I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. Previously, I was playing a lot of Dragon Age. Bioware has crawled in and owned most of my free time for the last few months. It’s safe to say my thoughts on design have been influenced by what they’ve been soaking in.

Today, I’m brought back again to an aspect of the current level conundrum. Specifically, in how both games handle a fairly simple skill system differently as far as advancement:

  • In Dragon Age, each rank of an ability costs the same as the previous. It costs the same to go from level 2 to level 3 of a skill as it did to go from level 1 to level 2.
  • In Mass Effect 2 (unlike its predecessor), each rank of an ability costs more than the previous level. Going from level 2 to level 3 of a skill costs more than going from level 1 to level 2.

These two examples neatly sum up the dominant advancement methods in pretty much all RPGs. Some use both systems: the first during character generation for simplicity, the last during actual play (which is the core issue of the current level conundrum linked above). Others use one or the other exclusively.

They result in different player behavior when making characters in many cases. In my experience, there is little players enjoy more than rolling huge fistfuls of dice (or, in a non-dice-pool system, adding huge numbers to the roll). Or, in the case of computer games with increasing power unlocks, there is little that players like more than getting the awesome power at the end of a skill tree.

This behavior means that, in an equal-cost system, there is a substantial tendency for player skills to exist in only three states, no matter how many ranks each skill has:

  • Zero ranks, for skills the player hasn’t bothered with yet
  • One rank, for skills the player can’t use without at least one rank
  • As close to maximum ranks as the player can afford

Unless there is some other force at play (such as powers in the mid-ranks being better than at the top ranks, or some form of prerequisite or other limit), few PCs will naturally gravitate to an even spread of skills. It’s just more fun to bring huge chances of success or awesome powers to bear. The tendency is to max out as many skills as possible early, then max out the rest one by one during advancement.

The ME2/current level style of leveling scheme exists to counter this tendency. Games such as the Storyteller system will also indicate that a degree of simulationism is involved (to weight the difficulty of mastering a skill to that of the real world), but the primary impetus in play winds up being to offer a degree of instant gratification to counter the quest for phenomenal power.

Most games that use a stepped system of this kind award advancement points in small batches. In ME2, for example, each character gets 1-2 points per level, and skills cost 1-4 points for the respective ranks. Once a skill is rank 2, raising it will require spending at least one level with no advancement first. Perhaps not coincidentally, many skills unlock access to a new skill once the second rank is purchased.

A player is forced to choose to buy something lesser now, or wait for the bigger payoff. He or she also must consider whether a better chance at success or an upgraded power is worth multiple times as much as what’s gained from advancing a lower skill.

Ultimately, this is the reason to go with a current level system for experience: encouraging the conflict between gratification and power to create better-rounded characters. A flat-cost system will result in many players having few skills at median levels, unless other rules are in play to establish limits or ratios. Either result can be acceptable, as long as the system designer/GM knows and desires that outcome.

But systems that use flat cost for character creation and current level for advancement still punish the less system-minded players in any event 🙂 .

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