Thematic Advancements

There was a point, long ago, when I realized that my forum presence and my actual gaming interests were wildly at odds.  While I realized this when posting to CCG forums, it possibly applies even more with RPG forums, though I’ve tried to point out or make jokes about the discrepancy.

What is the discrepancy?

I’m extremely analytical.  As a player of games, I study the rules, the probabilities, how to maximize efficiency in decks or characters.  Then, I play goofy crap.  I’m a min/maxer to the extent that I often go for the min.

So, when I post to forums, it’s with the analyst’s hat on and it’s all about what players can do to optimize (and what I see players in my groups do that is highly effective).  I have the strong sense that this makes me come across as some powergamer, which is hilariously at odds with the truth.  I very much am interested in how to be a powergamer, which is, of course, different.

But, that’s public image versus private image and not really all that interesting to talk about.  Instead, what I am going to talk about is the internecine struggle that is advancing my characters.  No, I’m not going to go into some tedious explanation of the details of the characters advancing.  My intent is to get into philosophy.

Every campaign has different incentives.  Well, duh.  One campaign is more about the fight.  Another is more about the detectivework.  And, so forth.  Then, every GM is different.  Some of it is making clear what abilities are going to see use and which aren’t.  Some of it is how useful different abilities ultimately end up being for overcoming challenges and achieving goals.

To a significant extent, I ignore those differences.

As a 100% storyteller, my overriding concern is the narrative.  Now, sure, there are mechanical narratives.  I averaged instadeath with every attack against ultragods … blah, blah, blah.  But, where I have mechanics foremost in mind (usually) when designing characters, I throw my copious advancement plans out the window when it comes to actually making choices – XP expenditures, Feat selection, Skill Rank boost, etc.

As an example, my current Saturday L5R campaign character has had buying up Athletics in my character advancement file (yes, I keep separate character advancement files) since before I started playing the character.  Thirty-three sessions and 104xp later, the character still has the same level of Athletics.

So, what have I been doing, given that I only have 6xp unspent?

Buying up the character’s social ability for the most part.  “Yo, dude.  That totally makes sense, yeah.  You were totally rockin’ the court for like, totally, months.”  To some extent, that did make sense.  Except, Winter Court could have ended at any time, based on the interests of the group.

There are far better examples of a common decision I make – to advance characters thematically based on what they’ve done and not what they might do or what would make them better at doing the things they should be doing.

Whether it’s picking up ranks of Games: Shogi after winning a shogi tournament, picking up Craft: Cooking after using the skill in a HoR2 mod, or whatever, there’s so much of a “lagging indicator” to my purchases.

This is rather awful for character effectiveness.  That shogi player never played another tournament.  Even if he did, so what?  How much does being good at shogi matter?  Matter in a living campaign?

While my mind is blown by the purchases my fellow players don’t make, I’m neither surprised nor critical of purchases they do make that improve their ability to murder our enemies (or whatever).  In fact, it’s great that I can rely upon others to get better at high yield abilities, like enemy murdering.  Well, to an extent.  It depends.  If the GM adjusts to the party power level, not keeping up with the rest of the group is a problem.  While I don’t have any meaningful choices when it comes to RuneQuest characters, that campaign has suffered from the imbalances in combat prowess.

With combat and other challenges, it doesn’t make sense for a GM to factor in wide discrepancies in abilities that much.  This is an incentive to not allow PCs to get too far from each other in abilities.  The party of all specialists has tons of problems with having balanced challenges and, therefore, fun.  Our Conan campaign saw one character be vastly more effective at combat than the others, and it was suboptimal.

Then, there’s HoR.  With HoR, the challenges are more predictable and mostly fixed.  Players have strategic control in approaching different mods, though they may not know whether combats are easy or hard or the like, but knowing that combat will happen means having some sort of party plan for what to do.  And, there is some GM control to factor in party composition, if not player intelligence.

I’m bouncing around, unsurprisingly.  Let’s try to get back to me, myself, and I.

So, if these thematic buys are so terrible, why do I do them?

It’s not actually to make the characters worse.  Well, rarely.

It’s because they are the most important buys to making the character live, to having the campaign be more than achieving a high score.  Whether they get any use is not essential, though it’s welcome.

My Saturday PC was built fully formed … to be an asset to the party.  Some of the buys were to maintain mechanical puissance.  But, that didn’t last that long.  One idea led to buying three ranks of Perform: Storytelling and an emphasis.  Another idea led to picking up Artisan: Painting.  A combination of a couple of events led to Battle being tied for highest skill (with a lot of others, including P: Storytelling).  Do I get enthused by having Investigation and rolling it?  Not so much.  Everyone should have it and everyone will roll it.  I’m more amused by my one rank of Polearms than I am my three ranks of Kyujutsu.  I’m even more amused by the idea of whether I’ll ever end up rolling Temptation again, something the PC has more than one rank in.

Rolling a bunch of Craft: Bowyer rolls was far more interesting and dramatic than rolling yet another 50+ with a Kyujutsu attack roll.  While it’s possible to have stories from combat – my Conan archer got some key shots off over the course of the campaign, the crafting of a gift bow had far, far more narrative impact than I can imagine any attack roll.

One thing leads to another.

A good example of this is how one interest/goal/event at our year long Winter Court led to another interest/goal/event and on and on.

The fleshing out of a character, the ability to know where a character came from and where it might go and how it should deal with different stimuli, compounds based on initially minor things, at least in my case.  I pick up some skill no one else has, then it blows up into why that skill matters, what the character was like before having that skill, how the character will change views on NPCs (or PCs) based on knowledge of that skill.  Etc.

So, different players look for different things in their RPG experiences (or other gaming experiences).  With my interest in the story, any story and not just the on stage story, character advancement takes on a crucial dimension that has nothing to do with mechanical improvement.

I was reading a thread on rpg.net about whether character advancement is necessary.  For me, in campaign play, absolutely.  I may be able to build characters whole cloth mechanically, but they are hollow until they experience …  Not just gain experiences but gain Experience – the mechanics go to supporting the thematics.

Okay, yeah, sorry, I did start mentioning details of PC buys.

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