This post was inspired by Stopping Short over at Gnome Stew by my former editor Walt Ciechanowski. In it, he asked what was an appropriate thing to do when an adventure ends early in the night and you’ve still got time before everyone goes home.

The obvious thing is to kick back, talk about the session or other things, and be sociable, but say you want to keep gaming… Do you start the next adventure? Do you spend time doing the character adjustments and things of that nature? A bit of both?

My answer is simple: role play. Don’t jump into the next adventure straight off, but give the players the time to handle the “down time” stuff or the “B plot” issues that you most likely glossed over during the mad rush to stop the villain, kill the monster, or whatever you were up to that evening.

Did Character A want to go back and talk to that waitress? Did Character B really want to steal that [insert object] that could lead to a short encounter that could fill up the rest of the night? Did Character C want to have that sad graveside moment with a fallen comrade or loved one, with his friend Character D by his side to do a nice vignette for the rest of you to enjoy?

Maybe the players have a moment to enjoy their hard won laurels and some plot thread they missed can be brought up in conversation…wait, what was that in the Collector’s cage? Oh, crap..! Maybe the experiences lead them to do something different — I’ve been a viper pilot since the Fall of the Colonies, but I think i want to run for the quorum so I can make a real difference in people’s day to day lives that not letting them get killed can’t. Maybe they ended the villain of the piece, but the man who killed your beloved (To quote Rocket Raccoon, “Everyone’s got dead people!”) or made them betray you is still out there. Can you convince the others to help you exact revenge?

Make it about the characters as people. Do a The Walking Dead and talk about their feelings.

Or pull up funny videos on YouTube and kill the rest of the night.

Your choice.

We’ve all been there: The game party encounters an obstacle, even simple one, and proceeds to spend the rest of the night trying to figure out what they are going to do. It’s never something simple. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Everyone’s got an idea how to overcome the thing…like opening a door.

The most egregious example I can think of from my gaming was a fantasy campaign in which the players ran across an enemy patrol camped out for the night. Stealth up and rush them? No, that would be to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Nooooo…there was a series of convoluted plans to keep the guards from raising an alarm, using just about every off the wall trick but the most obvious — use cover of darkness, sneak up stealthy-like, and liberally apply blade to exposed throats. After an hour of nonsensical planning, one of the characters threw a rock to distract the baddies, alerting them to their presence, raising the alarm, and blowing all of their meticulous, but contradictory tactics to hell.

How do you manage this, as a GM (or even a player?) As a game master you’ve got several good options:

1) Put a time limit on it. You’ve got so much time to plan before the guard comes back, the roof closing on you crushes you, the bomb goes off, the bad guy can complete the last component of their diabolical plan. Time it so the players only have that much time.

2) When the action is happening and players start to get analysis paralysis, give them a countdown. “You’ve got ninjas closing on you and they’ll be on you in moments. You can fight, jump over the cliff into the water below, surrender, or [enter other idea they've thrown out] — three! two! one..!” This works great in the midst of combat or some kind of action set piece where people wouldn’t have the leisure of sipping their beverage while considering all their myriad options. Make it happen or get sliced up.

3) Give them parameters. In a game where the players are part of an agency or military, or whatever, there is the possibility (probability) they’ve got some kind of rules of engagement. Maybe they have to have zero contact with the opposition, maybe they are not to use lethal force, maybe they have to protect the [McGuffin] at all costs. Having parameters tightens the decision tree and allows the players — while still maintaining autonomy — to make faster and more appropriate choices.

This last one can be difficult for players coming from hack-and-slash campaigns, where everything is on the table, to a universe where there are laws and fairly serious consequences for breaking them (like a modern setting campaign, for instance.) I’ve found players not used to a different purpose than “kill the monster, get the treasure”, often have trouble with the notion that “you just can’t blast civilians while chasing a bad guy through the streets of Miami…” but setting up those expectations ahead of time can hone their decision-making.

4) Give hints. “That’s railroading!” No, it’s not. Now go read some indie games with clever rules for how the players can come together to write a story about combing your hair. Sometimes, there’s only going to be a few options. You’re trapped in a room with two exits. Bad guys are coming through one. Stand and fight? Climb out the other exit? Some variation on those themes..? “You’ve managed to piss off the contact you need to get information from; what do you do?” [Player hems and haws...] “You want to rough him up? Apologize and try being less a douche? Bribe him? Let the player that does this well take over?”

As a player, you can aid the group without being to pushy. Don’t start acting like a commanding general. “Hey, Seth, you’ve got a high charisma, right? Why don’t you talk to the contact instead of Bob. If that doesn’t work, Bob can do the rampaging dick thing and try to beat it out of him.” Or sometimes it’s a bit more direct. During a recent play session of Firefly, I played Zoe, but one of the others wanted Mal…and was really not equipped to do so. I would occasionally point out things on his sheet. After all — Zoe is the captain’s right arm. I tied some of my suggestions into the characters’ patter, building off of the show. (For other game settings, you might point out something from a past adventure that seems more appropriate to the character’s past actions. “You’re not going to do X again, are you, sir?”

The main thing to look for as player or GM is when the game bogs down because of disagreement. Take a few minutes break, clear out the cobwebs or put aside personal style issues, and get back to it.

One thing I noted in the Battlestar Galactica campaign we’ve been running is that the system doesn’t quite allow for the toaster splashing antics of Starbuck and Apollo, nor are the toasters as deadly as they could be. One reason for that is the Cortex Classic mechanic for damage in a fight. As mentioned in the Discussions on Damage post from today, the idea for these possible house rules catalyzed out of a Facebook group post that caught my attention. So without further ado:

Suggestion 1: Tying the damage die to success. You need a 7 to hit the target and get a 12. That’s 5 points basic damage plus the d8W for your rifle (or viper.) At this point, anything under 5…is a 5. That means when you roll the d8W, you get between 5 and 8 as a result, so a 3 stun and 7-10 wound. This makes you a ton more effective against the toasters…and vice versa.

Suggestion 2: A static damage number that is tagged to the basic damage. As per the last example — you’ve done 3 stun and 2 wound basic damage. Now your rifle does 8 wound. This seems a lot more dangerous, and isn’t the one I would recommend.

Suggestion 3: This is one I suggest separate from the above ideas, and is one I use in my Cortex games: characters always roll an Endurance (Vitality+Willpower) versus damage taken. If they succeed, no penalty is rendered; if they fail, they are stunned for the number of rounds they missed by. This can be bought out with a plot point, or if they have Cool under Fire or some such asset. If they are hit with an extraordinary success and the character misses the roll, they suffer the effects as per the normal rules (pg 94 in the Cortex core book.)

Suggestion 4: This has also been one I’ve used in our campaigns — an extraordinary success on an injury leads to some kind of lasting effect — a broken arm, or the like — that gives the character a temporary Chronic Injury complication equal to the wound, round down. So say you take 9 wound and 3 stun, but live…you have a d8 Chronic Injury, Broken Whatever that takes that many weeks of game time to heal.

As usual, feel free to completely ignore any or all of this.

One nice thing about roleplaying is that it is social, it’s a discussion — between GM and players, between the characters, between players in different groups across the interwebz. One discussion that caught my attention was on the subject of damage or injury in a game. The question asked was static or random damage…but is that all the choices you have?

Most Fate variants have the ability to soak injury into complications like “Broken Arm” or some such mechanic that works against the character, but doesn’t take them out of the game. James Bond RPG had an excellent rules set where the quality of the attack dictated how much damage was done based off the Damage Class from A-L (character’s could usually delivery A-C damage in hand to hand; a pistol between E and G), so you might take a Light Wound on an acceptable or good hit, a medium on a very good, or a heavy on a excellent result. Cortex has a similar quality based damage system where basic damage is done by the amount of success on the attack roll. Say you have to hit on a seven, and you roll a 12; that’s 3 stun and 2 wound…but then you add the randomized damage of a dx wound or stun for the weapon. That 5 total damage was pretty good, but Oops! you rolled a one on the damage roll. Kinda sucks, huh? There’s a rule that extraordinary successes do full damage of the weapon (pg 94, Cortex core book) where the target suffers a steady d2 bleed out until they get aid, but does that accurately (or even cinematically/dramatically) represent a great shot?

One way around this is a “mook rule”, if you will. PCs that get extraordinary success or a critical hit, dispatch whatever no name henchman or monster they are dealing with. Only the lead villains or major henchmen get the benefit of damage roll. (Or to quote Nigel Power in Goldmember, “You haven’t even got a nametag! What chance have you got? Why don’t you just…lie down?”)

Another could be to take the weapon and add it to the roll for the attack. Does your sword do a d6 damage, add that to the d20 (if this were D&D, say) and whatever you beat the AC by, that’s your damage.

Another might be to use a variant of the Cortex rules — damage is based on how well you rolled over (or under, depending on the system) the target number with a set damage rating for the weapon. The downside to this is combat gets a lot deadlier for the PCs. Another option is you can’t roll below the amount you succeeded by. So if you beat a target of eight by four — you do four points before the d6 for your weapon.  Anything under 5 is four, so a total of eight or higher. There’s still some chance, but the results take quality of action into effect more.

These are just a few suggestions, but it does break us out of the flatness of a random or static only damage mechanic for a game.

This post is going to have double purpose: To address the issues of player agency and narrative control, and to tie into a short review (as a player) of the new Firefly system.

This weekend, I got a chance to play in a game of Firefly by Margaret Weis Productions run by one of the systems leads, Mark Truman, for the game. I figured it might be interesting to see if the experience of the game would be different, and if my opinions of the game would be changed by it. Along the way, there were some interesting chances to speak with the others at the table.

Mr. Truman had had a chance to peruse the previous review, and we talked about the experience of the game as I (and others) saw it. One of my comments was that the assets and complications mechanic, as in Fate, was overly complex and could lead to some confusion for the players and the GM. The assumption seemed to that I didn’t understand the mechanic, which was incorrect — I did, and even saw use in it — or that my lack of skill with the system was coloring my perception of the game. This response, I thought, harkened back to some of the issues of the Is there a right way to Game? post from a few weeks ago, and brought up some interesting questions for me:

1) Is the skill or familiarity with a system intrinsically linked to perceiving a game as good or bad? Is it a case of “It’s not the game that sucks; you’re playing it wrong”? That was certainly the implication I inferred. (Which means I could have completely misread the statement — so consider that my “I could be full of shit” caveat.) 

2) By this metric, if you are very skilled with a set of rules does that make a game “good?”

 3) Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Are are skill, familiarity, and preference linked, or is this a case of correlation not being causation?

4) Is your prefreence for one system over another based on a lack of proficiency with the system?

I’m going to start with the last point first: absolutely. I’ve known plenty of gamers for whom if the rules are not GURPS, OGL d20, or Fate, they’re not playin’. (Says the guy bitterly clinging to a half dozen defunct games…) Most of these guys have also been playing the same games for years. For these people, it is familiarity that produces preference, but what about people who do venture forth and try new games? — which I have advocated in the past.

I would suggest that for these intrepid gamers, preference comes from two factors: ease of play or learning curve, and from how well a game models the genre or the setting. Ease of play usually ties to the simplicity of the core mechanic. The traditional attribute+skill (+asset or other factor) beating a target number has been pretty standard for at least 20 years. Before that, in early D&D, it was as simple as roll a d20 and get under the number for your trait (strength, etc…) The learning curve was relatively slight, with a bit of a rise when you hit combat or magic. Add a ton of math into character creation or into managing modifiers to a roll was a good way to lose a player’s interest — although GURPS and early Champions still had plenty of adherents.

More importantly, especially with the wave of newer system designs in the 1990s, were games tailored more toward role playing rather than tactical gaming with role playing rules tacked onto them (have a look at your favorite game — if the chapter on combat is twice the size as the core mechanics, we’re talking about you…) White Wolf, Call of Chthulu, Castle Falkenstein, Fudge (later Fate) were relatively simple to learn, gave the players more say in character design than race, class, etc; and oriented toward pushing story, rather than wargames with characters. This required the games to also adhere to genre convention well.

What does this have to do with preference? There are games that have lived a long and healthy life after they went out of print. Some of those were settings that would be recreated in newer games. Case in point: Why play Last Unicorm or Decipher Star Trek when FASA already did it in the 1980s. (And there are die-hard FASA fans that will not consider doing that…) LUG Trek managed to do a good job of modeling the universe of the various Star Trek television shows, and was a lot easier to learn than FASA’s version. Decipher took a lot of the LUG ideas, thought about cramming it into OGL d20, then relented and gave a bastardized version of LUG Trek that did a good job of handling all of the series (LUG had series specific core books!), but lost some of the ease of the prior set of rules. Still I jumped to Decipher…why? The core rules were easy and the game captured the feel of Trek pretty well.

Why use Spycraft when there’s Top Secret or James Bond: 007? Why buy Victoriana when there’s Castle Falkenstein? Why buy anything else when there’s GURPS? Because the new game captures the flavor of the genre you are playing in. 

If familiarity or skill with a system were so intrinsic to preference, why would people branch out? Can you look at your favorite game for a certain genre and say “this would be better, but I like this better”? I’ll start it off — Classic Cortex would probably work just as well, if not better, for espionage games such as James Bond. But JB:007 helps emulate the world of the movies better than Cortex’s mechanics would, despite being more complex. Preference here is due to familiarity, but it does not create in me the impression that other systems are not good…for this, JB:007 just does it better. Firefly does a decent job of capturing the show, but would be better at modeling Star Trek. Take that FASA guys!

Which starts to deal with point the third: Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Can a player role play well enough that the rules are incidental. After 30+ year of doing this, that’s an unequivocal YES. In other words — there’s no way to play wrong. Your “skill” as a player, nor your enjoyment of a game, is necessarily hinged on the mechanics. However, there is a way to design a game that will not play well for certain expectations. Those expectations are not wrong, nor is a preference for, say, how mechanics divvy up narrative responsibility (for instance, strong v weak GM.) Those expectations can help someone understand if running a certain system or playing with those rules is more preferable than another set of rules. (Again, see A/B test of the Firefly/Serenity rules and the “Is There a Right Way to Game?” posts.)

My response to this is — familiarity or proficiency with a system for a GM or players can make the game easier or more fun — but ultimately, the mechanics rarely make a game more fun…but they can dash it very quickly. A couple of case studies that will also play to point 2: 

Call of Chthulu is a fairly easy set of mechanics to learn, and I understood how they drove the game perfectly well. The guy running the game blew goats, so my opinion of the game has been badly tainted. I understand this preference was based on a single outlier and I have been open to trying it again…but there’s usually something I’d much rather play than a game where the point (seems to be) to see how you go mad and die. That’s not the game’s fault and Truman’s statement about GM skill is spot on here, but it also wasn’t aided by the fact I find Lovecraft-style horror unengaging — that that more taints the perception of the game and has nothing to do with familiarity of the system or the universe; a good GM could make me invest in the universe…but horror is hard to do.

Example 2: I ran Chameleon Eclectic’s version of the Babylon 5 universe for years. It has an easy base mechanic — a minus die and a plus die with the result (anywhere from a -5 to a +5) added to the skill. The combat system was a hot mess, except! I understood what it was modeling, so it made sense to me. It captured how a small injury could be instantly debilitating or not, and how a vicious injury could be leading to your very imminent demise, but not slow you down. Because I got it, I ran it well and the players quickly got a hold of the base mechanic and left the combat stuff to me to adjudicate. The rules set sucked, but because the “skill” of the GM was high, the game ran well and was, in Truman’s terms, a good game. That is wrong, however — the players and GM were good enough to rise above the limitations of a bad rules set.

Likewise, I ran Space: 1889 for years and was very familiar with it, but the limitations of the mechanics from a probability standpoint were glaringly, painfully obvious. We swapped to the Castle Falkenstein rules despite terrible combat rules (which we figured out were bad even before trying them out, but try we did.several times…) Was this due to a lack of expertise in running it? Perhaps, but they also did not model swashbuckling adventure well. We kit-bashed a version of the Lace & Steel combat rules (also a card-based game) that captured the fun of sword and fisticuffs play so well that, in one of those rare instances, they made play more fun. Players sometimes eschewed the ease gunplay for the fun of clashing blades. The new rules were not “familiar”, either, and evolved a bit over the course of play…but they accelerated the pace of fights and made it more competitive. So yes, the mechanics can aid play…but after 30 years of doing this, I can safely say it’s a rarity. Space: 1889 has a phenomenal setting that is so good game designers have started pasting it into other rules — Savage Worlds and Ubiquity. Castle Falkenstein’s steampunk meets fantasy was equally engaging but the core mechanics could not survive quirky side rules mechanics for sorcery and fighting. Again…great setting, crappy GAME.

At heart, I think the argument is between whether you think rules should help engage the players, or you players should engage with the rules. Newer indie games seem to be trying to find new ways to do the first — having the mechanics engage the players in some way by having them take part in the storytelling process. This, coupled with a recent trend of game designers wanting to view RPGs as “art” (James Franco agrees!) or “socially relevant”, leads to games more interested in the mechanics as art. They absolutely want the people playing the game to have fun, but their perception of what the fun part is, and how it is achieved might not quite jive with what their audience wants.

I would describe it this way: If you know how to tell a story, and the players are invested in theur characters and the setting, the mechanics can only hinder you. Rules light systems can capture that quite well, but in the end, good role playing and understanding the mechanics are mutually exclusive to having fun or good game rules. Familiarity can cause a better perception of the rules, but not all new games we play “suck” until we get better at them. Sometimes the mechanics enhance play, sometimes they simply disappear, and sometimes they curtail play. 

Sometimes, the game does just suck.

While this is not as much an issue with a lot of fantasy games, where the players are off exploring or doing whatever in a wilderness setting, modern and science fiction games — particularly where the players’ characters are part of a larger organization — can have an issue where players are quick to either slough off the danger or responsibility on NPCs.

Having characters tap their contacts, allies, or superiors for help occasionally is a good thing — it gives them a chance to interact with their organization, which makes it more real, but also more comforting; it also gives the GM the opportunity to use a deus ex machina at the behest of the players without it seeming too pat. But once a team starts calling on aid too often, it’s likely to bring their competency into question by the powers that be. Here are a few instances of how calling the office for help can be used, and a few ideas for controlling over-dependence on the NPCs for help:

They’re Turning My Car Into Swiss Cheese! I Need Backup Now! Now, goddammit!

There are times the players are going to be in too deep. That’s part of the challenge. And sometimes, they’re going to need help. If that help is “cinematically appropriate” or something likely to happen, go for it.

David One-Four, officer needs assistance! In a game where the players are a police officer, a federal agent, a soldier on the battlefield, calling for help is sometimes just a radio call away. Say your team walks into the largest drug deal in history (’til the next one), and you are out-gunned and pinned down. Calling for assistance is certainly reasonable, and hopefully will even get there in time.

In a system with rules for contacts, or getting favors, etc. this might help manage response time to a call for help. Otherwise, it’s always good to keep the players right on the edge of their seat, then bail them out at the last minute. This doesn’t mean they don’t have to chase the big bad guy through [appropriate action set piece] to catch him, it just means the mooks that have been making life a bit too hard are distracted or dispatched by the backup.

Longhorn, Devil Niner — I need a fire order at the following grid… In a military-themed game, this might scale to something like calling in a fire order from artillery or an air strike. (Come on…you know you want to…) It’s a way to make things hard enough on the players to be very challenging, yet give them a pathway to success if they can’t handle it on their own.

In a spy game, calling for help is the last thing you want to do unless you have to…

But say they call for help a bit too often, or turn to the NPCs the moment there’s any opposition. How do you handle that?

David One-Four, backup dispatched. Estimate 15 minutes… A good one is time constraints. Backup is too far away, or your division is too jammed up, or maybe that self-righteous spat in the locker room with another detective got you the Serpico treatment. Either way, no one’s showing until the music is long over…

Say again, Devil Niner? Another is comms trouble. How many times has your cell phone dropped a call for no reason at all? Radio frequencies get stepped on by other transmissions, or buildings mask the signal. Maybe that new guy didn’t programs the PLGR for the radio before you left the FOB. Or that planet you landed on plays havoc with your communicator. For whatever reason, you can’t get a call through. You can leave them hanging for longer than they’d like, or leave them to twist. Another good variant is the message is garbled enough that you get a worse result…like when your artillery starts raining fire on you.

For an espionage game, any communication with the home office is a chance for either interception of your calls, the bad guys locating you or sending someone as “help”, but actually to stop you. Worse, your organization could get nervous about the outcome of your little op that wasn’t quite sanctioned in that particular country and your are suddenly deniable. No help. Find your own extraction. Hope to see you again. If they don’t just burn you, or send someone to clean up your mess…including you.

Reduction in rank or responsibility is a very real penalty in all of these situations, especially if it’s obvious that the players were shirking their duties.

…Requesting Further Instruction!

In most game scenarios, we can assume that — unless being in the dark was part of the challenge — the players got some kind of mission briefing, or have some kind of rules of engagement. There’ a goal and parameters to work inside. But sometimes, you get overtaken by events and need some clarification:

Yamato, We’ve encountered a possible new lifeform… Sometimes, you were just to darned clever  for the players (or were unprepared and haven’t explained things particularly well) and they need help. Letting them tap that expert in exobiology, or criminal law, or calling a language expert back in Ft. Meade, or some other subject matter expert can help get a story back on the rails.

Big Bear, Duchess: Flash mission update! Another scenario where calling for further instruction from the hierarchy might be when the players discover some element of the plot that the bosses might need to know, or something has happened that would cause you to exceed your orders. Say that convoy of weapons you were supposed to stop managed to get past you with some super weapon or crossed a border into a country denied to you. Do you go in? Do you call for permission?

Superintendent, you won’t believe where the money trail leads to… Maybe that criminal investigation got a lot more interesting than you expected. Following the money, you’ve started turning up people of power — the sort that can shut your op down if they get word, or which you simply won’t be allowed to go after unless you can get cover from the higher-ups. This is an appropriate time to check in with the powers-that-be. Remember that golden rule of politics…don’t surprise your bosses.

Sometimes, however, the players are looking for a gimme…at times like that, it’s time to use the magical power of bureaucratic sloth or expectation against the players:

If you can’t handle it, Lieutenant, I’ll find someone who can! Say your mission was to beam down to a planet and observe a lesser advanced species of aliens without revealing yourself. Calling the ship to ask the science officer or captain for instructions every time you get stumped might see you recalled in favor of a “more competent officer.”

You’re on the ground, Devil Niner, not me! You’ve stumbled onto the enemy in a place they’re not supposed to be and the rest of the force is otherwise engaged…it’s you, or it’s nobody. What’re you going to do, sergeant? Let your force get flanked?

I’m not putting myself on the chopping block… Never underestimate the power of covering your own ass. Maybe your investigation is likely to embarrass someone to powerful to get to. The heat hasn’t even started to come down, but your boss isn’t going to stick his neck out for the chop this close to his pension. All that work — great stuff and you’ll get a commendation, but now it’s over…just let me know where you don’t want to go in the department so I can get you where you (don’t) want to go.

Do you know how expensive it is to retask a satellite!?!  Another given, bureaucracies don’t like to commit resources they don’t have to. Maybe you need a satellite retasked — nope! Maybe you want a mini-sub to infiltrate an area, but the navy isn’t playing along. Oh, you want an Aston Martin, Mr. Bond — you know how many £150,000 automobiles you’ve destroyed this quarter? Here’s a Vauxhall.

This is one of those things where the GM has to be aware of how often and how quickly the players resort to calling for aid or instruction when they are stumped.


One of the things that nearly all role playing games have in common is some form of “advancement” — experience points, advancement points, milestones; a point where the characters’ journeys and experiences lead to them getting better at certain things.

The oldest form of this was “leveling up” in Dungeons & Dragons — you would hit a certain number of experience points and would suddenly be better at fighing, have more spells to cast, gain hit points (get tougher), etc. It happens boop! just like that. You would gain XP for the events of a session based on the monsters opposed and other story aspects. Realistic? No — but it set the stage for RPGs, both tabletop and electronic, to come.

Other games came along that broke the experience/session pattern — James Bond: 007, for instance, gave you experience at the end of a mission, rather than per session. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has a very nice system based on playing to the milestones you set for your character. As you address them, you gain points, rather than for the villain of the week you beat up. (I have a real soft spot for this mechanic!)

What is the best way to handle experience? This is usually where I should get wishy-washy and say “what works best for your campaign”, but after a few decades of doing this, i feel confident about this one: experience points (or whatever you call them), should be given at the end of a specific adventure or chapter in the same, unless there was some specific thing in the session that would have led to gaining or improving a skill. (Montage!)

Characters shouldn’t just jump in abilities after the equivalent of a day or two wandering in a dungeon, or fighting for a few days on the beach at Normandy. It takes time to process mental skills, it takes longer to hone physical prowess in something, and the better you are, the harder it is to improve that little bit more. (Just ask an Olympian…) I wouldn’t suggest just rolling this out on your game group without talking the reasoning through with them. you might get lynched. But here’s my reasoning:

1) Over the course of a session representing a day or more, a player should be able to learn one new skill at a very basic level. (If you want to give them advancement/session.) Didn’t you just say the very opposite thing a second ago? Not quite…okay, I did,

It’s really easy to learn a new skill at a truly basic level. One trip out to a firing range, and most people can get from not knowing how to work a firearm to being able to hit center mass(ish) most of the time. You can learn to ride a motorcycle or drive stick with a few hours practice. You’re not good at it, but you can do it. You can learn a couple of phrases of a new language, or start to parse bits of a language similar to one you are good with. You might have picked up just enough information to actually be dangerous to yourself, in that you might not be up to the difficulty of an ordinary task with the skill.

2) Most real development for the characters takes place in the spaces between the big moments. Sure, you kicked the snot out of those Imperial TIE fighters…but what did you learn? Most fighter pilots learn from their mistakes and successes during after action reports where they study gunsite footage and analyse what worked and why. This is why I say most points should be given at the end of a major chapter or adventure of a campaign.

3) One way to handle learning basic skills when you don’t have points is to go into “point debt.” I will allow characters who use a new skill well enough to learn the basics to take the skill on loan. s soon as they have the experience to cover it, they pay.

For more advanced skills, suggesting to your world-trotting archeologist could learn the various languages at his Linguistics skill (or whatever) if he has a certain length of time, then give him a discount on the cost of improving the language skill if he waits that length of time to buy it.

But what about…?

The improvement of skills, hit points, and the like is not the only sort of advancement players see. As they move through the game’s campaign, they might see themselves amass power or wealth. These benefits often come with responsibilities or other consequences. If your 20th level fighter has not carved his own petty kingdom, Conan-like, from the power structure of your fantasy world, how much of his time is now taken up with satisfying the needs of his people? What about that aqueduct they need? How about filling that granary for the winter? Whaddya mean my treasurer absconded with the kingdom’s cash? How does he account for justice? If he is a hard tyrant, how long before there is an usurper? Might that be his own friends?

This is a type of advancement that comes from role playing, and which could be tied to “leveling up” (“Hey, you’re a 13th level science officer now — you get your promotion to lieutenant commander!”) or through role playing. Recently, a player character that started as a raw lieutenant junior in our Galactica campaign got a surprise promotion to captain and squadron leader. (Ah…attrition!) We’re only just starting to touch on how this new responsibility is alienating from her old friends…she’s the boss now. She hasn’t found out, yet, that just doing things your own way when you are responsible for 8-10 vipers and pilots isn’t an option. She’s also under more scrutiny from the command, and who wants to lose a promotion? Pressure!

In a police game, maybe you finally get to run an op yourself. All eyes on you, tiger; don’t screw it up, or we’ll ask you where you don’t want to get assigned next. A private eye might have a few high-profile cases, and now has too much work. You hire a few more dicks, but are you pounding the streets or are you supervising Manny, Moe, and Jack half the time..?

By dropping responsibility on top of the characters, as well as position, you can help create challenges they can’t just swing their +5 Vorpal sword through to solve.

Then there’s the ultimate advancement…retirement (or death.) What is the consequence of a hero, king, whatever stepping away from his position? Do they just fade into obscurity, as General MacArthur said? Would it have been more appropriate for James T Kirk to have died ignominiously slipping in the shower? (Bones: “He was right…he did die alone.”) Or is it better to get dragged back into one last mission/case/fight? (“You did not just say that!”)

Advancement can be so much more than just handing out experience points.


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