While investigating the relationship between advancement mechanics and tone I looked at several core games I’ve enjoyed: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Basic/Expert D&D, West End Games’ first edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and Hero Kids (a more recent addition to my gaming repertoire). Each has its own play style. One might characterize the first two as hack-and-slash, dungeon-crawling games of a style now celebrated (and improved upon) by the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR). As a more cinematic game, D6 Star Wars focuses on overcoming obstacles through plotted scenes that escalate in a more literary sense toward an adventure climax, all relying on story elements from the popular setting. A game primarily for young children new to roleplaying gamers, Hero Kids emphasizes combat, problem-solving, and character interaction, yet has no built-in experience or advancement system for characters; so why can’t my six year-old get enough of it? The manner in which each of these games approaches the experience-advancement equation can heavily influence play style and the game’s tone.
In the AD&D Players Handbook (1978) Gary Gygax establishes the motivation behind “zero-to-hero,” hack-and-slash style play:
“Each player character begins the campaign at 1st level with no experience points accumulated. Thereafter, as he or she completes adventures and returns to an established base of operations, the Dungeon Master will award experience points to the character for treasure gained and opponents captured or slain and for solving or overcoming problems through professional means” (p. 106).
Justin Halliday’s Hero Kids lacks any semblance of an experience mechanic. It mentions nothing about character advancement or experience points beyond a simple suggestion that heroes get occasional rewards in the form of gold, potions, equipment, or magical items. That isn’t to say other gamers (myself included) haven’t devised their own means of awarding experience bonuses; but the game itself leaves them out, and even my own ideas about such a system amount to little more than providing minor bonuses to character abilities...certainly not the regular positive reinforcement needed to spur players to constant adventuring action. Granted, this is a game for kids, perfect for those interested in exploring roleplaying games at a far less intense level than most traditional games...so Hero Kids has a certain appeal on its own without built-in incentives to motivate repeat play. My six year-old enjoyed his first session so much he begged me to run more; the novelty still hasn’t worn off after several scenarios. He’s never been exposed to traditional roleplaying games where experience and character advancement are integral part of the extended play paradigm. Although most adventures have combat scenes, the game also encourages creative problem solving and interaction with other players and the gamemaster characters/monsters in the scenarios. Even the section on encounters fails to indicate that monsters even carry treasure heroes can loot. All this contributes to a game focused on exploration and problem solving (of both the game world and the game itself) without the positive feedback loop of combat, treasure, and experience.
By focusing on rewards for slaying monsters and taking their treasure, both the seminal D&D sources encourage players to adopt a hack-and-slash approach to adventures, which can lead to entire games that favor heavily combat-oriented action over the inclusion and development of satisfying story elements (in the literary sense). Of course not all hack-and-slash games eschew strong story elements, but the built-in experience system emphasizes rewarding characters for killing monster and taking their treasure, even if keen gamemasters also hand out experience points for fulfilling character goals and achieving setting objectives. Not every Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign revels in themes and elements from that setting without indulging in some indiscriminate carnage (I’ve played in some and heard plenty of stories about others). Hero Kids is carefully crafted to encourage a balance of combat, problem solving, and character interaction, but that doesn’t prevent individual games from veering toward either the hack-and-slash or storytelling path. Individual player expectations and overall chemistry within a group – guided by the gamemaster – ultimately determine the tone of any roleplaying game, but the core concepts and mechanics can heavily influence that tone. Some gamers love hack-and-slash, all the time or occasionally; others prefer some story elements with their class-and-level games. Is one style better than the other? Only if it provides an entertaining experience that fulfills player expectations.
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