Chunin Exams

If you are looking for something related to Naruto, this isn’t the place.

Not to say I couldn’t make some comments on Naruto, but this post is about character advancement in RPGs.  In particular, I wish to speak of the rewarding nature of advancement and some related items.

On a side note, I can see how MMORPGs appeal to people’s interests in advancement.  Lacking attraction to such, it’s hard for me to relate to any other draw of them.  But, enough about computerized gaming.

Well, not quite.  I’m quite fond of using the term videogame role-playing when referring to what I once would have likely termed hack and slash or dungeon crawl role-playing.  In my mind, it was natural that D&D and its ilk lent itself to a particular style of gaming that was easily computerized, which D&D 4e, in turn, drew from.  Not to say there aren’t other types of computerized RPGs or that D&D didn’t have variety.  Just an observation I continue to find cogent.

Anyway, I’m dancing around the topic.  Advancement.  Advancement is a big deal.  It’s a core element to campaign play and a major point of contrast with one-shot play.  Different player archetypes value advancement differently, of course, and some of what prompted this post is a recent situation that I’ll explain a (long) ways down.

Advancement can even rise to the level of being the primary reward of a campaign.  I see this being the case with the RuneQuest campaign I’m part of.  At times, I see this with Heroes of Rokugan (HoR).  When the story elements and interpersonal interactions are scant, what remains are goals of advancement.

And, that’s how I usually see advancement.  When there are compelling story elements or meaningful player interactions, advancement is pushed to the background.  But, it’s always there.  Always something to fall back upon and always something that covers the typically longer term paradigm of a campaign.

Duration

Because of the importance of character advancement, I would be reluctant to sell a brief campaign as a campaign.  By using the term “campaign”, I think too much thought goes into how to advance a character even when there isn’t a reasonable amount of time for a character to change all that much.

What is too short?  Hard to say.  I would tend to believe that something with less than eight sessions isn’t going to have much chance for character progression even with high rewards.  High rewards would be necessary until something like exceeding a dozen sessions.  Obviously, could do some serious accelerated growth, to where you have, as an example in D&D terms, someone go up a level every session.  Do people do this?  I have the sense that this may happen with situations like playing across multiple conventions, but I haven’t experienced this in home play.

Rate

Within the topic of advancement, rate is the primary issue.  The point of advancement is to reward players.  In certain sectors, a lot of money rides on how to reward players.  I’m not so concerned with those sectors, but it speaks to the importance of getting this right.  Penurious rewards frustrate players.  Abundant rewards change the nature of the campaign at an accelerated rate, which many a GM does not intend.  Abundant rewards can also reduce the satisfaction players have for their efforts.  The appearance of overcoming challenges is itself a reward that I have addressed previously and may well do so again that this post doesn’t have time to go into.

I like examples for not being too general and vague about these things.

Example #1:  Conan d20

My opinion on a benchmark for level progression in Conan, which would also be my starting point for other d20 campaigns as well as possibly any system that had level progression akin to the ~20 level model, is a level gain every three sessions.  In fact, once you move from oD&D’s differing experience point breakpoints for levels of different classes to a single experience point level equals character level for all classes, I would dispense with using experience points at all and simply have everyone level up roughly every three sessions.

This does break something with Conan – certain magics require losing XP to use.  But, that’s a poor system for balance, anyway.  Of more relevance is when it shouldn’t be every three sessions.  The clear exception, in my mind, is at the lowest levels.  One shouldn’t struggle at first level for that long, assuming the PCs start at first level.  As I’m kind of fond of the “early years”, I can see spending a whopping two sessions at first level rather than just moving up to second level right away.

But, it depends.  Not all sessions are equal.  The eight hour session with 3+ scenes and multiple plots is not the same as the “four hour but one hour is eating and adjusting character sheets” session with one or two scenes.  I wouldn’t want to jump from first to second level without having had some sense of accomplishment, even if that accomplishment was surviving a mass battle with Picts/nomads/whatever.

What of the later years?  I tend to believe, though I can probably be argued out of this, that it’s worth planning ahead as to how many total sessions a campaign will have.  Note that this isn’t the same as how long in real time a campaign will last.  A weekly campaign and a monthly campaign are more similar when considering how many sessions are played rather than how many years, though they are likely to have different feels, even if they last the same number of sessions.

If we take the level/3 sessions metric, we get 57 sessions for 20th level.  For a weekly campaign, that’s about a year.  That is rather fast.  On the other hand, for a monthly campaign, that’s more like five years, which seems reasonable.  Because of a lack of mechanical character progression when not leveling up, I wouldn’t be inclined to slow progression at higher levels so much as I’d be inclined to start a new campaign when PCs got too powerful for the sort of game desired.  This was a common topic for Brad and me, when the PCs just kept getting higher and higher in level.

Finally, Conan does have advancement outside of leveling up, but it’s not important.  There’s Reputation and whatever the buddy system is that we so ignored that I can’t recall what it’s called.  As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on several occasions, we tried a system where advancement would happen between the sessions that led to leveling up, and it had problems with players gaming the system for increased power contrary to its intent of fleshing out characters.

Example #2:  Legend of the Five Rings

HoR is sort of a monthly experience.  In truth, if played from the beginning, it is more bunched than that based on module release timing and the ability to coordinate one’s group.  It is also very consistent relative to my other experiences, where 4 XP is the standard, with the occasional 5 XP mod.  It’s so consistent that I tend to think of advancement in terms of number of mods rather than number of XP.  Well, I convert XP into mods.  So, raising a trait from 2 to 3 is three sessions.  Going from 5 to 7 in a skill is four sessions away barring exceptional circumstances, i.e. a mod worth 5 XP, and that’s just the minimum since I rarely focus on any one buy at a time.

On a larger scale, I can project how I want my character to look at certain ranks.  For home play, there may be little incentive to go up in Insight Rank slowly, but in HoR, there are reasons not to rank too quickly, especially to go from rank 2 to rank 3, as it cuts off some mods that the character can play.  So, once I put in my minimum levels of competence in traits, skills, Void Ring, and possibly other such as kata, I know how many XP I need for that rank and can convert that back into mods, which, in turn, can be converted into years of the campaign since HoR is a five year campaign.

There are some ways the math can be thrown off.  It’s possible not to get full XP, but the rare 3 XP from a mod can be accounted for with a bit of buffer.  The more common math thrower offers are interactives and special situations.  With HoR2, it was the norm to get less than 4 XP from interactives.  The charity mod in HoR3 gives less than 4 XP.  Playing “Welcome to the Second City” at Gen Con 2012 was worth 2 XP, while certain charity efforts have given 1 XP.  I don’t worry about these, even the battle interactives of Gen Con that I consistently play in, just figuring these are a bonus that may or may not get me closer to a goal.

Also, a PC can die.  For some, it’s even probable as they embrace the nature of being a samurai either in terms of tragedy or in terms of heroic sacrifice.  The more one expects to die, the more important short term advancement goals.

And, HoR isn’t just about XP in terms of advancement.  Status gains and non-status appointments are often the result of off stage efforts or interactive rewards.  Honor gains and losses can be important, as they were to my primary HoR2 character who had school abilities and kata key off of Honor.  Glory has always seemed irrelevant, but then, my HoR play isn’t as comprehensive as it is for those who attend all of the events and who make more of an effort to get what they want through fictions, et al.

I started speaking about HoR, but that was probably a mistake.  Probably better to speak of how L5R works with Insight Rank.  Given an expected duration of a campaign in sessions and an average number of XP per session, one can project what the limit of Insight Rank at the end of the campaign would be.  For HoR, IR 6 has been possible, but given my predilections for “wasting” XP, IR 5 is my more realistic limit … if I have only a single character.  Since I like having multiple characters (at times, more, at times, less), I did the calculations and determined that I could accomplish a rank 4 character and a rank 3 character barring PC death by playing the full slate of HoR3 mods.  I would have to make numerous buys only for Insight, rather than for power or wackiness.

Amusingly, my plans got derailed to where my backup character now has too much Insight, since I have no intention of ranking him past rank 1, anymore.  Too many “quality” buys would put him into rank 2, as would even some appropriately goofy buys.

I don’t worry about non-XP rewards for HoR since I can’t predict those.  Well, I can work on things like appointments to offices and the like, but I don’t really care to do so.

So, that’s HoR.  What about home play of L5R?

Our home campaign was intended to be weekly, got very confused as not everyone could do weekly, then has gotten back to a mostly weekly schedule.  The average number of XP rose from 2 to 2.5 to close to 3 now that 3 XP a session is common.

So, on the one hand, from a time perspective, advancement is vastly faster than HoR’s ~monthly play.  On the other, the average per session is lower.  I think lower makes sense as 4 XP a session for weekly play does lead to vast improvement in a year or so of play.  But, that might be fine with other campaigns.  One poster on the AEG forums asked whether it was normal to have PCs getting to rank 4 after a year of play, and I did the math that 50 sessions of 4 XP is 200 XP, which makes sense for rank 4.  I posited the idea that it’s only a concern if advancement isn’t matching expectations for power level of the campaign at certain story junctures.

I totally understand why people might want to play a weekly, one-year L5R campaign where people top out at rank 4 or 5.  Can always start a new campaign.  Can even connect the new campaign through children of the PCs, aftermath of what the PCs did “100 years ago”, or the like.

I can also see people playing a weekly campaign where PCs are only rank 3 after a year and a half.  However, something to consider is that the XP rewards could be the same for the two campaigns.  The GM could require suboptimal Insight buys that slow IR progression.  Power doesn’t even need to be contained (much) in doing this.  If power is the concern, can force players to buy Lore: White Tigers In The Dead Of Winter or something less silly like forcing everyone to buy up all school skills, most of which the min/maxer whether maxer in other people’s cases or minner in my case, aren’t likely to buy above rank 1.  If power is not as much of a concern as IR, can allow people to buy up traits to form unbalanced Rings or have everyone run around with rank 7 in primary weapon skill.

Study

In our campaign, we have played 22 sessions by my count, my character started with a lot of points in advantages and an ancestor (non-Insight gaining buys), and has been making buys to meet certain path requirements.  I’m essentially two more sessions (~6 XP) away from rank 2.  That doesn’t seem too crazy.  However, I will be an extremely weak rank 2.  A bushi with Earth 2 and Reflexes 2 is absurdly fragile …

… and I decided to make it worse.  Last session, I could have easily died.  My opponent didn’t have any particular reason to kill me, but he didn’t have any particular reason not to, either.  Because it didn’t feel right to have no repercussions for surviving, I thought about what might be an appropriate punishment.

I don’t like L5R disadvantages, as I have mentioned previously.  I think too many require that you build the character around the disadvantage in ways that isn’t fun.  I think others are cheese for additional XP, e.g. Doubt.  However, as a result of something that happens in play, I find a lot of them are evocative.

For being nearly cut down by my foe’s katana, I went through and wrote down these physical disadvantages that would be thematically appropriate:  Lame; Low Pain Threshold; Missing Limb; Permanent Wound; Weakness (choose a physical trait).  Other physical ones could have made sense, as well, like Blind.

Some people love the image of a one-armed swordsman or the like.  That just doesn’t appeal to me.  In fact, as I’ve said before, I understand any player who would rather a PC be dead than be disfigured or crippled.  Various disabilities just don’t lend themselves to a heroic ideal, at least not as much as a heroic death might.  And, it would be hard to explain why I decided my character would have lost a limb when, in the moment, no such thing happened (infection leading to amputation would have made sense).  So, I wasn’t sanguine about Missing Limb.

Low Pain Threshold didn’t really make sense.  Permanent Wound is a death sentence for anyone who fights in L5R’s 4e because of the horrific decision to invert the wound chart from 3e without changing how this disad works mechanically, so might as well have just died, though I suppose retirement would have been an option with Permanent Wound.  Retirement and death having two different story impacts at the moment.

I rolled a die just to see what would happen, and it came up Weakness, which is what I was thinking, anyway.  But, which Weakness?  Stamina?  Eh, okay.  Strength?  I just didn’t feel the thematic sense of Strength.  Reflexes?  Pretty much a death sentence as well, defeating the purpose of taking a disad in lieu of dying, though Weakness: Reflexes is all kinds of awesome if you can manage to survive combat.  I would have more seriously considered it for a high Earth character.  I kept coming back to Agility.  For one thing, an Agility penalty doesn’t hurt my effectiveness that much, which is an important consideration for being part of a party.  No PC is an island.  The more I penalize myself, the more I penalize the party by being less effective.  With a strong combat party, being significantly less effective in combat might be okay, but we are actually pretty sketchy in combat, an area I should be contributing significantly to.

What eventually decided it for me, as compared with either Stamina or Strength, which would not have crippled the character’s effectiveness either (as Weakness doesn’t affect Rings, lower Earth Ring from a real decrease in Stamina would have been a death sentence), was that Agility is the only physical trait I have above average and the only trait I’ve bought up since character creation.  It’s like that buy was undone, which has the right feel.

By the way, I can see many, many disads being inflicted upon L5R PCs based on events that happen.  Phobia is an obvious one.  But, there are a host of mental or social that could even apply to situations like being stabbed through the gut, with the specific environment helping to determine the best fit.

I spent some time on this retreat-ment because I didn’t want to just speak to the mechanics of character advancement, which I’m sure can be researched online.  I wanted to speak to the idea that characters evolve not just through getting better but through story appropriate results that may be to the character’s detriment when it comes to effectiveness.

Another example of such could be how my Conan character underwent disfigurement when the party abandoned him to some ogre-ish (I like to think of them as trollish in a mythological rather than D&D troll way) race.  That had more narrative impact and less mechanical impact.  It was really more of a disad to the party, as the freak made social endeavors challenging.

Well, there are other aspects of character advancement that I’m sure should be addressed, but I think this was good for today.

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