What’s Character Progression For?

On another forum, someone was asking about how to deal with the problem of a new player joining a group and being underpowered relative to the existing players. They were mostly getting answers from people who were assuming that players will feel cheated if they don’t have character progress or if someone else gets to the same place without the same trials and tribulations. What I think of as a very “old school”, D&D viewpoint. This is a slightly edited version of my response. 

Could a game be designed where new characters could come in and be as effective (primarily in combat, I suppose) as current members of the group? A level-less system of sorts? 

I was thinking characters could always be basically the same, but might have a wider variety of skills than a newer character.

There are a ton of options in existing RPGs, and probably some more that could be used but haven’t yet.

Many of the Truths We Cling to Depend Greatly on Our Own Point of View

There are a whole pile of fallacies being assumed in questions like the above:

  • That RPGs must have character progression
  • That character progression must mean becoming better in combat
  • That the only way to be invested in a character is through long-term play
  • That character growth inherently means becoming more powerful
  • That it is “unfair” or “cheating” to let a new player start with a character of the same effectiveness as existing players.

There are a lot of ways to solve or avoid the problem [the original poster] identified. Their idea of having characters improve in “breadth” rather than raw power is a good one. I can’t off the top of my head think of a system that does that, but it would be easy enough to do by making acquiring new skills cheap, and the first few ranks cheap, but progressively higher costs. That would encourage people to stop raising abilities past a certain point, and buy new abilities instead.

Lots of systems don’t have the basic numbers progress much past those of a beginning character, and that also solves the problem. If a beginning character has scores of 2-6, and a really experienced character has scores around 4-7, then you might be able to put the two together without anyone feeling underpowered.

Another possible solution is to have character improvement come in the form of reliability rather than raw power. So, just inventing some numbers for the sake of example, a beginning character gets a completely flat d12 roll, while a more experienced character gets to, say, roll more and more d12s, keeping the highest one. So the best result the experienced character can get isn’t any better than the beginner, but it’s more likely to be at the top of that range.

Another possible solution to the problem is to not have character stat improvement be the goal or reward of long-term play. So that, statistically, a starting character and an experienced character look the same. Instead, the differences come in things outside of the stats, like connections, maybe gear or wealth (if those didn’t completely unbalance the stats part, depending on the kind of game it was), or even just the cool history you have to share.

If the problem is just combat, make it more like the real world: for the most part, people don’t become able to take more damage as they train, even military or athletic/martial arts training. So, leave hit points and attributes (or the equivalent in your system) basically flat as characters improve. They get more skill points, but their fundamental characteristics stay the same. A navy seal is better trained, but a single gunshot will still kill one (it’s just harder to get the chance to take that gunshot). It doesn’t make experienced and novice characters “the same” in combat, but it does close the gap a bit.

You could have “character redefinition” instead of “character improvement”. So, instead of adding points after every adventure, you get to shift points around. Your character grows and changes, but isn’t gaining in raw power.

You could have some sort of system for building a new character at any power level, and do something like the life paths of Traveller and Burning Wheel or the story phases of Fate, so that a new character built at a higher power level has some of the backstory/history of someone who got to that ability level through lots of play, and the disparity isn’t so jarring.

In fact, there’s no particular reason that character change has to be improvement. Look at literature and movies: in a lot of cases, the way that a character changes is by getting weaker, by losing things, by suffering the scars and consequences of their choices. If your game uses “character redefinition”, then you have the flexibility to make it improvement when that makes sense, and deterioration or just change when that is what makes the most sense.

But I Want Characters to Become More Powerful!

All of the preceding are solutions that eliminate the problem. But, in the process they do change the feel. For some groups playing some systems, yeah, having your character survive to a high level is a big deal, and it might cheapen it somewhat for someone else to come in and get that “for free”. OTOH, look at it from the perspective of the new player: do you want them to come back for a 2nd session? Are they more likely to do that if they have a character that is roughly on par with the rest of the group and can contribute meaningfully, or if they have a much weaker character that is either fragile or useless (or both) relative to the rest of the group, and they’re forced to either hang back for their own safety or their contributions are constantly overshadowed? When I had a large, long-running AD&D game, which had lots of new players over the years (easily 30+), my standard policy was to start a new character 1 level below the rest of the party. That never seemed to bother the existing/experienced players, but it also didn’t cripple the new character (and therefore the new player). In college, that was a common solution that other DMs employed, too, so maybe it was suggested in one of the books? Or maybe it was just an obvious solution?

But for a lot of people, and certainly in some systems, that part just isn’t important. Some games don’t really have character advancement at all. Others make it much less significant, so that a long-played character is 2x or even just 1.5x as powerful (or as many points, or whatever) as a starting character, instead of the 20x or more of most versions of D&D.

Order-Out-Of Telling Stories

And even if a character improves throughout their life, there’s no reason that you have to tell their story in order. Think of something like the Conan stories, which deal with him late in life, then early in life, then middle of life, then very late in life [I probably have the order wrong, but you get the point]. If that’s the sort of story you want to tell, you need to be able to change your character between adventures, but they won’t always be getting better.

Want to play a game where your character are at their peak, kicking ass and taking names! Great! Do it!. But maybe next month you want to play those same characters as rookies still figuring out the world. Great! Who says that just because your character is powerful now, you’re stuck telling just one kind of story from now on? And, no, jacking up the stats of the opposition isn’t the same thing. This is about the characters’ capabilities and outlook on life, not necessarily their relative power relative to their opposition.

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