A few days ago I was talking with my friend Alec about games we were running. He’s recently gotten into an old school superhero roleplaying game. One idea he had going into it was that there would be no character advancement in the form of EXP or buying new skills.
Wait, what? No character advancement? That’s crazy! That sounds dangerously close to being one of those independent games that makes you think!
It does sound a little crazy at first, but the more you unpack the idea there are lots of benefits. I can see where his idea came from. It was a superhero game and how often do you see superheroes getting significantly better with new skills. Less often than they die and come back to life, surely. Think about it. Cyclops starts out a story arc being able to shoot lasers from his eyes, and that is the exact same way that he ends it. If Spiderman gets some freaky new power, it usually goes away and is only there to give him a new moral dilemma. Like a sitcom, things start and end the same, but superheroes are still interesting despite their lack of constant advancement. There are a lot of hidden advantages to that when looked at through a gaming lens.
Living Without The Need To Go Up
Ok, if you look at it in a different light, there are lots of things you can do differently in a no character advancement game that can make it better.
- You Character is Already Fleshed Out – You know who your character is at the start of the story. You don’t have to think about your character in terms of “Once they get to 5th level, they’ll be as awesome as I envision them!”. Sure, you might not be able to get to the awesome thing a few tiers above you, but you also don’t have to waste your lower level advancement slots, feats, gifts, skills, and other valuable resources on things that open you up for the end game. Combined with the next point, this gets really awesome.
- You can start at the sweet spot and stay there – Every game has a sweet spot where characters are awesome and things don’t feel too overpowered. You don’t have to worry about succumbing to death every time you go out the door, but you don’t blink your eyes, yawn, and get a phenomenal success on every non-insane challenge either. Whatever the sweet spot for your game is, you can start there and stay there.
- You know what level of challenges you’ll likely face – Without worrying about advancement, the Game Master can build challenges and know exactly how challenging they will be. For more mechanical games, you’ve often got charts and formula to determine exactly what an effective challenge is for a particular level. Even if your game doesn’t work like that, the Game Master will have an idea of what powers the players have access to and what kinds of things will provide a challenge.
- Challenges are more meaningful, because you don’t need to grind – What? We have to kill 15 more orcs to get to the next level. C’mon guys, lets go stir up some trouble! Without character advancement on the table, there is no need for the Game Master to throw endless waves of random encounters, force you on sidejobs to destroy a minor gang of techno-terrorists, or have that helpful NPC suggest that you aren’t good enough to go up against the big bad yet.
- The Game Master doesn’t have to worry about keeping track of experience or planning a good power curve for monsters – All those headaches after a combat with how much experience an encounter gives or how to divvy it up are gone. Many games have gotten away from these complexities anyways, but now the Game Master can totally abandon them.
- Special gear that you get is suddenly meaningful – There isn’t a need to monty haul players in order to make sure they have appropriate gear for their level. Without advancement up a level or tier system, the equipment they have is either just right or really has meaning. A magic sword that is above your level is really actually special. It is probably what you NEED in order to kill the BBEG, not just something that makes it easier and stands in for that uber power you just picked up.
- If you really want advancement, you can do it between story arcs and rebuild your character in a whole new way – Imagine this. You are a character in a no advancement game. You start at a low level and play through a few weeks of taking out a local warlord and his troops. The game breaks for a few weeks and the GM says to restructure your characters for mid-tier. He gives you a little freedom to redo skills and abilities, and you go again. You don’t have to worry about that time getting there, but maybe you qualify for a special class because you didn’t need to put points into things to keep you alive at the transitioning levels. Now you take on a few dragons and kill the lich terrorizing the country as the story arc for the next few months of gaming. Another break, another jump up, another chance to build your character all at once, not in small bits.
There are a lot of ways you could do a no advancement game, and it might not be for everyone. This isn’t quite the same as Troy’s article on taking away experience points and favoring other types of advancement, but there is a lot of synergy here. Instead of replacing advancement with some other system or reward, you’re just taking away the uncertainty of, and yearning for, what comes next in the character’s career. You can focus on the mechanics of the current level and play out a fulfilling and roleplaying heavy game without giving up the crunch.
What do you think about a no advancement game? Have you ever done anything like this before? Are there any RPGs out there that already do this that you’d recommend?