Experience: The Broken Mechanic in RPGs

I have been playing pen-&-paper roleplaying games for literally decades, having gotten my start with “Dungeons & Dragons” back in the late Seventies. I have also designed (though only self-published) several such games over the years, so I may not be an expert on the subject, but I feel I have a pretty firm grasp on proper RPG design.

And one thing has always bothered me about these games: Character Growth is broken in almost all tabletop roleplaying games.

It doesn’t matter which system is being used, be it the common Leveling, or something else. Character growth over time is almost always broken to some degree, if only because it is always – always – focused on individual growth. So as time goes by, and players come and go from a roleplaying group, or current players want to change characters in the middle of a current campaign, this inevitably leads to one of the following issues.

  1. A group filled with characters of wildly varying power levels, or
  2. The GM having to raise the new character up to the level of the rest of the group.

Neither of these situations is ideal, and can lead to significant issues, especially if players routinely miss adventures, or players come and go from the group quite often, or they want to try out a variety of different characters over time. The group ends up basically broken, with the weaker characters dying all the time, or the more powerful characters getting bored with no challenge… or the Game Master gets stuck tweaking characters all the time to make them fit the campaign, which leads to a frustrated and unhappy GM.

So, what can be done about this? I think the easiest solution is Group Experience. Wherein all players are effectively using basic characters, and the group powers up over time. This would allow for any player who comes into a group, or misses a few adventures, or likes to change characters a lot, to remain “on level” with everyone else, regardless of the circumstances.

Now this does lead to some issues, of course. For example, how does one explain why a character that missed a session gained in experience comparable to the rest of the group? From a roleplaying standpoint, I actually see this as an opportunity, rather than a problem, as it would allow the player of said character to describe some adventure they undertook away from the group, which could then lead to interesting interactions between the players. But for groups that don’t engage in much roleplaying in their roleplaying, I suppose this might be an issue. My suggestion:

MORE ROLEPLAYING!

Anyway, this isn’t something you can just use with any pen-&-paper roleplaying game, unless you enjoy adjusting characters all the time, which this was supposed to solve. This sort of thing would require being ‘baked into’ the game itself, so that GMs and players alike would be able to easily see where their characters are on the power scale for a given campaign. If done right, players would need only create their basic starting character, and not make any changes from there forward, due to ‘leveling up’ as a group.

Were I to use such a system, I would base it all off of dice. Either the players would gain modifiers to their dice rolls, based off of the power scale of the group, or they would gain additional dice to roll as the group advanced over time. I suspect modifiers would be the easiest solution, as the GM could just tell all players at the start of a game “Your modifier this adventure is +X”, with X being whatever level the group is at. The extra dice solution would scale too quickly, and make players rampaging monsters in short order, while also making them susceptible to the quirks of Fate, as a handful of d6’s won’t help you much, if they all come up 1’s.

Anyway, if you have any thoughts on the matter, please leave a Comment (below), I’d love to discuss this further.

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