Survey of Methods of Advancement

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.

Level Only

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 VineyardInSpectres and Lacuna Part I, but the advancement mechanisms aren’t registering.

Personal Preference

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.

What Makes a Game So Hackable?

Mouse Guard, by Luke Crane, and Apocalypse World, by D. Vincent Baker, seem to have more than their fair share of hacks. While there are lots of OGL games derived from the d20 system and Fate, I’m excluding those for the time being.

Mouse Guard has Realm Guard, Mouse Run, Song of Fire and Ice Hack, and others from the hack message board.

Apocalypse World has the Lovecraft World, the full-blown Dungeon World, and others from the message board.

What Makes them So Hackable?

First and foremost, Luke Crane and D. Vincent Baker are at the top of their game.  They are both highly regarded game designers.  Their works are well defined and tightly designed.

Mouse Guard is a game about small frail mice fighting, against their nature, for what they believe in.  The system is a distilled version of Burning Wheel, infused with the essence of David Petersen‘s “Mouse Guard” comic.

Apocalypse World is a game about fragile humans fighting to survive and hopefully thrive in a hostile world not of their making. The core of the system is very simple, but D. Vincent Baker masterfully applies layers to the core, crafting an inspiration game system.

Both of the above systems provide a fundamental conflict resolution and then masterfully decorate that mechanism with the essence of their design.

Character Creation

In Mouse Guard, there are a handful of questions that you answer to slowly build up your mouse.  Once you are done, you have relationships, a few odd skills (i.e. Apiarist, Weaver, etc) and some core skills for being a member of the Mouse Guard.

In Apocalypse World, you choose your Playbook (i.e. archetype), and check off a few boxes to customize your character, then establish your relation to the other characters.

Both systems are very quick on character creation, yet focus on giving your character a place in the world.  The skills of Mouse Guard are easily exchanged for different ones (hence the hackability).  The playbooks of Apocalypse World are meant to be hacked — take a look online and you’ll find plenty of them.


In Mouse Guard, the resolution mechanics are roll some dice against a target obstacle.  You can get bonus dice from those willing to help; Or by FoRKing your own skill into the test; Or by tapping your mouse-like Nature; Or by spending Artha.

In Apocalypse World, the resolution mechanic is roll 2d6, and add some small modifier (-2 to +3); On a 10+ you get what you want; On a 7 to 9 you get what you want at a cost; On a 6 or less the Master of Ceremonies (i.e. GM) gets to make a move.

The Guts

Personally, I believe the fundamental component of Mouse Guard is Nature.  Much like Burning Wheel’s Faith, Hatred, Greed, and Sorrow, it is a mouse’s nature that defines him.

As such, any hack of Mouse Guard must first and foremost consider what does a character’s Nature represent, and it needs to run contrary to what the character would normally be attempting.

In other words, a mouse’s nature is to run, hide, and climb; Those are contrary to being a member of the Mouse Guard.

The fundamentals of Apocalypse World, on the other hand are encoded in the moves; Both MC and Player moves.  In customizing the moves, you define the nature of the game.

Opinionated Design

Mouse Guard and Apocalypse World set out to create a particular game, and do it quite well.  In doing so, however, the designers have each created an excellent core framework.  With a bit of elbow grease, and plenty of posts to forums, a hack can be created.

Keeping Aspects Interesting

For awhile, we were playing a regular Diaspora campaign, The Precious Few.  We have since set that campaign aside and are playing a couple of Burning Wheel campaigns: Bloodstone and the Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker.

While we were playing the Precious Few campaign, there were several aspects that were constantly compelled or tagged:

  • Cheeky AI
  • “I’ve Got This Easy”
  • “I Love Sound of Gunfire”
  • “I loves my Precious (ship)”
  • “Hidden Resources”
  • “The best pilot you’ve never heard of”

If you ask any of the players, they will likely remember the above aspects; Or at a minimum, that these aspects strongly flavored the campaign.  And I can guarantee that everyone in the campaign will remember the Cheeky AI.

In this regard, aspects are successful.  Everyone from the campaign still bemoans the Precious’ damn cheeky AI.

However, in an aspect’s success was also it’s failing.  Namely, the table felt as though we leaned too heavily on those keystone aspects.  My character, Billy had the following aspects:

  • Father knows best
  • Always looking over my shoulder
  • In the Navy
  • I love the sound of gunfire
  • Former agent of New Florida
  • I have to clear my name
  • Poor judge of character
  • Jaded
  • I read the manual
  • Friends are for keeps

I know that I rarely, if ever, used “Father Knows Best” and “Friends are for Keeps.”

I suspect one of the intrinsic problems is that there are too many Aspects to track. Referencing Magic Number 7, Plus or Minus 2, then I would assert that a character should only have 5 Aspects.

By reducing the number of aspects the amount of “aspect querying” a player would need to do during the session would be reduced.

But, that may not be the desired goal.  A 10 aspect character is almost certainly more nuanced than a 5 aspect character — given a comparable skill at writing aspects. And not every aspect need show up with the same frequency.  If the goal is to instead ensure that you are not leaning to heavily on a given aspect then perhaps a different mechanic would make sense.

Let’s Look at Mouse Guard.  Mouse Guard has character traits, much like Aspects, which can be invoked once per session.  These traits can be refreshed if the character detrimentally invokes a character trait.

I don’t think Diaspora, or other Fate-based games need necessarily limit the amount of tagging or compelling of a given aspect.  For the first tag and compel of an Aspect is at it’s normal rate.  From that point forward tagging it costs 2 Fate points and it’s second compel yields 2 Fate points.  This proposed tweak might gently nudge players and the GM to cycle through a character’s different aspects.


Survey of Conflict Structure in RPGs

One of the common elements of the role-playing game is breaking complicated sequences into turns.  This is particularly evident in physical conflict, where turn order can easily mean life and death.  This blog post is a breakdown of different initiative systems that I’ve seen.

Teams 1 then Team 2

Through some mechanism, usually dice, it is decided that one team goes first.  At that point, everyone on the first team performs their individual actions.  Once those actions are complete, the second team performs their individual actions.

I have never used this system, but the advantages are likely related to group size. The simplified turn order is easier for each player to handle their actions.  Think about the old adventures that say for 9 to 12 players, it’s almost a defense mechanism for the poor GM.

Team 1 then Team 2 Stepping Through Phases

Similar to Team 1 then Team 2 initiative, but there are particular phases that might be resolved as demonstrated below.

  1. Team 1 fires arrows, team 2 fires arrows.
  2. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  3. Team 1 throws weapons, team 2 throws weapons.
  4. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  5. Team 1 attacks with sword, team 2 attacks with sword.

Optionally, you could have a step 0 where the team members declare their actions.

Individual – With Phases

Following on the idea of combat phases, except each character selects their actions.  Rolemaster made use of this mechanism.  Old School Hack is another one.

Individual – Round Reset

Each participant rolls initiative at the beginning of the round and then actions are taken in initiative order.  A variant of this is where each player first declares their action, then initiative is rolled, and finally actions are resolved in initiative order (D&D 2E).

Individual – Circular Rounds

Each participant rolls initiative before combat begins, and for the duration of combat actions are performed in initiative order.  D&D 3E and D&D 4E come to mind.  There are rules for stepping out of the initiative order.

Scripted Simultaneous

Burning Wheel makes use of a scripted action sequence, both for physical combat and for social conflict. In the case of Mouse Guard for military or propaganda campaigns.

This system models the chaos of conflict.  Once the first bullet fires, everything is a mix of instinct and reaction.

Burning Wheel’s mechanic breaks conflict scenes down into multiple exchanges. At the beginning of each exchange, the players can survey the current state of the conflict and then privately script their actions.  Once the scripts are set, they are revealed and adjudicated.

Which means you may have wanted to swing at that guy with your sword, but he’s now inside your swing and poking you with a knife.  You’re still going to swing, but you’ll have quite a few penalties.

Within this mechanism there is the savoring of laying out a plan and the tension of watching the events unfold.  Very satisfying, and it does an excellent job of adding tension.

Social Initiative

Diaspora’s space combat takes a very novel approach for space conflict.  Each round is broken into phases for positioning, electronic warfare, beams, torpedos and damage control.  Unlike other conflict systems, the first person to declare the action is the first to resolve their action.

There are advantages to going first (i.e. striking a deciding blow). There are advantages to going last (i.e. striking where they are already hurt).

To facilitate this system, a caller is required.  They are the arbiter of when a particular phase is done.

Point, Counter-Point

Traditionally, most turn based conflict resolutions were focused on modeling physical combat.  As role-playing games have evolved, for better or for worse, the idea of structuring social conflict resolution has been explored.

D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard accepts that conflict can begin almost anywhere ( i.e. a barbed word, forceful push, stabbing knife, or pistol shot), and works to address that.

If you want to start a conflict, do it, and roll some dice.  The defender rolls dice as well, and an exchange begins.  First the attacker makes a point, followed by the defender, then the attacker.  In many ways it is like the Individual – Circular Rounds method.

However, unlike other games I’ve read and played, Dogs in the Vineyard allows conflicts to seamlessly go from banter to pistols.  Other systems may completely exclude social combat, and when someone says “I draw my gun”, the conflict resolution mechanism changes.

Characters Only

Another relatively new mechanic for me is the idea of removing the Game Master from the pool of people that participate in the conflict.  This is the method of Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

In both of these games, the action resolution mechanic incorporates the idea of Success, Partial Success, and Failure.  Applied to conflict, a Success might mean I hit and damage my opponent and they don’t hit me.  A Partial Success might mean that both my opponent and I hit and damage each other.  A Failure might mean my opponent hits and damages me and I don’t hit them.

Order of when characters act is far less important, as the characters moves define their outcome.

And More…

Hollowpoint looks to who has the most of any numeral (i.e. 5 sixes were rolled) and they act knocking out other dice, then who has the next most of any numeral.

Reign Enchiridion, which I haven’t completed, looks to be somewhat similar to the Hollowpoint (though I assume Hollowpoint received inspiration from Reign).

What if?

What if the conflict resolution had a determination phase like Race for the Galaxy?  In Race for the Galaxy everyone blindly chooses the actions that they will be taking that round.  In taking the action, they get a bonus, but everyone else also may perform the action.  So imagine sitting at the game table and choosing between: Move, Magic, Missile, Melee, and Defend.

In Conclusion

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but instead highlights some of what I’ve seen.  Personally, I’d love to see more mechanics akin to Dogs in the Vineyard where conflict seamlessly moves from one domain to another.  I also believe Diaspora and other FATE-based games are onto something when they have a unified stress track.

Family Role-Playing and Unexpected Events

Le Spitler Friesen Frech Menu

Le Spitler Friesen Frech Menu

Last night was quite possibly the most surreal parenting night of my life; Tonight was likely the second most.


Yesterday, my youngest daughter kept badgering me for money for her Scholastic book order. And my step-daughter kept petitioning on her behalf.  Together, they were working to erode Dad’s Deaf Wall of Apathy™.  At the same time, my middle daughter smelled blood in the water and pounced; She wanted to have friends over for a make-up birthday party.  Dad’s Deaf Wall of Apathy™ was wearing dangerously thin.

So, in a flash of brilliance or fool-hardiness, I made them schedule an appointment with me.  The youngest was slated to petition for books at 7pm; The middlest would plead for her party at 7:15pm.

As the minutes slowly passed, the youngest repeatedly asked “Can I have money for the books?”

And I replied, “I can answer you now, or you can wait until our appointment.  If I answer you now…”

She’d hastily interrupt with an “Oh, I’ll wait.”

As the appointment drew closer, I decided that I would put on a tie (something I very rarely wear) and conduct the appointment in as professional manner as I could muster.  As I crept upstairs, I overheard the girls.  They too were getting dressed up for their appointment.  The game was on!

At 6:55pm, I instructed Jenny to call me at 7:05pm to interrupt my meeting.  Then I waited, and informed those waiting on appointments that I wasn’t ready.

At 7pm, I let the girls begin to plead their case.  They were passionate, and explaining the case for each of the books.  With a bit of back and forth banter, I agreed and wrote the check.

At 7:15pm, the middle child approached.  And this was a bit more delicate of a situation.  I dismissed her retinue and we talked in earnest about her request.  I broke down the schedule, and we talked about what she was thinking.  We eventually agreed on a date.

And then all hell broke loose.  By this time, the girls were emboldened, and brought Jenny in to see, in their terms, “The Love Doctor.”  At this point, the youngest opened a barrage of energetically delivered questions, the first one being “How’s your love life?”

Jenny and I played along, as best we could, considering we were talking to with our 9 and 11 year old children.  My heart warmed when the youngest said “You should buy Jenny flowers, like roses or peonies.”  Afterall, peonies are Jenny’s favorite flower.  And here, my daughter had called out something important to her step-mother.

But the Love Doctor wasn’t done, and my youngest went on to suggest that I should take Jenny out to a fancy restaurant.  And from their, the children all agreed that they would make us a fancy dinner the following night, and would be the wait staff for the family restaurant.

Eventually, the Love Doctor was sent off to take her bath, and we were given a reprieve.


With some help from Jenny, the girls prepared the food for this evenings dinner.  They were busy cutting potatoes, making hors d’œuvre, preparing menus, and formulating their plan.

When I got home from work, they forbid me to enter the kitchen or dinning room, and went so far as to force me to wear ear plugs so I couldn’t hear them planning a romantic candle light dinner for their parent and step-parent.

When the food was ready, they had us wait to be seated, and ushered us into the dining room.  The table was set, with silverware wrapped in napkins, candles, flowers, wine glasses, and even little bells for us to ring if we needed anything.

Jenny and I had a relatively quite dinner where we talked and caught up on our day.  All the while, the children were checking in to see if we needed more water, or were interested in seconds. The girls even offered and then made brownies for dessert.  They were also quite  gracious in helping us eat them.

And to top off the evening, we played a short game of Mouse Guard.  But, to be honest, the autumnal exploits of the Spitler-Friesen-Frech family are far more memorable than a handful of mice delivering the mail.  In fact, I’m fairly certain, that my initial “conflict” with the youngest resulted in a cascade of complications that ultimately wove the tail of a wonderful story.

Contemplating Scene Economy with Seven Players

I am embarking on a grand journey.  Running a D&D 1E campaign using Burning Wheel with 7 players.  I’d imagine this will cause me some sanity loss.  Recognizing this, I want to make sure I go into the game with a plan.  In particular, I want to make sure everyone has a bit of the spotlight.

The Lead Up

I’ve already wrote about Burning Empires in greater detail, but it was the first RPG that I read that had an explicitly defined scene economy.  In brief, a session is comprised of Conflict, Building, Color, and Interstitial scenes.  Each side can have one Conflict scene per session (though they can have  another one). Major characters have other scenes as well, though those are also strictly rationed.

Another one of Luke Crane’s masterful creations, Mouse Guard introduces the concept of the GMs turn and the Players turn.  The GM frames the first half of the session (i.e. deliver this package, wrestle with the snake).   The players take the reigns in the second half (i.e. resupply, look for a healer).  Here is a review that sums up the session framing.

And then I played Fiasco, a game with a very structured scene economy; Each player will the spotlight for 4 scenes per session.  When it’s a player’s turn for their scene, they can choose to either frame the scene or say how it resolves.

Proposed Solution

Today at lunch I got to thinking about how I’m going to make sure that everyone gets moments to shine; I don’t want to leave anyone behind, and I want some structure to the game itself.

The plan is at the beginning of the session, I’m going to hand out two tokens to each player;  One will be an “Initiate a Scene” token, another will be a “Jump into another Scene” token.

If we are in a lull (i.e. a scene is just wrapped up and “two weeks pass”) then a player may spend their “Initiate a Scene” token.  When initiating the scene, the player can choose to include other characters in the scene as well so long as those characters are available and not off negotiating a treaty or some such nonsense.  (In some cases, I imagine that I might have the brought along character spend their “Initiate a Scene” token.)

Likewise, there are times when a player wants his/her character to jump into a scene.  Spend the “Jump into another Scene” token, and you are there.  You may need to make some kind of test to see how you arrive (i.e. Orienteering or Stealth come to mind).

Once all of the players have spent all of their “Initiate a Scene” tokens, then everyone refreshes their “Initiate a Scene” and “Jump into another Scene.”  The idea is that I want everyone to have their moment.

If a player needs a follow-up scene, but doesn’t have an appropriate token, they can petition the table to have another scene.  This system isn’t intended to be a straight jacket, but instead be a set of focused constraints to ensure everyone is participating.

When spending the “Initiate a Scene” token, the player should state the intent of the scene, instead of just saying “I wanna go into the inn.”

Role Playing Games I Want to Play at GenCon

While I’m at GenCon I want to play the following role-playing games:

Without a plan, this is going to be a problem.  So enter the plan: Offer to run games for people and in doing so see what doors open up.


I’m assuming Fiasco will be the easiest to organize a game with people.  It is “is a GM-less game for 3-5 players, designed to be played in a few hours with six-sided dice and no preparation.”  The plan for this is I’m going to need to create a button or badge saying “Interested in playing Fiasco?  Ask me.”  Maybe I’d also want something for A Taste for Murder by Graham Walmsley, as it too is a GM-less game.

Lady Blackbird

I’m thinking that instead of playing this one, I’d like to offer to run this game for people at GenCon.  For this game, the characters and situation are already pre-generated, so it is a matter of playing the scenario. The plan for this one is a bit more complicated than Fiasco.  First, I’d probably want to run this once with friends before going to GenCon and running it for strangers.  So I’m going to need to set aside some time for this. Second, much like Fiasco, I’ll likely need to advertise that I’m willing to run this game.  So I’ll probably need a button or badge that says: “Want to play a game of Lady Blackbird?  Let’s find a group, and I’ll run it.”

Apocalypse World

This one is a bit more of a stretch than the previous two.  First of all, I haven’t run it.  So like Lady Blackbird, I’ll need to run a game of it first with friends so I’m ready to run something with strangers.  Second, the game is apparently at it’s best 5 or so sessions into the campaign.  So I can do one the following:

  • Run Blind-Blue and Hatchet City, a one-shot session that begins en media res and according to the author is set in what would be about the 5th session of a standard campaign.
  • Start a game out from the beginning and play to see what happens with the group.

Frankly, running Apocalypse World kind of scares me, as I’m not well versed in apocalyptic imagery/culture.  But I might be able to fake it.  For now, I think I’m going to place this game on the “Maybe I’ll run it” pile.

Dungeon World

Dungeon World is a Dungeons and Dragons inspired Apocalypse World system hack.  It provides the very straight forward moves of Apocalypse World and tight constraints on character creation/definition.  Like Apocalypse World, I haven’t run this game; However, unlike Apocalypse World, I have run Dungeon World’s genre before.  So, if time permits, or if inspiration strikes, I’ll run a Dungeon World game.  Obviously, if I’m ready to do this, I’ll need to advertise my willingness to run a game.

Mouse Guard

I don’t have any plans for running Luke Crane‘s Mouse Guard at GenCon, instead I’d like to play in the game.  I’ve run a handful of Burning Wheel sessions, and played in one Burning Wheel session, so I’d like to see how Mouse Guard plays out.  As an added perk, I believe Mouse Guard’s shiny new box set will be available at Gen Con, so there might be some interest in running it. (Jenny, I have no plans on purchasing it).

Trail of Cthulhu

I have never played a Cthulhu mythos game, and there are plenty of them (below is a few that I’m aware of, there are more):

I’m most intrigued by Trail of Cthulhu as it uses the Gumshoe system which, according to the homepage “revolutionize[s] investigative scenarios, by ensuring that players are never deprived of the clues they need to move the story forward.


I’ve read the rules to Pendragon 5.1 (and was a bit confused).  I’ve read a good chunk of the Great Pendragon Campaign (a multi-generational epic campaign).  I’ve been following Luke Crane’s twitter feed and seen an uptick in Pendragon references.  And more importantly, I’ve heard that the Pendragon game simply gets the feel of the legend of King Arthur right. So given the high regard of the game, and my present confusion of the rules, I think a quick session would be awesome (of course the system shines when it is part of a long running campaign).