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.

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.