[RPG] How necessary is mechanical character advancement


I've been fiddling around with a game system for some time (ever since the 2010 Game Chef competition) that's based around characters that are shape-shifters. Because of this, characters have a fluid dice pool that they can move around their different Attributes so that their stats shift throughout the game. There are some limits to this, so they can't just do it at the drop of a hat, but obviously it gives even starting characters a lot of flexibility.

That said, I haven't included any mechanism for character advancement–no XP, no gaining a level, no adding another d6 to your dice pool. At this point, the dice pool acts as their health as well (I won't go into detail, since it's mostly irrelevant to the question). Given that, I don't want players to just end up with nigh-infinite health by gaining more dice throughout the game. As it stands, the best you would get as far as advancement would be that it could become easier for you to shape-shift, say you can do it faster or into a wider variety of shapes, but that would pretty much be a situational thing in-story as shape-shifting is ritualized. I really like the idea of the game being mechanically light-weight, but I might be overdoing it.

TL;DR Is an rpg still fun for more than a one-off session if there's no mechanical character advancement?

Best Answer

I would argue that "mechanical character advancement" isn't necessary, but advancement as a whole is.

Non-mechanical Character Advancement could fill this need. This could be accomplished not with dice and stats, but with abilities granted as plot points, character development by the player and the GM (GM's acknowledging character development is very important,) or some other manner.

The point is, players don't like feeling like they're playing the exact same character the whole time. The mechanical system addresses this by increasing power and abilities at set intervals (levels) because you can't write mechanical-based plot advancement. Players love trying new things, and even if you don't use levels, giving them new items, special abilities, or some other "new thing" can fill this desire players have.

Story and Setting Advancement can also work, even without any character advancement. The first think that pops into my head at this is the Myst series. Your character (to the best of my knowledge) never changes. You don't level, gain abilities, run faster, etc. What advances is the plot. And with the plot advancements comes new worlds, settings, and puzzles, each unique. This would be an amazing game to play—even if your characters never changed—but it would necessarily be heavily role-played and non-combat-centric. Note, though, that you're moving away from role-playing games and towards puzzle games and storytelling. Some players may love this, and some may just want to kick in doors; this is up to you to gauge for your group (probably by asking them!)

Admittedly, a dynamic setting and story line are goals of any RPG, but in the non-mechanical character-advancement system you're proposing, it would be absolutely essential. Unfortunately, it would be lots and lots and lots of work. Think about how many hours of planning went into each of your favorite RPGs, and now reproduce that level of intricacy for your campaign, each time. It's doable, and can be a lot of fun, and super rewarding, but sometimes is infeasible.

In conclusion, it could absolutely make for a great game. But it would never work as a "system." You may be able to publish adventures on it, but you couldn't go the D&D route and successfully publish rule-books. Without mechanical character advancement, you really cannot build advancement into a system like that, and it's entirely up to the GM to add it.

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