Mining for Mechanics: Further Thoughts on Levelling

In the past few weeks, I’ve written about player-centred XP distribtuion, and also alternative levelling options. Discussing the outcomes of those with various people has given me a few more ideas.

Buying level features

In the last post, one idea mentioned was giving players a small level up at the end of each session. That could be gaining a number of hit points, a new ability, spell, etc. Another way of doing this, but keeping XP in your game, is giving the abilities and upgrades a PC would normally get when levelling an individual cost. This allows players to select them individually and buy the upgrades they most want.

Simply take the features a player would get from a level up, divide the total XP for the level by the number of features and make them available to the player at that cost. You can even make features from higher levels available early if you so desire, but at the XP cost of the higher level.

To give an example of this with dummy numbers, your first additional hit die might cost 500XP, the second 1000XP, and so on. This means if a player really wants more hit die, they can buy them and leave the skills points for later.

Hiding XP from players

Some groups love to meta-game, some loathe it. If you want to avoid XP meta-gaming, and particularly murderhoboing, hide XP from the players totally. The GM can keep track of the numbers, which does mean more work for you, and just tell the players when they level up. What feedback on levelling up the GM gives to the players is totally flexible. This creates a kind of milestone levelling that doesn’t rely on the GM to judge when levelling up might happen and keeps the mathematical model behind your system’s XP in place.

Practice makes perfect

This amounts to only giving PCs advancement in things that they actually do, or actually take steps to improve in. It does seem a little odd when your rogue gets better at lock-picking after a particularly large fight, or your wizard suddenly ‘remembers’ a lot more magical lore when you’re camping in the wilderness and defeat some wolves.

This ties very intuitively to most D20 RPG skill systems, where you simply need to set an amount of practice a skill requires before it improves, or offer an in-game opportunity for the character to learn the skill they want. So when your rogue goes on a pick-pocketing spree, whether he succeeds or fails, he begins to get better.

It ties reasonably well into systems like feats and traits. If a fighter wants to get better at disarming opponents, he needs to be trying to do it, even if he fares poorly at the start. This means that players should consider what feats they wish to acquire and discuss with the GM how those can be practiced. This can driver both power-gaming and roleplay if you want it to, but more importantly, it shapes the tactics the players will get their PCs to use at the table by forcing them to do things they’re perhaps not so good at when the opportunity is right. Once a fight has turned in their favour, they fighter can try to disarm the remaining opponents as practice. For the wizard to practice a new spell he well mess up on first attempt, a plan B must be made.

 

This does raise a question for things like hit points. Depending on your rules system, setting a threshold for HP points to drop below seems to make sense. For easy improvement of hit points, you could set this at 25%, but for really brutal GMs it could be 10% or even zero in systems where that doesn’t mean death.

Ability scores are harder, as practice for them can be linked to many things and tracking 100 uses of your STR bonus would be onerous to say the least. A more narrative idea could be to give an ability score bonus when a PC achieves something momentous using that ability. This can help drive roleplay also. Another approach would be to give the player a bonus for some change in habits or deliberate practice they can roleplay. For example, your fighter switches to a double-handed weapon, and is awarded a strength bonus from using it after 10 sessions. Your rogue switches armour types, and initially suffers a dexterity penalty, but after ten sessions wearing it, he gets used to it and his dexterity increases as a result.

The big issue with this type of thing is that it isn’t clear cut exactly when players will be able to improve their PCs unless the GM creates boundaries and everything is tracked. That’s a huge amount of things to keep track of on top of the ordinary GM workload. With the right group, this could drive roleplay and tactics and make for a fulfilling game. With the wrong one, players will look for sneaky ways to boost their stats and the GM will disappear under a mountain of paper.

Level parity

One interesting notion that was brought up is level parity. In most games, it makes sense as it keeps the party balanced and everybody has at least potentially equal opportunities to shine. This is the default setup in most RPGs, and rightly so. There was an interesting way to run an imbalanced game that came up however.

‘The chosen one’ scenario has a level 1 PC who gains XP five (or some other multiple) times faster than the other PCs. This represents progress towards their inevitable all-powerful destiny. However, to balance things out, the other PCs, guardians and mentors of the chosen one, start out several levels higher than them. Think about how Luke Skywalker progresses through the original trilogy of Star Wars. He starts out pretty useless, but his abilities rapidly develop and outpace those around him, who are pretty high level at the start.

There’s some maths to be done before starting this to see how the level progression in your group will work. Potentially, this could make for a really engaging storyline and interesting tactics at the table. It is another thing that won’t work for every group, but could link into a campaign setup very nicely if done right.

 

There are no doubt still a million other possible ways of doing levelling that I haven’t covered here. Some of them will no doubt come to me in the future, or from other people who read this and discuss them. If you want to tell us about how you do it in your game, come and join us on Twitter. We also have a Facebook page if you want get updates. If you want to support us, please head over to DriveThruRPG and consider making a purchase.

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