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Why character levels in RPGs are STUPID! (youtube)

Cognisant

Condescending Bastard
Joined
Dec 12, 2009
Messages
7,659
#1
"https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6UV2gXwFPw&t=320s"
Just some thoughts inspired by this video, the video is not required watching.

A progression of character motivations seems like a good idea, for example a new character's immediate motivation is poverty, you start the game as a group of travelers who just arrived at a town being cold, dirty, hungry and tired. You look for some quick work because you want to solve these problems before they progress into bigger problems and inquiring at the tavern provides a number of minor opportunities. The party members (if they're even a party yet) decide among themselves who gets to do what, these are tasks like washing dishes in the tavern's kitchen, finding someone's lost cat, loading/unloading goods down at the docks, cleaning the local constabulary's dungeon and worst of all, babysitting.

The DM has a one-on-one session with each player as they do the task they chose for themselves, presenting them with relevant social, ability and creativity challenges. For instance the dish-washing player can just wash dishes normally for an automatically success or start rolling a DC10 Dexterity check to speed things up in hope of doing a better job and earning a tip (high dexterity will make this easier). While washing dishes several characters will talk with the player and the player will have the option to either interact with or snub them, the cook pesters them with questions (distraction modifier -1), one of the waiters/waitresses is flirty (distraction modifier -1), kids keep running through and if the player doesn't convince them to stop they'll knock a stack of dishes over (Reflex save), a pan with baked on stuff requires a strength check, etc.

Sounds boring I know but this is the first page of the player's story, their scene in the shire, it should get them out of that "I'm the hero" mindset and give them a glimpse of what a normal life in this world looks like. The challenges presented are both a gentle introduction to the game's mechanics and an opportunity for character building without life and death stakes. Would you prioritize being social or not being distracted, how would you make the kids go away, if you break dishes will you be honest, try to hide the evidence or pretend it was someone else's fault?

The first session with everyone together (no doubt having discussed their individual experiences) is when the adventure starts in earnest, maybe there's a caravan not far from town under attack, or maybe the town was built on the ruins of an old city and someone spotted goblins in the sewers. The party is offered their first serious job, provided gear befitting the town's militia (not as good as what they town guards have but better than nothing) and this periodic gifting/acquiring of gear can substitute for a leveling system assuming armor provides some kind of damage reduction so hitpoints go further.

Just thinking.
 

Jennywocky

guud languager
Joined
Sep 25, 2008
Messages
10,599
Location
Charn
#2
The "level" thing is just a holdover from very initial stage D&D, and is a matter of convenience even though no one ever suddenly "Dings" during an adventure in real life and suddenly has a whole new platform of abilities and endurance. The skill-based systems allow for incremental changes over time versus one big occasional leap.

A progression of character motivations seems like a good idea, for example a new character's immediate motivation is poverty,
Not necessarily. It depends on your background, there can be a lot of variety there. FOr example, what if you're an acolyte for a religious organization (or even a philanthropy) who has been sent on a special small mission as your backstory? So you'd have a small bit of coin and contacts to make, to begin the game with. Or what if you're a guard for a particular merchant or traveler? Mercenary protection? In my current campaign, we were conscripts sent to a new city to begin stabilizing some chaos that was occurring there. So we had transportation and enough essentials to get a foothold, but that was about it.

Anyway, the game really depends on your group's motivations for playing a game. Some players like something more mundane and "real feeling," other people do not play RPGs so they can labor over the same chores they hate doing in real life and desire to escape from. Do I want to spend my time in game washing dishes when I might as well be washing the ones in my sink? But it can be pretty amusing as an occasional side thing.

But yeah, one thing should lead to the next. You are doing one thing, and other elements get introduced before you complete the initial tasks, probably, and the group gets to decide where they are going next.
 

Cognisant

Condescending Bastard
Joined
Dec 12, 2009
Messages
7,659
#3
Not necessarily. It depends on your background, there can be a lot of variety there. FOr example, what if you're an acolyte for a religious organization (or even a philanthropy) who has been sent on a special small mission as your backstory? So you'd have a small bit of coin and contacts to make, to begin the game with. Or what if you're a guard for a particular merchant or traveler? Mercenary protection?
I like everything about that except the mission being special, as I said the very first one-on-one session is the shire scene, it grounds the player in the setting. Tabletop mechanics could be used for literally anything, it doesn't have to be combat, now I'm not saying I dislike combat (I love combat) but having a game revolve around combat exclusively is missing so many opportunities.

Just give me one session devoted to introducing characters, petty dramas, low stakes conflicts and just a little bit of player poverty, just a pinch of humility, before I set the world on fire and the players can get to work saving it. Imagine standing on a hill overlooking the starting town, now in flames, and just briefly pondering if those people you met while washing dishes managed to escape, you're not running down the hill screaming their names desperate to save them, but the tragedy touches you all the same because you know that town, you know who lived there.

It's not much, it dosen't need to be much, it's not the gravy smothering the meal it's just that pinch of salt, just a little, just enough to enhance the flavor.

But yeah, one thing should lead to the next. You are doing one thing, and other elements get introduced before you complete the initial tasks, probably, and the group gets to decide where they are going next.
Wouldn't want to railroad them completely but to say for example if I replace experience points with milestone based leveling there needs to be some degree of narrative structure to give meaning to those milestones, and in a game where player levels have been replaced with equipment the party gaining "next level" stuff needs to be justified somehow, it has to come from somewhere/someone.
 

Jennywocky

guud languager
Joined
Sep 25, 2008
Messages
10,599
Location
Charn
#4
I like everything about that except the mission being special, as I said the very first one-on-one session is the shire scene, it grounds the player in the setting. Tabletop mechanics could be used for literally anything, it doesn't have to be combat, now I'm not saying I dislike combat (I love combat) but having a game revolve around combat exclusively is missing so many opportunities.
We have sessions where there is no (or little) combat. It's never clear until most of the evening has passed whether we'll ever have to roll initiative. Our party is actually pretty "talky" and/or investigatory. It's all determined by how our characters handle the various scenarios that arise. Usually we are also juggling a few different plot threads at once as well.

to put it another way, combat can be fun but usually not as fun as the roleplaying that encompasses much of the system... although it gets really fun when combat involves roleplaying versus just combat.

Like last night, near the end of the session, one of our fighters got charmed by some kind of sea sirens along with much of the town, and whoever got to the shoreline was pretty much lost... but if you damaged someone, they had a chance to break the charm with another save. This was at 1:30am during a rainstorm, with the sea crashing on the shore, and people being charmed/awoken from sleep. So those of us who shrugged off the charm were running through the town and down to the shore trying to damage people awake and otherwise save as many as we could, without even being sure who we were seeing until we got near them.

My little Halfling monk caught the fighter near the shoreline right before he went under and needed to beat the crap out of him, and he kept missing his WIS save to snap out of the charm, so she ended up finally stunning him in the surf, then actually knocking him out and dragging him out of the water before trying to save others.

Meanwhile, he came to and crawled towards the ocean while bleeding out, with someone else grappling him to keep him out of the water, but he was pulling her with him. My bloodied monk came back and hit him AGAIN to knock him out.

Then one of our confused spellcasters who just got there healed him in case he might die (because the character is old and a bit incoherent), but he was STILL charmed (!) so he tried to AGAIN go back in the ocean. (He missed like 9 saves in a roll, even with advantage. Durrrrr..... It was only DC 15.)

My little monk came running back across the beach with a flying kick, critting him a third time that night and almost perma-killing him ... I think he stopped breathing for 30 seconds... and then proceeded to drag his sorry ass 20 feet up the sand while screaming "DO NOT HEAL THIS MAN!" while also being attacked by fish guys. While everything else was going nuts... charmed people disappearing into the ocean to drown, fish guys hacking at us, etc. That was the creepy part. I mean, just imagine total chaos in the rainy dark and most of a town being drowned due to some arcane magic.

The fight itself was kind of routine, but the best part was all the in-character interplay. The other player was really great about doing everything he had to in order to comply with the charm, even though it would have killed him... and I think he won't really recover from this incident.

of course, this happened after we spent the entire session reaching that inn and interacting with the townies there and getting to know some of them. So some of the people we met that night had been drawn under the ocean by morning. It was horrifying and sad.

... but most of our sessions involve finding and talking to people and running errands and chores to investigate what is happening.

Just give me one session devoted to introducing characters, petty dramas, low stakes conflicts and just a little bit of player poverty, just a pinch of humility, before I set the world on fire and the players can get to work saving it. Imagine standing on a hill overlooking the starting town, now in flames, and just briefly pondering if those people you met while washing dishes managed to escape, you're not running down the hill screaming their names desperate to save them, but the tragedy touches you all the same because you know that town, you know who lived there.
I think we are talking about the same thing.

Wouldn't want to railroad them completely but to say for example if I replace experience points with milestone based leveling there needs to be some degree of narrative structure to give meaning to those milestones, and in a game where player levels have been replaced with equipment the party gaining "next level" stuff needs to be justified somehow, it has to come from somewhere/someone.
Makes sense.

We try to do that anyway, but I think some systems are better at it than others. (For example White Wolf stuff is better than Pathfinder or DnD that way, but it's also a more flexible system focused on the roleplaying aspect.)
 

Cognisant

Condescending Bastard
Joined
Dec 12, 2009
Messages
7,659
#5
Just went to bed and thought of this,
Bilbo's birthday in LotR is a brilliant bit of show-don't-tell exposition, for the folk of the shire it was a momentus event which shows just how peaceful/boring their lives are, like public service office workers having morning/afternoon tea for any reason just to break up the day to day monotony.

The birthday party at the start of Fallout 3 served the same purpose, it really hit home just how fucking depressing life in a vault must be which made escaping the vault all the more appealing.
 
Joined
Jun 10, 2012
Messages
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#6
Yeah but they're fun.

Remember it's a role-playing GAME.
 

Hadoblado

The choicest fuckboi
Joined
Mar 17, 2011
Messages
4,906
#7
You liked the vault thing? I fucking hated that. Terrible start to a game. It's a game about freedom that starts you off by taking it all away. I always thought of that start as an exemplar of how not to do it.

I think you fall into a similar trap to what I do. You want to explore just how well you can recreate reality (or fantasy reality). But for most players, they're about the story or the progression. Rolling dice is just a means to an end. So as a DM it's your job to know all about those means, but if you place emphasis on them for the player they're not necessarily going to think this is an improvement. If I went to any session, even a first one, and was made to think about how my character wanted to wash dishes, I'd probably not come to a second.
Maybe if it were a two second decision.

"You have one week before the next campaign, but no money. How does your character make ends meet?"

The mechanics for the game can technically be used for so much more, but they gravitate towards resolving real conflict. It doesn't have to be combat, but why on earth would it be washing dishes?

There's also an issue where the DM chooses which characters get an easy time. High dex is rewarded etc.. I've tried something similar with making skills matter for RP purposes, while I still kind of like it, perception skills almost always were more important than anything else. Someone who took perception in my campaign just had a real cruisy time through non-combat, and everyone else experienced a grind where they didn't really know what was going on.

I guess I just don't see how washing dishes encourages meaningful decisions from a character. There's got to be better ways to have players exposed to the 'norms'.

As for leveling systems. I completely agree. Leveling is simple, and allows DMs to have a clear idea of appropriate challenge, but I think it's overused. Shad makes a lot of good points, he does a lot of interesting content and tends to be thoughtful, though for some reason I don't like him (I think this reflects more poorly on me than on him).

XP and gold are the meat and potatoes of fantasy gaming. XP gets levels, and gold gets gear. But ultimately they're sort of interchangeable, resulting in stats and options. One game that did away with gear completely is HotS (Heroes of the Storm), which is a moba. People complained that it was getting dumbed down, but I think they managed to capture the heart of the genre with just an experience/perk system. I personally really like perk systems where perks are derived directly from what is experienced. You could achieve something similar by keeping gold, but doing away with levels. Do keep in mind however, that people tend to like a sense of internal progression. If my character is defined by what they are wearing then I'm not really attached to my character. The real thing that I like to define my characters is what they can do, what they can't do, and how they prefer to act.
 

Pyropyro

Magos Biologis
Joined
Feb 3, 2012
Messages
3,933
Location
Philippines
#8
A bit off-topic but I think that Shad guy has good vids. Totally worth to subscribe to.
 
Joined
Dec 5, 2010
Messages
40
#9
Levelling can be a little odd, but it can be used to develop rp opportunities. Most of my gm's were of the school of thought that you can bump existing skills if you lay the groundwork in gameplay. Acquiring brand new skills couldn't be done on the fly, but had to be justified. That didn't mean you couldn't select new things in the case of a mid campaign level up, it just meant one of a couple solutions were needed.

One option was to only level between major adventures, and requiring backstory to explain your new awesomeness. I like this one for simplicity, but it can backfire if adventures are too long, or leveling is otherwise slow. It almost requires the party to level rather than the characters (an interesting mechanic in its own right you don't see much outside MMO's via guild bennies) and that can disincentivise rp.

Another option is to allow selection but require the character to work specifically to use it. They get their hp and any upgrades to existing abilities, but take using new abilities at a stiff penalty until either some number of successes, attempts, or a solid critical success. Can be done in phases too to simulate growth.

Another option is to work in a side quest to learn the skill. Best player engagement, but can become a pizza run for the rest of the party while Stabby McKillsfast masters his flash step.
 
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