Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advancement Influences Tone

Most roleplaying games include some kind of advancement system to encourage players to join game sessions and improve their characters. It’s been an essential element of roleplaying games since their beginnings, this ability to continue playing to gain more experience and build a more powerful character over time. Yet the particular mechanics of how in-game action translates to character experience influences the tone of the game. Players naturally want to improve their heroes; characters’ in-game actions tend to focus on those that best reward them in the context of the specific game scenario. Games that reward experience for slain monsters and looted treasure have a different tone than those giving points for solving problems, gaming in-character, managing encounters, and achieving goals.

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).

Although he offers that caveat about overcoming challenges, the rest of the five paragraphs in the Players Handbook “Experience” section justify rewards based on monsters killed/subdued and treasure taken. Here Gygax provides an entire paragraph of defense of “gaining experience points through the acquisition of gold pieces and by slaying monsters,” saying some might consider it “non-representative of how an actual character would become more able in his or her class.” His argument relies on the presence of fantasy elements in a game: “This is a game, however, a fantasy game, and suspension of disbelief is required.” He helps cement two key elements of experience in class-and-level roleplaying games: killing monsters and taking their stuff gains reward; overcoming obstacles, challenging character development, and exploring story elements seems secondary. (I’m not looking to the Dungeon Masters Guide here because the Players Handbook speaks to players in its effort to motivate them and their characters to action in the game; the DMG offers gamemaster’s guidance in handing out rewards and is thus not immediately apparent to players from a motivation standpoint.)

Tom Moldvay’s version of Basic D&D (1981) reiterates the emphasis on killing monsters and collecting gold to gain experience. “Experience points...are given for non-magical treasure and for defeating monsters” (p. B22). Here’s the reinforcement of the 1 gold piece equals 1 experience point principle, along with experience points “for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting, or wits.” Adjustments to experience points rewards come primarily from facing particularly tough monsters and bonuses based on prime requisite ability scores. Emphasis remains primarily on combat: “The DM may also award extra XP to characters who deserve them (fighting a dangerous monster alone, or saving the party with a great idea).” The text emphasizes rewarding active characters and providing negative reinforcement to “do-nothing” characters, assuming the in-game combat and story challenges aren’t enough to motivate some players.

The player section of West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game (1987) spends a quarter of a page explaining the experience system – “skill points” used to increase skill die codes – toward the end of 10 pages focusing on introducing players to basic roleplaying game concepts and the functional game mechanics before leading them through a solitaire tutorial scenario to demonstrate those principles. “The better you did in the adventure, the more skill points you receive. You get them for doing great deeds, for outwitting your opponents, and for playing your role well. You can spend skill points to increase your skill codes” (p. 15). Designed by Greg Costikyan, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game is a skill-based roleplaying game that eschews classes and levels for more story-driven characters relying on attributes and associated skills. It’s more story-oriented in the sense that character, setting, and story arcs matter more than killing things, taking their stuff, and leveling up. Rather than gaining new bonuses when a character levels up, players use points to increase their heroes’ skills, sometimes in line with their stereotyped character “template” concept and sometimes according to how they think their heroes might develop as story characters. These guidelines don’t mention anything about killing monsters and taking their treasure, but emphasize character and story elements. Although the licensed material emphasizes conflict – the franchise is Star Wars – that’s only one aspect in the game setting.

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.

Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.