Character evolution as tutorial

For a variety of games, you can present character creation as walking the path of life. As long as no “weak build” is possible, this looks just like a win-win to me : those who want verisimilitude will find it, and those who don’t want it can look at the whole tree of choice and pick what they want anyway.
For games with class based creation, or point based creation, the rules also break down the big choice of “character role” into lesser choices. I believe that’s a positive, for all playstyles.

But then most of the character evolution rules I see are either qualitative (remixing drives), or an increase in efficiency (stats or powers). They don’t bring complexity. Alright, new powers open up new choices since D&D level climbing. But consider the leap from generic moves to class based moves in PbtA : the stress is not on efficiency. And yet even PbtA makes access to new moves relatively slow, and synonymous with an increase in efficiency. Does it mean that the “new toy” moves benefit from sugar coating ? or is there a problem with restricting play possibilities and “unlocking” them step by step ? Alright again, in most games I see, complexity increases not only with new powers but also with a closer scrutiny on resource management, a wider NPC network, and simply new facts getting framed by now past facts produced at the table (Fort the Queen), etc. But what strikes me is I don’t see, among games that use a character sheet (unlike FtQ), more games where you start with fewer tools, then have more options as you learn to manage them, from generic to specific. A bit like Hubs and spokes in character sheet form.

I know these games are out there : what are they called ?
Is the character sheet not the best tool for the job ?
Or I am making too much assumptions on how complexity is managed at a table ? I might because I don’t want too big a scope to frame my questions.

I always thought that Dogs in the Vineyard is a great example of using character creation as a tutorial. The last step in chargen is a conflict to learn an important lesson. This teaches the conflict rules and either way you get a new trait. But the specific trait depends on what happens in the conflict: win and you get a positive trait, lose and your trait is framed differently (a desire to do better in the future, maybe). So you learn the system and you learn about your character at the same time.

There is also a bit of this in Fall of Magic, where early prompts are about learning your character and gaining traits, later prompts are about changing and facing difficult choices.

I think that a game could be built to more fully incorporate this idea I to the core of the game, though, so chargen and tutorial and gameay smoothly transition from one to another and reinforce each other.


Are you thinking of the sort of thing that BECMI D&D tried to do with each successive bit of rules introducing a new scope of gameplay? i.e. dungeon crawling -> overworld adventuring -> domain-level play -> planar power struggles

It’s probably the quintessential example (like D&D tends to be for a lot of things), but I actually have a hard time coming up with others that aren’t consciously mimicking BECMI. And even then, the way this is expressed formally through the characters is fairly lackluster, I think; the new mechanical possibilities are keyed more to arbitrary milestones that coincide with the supplement treadmill than they are to explicit character build choices.

A bit of conjecture, but I suspect this sort of thing isn’t as popular as qualitative/efficiency based progress because 1) of how hard it can be to play enough to unlock different “game modes”, and 2) the contrived nature of it (“Why can’t I have a castle before level 9 if I buy it or steal it?”) clashes with an expectation of how things can develop organically in play that is so central to a lot of people’s understanding/enjoyment of roleplaying games.

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Domain play is something that can be added to a sheet, yes. So when you get your first castle, you’re introduced to the castle game (why wait until lvl 9?). But that’s still equating evolution with power gain. I was thinking more like : inventory is hand waved, but when you know the other stuff, you unlock the encumbrance mini game on your sheet.
Or Drives, Moves, or any other Zooming in on Rules. I understand how it goes against organic development. It supposes a game that wants to Transition you to some place indeed as Nickwedig said. Could be fit for Horror or Narnya like travel.

Now I remember one : Shadows does that !

I think it may be more a question of character progression speed and intended campaign structure. Something like Burning Wheel or Traveller have in-depth lifepath systems that try to get the benefits of both class based and point buy: greater customization, but limiting options to avoid AP. But at least in BW, there is still a large disconnect between the amount of shiny new toys you get at character gen vs. during play.

I think the industry right now if very focused on extremes in terms of what a game’s “campaign” looks like. You have OSR and DnD style games that don’t explicitly say but express through math and culture that a character’s lifetime can take months to real life years. And on the opposite end you have a multitude of oneshots or games designed less with character growth in mind than character revelation.

Hacky solutions certainly do exist. I know there’s a popular framing in DnD style games of “milestone leveling” IE your characters grow in power by narrative achievement, not mechanical. But there could also be a mathematical recalibration both on existing games and in development ones. If your character needs 1000 XP to level how many goblins slain and thus how many combat encounters does that translate to? How does that value correspond with how many games you want your player to play before they get the level up and how much real world time invested?

Personally I’m trying to balance my games around a much quicker levelling system. This both requires smaller numbers in general but also a reduction of power in what feats/skills/abilities do. My aim is for “campaigns” of my game to last ~10 sessions, composed of 3 to 5 subplots. The power level should be that at the end of that 10th session the players take stock if they want to keep going with their characters or do something else. So still a commitment, but not the kind of WoW-like obsession required by DnD.

Part of this is also making character sheets/abilities more holistic. A game in which the crunch is 99% concerned with combat can only allow characters to grow in combat potential. We need more games that tie character desires, quirks, and emotional states to crunch so that they can be “grown” the way a base attack bonus is.

I totally agree with the campaign length view.
Developing new significant areas of play sort of monetizes previously “fluffy” fiction. This requires coordination over a time scale. I am thinking for games around 2-6 session long, but your principle of “regulated development” works with any length or power curve.

I recently released a system (Zyborg Commando Resurrection Overdrive) using a new version of d10x rules/rolls. Rolling d10x (multiplying 2d10) makes 25 your average roll instead of 50, but it makes it tricky to find a good balance of how powerful the characters are when they start, versus where they are when they end. Some of the ways I resolved this were limiting max levels to 8, giving automatic XP each session so character will level up in 2 sessions even if they didn’t earn XP in other ways, giving specific choices of abilities when they level (eg, choose +2 skill or +1 stat), and also tying the theme of humanity and memory loss directly to advancement. When you level, you get bonuses but also penalties - for instance, do you choose to scribble over your brain sector map to destroy a memory or do you make it easier for the Hunger to overtake you?

Memory loss and knowledge and sanity would be fairly simple to include in a brain model for Cthulhu or similar, but I’m not exactly sure how that would work in a fantasy type of setting. Maybe it could be tied to your reputation spreading in ways you don’t want, or your leveling starts changing your appearance (ala the Fable video game) so you ‘look’ more demonic or angelic, or so on.

Anyway, just random musings. I like the idea of tying character level to growth in other ways.