Sunday, June 20, 2004

Character: Level-Up vs. Play-As-You-Are

posted by Chad

So, I've been thinking of what the impact of two variants in character development are on the gameplay, underlying rules, and hobby in general. I'm calling these two variants Level-Up (LU) and Play-As-You-Are (PAYA).

The majority of RPGs are LU games (starting with D&D and working up), though many -- especially superhero games -- are PAYA. A number (GURPS, some Storyteller games, etc.) fall between the two -- let's call them COMBO.

In LU, the character starts weak, but over time becomes more and more powerful.
In PAYA, the character starts powerful, and remains that way.

Now, what does this mean for gameplay?
In LU, beginning PCs are rather incompetent, with the future badassery held out as a carrot lure. Beginning characters get killed by normal rats, asthmatic kobolds, and street-sweeper droids. They fail at skills they are supposedly highly-trained at. They have limited mojo (spells, psi power, drama points, superpowers). In a word, they are lame.

In PAYA, PCs start tough and stay tough, but there's no real future joy-joy to look forward to except for minor tweaks and mild improvement. But that's cool, a PC hits the ground running, can survive small threats, kick a moderate amount of ass, and succeed at what they try most of the time.

There are always rules. . .
In LU, there's a bunch of rules that don't come into play early in a PC's career, mostly involving their special, developing mojo. This is good, as there's not a lot for the player to know starting out, and the learning curve is spread out over the life of the character: as a player learns how the rules system works, he sees how his character takes advantage of it. Additionally, LU characters don't require a high-detail concept, and the personality develops as one plays.

In PAYA, the PC is thrown into the middle of things, and must needs instantly learn everything about the rules system, at least those bits need for chargen or where his competencies come into play. This can be tough on a newbie, and cause information overload. It's also a lot of work to build a character (from a point-build standpoint) and may require the player having a character concept in mind -- which sucks for a newbie, becuase they're not sure what all this gaming stuff is about. They're put on the spot to be creative in a field they don't understand.

What does this mean?
Here's hypothesis A: The LU concept keeps a large number of newbies from getting into gaming because the beginning character sucks. Those that do, however, really sync up with the "get stronger as you go" concept, and enjoy the LU process.

Here's hypothesis B: The PAYA concept keeps a large number of newbies from getting into gaming because there's too much for the beginning player to keep track of. However, those that manage it, enjoy the ability to be cool.

Here's hypothesis C: Most COMBO games that split the difference between LU focus on the wrong combination of stuff: the concept and info-heavy aspects of PAYA chargen, and the elimination of cool power-ups later in a character's career.

And finally, hypothesis D: To maximize newbie interest in gaming, the fusion of LU and PAYA games should be the reverse of COMBO games; let's call this mixture COMBO-2. A COMBO-2 game would include:
1. Minimal amount of basic rules to know to play; advanced rules are spread over the future life of the character. This will reduce the number of newbies getting turned off.

2. Minimal amount of character concept to pre-exist before chargen; possibly including a "roll randomly" or "select a" from a limited but evocative list of character classes/packages. This will speed the start of play, and reduce the number of newbies quitting before they start.

3. PC should be competent -- if not greatly more competent than an average person under the system, at least slightly more competent -- from the get-go. This will improve the numbers of newbies who come back to the table for another go.

4. PCs should have the ability to constantly revist chargen to show developments in personality, if desired. This empowers the player and GM to adjust the character to fit what's important in play and in the campaign; the ability to refine may be able to stand in for a constant, slow improvement via levlling. The character gets better in mild ways as the character gets more defined. This is the build-point for stunts and tweaks.

5. PCs should have the ability to "power-up" substantially -- not simply tweaks and stunts off of their existing powers, but a noticeable jump. (Compare Luke Skywalker from SW to ESB to RotJ.) This will give players something to look forward to, which will help them come back to the game regularly.

What say you?