Originally posted December 2007
I’d been thinking about this after playing Serenity, but reading through the Buffy books I got during the Eden $5 sale really drove home the problem. A lot of skill-based games have two different systems for character generation (the earliest examples of this I’m aware of are White Wolf games, but pretty much every game that isn’t level based or Chaosium-style use-based is like this now). During character creation, you buy all your statistics out of a pool of points, where the level of the trait doesn’t mean much (e.g., raising a skill from 1 to 2 or from 3 to 4 costs the same amount of points). This is probably done to speed an already slow character creation process.
But once you’re in play, you switch to a completely different system for raising traits with experience points. Almost always, it’s cheaper to raise low traits by a level than it is to raise higher traits by a level (it might cost 1 point to raise a level 1 skill to 2, but 3 points to raise a level 3 skill to 4). This seems to be done out of some combination of simulationism (it doesn’t make sense for it to be just as fast to master a knowledge as to learn the basics) and player gating (to discourage PCs from singlemindedly maxing out their traits rather than dabbling).
The problem with this is that it’s heartbreaking to systems-minded folks like me that want to buy traits appropriate to the character but don’t want to gimp our characters in the long term (okay, I admit it, I’m a power gamer in some respects, but it also means that hardcore power gamers have a dramatic advantage over casual players). Essentially, the character generation system makes it efficient to concentrate your points on maxing out your key traits rather than spreading your skills out:
In a simple current level system for skills, you could buy one skill at 5 and one skill at 1 or two skills at 3. Assuming you wanted to eventually max out both skills to 5 in play, it would cost 10 EXP in the first case (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 to raise one skill from 1 to 5) and 14 EXP in the second case (3 + 4 + 3 + 4 to raise two skills from 3 to 5). That’s a 40% difference in cost and that’s on the smallest scale.
In almost all cases, it’s drastically more cost-effective to take any low traits that you don’t expect to need immediately in play and move their points into traits that you’d eventually like to have high. Sure, you’re an idiot savant for a few sessions, but you can quickly round out your character with low levels of EXP. And it doesn’t help that most EXP guidelines seem to be written with the expectation of playing twice a week; for a less frequent game, it becomes more and more pressing to blow your EXP on low level skills, since it will take forever to save up enough to see any improvement buying up high-level skills.
And what’s really baffling me is the Buffy-specific EXP chart. During character creation, you can use freebie points from drawbacks to raise qualities or skills. In this case, qualities are radically overpriced: the major benefit of additional levels of the 5 point Sorcery quality is to give you a +1 to magic rolls (whereas those 5 points spent on skills could give you +5 to magic rolls). However, in actual play qualities cost a tiny fraction of skill points; I read a review pointing out that the Sorcery quality that’s overpriced during character creation is far more cost-effective to raise than the magic skill with EXP. This makes my head hurt.
The moral of the story is that I think I’m just going to stick with trait-level-agnostic freebie points for EXP in future skill-based games I run. (I’d use an exp-based system for chargen, but I think casual players would hide from a blank sheet and a huge pool of EXP.) If it costs the same to raise a trait from 1 to 2 as from 3 to 4 in character creation, it will cost that much with EXP too.
And if this encourages unrealistic or twinkish spending behavior, I’ll just ask the offenders nicely to stop it, and then everyone can benefit from consistent improvement at all skill levels to the traits they want to buy.