Game Balance : Experience Examined

By Joseph Teller

Originally Published In Interregnum APA

{Inspired by Collie Collier's 'Firestarter 06' in IR #23}

A good character design system should make it possible for players to produce characters that fit within their concepts, as they would like them portrayed, and within the confines of the genre and game world. Many games fail this basic tenant. In response players rely too much on experience to even the playing field and develop characters to match the concepts they were built from in the first place.

This is a brick wall that I have often encountered with many game systems. The begining character is too limited in design to be realistic. Whether this is the mage who has spent 30 years to learn a single spell, or the character who has to choose between having super powers or being able to find his way around the city he's lived in for twenty years, the problem is a matter of realism and inefficiency in design.

Another annoyance is the game system in which a newcomer may NEVER be considered important or valuable to the adventuring party, because the other players have been gaming together for six months and will ALWAYS be six months ahead in advancement.

We faced these problems when we designed Fantasy Realms: T'Phon and came up with a dual system that is my preferred method of design and experience. The experience system could be adapted to many other systems easily and might be a problem solver that fits nicely into this niche.

First, we expect player characters in our system to be built on enough points at start to really reflect a character of a reasonable age - it is possible, for example, to be above average with a particular weapon at start. We also emphasize to the players that a number of their points should go into normal logical skills that someone from their culture and background could accumilate (Cultural Familiarity, Area Familiarity, Language Skills, Transportation Skills, Social Skills and the like). I like to claim 'editorial control' over potential characters to reassert this, and help maintain group unity among the characters. That idea hasn't worked too often, since many of my players fail to respect the 'GM as Manager' aspect of my position.

Profession packages are one way to communicate the need for logical skill sets. They give players a framework they can use in design (and provide consistency for randomly generated characters). However, professions should not be forced on players who believe they have a unique idea or background. If they think they need a profession that's not listed, they should design it, presenting a list of skills that reflect the concept, for future use in the campaign.

Next comes experience. Although in Fantasy Realms we outline six systems under the growth rules (and a seventh, Training Growth, which is used in combination with most of them) my preferred method is that of 'Random Growth'. It is the one I feel best deals with both new players and growth stumbling blocks. It takes more paperwork on the GM's part, but is worth the effort.

[Sidenote: Skills in Fantasy Realms are ranged from 0-8, with 0 being non-existant, 4 being the average rank of someone using the skill in a professional capacity, and 8 being as expert as you can be. Hard ending the upper Growth scale is important to our mechanics, and works well for us, instead of open ended skills like those used in such games as GURPS and CHAMPIONS]

During game play the GM tracks the skill rolls each character succeeds in. After the session (or at the start of the next one) the GM sits down with the players and this list. Generally a GM, if experienced, should 'filter' the list, or filter the skills they actually demand rolls for, so that the list does not become unwieldly and is relatively evenly distributed between players. This also means that those skill rolls that were important to events are more likely to be listed. No skill should be listed more than once, except under extraordinary circumstances.

The GM goes down the list, and any skill that is already at rank 8 is removed. Then for each of the remaining skills the player rolls 1d20 and compares it to a simple chart:

        0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7
 10     I   N   N   N   N   N   N   N
 11     I   I   N   N   N   N   N   N
 12     I   I   I   N   N   N   N   N
 13     I   I   I   I   N   N   N   N
 14     I   I   I   I   I   N   N   N
 15     I   I   I   I   I   N   N   N
 16     I   I   I   I   I   N   N   N
 17     I   I   I   I   I   I   N   N
 18     I   I   I   I   I   I   I   N
 19     I   I   I   I   I   I   I   I
 20     I   I   I   I   I   I   I   I

An 'I' on the matrix means the skill increases by 1. An 'N' signifies no increase at all. Rolls of less than 10 never increase a skill.

Under this system, characters find it harder to advance a skill they are good at, but easy to advance weaker skills when they are used successfully. It also means that characters who have developed a skill rank of 8 have taken quite some time to get there and are fairly respectable. The percentage chance for a skill to increase, according to the rank already held, breaks down as follows:

    Rank   %    Rank   %
     0     55    4     30
     1     50    5     20
     2     45    6     15
     3     40    7     10

In our own game, we've used this system effectively over time. It allows those introducing characters a chance to improve quickly, and catch up somewhat to older characters, by being very involved in the events. At the same time, older characters, who have high skills in their specialties, are not 'run over' by the new ones because it is so much harder to advance beyond a 4.

Most characters in our personal games earn between 1 and 4 chances to increase a skill each session. Usually this means they advance one skill of some sort every other session. This is a little fast compared to the 'real world' but keeps growth at a level that the players find reasonable and fun.

We don't use this system for powers, as in our games powers (aka Super Traits or Positive Traits) are difficult, if not impossible to get in actual play. Then again, we are not running a Superhero Game, where changes in powers are more likely.

Power gaming is unlikely under this system, since you don't get any more improvement, for example, from killing a goblin with your sword than you do a dragon. This system also has the nice feature of preventing much of the bragging that power gamers enjoy. You can't sit and talk about your 500 point Brick, or your Avenging Ranger-Paladin-Priest-Thief of 23rd level. Folks tend not to be inspired to cop this sort of attitude under this mechanic, since you CAN face someone who is your equal in a skill, no matter how good you are (or how obscure the skill).

For creativity, roleplaying and the like we award Destiny Points. These are not awarded to a character but to a player, and can be used with any of their characters. A destiny point allows a player to modify one of their character's die rolls by adding 10 to the die (unless the roll is a 1, in which case it remains a critical failure). Of course, they must declare the use of a destiny point before the roll is made. In Fantasy Realms, 99% of the time you want high die rolls, so adding 10 to a d20 roll can make a significant difference (and yes, this can even be added to a character growth roll). Since destiny points are fairly valuable, players tend to hoard them for emegencies, so they rarely unbalance the game. The most I have ever awarded to a player in a single session to date is 2 destiny points (and I can't see myself ever awarding more than 5 - and for that you'd pretty much have to save the world singlehandedly).

I'd love to hear from anyone that adopts this system to another mechanic and how well it works for them.

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