Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Achievement-Based Level Progression

What are the things you would expect to be able to do in a fresh D&D game or you’d be disappointed? On going up in level, what new things do you look forward to being able to do?

It's surprising to me that as radical a revision 4th edition is, they still have the thousands of experience points- D&D's last fiddly little bit-- hanging about like a vestigial tail. They came very close to smoothing them away in standardizing the level progression table and in making the innovation of the combat itself as a unit of measurement. But, as far as I know, thousands of experience points are still needed to go up in level and thousands of xp need to be tracked.

If you're going to assume that accumulating power is a fundamental part of D&D, then you're going to need some way to track that growth. That's fine. but couldn't we find some way to cut down on the bookkeeping the way Delta's "stone" did for the pounds of encumbrance?

One possible unit to track experience might be the Combat itself, so players go up in level after 10 combats, maybe. But this is to make a dangerous misunderstanding-- which is I think a mistake the 4e designers made-- to assume D&D is a game about combat and getting better in combat. But as much combat as old school D&D has, veteran players know that getting the score without having to fight is even more of a success. And there are whole realms of the game that have nothing to do with combat- gathering rumors from NPCs, magic pools, tricks and traps.

Another unit to track experience might be the Session. There is nothing more fascinating to me then to hear hoary old DMs talk about how experienced a party should be after so many months of play. If you pay attention to these discussions you really get the sense that D&D, as wild and wooly as the sandbox might be, has patterns to it that are closely linked to level.

The most extreme example is the Endgame, with name level characters setting up castles and gathering armies. But I think that you would expect the hijinks a party of 8th levelers can get into would be different than those of first levelers as well.

The problem of just leveling by time played-- "Okay folks, this is our fifth session, you all are second level now." -- is that it de-links leveling from success. And this is dangerous because experience points have been important in defining what D&D is about. If it is about combat prowess you give points for monsters defeated, if its about successful dungeoneering you give xp for gold piece value successfully recovered. But if progression is based on session, what is it all about-- attendance, perseverance?

I think we can have our cake and eat it too. Taking a cue from video games and their Achievements, what if we allow leveling only after certain level-related accomplishments have been made?

Two things would need to be done:
1) Make a list of those things that are most fun doing while at level X. This would require some experience on the part of players and DMs, if the highest I've ever gotten a character was 2nd level how do I know what is most fun about name level. and then

2) Decide on a subset of those for each level of your campaign. Because I wouldn't want these to be related to video game achievements in that players would know what they specifically needed to do-- "We need to rescue someone or we'll never go up in level!"-- (at least, I don't think).

Keep in mind, I certainly don't think you need 20 levels to feel progression or, god-forbid, 50. I think we could make the number of levels more granular too, something between 5 and OD&D's 10.

So, what things would you expect players to accomplish before moving from first to second level?  Here are some ideas off the top of my head:
  •     experience the Mythic Underworld
  •     survive a dicey combat
  •     outwit a trick/trap
  •     interact with some local NPCs
  •     aquire some treasure
  •     find a magic item (however minor)
Notice, this list could be equal part things to experience at that level- encounter a dragon- and thing to successfully achieve- make 1000 gold.  What I like about this idea is that it recognizes the fundamental

patterns of D&D-- and yet allows for personal tailoring like houserules. Want you game more about roleplaying, leave out the underworld requirement or vice versa.

Of course you could make level progression more granular in another way using these achievements- by leveling as a group rather than individually, but that is a whole other post.


  1. In the campaign I'm running now, I've been tracking levels as a percentage. Characters level up when they reach "100%" on the experience gauge.

    At the end of each session, characters earn 3 percentage points for every (1) dungeon room explored, (2) trap bypassed, (3) combat won, (4) large treasure hoard claimed, and (5) secret passage found. This assumes that the players are operating on a dungeon level equal to the average party level. On shallower (easier) levels, they earn fewer points for the same activity; on deeper (harder) levels, they earn more points. Once they leave the dungeon and start adventuring in the towns and open wilderness more, I'll construct a similar table for how to gauge that advancement (percentage points for relevant NPCs talked to, clues found, plots uncovered, mysteries solved, hexes traversed, locations discovered, &c.).

  2. In my own in-progress old-school style RPG, I'm trying to navigate these same waters... Sessions count, but they must be weighted by the challenges experienced by the PCs, and by how much engagement is shown by the players. The current version is here, if you're curious.

  3. The compelling reason not to track level advancement as "10 Combats" (rather than experience points) is that the system isn't granular enough - while you might be in 10 combat encounters between 1st and 2nd level, you might instead be in 8 fights, three of which are uncommonly difficult. The natural response to this is to track fractional combats, but once you're willing to do that, you are in every way better off tracking experience points.

    4e's assumptions of level progression are, by the book, assumptions of encounters (not explicitly combat encounters) and quest goals. The system provides varied means of resolving these encounters, and a sufficiently responsive GM or proactive set of players can turn many encounters that might seem to be automatic combats into skill challenges. I'll be the first to agree that the skill challenge mechanics are flawed even now, but they are salvageable.

    Having said all of that, I should address your actual suggestion. =) I like this, on its face, though I'd point out that it is fundamentally a set of meta-game quest goals (here I use the word meta-game without prejudice). This is a problem only in that the story or the PCs' preferred means of solving problems may leave one or more items unchecked from this list, and compelling them to find artificial ways of checking that item off their list. This is something you address directly in your text, but players can't really know what's going to be out there in the world before they start playing, so their ideas for what should grant advancement won't necessarily fit the flow of the game well.

    The change that I would offer, then, is to make it a la carte - "of these 10 items, you as a group need to complete 6" (or 8, or whatever). Honestly, I would enjoy video games more if they took an approach like this.

  4. If I understand your post correctly, it's "achievements". Like in a modern video game. A little notice pops up when you crit. A monster for the first time and you unlock the "slaughter" achievement, or an achievement for surviving a 50' drop etc?

    So a magic user needs to unlock the following achievements in order to get to second level:

    Successfully cast a spell in the underworld
    Create a scroll or magic potion
    Make a save. Vs spells
    Find a new spell

    After having unlocked those achievements he makes it to level 2.

    Successfully backstab
    Pick a pocket
    Pick a lock
    *one other skill of thief's choice"

    All in the underworld.

    For high level players, perhaps building a castle or keep is an achievement, or clearing a hex, or summoning an outer planar creature?

  5. The flaw in the system, is that gp=XP allows players with sometimes wildly different goals (paladi wants to tithe and build a church, magic user wants to research a spell and subjugate a troll with a spell) can accolish the goal in the same way--acquiring gold and then therefore players with different goals aren't in conflict with each other over what to do in game.

    Requiring all these achievements be performed in the underworld ameliorates this conflict somewhat, but you still might have the thief and wizard arguing over who gets the achievement over opening the door (pick locks or knock spell).

  6. On a related note, I've been toying with the idea of having an achievement requirement for attaining first level (and starting with a DCC-style funnel). The achievements would be simple and would grant the option of locking into that class. For instance, to become a fighter, you simply have to kill someone or something by main force. To become a magic-user, you have to make the potentially dangerous attempt to read a book of magic. To become a cleric, you have to dedicate yourself to a supernatural being, with eternal consequences, etc...

    By extension, then, each additional tier of power could require escalating deeds, perhaps in addition to experience, or intrinsically requiring an expense of treasure.

  7. Achievement-based progression for in-play organizations - magical Orders, thieves' guilds, etc. - is a great thing to do, as long as the hoop(s) the player needs to jump through are available in a timely fashion. This is something we've done extensively in some of the LARPs I play, and have since reduced (though certainly not eliminated) in usage because of the burden they present to the GMs.

    My fear in tabletop usage is that, since one GM is responsible for providing some degree of entertainment to 3-6 players at once, a particularly obscure or specific achievement that was required for one character to advance within his class would fall by the wayside in the party's goals, as they all have class-specific hoops to jump through.

  8. Thanks for all the great comments.

    @J.D. Higgins: That seems like you going for something similar, but yowza! sounds like a lot of work. I'm looking to simplify.

    @Cygnus: Cool, I'll take a look.

    @Shieldhaven: I think in more old school games, and at least up to the mid-level game all combats are potentially fatal, so difficulty isn't that big of a factor. I'll take your word on the 4e encounter stuff, I was only ever a player.

    As for the meta-game, yes definately. If players know about the goals it can be fun to try and target the one of their choice, but it breaks immersion. On the other hand, keeping them a secret means players might dead end, not knowing why they aren't advancing. You could try and lessen the likelihood of this by making the goals as broad and fundamental to the genre as you can (i.e. it is unlikely they won't have achieved them if they are playing the game the way most people play it), and by making it ala carte as you suggest. But then when you consider 10 goals for 10 levels you are at 100 different goals. This is turning into a lot of work! I was trying to avoid work. :)

    @UWSGuy: Those are the kind of achievements I was thinking of, though some are better than others. And, the more I think about it the more I'm interested in the group advancing together than having every different character class have different goals to keep track of. And the problem you mention is true. That's why I tried to make my examples general enough to work for a whole party. In your example, you might give the whole party an achievement for bypassing an obstacle, whether the thief did it or the wizard.

    @Joshua: I've seen a few modules start everyone off as zero level and then what you do determines your class, but I think, except for someone who is really unaware of the archetypes available, most players know what class they want to be, even noobs. But that might be a little different than what you are talking about. You mean you can't even call yourself a fighter unless you win a combat? I don't know about the funnel, haven;t read DCC yet.

    @Shieldhaven: part two, yeah, see my comment to UWS guy. I'm less interested in what a second level thief typically does. I'm more interest in what the average second level party does, whatever their class make-up. But this may be a case of me learning why the system as it stands works well nby trying to make it work better and failing.

  9. @Telecanter,

    Well, in some number of cases, there are probably iterative repetitions in those 100 goals, at least if you're cleaving to video game achievement structures in the slightest. 100 different things would be an actual challenge to write (but probably really interesting, and holy cow what a great way to tell your players what this game will be about!), but if 10 of them are "kill a monster of higher-than-level-appropriate difficulty," then you can kind of wrap it up in a hurry. I hear what you're saying about avoiding work, of course, but I would put good money on the expectation that you could crowdsource this to your readers and expect the list to get filled in under a week.

    ...I think I'll be writing a blog post about other variations of this idea soon. Also, I should link Samhaine's relevant post, in which he writes about achievement-based advancement more cogently than I am doing. ;)

    Part 2:

    Keeping the goals general to the party is a fine way to do it, and a damn sight easier. =) I look forward to hearing where this experiment takes you.

  10. Why not ask the player him/herself to roll a die and come up with a number of appropriate and interesting tasks, goals, or experiences (Look, Mr. Frodo! Elves!) equal to the number showing on the die? Players will seek, perhaps hungrily and open to suggestion, opportunities to fulfill their chosen obstacles. At the same time, knowing what each player needs to advance ahead of time, you as DM can tailor the adventure at least to have opportunities for for everyone to advance...or not, if it suits you.

  11. @Shieldhaven: Sorry! I missed your comment. Thanks. And thanks for the link, looks like my idea is not anywhere new. I'll go read those posts now.

    @Anon: Thanks for the comment. I really like the idea of player involvement. The problem you can run into is that puts newbs on the spot. They are trying to figure this whole game thing out and you're asking them what the game should be. I think we should be able to leverage our greater experience to have an idea ahead of time about what most people like about first level, etc.

    I read an essay online about crafting good video game achievements and it was based on the idea that you award people for things that would be fun to do anyway.

  12. Telecanter -

    I would say that you iterated the idea in a way that applies well to tabletop games. In a recent post, Samhaine went back to the idea for tabletop gaming purposes, but went in a very different direction from what you (and later I) did with it.

    Feel free to ignore, but for ease of reference and in hope of continuing an interesting conversation I've linked my version here, and Samhaine's here.