Advancement the Old Way
by Jeffrey Boser
Keeping a game playable is usually a job of number-juggling. Game masters
have to keep a tight eye on how quickly to let a player advance their
character, usually by controlling how much 'experience' they can acquire
through various activities, or by placing constraints on advancement.
In order to control advancement, currently environments tend to use two
curving progressions of numbers. There is the rising cost of advancement,
and the rising reward of adventuring (to use a catchall term). In most
games, progress is quick at first, and gets more and more difficult, so the
curves are designed not to parallel. The costs outpace the rewards.
Unless there is a destination (wizard-hood, god-head, etc.), the cost
usually get so far ahead of the rewards that advancement slows to a crawl.
The reason for this is often rationalized by relating it to a physical
skill. A runner, for example, has to work harder and harder to get faster.
The problem with this is that it doesn't hold true for skills that are only
partly physical, like combat, or spellcasting, or even something as simple
as language learning. While it is true that initially a little training
goes a long way in such things, after it settles down there is never a case
where steady devotion to learning becomes less and less valuable. Old
martial artists don't stop becoming better and better. And in the case of
mental skills, usually things get easier, like learning languages. The
only real hindrance to getting better and better is just a matter of
dedication, time, and energy.
Boris Karlof as Frankenstein. Monster movie hall of fame.
Besides, in a fantastical world, the type of world where most of us want to
roleplay, very few of us find the idea of being constrained by physical
reality appealing. Most of us envision our character's abilities moving
past the mundane levels and into the heroic and superheroic ranges. And
some of us envision being so good reality itself steps aside.
The real reason for this diminishing results curve is that game masters
need some way to hold the growth of characters in check. Since they
compare things inside the game by subtracting or adding numbers, points
quickly adds up to an always-or-never situation, which to be fair to the
game masters, is hardly any fun for the players. Your attacks never fail
to land, and your opponent's never succeed. Spells that never fail, swords
that never break, armor that is never defeated or bypassed.. Basically,
the game becomes pointless from the rule standpoint. So in order to
preserve the rules, the rules make progress progressively harder.
And it should be fairly obvious to most, that even with the progressively
more difficult advancement, the administrators find that it still reaches
all/nothing situations, and they have to add further controls like upper
How many of us did something really dumb like kill farm animals with swords
and spells, just to be able to do something at low level?
If you can kill a hundred orcs that don't stand much a chance of hurting
you, or one ogre that could kill you, which would you pick?
Exactly how many red dragons do you have to kill until you reach the next
level, and will you be sick and tired of it by then?
Advancement is a big cause of some of the symptoms we see in muds today.
We are using a system that has undergone very little fundamental change
since Dungeons and Dragons was released a quarter of a century ago. And
all the problems that existed then still exist. Sure, we've slapped a few
new coats of paint on the ideas, like increasing the number of levels, or
adding skills and spells (which usually have exactly the same
increasingly-difficult advancement features).
Part of the reason advancement was laid out that way is because of paper
and pencil. Doing things in a linear fashion makes a lot of sense when you
have to do it in your head when rolling dice, or on paper. But muds have
computer resources to deal from. This lets us consider things in a whole
First, lets narrow down the relationships here to something workable. We
have a number, representing our skill, that gets progressively harder to
raise, and we use it by comparing it linearly to another number,
representing the difficulty (usually someone else's skill), which tends to
increase in a similar manner. 'Linearly' just means that the numbers are
added or subtracted.
So, for example, a 9 attack skill, compared to a 8 defense skill, is one
better. A 10 skill compared to a 9 skill is twice as good, because it is
two better than that 8. But the 10 took twice as long to get from the 9,
than the 9 did from the 8. A 60 might be 52 times better than the 9, but
it might have taken 1000 times as long to get.
On one hand, we have linear comparisons, on the other, progressively
increasing difficulty to widen the comparison. What if we adjusted that
equation by moving the progressive effect to the other side? So instead we
would have progressively decreasing comparisons, and linear difficulty to
What if the differences between skill and difficulty *meant* less and less,
instead of costing more and more?
Here's the idea: When comparing an attack skill to a defense skill we
typically subtract them. So a 20 attack skill, vs. a 12 defense skill,
results in 8 levels of advantage for the attacker. I propose you add
another step, translating that 8 into another number using the following
chart: (producing a 4)
In: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16...
Out: 1 2 2 3 3 3 4 4 4 4 5 5 5 5 5 6...
So that as the differences in ability get greater and greater, additional
differences mean less and less. You can probably see how I made the chart,
but you can design your own system. A square-root system would cap the
differences at an asymptote, as would percentage reductions.
For a little rational, consider it this way, two competitive martial
artists are basically equivalent in ability. If one were to spend time and
learn a new trick, it could have an impact on their bouts. But if that
same master was to be fighting a novice, the new trick would have little
impact at all on either the master's ability to take down the novice, or
the novice's ability to defend against the master. In other words, when
the skill differences are great, skill adjustments mean less and less.
Another way of looking at it: A person learning mage craft takes time to
learn spell after spell. Each spell adds to his body of knowledge, but as
he learns more and more spells, each spell contains more and more elements
that he has already mastered, and thus his general ability at mage craft
improves less and less.
The other part of this idea is the linear cost. Since now large differences
in skill mean less and less, there is no need to make it cost more and more.
Actually, that aspect remains intact. For someone to get another level of
difference requires them to spend more and more time. In fact, almost all
the benefits of the previous system are there, however the frustration is
taken out because it doesn't get harder to get better, when working within
your equivalent skill range.
I call this idea 'diminishing comparisons'.
The Forest For The Trees
If such a change is implemented, some other changes will have to be made
as well. For example, if it takes the same amount of time and effort to
advance, then you have to expand the range of levels. You might want to
pick a top-end life expectancy, assume that all of that time is spent
fighting, and make the skill level that such a person would have been 1000,
for example. This system would also work well if simply based around the
number of times the skill has been used, divided by 100 or some other
number. In either case, it would work best with a system where the various
abilities a person has are measured in a way that is mostly separate from
each other (ie, a skill-based system, as opposed to a class-based or
level-based system). Dangers that are supposed to always be nasty can be
set at high levels (dragons at 2000 anyone?), and be pretty much out of
reach for anybody in the forseable future without multiple aggressors and
stacking the odds.
If a game master wants to ensure that players focused their attention in
areas where their skills were equivalent, in order to attain the maximum
level of progress, a system where the rate of improvement is altered by the
skill difference should be fairly easy to implement. However, I do not
think this should be necessary.
The biggest effect this would have is on how characters treat advancement.
While pushing one's self to get as high as possible as fast as possible was
important before, this outlook would change. The reason that was important
before was because players would compare themselves to the best and worst
around them. This new way of doing things means the only comparisons that
truly matter are those that are close to your skill level. So a less
formula-ridden style of play is encouraged.
The part about this system I cherish the most, though, is the opportunity
to have open-ended skill levels without being unmanageable.
February 1999 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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