RPG EXP: The Current Level Conundrum


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.

Bartle’s Four and Fantasy Fiction Styles

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Originally posted November 2007

So I was thinking about the two main types of fantasy fiction: empowerment and disempowerment. That is, is the story about a hero that is consistently awesome, facing regular minor setbacks to allow development and chances to shine, or is the story about a hero that gets buried under hardships until finally scraping out at the last minute by overcoming nearly impossible odds? Enjoying one or the other usually depends on whether you’re willing to follow the protagonist into darkness in order to receive an even greater emotional thrill when he finally overcomes.

Then I realized that there were a few other fantasy styles, particularly in gaming, that didn’t exactly fit one or the other. Mystery stories typically feature a protagonist a step removed from the normal pull of the plot; whether the protagonist is empowered or disempowered is usually tangential to the throughplot of the narrative. Less common in fiction but more common in games is the tactical story; what’s good for the story takes a backseat to the cunning of the players, and whether they’re empowered or disempowered is completely up to their savvy in outmaneuvering the opposition.

And if all those are viable, the four styles seem to map loosely onto the four video gaming styles: achievers to empowerment (they like to succeed), socializers to disempowerment (there’s often more to roleplay and talk about when things are going poorly than when you almost always win), explorers to mysteries (it’s all about finding new things and noticing clues others have missed), and killers to tactical (it’s about outthinking the GM/rival players).

Which is all to say: I wonder if you can tell what kind of story-driven game a player will prefer if you know his or her Bartle type.

(Random Game Idea) The Sims: With Great Power

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Originally posted October 2007

You have a normal game of the Sims, except one of the family members is a superhero. The family members have another meter tied to the superhero: Obliviousness. When Obliviousness gets too low, the family members’ happiness is impacted and they start picking fights, lowering the hero’s happiness. The hero has a Power meter that can be built up with certain household tasks, but which is reduced by having low meters in other areas.

If the hero works a job, it’s harder to keep his own meters up, but the family members’ Obliviousness stays high.

If the hero skips a job to keep Power up for heroing, the rest of the family loses Obliviousness, and starts stressing out about their roommate’s joblessness and/or dangerous life of heroing, causing them to pick fights.

The hero can opt to work as an open hero, and make money heroing, but villains will attack the family and reduce their happiness.

Actual crimefighting sessions would be a side game of some kind and game goals would be tied to reducing crime.

Serial Numbers Filed Off 3: The Pit

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Originally posted September 2007

D&D/Nobilis: Tartarus

Tethys: I know why you’re here, Eos. I know what you’ve been doing… why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why day after day, you sit on the hill facing the sun. You’re looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn’t really looking for him. I was looking for an answer. It’s the question that drives us, Eos. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.

Eos: What is Tartarus?

Menoetius: Tartarus is a prison, Eos. That prison is our enemy. But when you’re inside and asleep, you look around, what do you see? Farmers, hunters, innkeepers, adventurers. The very minds of the titans we are trying to save. But until we do, these titans are still a part of that prison and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these titans are not ready to be released. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the prison, that they will fight to protect it.

Agent Hephaestus: I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually gods. Every god on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding worshipers but you titans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every available sacrifice is consumed and the only way you can survive is to expand your cult to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. The titans are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

Serial Numbers Filed Off 2: Mazes and Monsters

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Originally posted September 2007

Serenity: It’s Only Forever

Some folk will tell you that Miranda was an isolated incident. They’re certain that the Alliance practices a firm list o’ ethics, and’ll only experiment on people if they’ve got no other choice. I know different.

I’ve put all of you together because you lost someone. Maybe you didn’t pay as much attention to a younger sibling as you might’ve. Maybe you cursed someone in anger, and regretted it when you never saw them again. Maybe the only rumor you’ve got to go on is a fancy, blond-haired juggler with too much of a smile and an Alliance badge.

I can tell you that the same happened to me, and we’re none of us gonna stop until we’ve found the truth. I won’t lie: there are dangers untold and hardships unnumbered ahead of us, but we’ll get to the center of what happened, and find why we keep hearing rumors of a hidden planet called Minos.

All I can hope is that the word I’ve heard is wrong. It said we’ve only got 13 weeks before our loved ones become lost to us, forever. That’d be a real pity.

Kingdom Quest

Nesmith’s troupe is known far and wide; probably better known than they should be. There’s not a lot of call for a handful of mediocre bards in most places around the region, but they’ve found the secret. Each of them is a shameless self-promoter; the stories of their exploits have outgrown them, even though they’ve never actually delved any deeper than the bottom of a wine bottle. Most of the villages in the region long ago realized that their stories were only so much hokum, and only keep the troupe around for the comedy value. Hell, the Dane guy who’s always going on about his fine Orcish traditions is obviously a human in bad greasepaint.

But not everyone knows that the troupe is full of so much manure. For years, the halls of the Svirfneblin deep gnomes have echoed the stories of the “great heroes,” and now that an impending draconic invasion threatens their homes, there’s only one set of adventurers that they hope can defend them. They’ve even come up with some interesting weapons based on the best stories, just in case the heroes have lost the originals. Is the troupe willing to let an entire society be crushed beneath the heel of the dragons, especially if it means losing what little cred they have left on the touring circuit?