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Are You Experienced?

Deconstructing experience

Last week, I noted that in the next release of Chimera, character improvement will occur via an Advancement Roll. After an adventure, a character rolls a d20 and subtracts his current level. If the result equals or exceeds his Advancement Cost, he gets his level in Improvement Points (IP), which he can spend to improve his various abilities.

The Advancement Roll part takes some getting used to. So let’s talk about it.

The Familiar Way

Up to now, Chimera’s made use of Experience Points (XP): when you earned XP equal to your character’s Advancement Cost, you automatically got to improve. Simple enough, but while the XP model works well in certain games, it’s not the right tool for the job in Chimera.

The Familiar XP Model

Yawn.

To illustrate why, let me use D&D’s familiar model: D&D characters accumulate XP to gain levels, which grant access to more and better things: hit points, saving throws, lower “to-hit” rolls, unique class abilities, more spells, increased thieving percentages, et al. The higher the level, the more XP you need to get it. To help ensure a steady stream of XP, D&D awards experience on a per-encounter basis—you need all those opportunities to amass the XP required to advance.

My chief concern with this model is the need to feed the level-machine with ever-growing heaps of XP. To maintain an acceptable rate of advancement, the GM is forced to unleash growing hordes of tougher monsters and larger and larger piles of loot.

Not that increasing challenges and commensurate rewards aren’t the province of high-level characters. I’m all for epic adventure, but not every adventure need be epic. Besides, not all campaigns roll that way, nor do all players want them to. But if you’re using the XP model, the size of the carrot-and-stick necessary to support high-level campaigns often threatens to shatter one’s suspension of disbelief. Where do all these immensely powerful opponents come from? How many Sarumans, Smaugs, and Necromancers does the campaign support? How much treasure is lost in those countless, ancient dungeons? Does the party’s arrival send the local economy into 3-digit inflation? Who’s cranking out all these magic items, artefacts, and relics?

My second issue is that the straight-level progression spawns predictable characters. All 4th-level fighters have 4d8 hit points and a THAC0 17, all 5th-level magic-users have access to 3rd-level spells, and each 2nd-level thief has a 15% chance to hide in shadows. Admittedly, it’d be too “meta” for PCs to take advantage of this knowledge when they confront adversaries, but it happens. Besides, what if you want a fighter with a STR less than 9? Wouldn’t it be interesting for a magic-user to occasionally attempt using a spell beyond his level-capability?

Chimera’s Unfamiliar Model

Chimera’s advancement model is designed to address these issues. First up, the abandonment of granular, encounter-based experience. Greg touches on this when he correctly suggests looking at the adventure (instead of the encounter) as the basis for experience. Chimera doesn’t award XP for encounters—it awards opportunities to advance for adventures. In other words, Chimera doesn’t care how many monsters you killed, or how much treasure you hauled away—it only cares that you completed the mission and lived to talk about it.

For now (and for the purposes of understanding the difference between “per-encounter” and “per-adventure” experience) you need to forget what a character actually did during an adventure. Ignore whether he led the party, directed from the rear, or did his fair share, whether he fought like a hero or ran like a sissy, whether he acted according to his alignment, or even if he, in any way, did anything to advance his character or cause or personal goals. At this high-level, explanatory stage, the only important consideration is whether the character survived his experience in the dungeon or derelict spaceship or haunted U-boat or wherever it was where he did adventuring things.

When the opportunity to advance arrives, the character rolls to see if he can translate his experience into some sort of improvement. Unlike D&D, wherein the accumulation of XP guarantees advancement, Chimera requires an Advancement Roll to determine if characters learned anything new, or if they “internalised” what they saw, as a result of their efforts.[1]

If the character makes his Advancement Roll, the player gets to choose what to improve, and that takes care of issue #2. Unlike a D&D fighter, a Chimera Veteran can level-up, add points to his Fight Ability, add points to a different Ability, buy a Perk, choose a new Sperk, or (gods forbid) pick up Wield and some Mana. A Chimera character’s advancement path is entirely up to the player—no two characters (even those of the same class and race) are likely to be the same.

What level?

High level/Low Ability?

This approach does make it hard to gauge a character’s relative degree of skill and ability. In D&D, “level” at least provides a basis for how powerful something is. On the plus side, it helps the DM create level-appropriate challenges for the PCs. On the downside (and in reality), level really isn’t a good tool for such approximations anyway.[2]

But “level” in Chimera is an entirely different thing. Think of it as a “broad stat” instead of a “measure of advancement.” As such, “level” indicates a character’s overall capability as an adventurer. Used this way, level crops up all over the place: poison onset time, effect of many Sperks and most Powers, number of Clutch Situations, the manifestation (but not the success rate) of many Abilities, base Resistance roll modifier, how many permanent injuries a character can take, and it also works as a throttle for improving non-class Abilities [UPDATE: oops—that last one is a 5th Printing feature...coming soon and all that. -EDS]. If you want to see how powerful a character is, look at his Abilities. If you want to see how good he as against an opponent, compare their respective Fight ARs, DF, and Wound Limits.

Greasing the Wheels

Within this framework, PCs should have the power to shift an Advancement Roll to their advantage. My initial thought (and something that’s worked well in playtesting) was to award Advancement Bonuses, like +1 for each adventuring goal completed, or +1 for defeating a particularly tough foe, or +1 for retrieving the Rivet of Moog. These could be individual or shared amongst the party—GM’s option, based on the circumstances of the achievement.

I think this is largely workable, but not entirely satisfactory. Experience for monsters and loot is a hold-over from D&D, wherein killing things and taking their stuff is how one earns XP. What about, Anthony asks, a campaign where story arcs, adventuring goals, and a lust for death and booty might not exist? How then does the GM reward activities that promote character growth?

Anthony also asks about risk vs. reward, suggesting that those who make big gambles should get more than those who play it safe. Finally, there is the spectre of GM fiat, in which all things are permitted, but nothing is objective. How will this system solve those problems?

Final Words

I didn’t plan for this to be a two-parter, but I’ve clearly gone on.

So here’s the deal: I have three solutions in mind to address Anthony’s concerns, and I’ll share them next week. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the above—does it ring any bells?
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  1. This is a trade off: D&D characters go long stretches between levels while earning XP, but when they have enough, level gain is automatic. Chimera characters have more frequent opportunities to advance, but advancement is based on a die roll. Personally, I’d rather tell a player who failed his Advancement Roll that he can try again after next week’s game than tell him that he needs 3,587 more XP.
  2. It’s true that you can’t use a Chimera character’s level as a basis for what constitutes a challenging encounter. But, depending on what you’re quantifying (fighting skill, spell-casting ability, diplomatic flourish, physical toughness), you can’t really do that in D&D either. Regardless, so-called “Challenge Ratings” fail to account for tactics and ingenuity, so I don’t think devising such comparisons is a sound exercise anyway.

  1. March 2nd, 2011 at 12:31 | #1

    I am rather ignorant on the workings of your game system, so feel free to correct me if I am wrong. From what I have read in this post, your system takes care of 2 of my complaints, predictability and mixed level parties. Since you don’t use the D&D convention of discrete levels and rather opt for a skill/trait/etc system, you CAN have the opportunity to advance something every adventure. And the mixed party level issue is mitigated by the fact that players can make characters that heavily specialize in one area and so could contribute even if they are lower “level” than the rest of the party. Sadly, at this point, I am not willing to deconstruct D&D to that extent, but it does work well for your game.

    As far as risk and reward, I am anxiously waiting to hear your ideas. I’ve yet to come up with something that is objective, elegant, and intuitive. What few ideas I had were along the lines of if the party runs into an encounter with more than 2x the number of HD of enemies as compared to the total of the PC’s levels, you can give 2 XP. And for non-combat situations, how do you delegate risk and reward? If someone goes into a business venture, do you give 2x XP if he invests more than 50% of his net worth? Those examples are obviously poor answers.

  2. March 2nd, 2011 at 14:07 | #2

    This post makes perfect sense to me. I can barely wait for the next printing.

  3. Greg MacKenzie
    March 3rd, 2011 at 09:10 | #3

    I like this because it puts the focus on the adventure, to my mind story is everything, so yeah, I can’t wait for the next blog and your official fifth printing. The differentiation of the characters, customizing them, and making them unique allows players to take them in the directions that interest them, which is to my mind also part of story building as it unfolds during game play.

  4. deimos3428
    March 5th, 2011 at 00:34 | #4

    Coupla ideas.

    1. The article said, “To maintain an acceptable rate of advancement, the GM is forced to unleash growing hordes of tougher monsters and larger and larger piles of loot.”

    To which I’d reply advancement isn’t necessarily meant to occur at a static rate in D&D, certainly not in old-school D&D. It takes longer and longer the higher up you advance, and it’s a self-correcting problem. You don’t need to unleash hordes of tougher monsters if it doesn’t suit the campaign.

    At some point it takes so many dragons to gain a level that you stop killing poor defenseless dragons, wander off to handle matters of state, and the characters are retired The XP requirement curve becomes effectively asymptotic; a natural de facto “maximum level” is achieved. Put more succinctly, “Epic level shmepic level.”

    2. If the advancement roll succeeds, the player gets to decide how to distribute the points. How ’bout if it fails, the [evil] GM gets to decide? Seems like fun to me.

    3. I don’t think there’s such a thing as objectivity in awarding XP, or any other aspect of a GM’s role. If it were you could do away with him or replace him with a computer. Though I’m interested in seeing if Erin makes me eat my words on that one next week.

  5. March 5th, 2011 at 09:29 | #5

    @deimos3428 : I don’t think there will be any eating of words. As I’m writing these posts about XP, I’m thinking about how subjective experience rewards and rate of advancement seem to be. A lot of it is based on group style.

    Advancement at a static rate is the expectation in some groups, others don’t mind taking longer between levels. Arguably, a game encourages the former when it introduces ridiculously powerful foes and magic, and lets characters advance to 30+ level.

    My college B/X campaign ran steadily for almost three years, and the highest level character was 6th-level. Only one dragon was fought (courtesy of B5: Horror on the Hill), and the most powerful magic item was a sword +1, +3 vs. something-I-forget. The party’s big motivations were gaining treasure and influence, acquiring NPC connections, and resolving all the little plots and sub-plots in the setting. Level was like getting promoted, but there were other rewards along the way.

    Anyway, I mention that campaign because the players made that style work. Another group might have been less interested in story, more interested in XP, and the same format would have failed. Subjective.

  6. deimos3428
    March 5th, 2011 at 15:19 | #6

    Off-topic: A sword that is literally +3 vs something-I-forget could be an immensely valuable item. Take that, budget meeting! (Or whatever.)

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