Friday, February 17, 2017

An idea for the sandbox: no character progression

Sometimes, we are so used to traditions and convention that we forget to question them.  One that I've been re-considering lately, for the first time ever, is the idea of character progression.  I only know of one RPG where improvement of skill over time was not assumed to happen: classic Traveller

This was the rulebook I had back in the day

With that one exception in mind, I can't think of any tabletop RPG that doesn't have a system for character progress.  The main question that most rules answer is whether to have a class-and-level system, or track individual skill levels.  Games carefully consider what is the proper rate of character improvement.

But is this all absolutely necessary?

I can't answer this question definitively, although I will propose here that it may not always be necessary, and sometimes, it can even be a liability.  But before I get to that, I want to first ask: how realistic is it?


Certainly, a person's skill will improve as it is practiced over time, especially if done so with the intent to improve.  But I'd suggest that the way that most role-playing games simulate this is inherently unrealistic.  The main thing they get wrong, in my opinion, is the learning curve.

Sorry, Milos, but it doesn't actually work that way!

My sense is that, in real life, a new skill can often be learned very quickly, if one is to train with focus and dedication for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the skill.  After that, learning seems to level off quite a bit, and for most practitioners of a skill, will plateau relatively quickly.  The precise curve depends a lot on the skill, as well as the practitioner.

In addition, real skills often improve by a combination of real-world use and controlled training.  In addition, skills often go rusty very quickly when not in regular use, although they will only fall so far, and can be recovered a lot faster than they were obtained in the first place.

My point of all this is that gaining experience and mechanical bonuses seems to happen in accordance with events and at rates that are not particularly realistic. I'll never argue that these games should strive for simulationist realism, but the mechanic can feel (ironically) video-gamey after a while.  Kill monster, gain XP, power up!  There's a Skinner Box aspect to the whole thing, where you're trying to incentivize certain game activities in return for a jolt of satisfaction.


Leaving that aside, I'll first argue that character progression may not be necessary for all campaigns.  It depends on the play style of the players, and the types of adventures that characters would be expected to play.

For some role-playing games, character progression is a major point of play.  My feeling is that, if this is the case, then there has been a failure to engage the players with the game world.  What should be more important to both characters and players should be the character's life progress, by which I mean things like improving one's station, achieving goals, obtaining wealth, etc.  

Note that I am not saying that the PCs should
only be first level!

In many campaigns, noticeable character progression may be very much besides the point.  I'd say that games is a more modern setting tend to emphasize in-game rewards.  The reasons for this are probably multiple, including the fact that hazards in modern genres are typically shown as being more lethal, and the fact that wealth and technology play a much more prominent role.

I would argue that similar effects can be achieved in a fantasy campaign, often simply by the removal of character progress itself.  In the absence of ever-increasing skills and defensive capabilities, certain things always remain dangerous to personally confront, meaning that PCs will have to eventually do one of the following:

  • employ a small army
  • acquire powerful magic
  • come up with a brilliant plan
  • run!
  • hide!
  • die
All of these paths entail a greater engagement with the game world, if only from the suspense of running and hiding, or the drama of dying.  Players will know that an encounter with four trolls was always meant to be dangerous.  They aren't in danger of being "too early" in their following of a hook, although they may be in great danger of dying, nonetheless.

Progress and the sandbox

In any case, what I really want to argue here is this: character progress makes it very difficult to run a sandbox campaign.  I'm not the first person to point this out, by any means.  In fact, what got me thinking along these lines was this post by Raven Crowking (Daniel J. Bishop), where he says:
2.  Relatively Shallow Power Curve:  We are all familiar with games where the desire to add skills and feats, and to avoid so-called “dead levels”, beefs PCs up so much between one level and the next that what was once a challenge quickly becomes stale, and where an encounter can easily overwhelm a group whose average level is only a little below that which the encounter was designed for.  This has some serious deleterious effects on sandbox play.

Old-school sandbox
Think about it: If you seed an adventure area with challenges, what are you to do if your first-level party of PCs decides to challenge the Tomb of Horrors?  The options aren't pretty.  First, you can try to steer the players away from level-inappropriate sites, although this is hard to do well without being very heavy-handed.  Second, you can scale challenges up and down according to the level of the party, but in this case, you're just providing artificially curated challenges. 

Finally, you can simply avoid giving the PCs hooks to high-level adventures before they are ready.  This is another instance of heavy-handed curation, and all of these solutions to the problem of leveling start to move you away from a true open-ended sandbox campaign.  And then there's the opposite problem, when your party neglects to investigate one of your hooks until they are so tough that it's a curb-stomp for them.

All of these problems are negated if the characters' overall power levels don't change significantly throughout their respective careers.  In such a case, you can create an encounter at any point during your campaign, and be able to determine roughly how threatening it will be.

There's no reason you can't just start the PCs at a certain level or character point count, and not progress from there.  You could even take an approach similar to DCC's "quest-for-it" ethos, whereby minor character advancement is a major plot point.  Learning a new spell or finding a new teacher becomes the point of multiple sessions of play.


If we want to be realistic about it and throw the players a bone while we're at it, I'd say that it's possible to compromise with very slow progress.  I'm thinking of the kind of situation where it would take as long to raise a single skill that it would in other games to go up an entire level.  Alternatively, it might be relatively cheap to obtain to obtain a very basic level of skill in a short term, with costs rising geometrically or even exponentially.

Another compromise mechanic I was thinking about was a system where you gain experience points, but those aren't spent on anything.  Instead, they become something like a Luck pool that you can spend points from to get bonuses.  Over the Edge had a mechanic like this, where you could use unspent XP from a pool (refreshed each session) to gain bonuses on rolls - the player had to explain how something the character had done gave him some insight into the task.

I always preferred this cover

One change that I'm thinking would have to be made for many fantasy games would be to flatten out spell levels considerably, or even perhaps entirely.  What I mean by this is that it's possible to have a magic system for a fantasy game where any spell may be cast by any magician who knows it, with the caveat that a weaker caster will produce a far weaker effect.  For sufficiently powerful spells, the duration of the effect might be so short when cast by a low-level wizard that there's no point even learning it.

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