Monday, May 16, 2016

Ambition-Driven Advancement

Was thinking about advancement in RPGs in the shower.  Am dissatisfied with outcomes / incentives generated by current common incentive systems.
  • XP for treasure: Endless cash grind (often repetitive), players behaving as dicks to wring coppers out of orphans.
  • XP for killing monsters: Kill everything (often repetitive), players behaving as dicks and killing everything that moves.
  • XP for time / training (eg, Mongoose Traveller): Passive play, sitting on the ship until you have the skills you wanted but didn't get during chargen.  If training costs money, this becomes XP for treasure.
  • XP for entertaining the DM / "good roleplaying": Abuse of power, very arbitrary, destruction of immersion by antics and silly voices.
  • XP for sessions played (the old "level every three sessions"): Player actions don't matter.  Spending all session haggling with the rope merchant is worth as much as killing a dragon, and much lower risk.
Proposed solution: Players generate/choose goals-in-the-world, receive advancement for achieving them.  XP awarded based on difficulty and danger (as assigned by DM but negotiable) of achieving the goal, with long-term goals broken down into more-achievable subgoals.  The party-as-a-whole is encouraged to select a collective goal, with motivated individual players also able to assume individual goals.

Hopeful outcomes:
  • Party goal encourages cohesion
  • Agency / self-determination required, as players choose their own goals
  • Things players are interested in are made super-explicit to DM during goal-stating and value assignment
  • Engagement with the world incentivized, particularly risky engagement with the world
  • Does not strongly favor any single playstyle
  • Dynamic playstyle possible - if you get sick of killing monsters, stop picking goals like "clear the 2nd level of this dungeon" and start picking eg "map the nth level" or "extract all treasure from the nth level".
 Potential difficulties:
  • Calibration of appropriate rewards, potential for disagreement between player and DM over appropriate reward
  • Some goals ("Kill all orcs", "Make a million GP") almost-degenerate into old advancement systems.  But even those are more interesting than before, because "Well why orcs specifically?" and "Why a million GP specifically?"


  1. Nitpick regarding Traveller: originally, it did not have "training time as XP", as this was a (very problematic, IMHO) result of the Instruction skill from Book 4: Mercenary. Originally, you couldn't train much past chargen except for some physical training - a regimen you had to maintain to keep the advantage - expanding your Education, and going on a four-year Seminary once per lifetime to acquire one skill at Skill-2. That's it.

    But your "low skill" character out of Chargen was far from useless, if you used the Skill-0 rules and give the player enough freedom. Skill-1 means you are competent enough to hold a job; Skill-2 or Skill-3 means you are a professional. Get Vacc Suit-1 and Air/Raft-1 on chargen and you can do *A LOT* - for starters as an adventurer you have Skill-0 in all common weapons, so you can fight, with Vacc Suit-1 you can do all sorts of EVA and zero-G stuff AND wear heavy armor, you can fly the Air/Raft like a commercial driver, and you can also attempt all sorts of other things in adventuring. A bit like a Fighter in older D&D - you were skilled in all weapons but could "specialize" in some (a weapon Skill in Traveller), but not having a whole list of Thief-style skills on your character sheet did not mean you couldn't attempt a very wide variety of bold adventuring actions.

    1. You are absolutely correct; I was thinking of Mongoose Traveller rather than CT. Post updated to clarify.

  2. I quite like this approach, it's essentially what Burning Wheel uses, but tre are a few other downsides that are worth mentioning. The main one is that it shifts responsibility for the incentive scheme onto the players, who are now creating their own incentives.

    This is a pretty powerful positive feedback loop, which will highlight high-functioning groups and bring down the suck for others.

    I've seen it misfire a few ways. One is that producing a continuous stream of functional (i.e. good for the play experience) takes effort; not everybody's interested.

    I've seen players set lame goals and get slowly starved of advancement rewards. I've seen groups that are used to the GM taking a strong hand with 'the plot' write a bouquet of unrelated side quests, which creates a centrifugal force that mechancially rewards the group not working together.

    I've seen alert, thoughtful players set goals that turn out have a really hard time achieving their goals, just through the twists and turns of non-railroaded play in a setting with lots of unknowns.

    I've seen players (and been one) who wasn't 100% engaged, dutifiully writing a goal that makes good structural sense, but you wind up stuck with it for a while.

    On the other hand, on the balance I think it's worth it. There are two other benefits I can think of:

    1. Pacing - armed with a clear indication of what the players currently care most about, the GM can make really good pacing decisions. If everyone wants to get to the dark tower, everyone at the table knows that this cavemouth with the faint smell of death and the glint of gold - however interesting - is a tangent.

    2. GM prep compression - goal-writing telegraphs players' plans to the GM, making it a lot easier for the GM to know what to prep.

    Now, if the GM is doing these things, it's a further upping of the ante for having high-quality goals. This front-loads a requirement to collaborate. Collaboration /sounds/ great, but unstructured group decision-making is actually pretty tricky--often there are loud voices, some quieter voices, and people who are just willing to do whatever.

    One of the brilliant things about a rigid XP system, particularly in class-based systems, is that it provides insulation between character growth and 'the plot'. However lame the game, collect your gold and you get your new cool powerz. This is very useful if the players are more invested in their advancement options than the specifics of what GM is coming up with (which happens--the huge drive for splatbooks and feats in many systems essentially panders to this demand). Player-set goals removes some of this insulation, sometimes for the better, but it's not a guarantee.

    Anyways, as I said, I love this form of XP, I totally think it's worth the side effects.

  3. Read burning Wheel. It has one of the best advancement systems ever.

  4. My other laptop refuses to let me post comments for some reason. The summary of the wall o'text I lost to this was basically:

    Thanks for the suggestion; I sort of figured someone must have done something like this before. Does Torchbearer share this advancement system with BW? It sounds more my speed.

    Thanks also for experience-derived feedback; very plausible-sounding failure modes. I think very-short-term (1-2 session) goals might help with some of those, but at some point that does devolve back to attendance. Excellent points about the difficulty of collective decision making and players being primarily interested in acquiring power.

  5. Yes, Torchbearer and Mouse Guard both have a similar sort of approach, but where BW chars have three goals and three trouble-causing instincts, MG and TB chars have only one of each, which is a nod toward those games being less character-focused and more tratitionally high concept gauntlets that the characters have to run and survive.

    One thing I should mention is that all three of these games feature use-to-advance skills, which is a big component of advancement. (Except in a minor way in TB, there are no levels.)

    The rewards that flow from goals are more like bonus points, but because of the difficulty levels being so high, you need to hit goals in order to be able to augment your skills to make it, so it works out to the same thing.

  6. Torchbearer and Mouse Guard both do to some degree. BW is very character-driven - I sometimes say that in a dungeon crawl, the characters explore the adventure, whereas in BW, the adventure explores the characters. BW characters have three beliefs (essentially goals), three instincts (habits, often trouble-causing urges of some sort or other, like being touchy about apparent insults), and short list of traits (e.g. Hairy).

    In Torchbearer and Mouse Guard, the game concept is a bit narrower. BW would be equally good for playing out Tolkienesque quests, the petty intrigues of junior monks, or satanist bounty hunting. TB and MG have narrower focuses, so each character is only allotted one goal, one belief (here, a more philosophical stance, like a D&D alignment), and one instinct.

    In all three of these games, the points you get for hitting these beliefs serve as bonus dice, so they seem tangential to advancement. The direct route to advancing a skill is to use it, and when you've logged the right number of tests, the skill goes up a level. The thing is that the difficulty targets are pretty high (there's a 'Say Yes' rule for the easy stuff), so the bonus dice are actually essential if you want to both advance your skills and succeed at what you're doing.

  7. Great post! Level advancement and XP gain by accomplishing goals is intriguing. I don't know if it's been done already, but what if the players had to choose from a preset list of goals? I'm thinking of a mix of mechanics from CKII ambitions and D&D 4e's Minor & Major quests.