The other evening I had an interesting RPG conversation concerning character advancement. His opinion surprise me. However, I've since started thinking about the various systems of character advancement that I've seen – this is not an exhaustive list, only ones that I'm more familiar with.
In this method, when a character levels up, everything about them gets better. They are better at hitting, resisting, enduring and doing things within the narrative. The classic example would be the earliest editions of D&D and Labyrinth Lord.
One of the key points of this method is that all elements of a character improve with level regardless of the actions taken to achieve that level. Namely, if I raised my level solely by treasure and role-playing rewards, I'm still better at fighting. In this method, it is likely easiest to “balance” characters against each other.
In this method, there are no levels, instead, characters advance each statistic independently. Dresden Files, and if memory serves ShadowRun. In ShadowRun you get a certain amount of Karma after each session and when you simply pay to advance a statistic.
When points are part of advancement, there is typically a graduating scale regarding point cost. That is to say Rank 1 costs 1 point, Rank 2 costs 3 points, Rank 3 costs 6 points, etc. It is a non-linear advancement cost for a linear statistic.
From my limited exposure to these systems, use of the skill is not a requirement for advancement.
Points per Level
In this method, character's still track levels. However, upon achieving a new level, they receive a set number of points to improve their character – but again regardless of the skills used during the sessions. Rolemaster and Alternity are the best examples, although the D&D 3E skill sub-system also applies.
In Rolemaster it is possible to create a 10th level fighter that is no more competent in combat than a 1st level fighter – or a 1st level wizard. This would be done at each level by having the fighter's character invest their points not in sword and hit points, but in other wilder fancies.
Points & Level Hybrid
In this method, character's track levels. But it is an amalgam of the above. The potential areas of development – the character statistics if you will – are broken into sub-systems. And each of those sub-systems operate a bit differently, and may overlap (i.e. D&D 3E/4E Feats overlap with the D&D Combat and D&D Skills sub-systems).
By breaking the sub-systems into different advancement methods, the game system can tinker with balance across the sub-systems ensuring that one character classification is stronger in one sub-system than the other. That is to say a fighter is better in combat than a rogue but a rogue has a wider range of skills.
In this method, a character using a skill advances that skill. If you want to get better at something, you had better do it. In this way, characters evolve based on the ongoing narrative. Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, TechNoir and Hârnmaster are some examples.
This method requires a bit more attention to any goals that you as a player have for your character. Do you want your character to defeat some alluded to master swordsman? Then practice your combat skills.
One could argue that Apocalypse World and Dungeon World are point per level. Each time you “level” you get one point to purchase some advancement.
Diaspora fixes your total possible talent, but allows you to rearrange your statistics within those constraints. So if you want to get better at something, you'll need to get worse at something else.
In Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple your monks don't get better but instead changes how and why they interact with the ongoing narrative.
Any others? In particular, how would you categorize Dogs in the Vineyard, InSpectres and Lacuna Part I, but the advancement mechanisms aren't registering.
I like to see characters that are mechanically different. I like the idea of advancement through use. I also understand that as players we are not necessarily seeing every action of our characters – I know I don't follow my character into the bathroom – and therefore arbitrary advancement is acceptable.