I haven’t posted a gameplay rant in a long time. Let’s change that.
Character advancement is fun. Games, especially long form games, with little or no advancement are less fun.
I want my character to get better every single session of play.
Consider the Xbox. You might think it’s unfair to compare rpgs to video games, but the fact is I do it all the time- if your game sucks, I’m going to have to go home and play Xbox. The game I am playing, at the table, at any given time, needs to be more fun than Xbox.
If I play a typical console rpg, I can count on gaining a level roughly ever hour of play or so. The extent to which this buffs my character varies- with some rpgs, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, it can be a fairly significant increase, giving me options of how to increase my stats and abilities, with some rpgs, like Final Fantasy 7, it’s effectively an increase to just my stats- a little less involved, however the level cap in Final Fantasy 7 is 99- I’m going to be leveling much more often, and there’s the whole Materia subsystem too.
SO, I can churn out levels all day at home. (I’ll use ‘churn’ instead of ‘grind’ here, since I’m assuming the rest of the process is fun. I typically don’t ‘grind,’ because I could be playing other and better games.) Is it so much to ask for leveling opportunities every session?
Apparently so. The convention rpg wisdom seems to be that character advancement should be slow and arduous, so it is cherished when it happens. Bullshit. I want to cherish that level up every single week.
Now, depending on your design space, this can be problematic. Consider D&D 4th edition- if you level after every session, you won’t have much time to really get a feel for the level and the new tactical loadout. After over a year of playing this, I can say as both a player that you want a few sessions for each level, because each one plays a bit differently than the next- but I’m always eagerly waiting the next level up, no matter what side of the screen I’m on. But is it so hard to imagine a level-based game with a level cap of 100, where you gained a level (and a tangible buff of some sort) every session? Take Savage Worlds- the rules as written recommend handing out 2-3 xp per session- it takes 5 to level up your character and gain a new ability. I hand out 5 per session when I run Savage Worlds. I don’t even keep track of them- just the advancement gained.
Magic items are another reward in D&D. Unfortunately, there’s a design quota here too- I can’t realistically expect to get a magic item every session, or even one every other session. What can the game reward me with those sessions I’m not leveling up or getting magic items? Other forms of loot is a good stop gap measure- there should always be some sort of reward every session. Period. I’ve been guilty of being stingy with loot and then handing out massive bundles later to make up for it, but sitting in the player’s chair has made me take notice that I want stuff, and I want it now.
So, if you’re designing or running a level-based game, and you aren’t leveling up the characters every session, ask yourself how you can reward them every session.
Point systems, like White Wolf, Deadlands, HERO, etc are a different animal. You gain a certain number of points every level, typically very small, and spend them on different things- something little is pretty cheap, whereas something big is more expensive.
If you’re running one of these games, you should always give enough so someone could make a small incremental change to their character, or make larger changes in a reasonable amount of time. The player decides how they spend their points, but it should always feel like they have a choice to get an advance if they want it- enough to raise one of their lower skills by a point perhaps, or save up for a few sessions to raise a higher one. A technique I quite like is to give constant small awards, coupled with rarer large awards- players can get a small upgrade every session, and then purchase a more expensive upgrade at the end of an adventure- there is both constant increase, and occasional large increase.
Anyone who’s dabbled in psychology or economics can tell you that incentives are the key to behavior. Character advancement is the incentive driving games. To make your games as fun as possible, make advancement as fun as possible- give options, make there be different kinds of advancement, and make it as frequent as the game will handle it.