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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 limits.

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).

Another Way

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 new light.

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 widen?

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 skill 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.