The Wheels and Gears of a Good Game - 3 of 3


In this installment of his column, Gilgamesh talks about secrets and cycles, about getting back to the beginning, about magical curtains that hide secrets, and about using the Great Wheel to re-visit old knowledge from a new perspective. It's a fitting discussion to serve as a sort of transition from old to new here on Gamegrene.

This series of articles is about exploring the concept of the screen used by GMs in tabletop RPGs. In the first article we explored the function of the GM and how they can prepare properly for an upcoming session – doing the preparatory work required to make a session run smoothly. The second article focused on the in-game tactics that are available to the resourceful GM. In the last article of the series I'd like to the structure of the story as required by an ongoing expansive narrative. It is my experience that many GMs– even those good at preparing and running a session -- are unable to sustain a long campaign. My approach to the task of the GM has four major components: Prepare, Disassemble, Re-assemble, and Re-prepare.


There is no more powerful tool in the GMs bag of tricks than the use of recursion. We learn through repetition and embedded patterns. These patterns on a grand scale are called archetypes and these resonate with us on the deepest level. Yet even the mundane aspects of the game can benefit from recursion. Players trying to immerse themselves in a game that has a whole new world of cultures, races, languages, and religions can quickly find themselves overwhelmed with information. Amidst utter confusion they will revert to what they know. If you are ever going to whisk them away to a far-off land it must be done in slow degrees and the unusual aspects of the setting can only become familiar through habit and revisitation.

The Medicine Wheel

The native medicine wheel identifies the seasons and changes that happen over the course of a year. Yet it recognizes more than this. It recognizes the cycles of life as we change and grow old. This wheel is not static, because every year when Spring returns there is a difference. We have changed through the passing year and bring forward the sum of our experience to a Spring that is new and familiar. The longing that it awakens and the promise of new adventures remains even as the perspective shifts. The blooming of Spring to a dying man is still the birth of hope – a reminder of all the Springs that have passed. So it is a spiral. We can never set foot in the same river twice. The changes are a sort of permanency. If you want to tell a long story – and most RPGs are built upon an expansive epic framework – you have to have the great wheel running for you in your game. Otherwise your players will eventually drift off, growing bored of characters who always do the same thing because they never re-visit their journeys or explorations on the wheel.

Home Sweet Home

The first places that the characters visit should be the most important. As the wheel turns they can return to them with new understanding. The re-introduction of these locales does many things for the story. It becomes a benchmark for how they have progressed in wisdom and confidence. It makes their actions to this point significant. This layered approach means that you must have two truths at work in each moment, in every location. There is the story that they know – at first the enigmatic stranger who offers them a task. After some time, they will discover the politics behind this task and the wheel will have turned round completely. The second task will happen on the political level, but behind the curtain religious or arcane forces stir. Again, over time, these forces will be known and the characters will act on those, while there is an unknown but growing knowledge in an ancient connection with an obscure force. The story is not absolutely confusing because the layers are peeled back one-at-a-time. Connections between the first and fourth layers are appreciated (or imagined) long after the fact. This connects the narrative so that it is not one linear series of events, but a connected and personal tapestry in which the players become emotionally invested.

That's what she said

Whether it is the pithy patois of Josh Whedon's "Firefly", the slang of "Battlestar Galactica," or the pedantic quips of "The Office" language provides a portal into new and different worlds. The repetition of certain words and phrases allows the participants to engage the world on a certain level. They know what to expect and these words become markers that help maintain the illusion of "otherness." Characters from diverse backgrounds can easily melt into bland, indistinguishable supporting roles if the GM does not pay attention to languages. Few GMs have the voice talent to successfully pull off varying accents, but all of us can use word choice, common phrases, and sentence structure to not only clearly identify the character who is speaking, but also remind us of their cultural framework. Yoda speak is achieved by placing the verb at the end of a sentence. While this works moderately well in a movie – it is far better suited to the gaming table. NPCs can be given some pat sentences that they repeat. These phrases are different enough to remind us who the character is and what essentially different viewpoints they have. Perhaps your barbarian spent some time in a city and lost "the smell and taste of water." Upon returning to the wild this scent returned. Forever she will use this metaphor in her speech. A place where the "rains do not breathe" is not place for your character.

Recursion is not repetition

Doing the same thing the same way every time gets tired. Characters who are cliché have borrowed too much from the work that precedes them. Conan is not an archetype. He is however an example of the wild-man archetype; like Enkidu in the "Epic of Gilgamesh" he is struggling between the wild world and the civilized world. His raw power is tested by the lure of flesh, comfort, and the fruits of civilization. The walls of Uruk become the metaphor for society, law, and constraint. To fashion a character out of the primal struggle between progress and wild nature is laudable, while to make a muscled, fur-wearing, sword-wielding nomad with a gruff demeanor has already been done. It would be hard to look past the similarities unless the character is well differentiated from the type. Start with the archetype ( that your character belongs to, then identify their personal metaphors, mix in their past experiences and prejudices, and salt with their aspirations. Find ways to constantly remind yourself of their quirks and different world-view and you will have a character that comes alive in a game session.

Not all bad guys are opponents

There is more than one kind of foil to the characters. Rival adventurers, former mentors, corrupt politicians, misguided priests, weak monarchs, prejudiced literalists, and self serving mercenaries are among the many villains in a good story. These villains cannot be overcome with a mighty battle, but through constant effort and struggle. The opinions of the townsfolk, fickle and often misguided, will see the characters place in society shift and change. In order for them to have a context in society there needs to be more than the two viewpoints. They can choose to align themselves with certain groups and sever old affiliations. Players can develop a deeper visceral reaction to a petty self-serving noble who has never robbed or killed in his life than to the Trollish chieftain who has waged suffering and slaughter along the coast. They have a method of controlling the chieftain. It is the petty noble who is beyond their reach.
If the wheel of understanding is drive gear that runs the game, the villains are the crank that turns the gear. Games that set up all of the bad guys as the pure embodiment of Evil lose context and characters do little self examination as their place is the story is too easily defined. Villains belong to archetypes too.

Back to the Beginning

So we are back to the beginning after having a turn on the wheel. The GM must prepare a session, run a session, and be able to string the sessions together into an Epic cohesive story. To accomplish this they have the mystery and enigma of the screen at their disposal. Used properly it is a magical curtain that can hide secrets, yet is tantalizingly transparent revealing an open, honest, well-prepared adventure. The players can drive the action, but for there to be longevity in the game, the GM must understand the structure of a story and use the Great Wheel to re-visit old knowledge from a new perspective.

I tend to run long epic campaigns using my own material. I've been doing this for about thirty years, and have been running a single campaign (same players, same characters, same story) for over twenty years now. In this time I have made a lot of mistakes, but have done a few things right along the way. If I can remember to throw out what doesn't work (for me) and keep what does, maybe I'll be running games for many years to come. I'd love to hear other suggestions to improve the gaming experience from session preparation to in-game tactics and finally, keeping the magic alive.

Great article, Gil. I've heard of some of these techniques before, but never all compile. I've actually attempted some of this in my D&D campaign that's rapidly coming to a close. The PCs have come full circle (as crooked and twisted as that circle may be) to end the campaign in the same place it began: a small village that they saved way back when they were wee 1st-level characters.

I'm not sure how effective it's been, but it was a little unnerving for them (and me!) to find this once-thriving village more or less deserted. Until they found the corpses of some of the former villagers, which had been reanimated as undead.

Thanks for the feedback. So do you create and run your own campaigns? I was wondering what percentage of people run their own worlds versus those running pre-made worlds.

I know a couple groups that run 100% by-the-book, but I've never seen the 100% do-it-yourself. Most of the do-it-yourselfers (me included) grab filler from wherever they can.

Funny you should mention that. Last week my group was contemplating the exact same question.
We thought most GMs make up their own settings.

Great article, Gilgamesh.
If possible, I'd greatly appreciate examples of implementations of the different points; Perhaps a single example that includes all of them (maybe something from your campaign?).

My situation is a little unique, in that this campaign is an introductory one, with one experienced player and three new ones. I didn't want to overwhelm them with setting material ("Memorize the Forgotten Realms setting by next week..."), and so I took a more... focused approach, basically only creating the areas of the world that the PCs would be visiting next.

I started the campaign with a published module (Scourge of the Howling Horde, if anyone's interested), and after that, I've pretty much created everything on my own. Because they really haven't travelled that far, I've only needed to develop a couple of small villages, a medium-sized city, and a forest with ancient secrets (yeah, cliche, I know), with a number of fairly well-developed NPCs to populate them.

If I were to use a published campaign setting, I wouldn't do it 100% by-the-book. It's rare that I find a published campaign setting with themes I'd actually like to explore, but even when I do, I don't care enough about preserving the established canon to avoid changing things to suit my tastes.

Sorry about the length of this post... Couldn't answer this one briefly.

The land of Rin was entering a new age of prosperity at the start of our campaign. One of the greatest leaders and lords of Blackpool – Pallanor the Just – had turned what was once a Duchy of Blackpool named Eastmarch into a kingdom in the span of ten years – a civil war known to history as the Dozen Wars. The insurrection was sparked by a legal ruling by a judge named Tholicos, who decreed that all sentient creatures were bound to uphold the law of the land and to be protected by it. This ruling was overturned by the King and Pallanor, mustering his ducal army, opposed him.

Now, twenty years later his eldest son Rolano sat upon the throne of a new kingdom. With three healthy sons of his own and the treaty of Skye lake maintaining a peaceful border on the West, he was content to build churches, fund granaries, and in general support the various organizations that made up his kingdom. Rin was a place for refugees. Driven from their ancestral homes by intolerant humans Elves were given solace within their borders. Coming of age in this time were two elves – Maraklist (my older brother) and Arondil (my friend from a BBS). Together they set off on a journey to explore the world and find the deeper roots of their heritage. At the small port town of "x", somewhere between I'd-have-to-look-it-up and I'm-getting-too-old-to-remember-things, they met up with a human leaving the monastery for the first time. Taken in by the monks at the request (and payment) of his older brother, Bleys (another friend from the BBS) was just beginning his journey to discover his roots.

At this, the campaign is set up with a couple of themes – identity and exploration: Two elves looking for their place in a human world and a human orphan trying to find out about his family, find his brother, and make something of himself. The geography around them suited these motifs. They were at the edge of the civilized world. All the old and powerful kingdoms lay either to the West or South. Immediately to the West was the Kingdom of Blackpool:a place that shares custom and culture, but is still bitter over the recent war. The East held a savage frontier – sparsely populated by pockets of petty kingdoms huddled around the lakelands. Known as the Fifty Kingdoms, this region held moderate threats – wild beasts, dire wolves, and tribes of feral humanoids. The sparse civilizations of the petty kingdoms kept the more dangerous creatures in abeyance. To the North a great and vast sea stretched out. Reddan, the financial gem in the crown of Rin, was the seaport at the far edge of the trading routes with the old wealthy kingdoms. Ports east of Reddan were dens of thievery and pirates. The South, however was far more dangerous than anything in the human lands. Strange beasts – Chimeras of all manner of construction – range through in the densely forested foothills of the Iron Mountains. The South provided the players (once they were capable enough) a refuge from intrigue and role-playing. They could slake their thirst for combat with tasks set in some ruin or locale in the South. I was surprised when the players would make deliberate forays to the South for no particular reason; a by-product I suppose of the AD&D Experience point mechanic.

Game Design Note: Although these creatures thirst for blood and meat, they also require Sulphur to survive. Several species of sulphurous flowers and plants grow only in the darkwood – thus restricting their expansion. This ties in later to the three stages of blood and the machinations of the Morankain, as these creatures are the product of hexery blood magic from an ancient race that ruled lands of Vishrhondia (the continent) long, long ago.

Their first major encounter and locale was the discovery of the Tower of Ironwind. Overlooking the port city of Reddan (although separated by a cliff and vast waterway) was an ancient tower fashioned from metal (not really Iron). Few would venture to this dangerous place, as the magic that protected it from storms and lightning had long since faded. A tall metal spire, blackened by the repeated blows of lightning upon its face, rising up on a desolate gray plateau of rock, is the kind of place that every adventurer wants to visit.

How true that was. They stumbled across the tower at the same point as another adventuring group had unlocked it. This rival group had been pillaging the tower for weeks, leaving it in quite a state of disarray. The imposters convinced the players that they were the inhabitants of the tower, filled their heads with all manner of misinformation, and actually set the players out on an errand to the South. It was years before the players had divested themselves of all the hogwash that filled their heads at that point. They never figured out that the inhabitants of the tower were imposters: Even when they returned to find the tower empty – even when they learned of who should be in the tower – and, even when the Morankain eventually returned to reclaim their tower.

In retrospect, I would not give such misinformation at the beginning of a campaign again. Because they are new to the setting it gives equal credence to this new story as to all the other stories that have come before it. I guess I would spend the first six months of any campaign retelling the same stories that I introduced at the outset, but present them differently – altering them at each telling. This would solidify the general stories, while warning the players that not all information is accurate.

At any rate, they spent their time in the cities and towns of Rin. They became acquainted with shopkeepers and local merchants, befriended guards, and supported the locals. They would be conscripted by merchants to track down thieves and murderers who had fled justice. They would assist academics with archaeological projects and they would confront piracy. The elves would return to their village for tutelage, while Bleys would return to the College of Monastic Martial Arts, to learn, study, and train. This connection with their roots kept them up to date with the scope of issues that affected the area on a daily basis. The campaign was structured around the usual kind of tasks and plot hooks that you would imagine. Just as the world around them is becoming familiar it is time for me to take my own advice and work in my three pillars of Extended Plot: Recursion, The Medicine Wheel, and Ambiguous Villainy.

These characters had done a turn on the medicine wheel. They had risen from insignificant young men, to those who had standing. They had learned about the towns and villages and were allied with those upholding civilization. In this time they had encountered the courts of the petty Kings in the lands of the Fifty Kingdoms. During this time they had been hearing about the three sons of Rolano – the princes of the realm. What they had heard about the crown prince was not good. According to the outlying kingdoms Gindrash was a vain and merciless foe. Consumed by rage and ruthless efficiency, this son would butcher whole villages to achieve his ends.

The players had existed in the world of regional troubles while a deeper political story ran in the background. The time had come to draw them into a wider epic -- the story of the three princes. This story had been running in the background, circling just out of reach, or meaning, for quite some time. Turning the wheel meant not only must I make the background the foreground, but also I had to introduce a new element to the background. Working towards an obscure end, the Morankain, became this tantalizing new thread – the College of the Black Dove, the League of Ardore, and other groups with nefarious ends showed a peculiar set of psychic and physical abilities.

While tracking down one of the clues connected the College of the Black Dove -- a rival monastery from the lands to the South, well versed in Assassination and Subterfuge -- they come across a wounded young girl trying to hide from some villain. She tells of dark foes hunting her. Using magic, the party shields the girl and themselves from discovery (Rope Trick). Barging into the Inn where they were hiding, adorned in a jet black suit of battle armour, a large and sinister warrior demands to know the whereabouts of the young girl. With the dark man ride a whole company of soldiers adorned in the black and red blazon of Prince Gindrash.

Following the directions of the girl, the party is tracking her group of refugees fleeing into the Iron Mountains. After fighting off Illorian beasts and Wizards from the lands of Dargoth they catch up with the refugees in the mountains. Amongst the many children is an golden-haired elven woman. Although a clear trail of blood leads to where she is huddled in the corner amidst the children, she appears un-injured yet is moving slowly. After the children are tended to she removes the "illusion" of her good health and allows the party to heal her. Her name is Mishina and she reveals herself to be a bard. When she speaks elven she has a strange unnatural accent. She joins the group and it will be four years of gameplay before the secrets of her origins are revealed.

As a bard and one of the most important NPC's I had to give her a recognizable voice. I decided that as a bard she would typically talk in stories and tales. I tried to include story language when speaking as her. Often I would preface her comments with "It is told," "The legends of,". Alternately I would try to include allegorical references, which at times, made her come off more like Cliff Claven (from Cheers) than a vessel of ancient secrets. It was not long before the players knew which one of the three NPC's were speaking at any time. By this time in the campaign they had two hirelings – Fighters a few levels below their own, who provided some much needed muscle at the front of the group. The core group was a Fighter/Magic User, Ranger/Cleric, and a Monk. The addition of the Bard and two fighters rounded out the party. At times they were joined by a vast array of other characters far too numerous to mention.

They soon discovered a new kind of enemy – the Morankain, descendents of some ancient evil they plotted against the good races of the land in an attempt to return to a time where all the lesser races were enslaved by the "master race." They developed a deep hatred of the Morankain – especially after the death of a dear Halfling companion. Their attentions were focused on the story of the three princes. They met Nersan, the wanderer of the Willaby Wood (near Reddan) and made friends with him. Nersan had something the likes of which they had never seen – a magic weapon. "The Leaf of Llardshin" was a magical hunting knife with ornate carvings and leaves. When the blade was plunged into the ground the hilt of the knife could produce berries of various magical effects (a varying number of times per day depending on the kind of berry). They learned that as part of their right to sit upon the throne of Rin all three brothers were required to quest for an item of magical power. Tenvad, the youngest had a magical shield – which he had given the moniker "Thunder-smite" – the true name lost to the annals of history. Nersan had the knife. Gindrash had something far more sinister – a blade made of a strange dark metal, Kuzaniël in the ancient tongue means "Tower Dawn." Nersan told the group how his mother's death had affected them all – Tenvad had become angry, and Gindrash had put on the black armour as a sign of mourning. However, once he had found the sword everything seemed to change for him. Gindrash, they were told, was once a Paladin of Charanel – serving the Just God of the Iron Fist. After he returned from the South with the blade he was unable to work his holy abilities.

I could go on for a long time, but I hope my point is clear. The sword links back to the Tower of Ironwind, and ultimately, to the Morankain. When the story of the three princes is known and resolved the story of the Morankain comes to the surface, and then they learn of the Lost Fairyeland, the mountains of the gods and the broken pact, the great chain of being and the ancient races, the Salisian empire of the Dragon-elves, and the legacy of the Voltasia. The story is a spiral – each time they have discovered all there is to know about the land around them and new knowledge is gained that explains once cryptic actions and opens new mysteries in places they thought they knew so well. Each cycle can span many years -- as not every episode is linked to the plot as players are free to explore and follow many paths at once. Having too many paths at one time is not a good idea, which is why I recommend that there are really only two levels operating at any one time in the campaign.

Great stuff, Gil. I have yet to stop learning from you.

I'm awed and impressed. I thank you for this article and the ones that came before it. Although I have been gaming for a little over two years I am just now beginning to GM for my group and your advice has been invaluable.

As it is, for the few very short one night jaunts that I have run I find it much easier to write my own adventure than to use one that is premade. My opinion may change should I ever run a game that is a continuing adventure. I find what you wish to accomplish to be just as valuable in a GM-made game as in a premade game, but much more flexible depending on what your players wish to do.

Still, as I said, I have much to learn.

Thanks for the kind words. As far as learning, Cocytus, I am glad to return the favour [favor].

Those short one-night jaunts can be linked too. I tried that a long time ago -- a bunch of pick-up games linked on setting and theme -- even told from opposite perspectives.

I'd be interested to find out which advice has been helpful and which advice didn't work for you.

Unfortunately most of my jaunts have been run with different systems, so I'd have a bit more difficult time trying to link them together. I'm still trying to find a system that I feel comfortable enough running an epic game in. DnD would work well for one of the games I have in mind, but the other idea brewing in my head needs something a little more simple.

Anyway I think the portion of your article that helped me the most was the Recursion is not Repetition section. I fear to do the same things over again with the same group. I don't want them to get bored or anything. If has definitely given me some ideas.

Don't get me wrong though... the whole article was eye-opening... it gave me some stuff to think abut and work with.

Well, I came into this discussion really late, mainly because I neglected to read the article for some time (I've only recently decided to start GMing a little again) and because I was too busy arguing D&D with you, Gil.

I must say the part that worked best for me was your long description. I must say I envy your players, Gil. Those are the campaigns we all wish to be a part of, though I think the burgeoning GMs in my group have the potential to be this good. Just have to wait and see.

As for my own GMing, you've definitely given me a lot to think about. I loved your example as you demonstrated how these things tie together and how to keep a campaign ongoing, something I've struggled with, those I was real close last time (which is why I had to sit out of GMing for so long - it was almost painful and I had (have) other things on my mind). However, this advice is priceless for the game I'm running soon - I'm very excited to see what happens. Thanks for this and keep up the interesting, thought-provoking articles.

Thanks. Another mechanical difference I have noticed is how quickly characters go up levels in pre-made modules. Without the big XP for magic items and heaps of gold waiting for them, my players have made a slow 20-year crawl to 16th level. I expect that 16th level could be easily achievable within 20-40 four-hour sessions based on my 3.x experience. That is 7-10 1-day sessions! That is less than a year.

What do people think about level advancement frequency? How many four-hour sessions should there be before a character goes through an improvement cycle? Are the level jumps in D&D too big, too small, or just right?

Another mechanical difference I have noticed is how quickly characters go up levels in pre-made modules.

You're not alone in that observation. Often it's virtually mandated that the characters will rise in level regardless of what they do, or huge xp awards are given for trivial things - eg, getting the full xp value you would get for defeating a very powerful creature, merely from the fact of having had a brief chat with it. I'm not against awarding xp for overcoming obstacles through ingenuity or diplomacy, of course, but they should be proportionate to the challenge.

In our group we stopped giving out xp for treasure years ago, and that was the point where level progression seemed to go at a reasonable pace, though it slowed to a pretty tiresome crawl once the characters reached 'name' level (despite the xp jumps being a flat progression from that point).

Since we've converted to 3.5e level progression seems to be going at a reasonable rate, overall. It seems to be faster at the lower levels than it used to be, which is no bad thing really, and then about the same for the median levels, then faster (but not unreasonably so) at the upper levels. The high level characters (now around 16th-18th level after a 15-year campaign) are still crawling but not so slowly as they were in 2e. I reckon about a year's play per level for those guys (doing one 4-hour session per week).

It always seems odd when I see a published campaign that takes characters from 1st to 20th (eg the Pathfinder series by Paizo - Shackled City, Age of Worms etc - which are very good otherwise). I expect such a campaign to be a set of encyclopedias. To be fair the Pathfinder campaigns are structured so that the adventures can be interspersed with plenty of other side adventures along the way.

I dunno. I actually like to go up in levels fast but it really depends on what it represents. If levels represent a whole new level of experience and a significant jump in power, then it should be slow. If it represents learning a few new abilities, then it should be faster.

I've never really thought about experience progression much, though. I like it to be faster to satisfy the power gamer in me (Rapid Shot! Yay!), but the storyteller in me (the bigger of the two) doesn't care. What matters is that my character has developed a deep friendship with another party member, or that my character is phobic to water due to a particularly traumatic encounter, etc., etc. So I'm fine with it being either way.

I guess from this perspective, D&D isn't too bad. With 4th, you have "tiers" of play, which I would consider the whole new level of experience and significant jump in power. Individual levels I would consider just learning a few new abilities.

It also depends on what level of roleplaying you want to do. If you want to be like Dragon Ball Z (you guys prolly don't know what I'm talking about there) and have every new ability be fully roleplayed and explored before it's gained, such as having the ranger spend session upon session learning the technique of the two swords or whatever, then it should be slow, because of what's involved. However, if you consider the growing skills as just something the character learns over time, practicing in their down time, then it should be slow. A note on the second, in that unusual or particularly powerful skills should be spent time on, like prestige classes, multiclassing, or taking a feat that doesn't fit with the particular class, etc. In a skill based system, I would say that time should be spent whenever a character's learning a new skill, but not when moving up in an old one. But that's just me.

I don't think there's a right or wrong way to go about this, really - it depends on what you and your group enjoy.

These days my players are inclined to level slowly so they get more sense of achievement and personal investment from having built a character up gradually over the years. But way back in the early days of playing D&D we did go through a phase of wanting to become high level very rapidly - it's easy to dismiss this as 'munchkinism' but really we wanted to explore high level play (and being younger then we were less patient about how long it took to get there). Some of the campaigns we ran back then were quite grotesque, really, but we had fun doing it. Nowadays we have different priorities.

Just a thought on this discussion I had the other day as I was reading 4e's DMG. 4th edition is actually made really well, in that, purposeful or not, it's very maleable and very easy to change to suit your tastes. This is just a case in point. Because 4e has stretched receiving xp from just combat (3.x) to noncombat encounters and completing "quests," it's much better for changing things around, especially the rate at which you want you characters to level up. If you prefer characters to level up slowly, you can only reward experience for completing quests, regardless of what they do to get their (though, perhaps, particularly ingenious and cool methods should get bonus points) and not reward experience for encounters. In D&D it takes about 10 normal encounters (possible quest fulfillments count here) to level up. If you eliminated receiving xp from encounters and only rewarded players for fulfilling their quests (making it not important to kill the bad boss but also to save his captives, even without killing him), advancement would be much slower, but also, in my opinion, more reflective of the real way people "gain experience" in the real world; we don't necessarily learn something new from every "encounter" we have, even high risk ones, but we do learn new things from the process of doing something important. You could think of quests in terms of "successfully raising my son" or "getting that promotion" etc. We learn through these things. Doing this would emphasize the journey to complete the quest and also emphasize character development (how did you get that promotion? did you cheat or do otherwise immoral things for it? and what constitutes successfully raising your child?). It encourages the players to view things in terms of storyline and from a real-life perspective, grouding their characters in realism. You no longer approach your character in terms of how many dragon skulls you've collected (though that could be a quest) but in terms of your characters real experiences, what's made him/her learn and grow. It also has the happy side effect of eliminating "monster hunting" just to go up in level.

I'm beginning to think this might be the best way to award experience points. It's not arbitrary (like systems that use a particular die roll or some other random event to award it), it doesn't force roleplaying (like World of Darkness kinda does), it doesn't award trivial things (I killed a rat!). It emphasizes the things that make a great game (story, character development, roleplaying) but doesn't force them down your throat. It also encourages PCs to follow the storyline, again without forcing them. If the PCs decide to ignore your adventure hook, they miss out on that quest, and subsequently, that learning experience. Wow. Never knew video games would be where to find the best system for this. Thanks for getting my thoughts going, Gil and gherkin. This is really exciting. I think I will definitely run my games like this, though I'm going to rename "quests" as "goals" because "quests" sounds too high fantasy.


I have seen three kinds of advancement mechanics over the years: skill repetition, goal-oriented, and the plunder-and-mayhem system.

Skill repetition: Characters improve their skills by using them. The first systems that used this approach included a random roll. This includes systems where critical successes or failures determine if a skill is promoted or systems where "levelling-up" involves testing against the skills used over the adventure and promoting those that fail (typically). I think these methods were not universally liked because the dice are able to wash away the effort and adventure preceding it. Diceless variants emerged, but those systems were too "crunchy" -- counting skill usage works well in a video game, but is too tedious for the table-top. The downside of this system is it focuses on "in-game" activity only. Years of training, evening practices, and other off-table action is not captured. Unfortunately, this off-table stuff probably represents more training than the other.

Goal-Oriented: Goal oriented systems began with party-type goals, and then branched into the individual goal systems. Goals, however, can be thwarted or accelerated by the environment around the character, artificially increasing or decreasing the advancement mechanic. This is where you are. The moderation required to successfully implement this system is tantamount to abitrarily awarding levels. Most GM's artificially adjust the struggle of a session to create the most danger and tension. This alleviates the stress on the goal-oriented mechanic, because the goals are being moderated as well to present an even series of similar danger/opportunity/adventure. The downside to any goal oriented system is that you can have someone rise to expert levels over a matter of months.

We all know the plunder/mayhem sytem. It is really part of a goal-oriented system where the goal is plunder and mayhem (killing monsters, stealing their treasure). I separated it because this variant is ubiquitous.

Can anyone think of any other advancement categories?

Does anyone recall how the karma system from Shadowrun works? I think it's a goal+repetition combo.