robot with limited memory or something.