Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Experience-free Skill Advancement

by Edward Beingessner (beinges @ bigfoot .com)

In a long running campaign, character improvement is essential, but as Steffan O'Sullivan points out in his "Recent Thoughts on Fudge," experience points do not work very well in Fudge. Advancement is too granular, either too quick or too slow. In fact experience points in any gaming system seem misdirected. With most experience systems, there is no relation between what the character does during the game and how he advances. There is a relation with how fast a character advances, but not what skills he advances in. For example, in the AD&D experience system a thief could gain all his experience back-stabbing monsters. Then when he gets his next level, he can suddenly climb walls better. It does not seem to follow. The same problem arises in the GURPS system. You get points to improve your character, but can use them to buy skills never used. For example, a character who was awarded character points for slaying a dragon could use them to buy a skill in picking locks.

This article is about an alternative to using experience points for character development. The system will be focused on improving skills. Improving Attributes and gaining Gifts will be left for subjective character development. The main objectives of the character development system will be:
  1. There should be a direct correlation between the skills a character uses and the skills that improve.
  2. It should be easier to improve low-level skills than high-level skills. Experience systems are structured this way because it gives a more satisfying feel to character development. Our system should be able to simulate this feeling. This shall be referred to as the concept of diminishing returns.
  3. The system should not require a large amount of book keeping. Fudge is not about accounting, and this would be a distraction from the flow of the game.
  4. Finally, the system should use the same core dice mechanic that all of Fudge is based on.
So what would a system of character development look like that did not use experience points? The Basic Roleplaying (BRP) system has an ingenious example. In BRP, if you use a skill successfully during a game session, you have a chance to improve it at the end of the session. Notice you only have a chance of improvement. To succeed at a skill, you must roll under its value. So the higher the skill, the better the chance of success. To raise a skill higher you have to roll over its value, so the higher the skill the less the chance of improvement. So the BRP system is comprised of two steps. First a skill must be successfully used during the gaming session, then at the end of the session a roll is made to see if the skill improved. We shall refer to these steps as a Skill Success and an Experience Feat.

This system works well in Fudge. First, assume all characters are Poor learners. If a character successfully uses a skill during a gaming session (a Skill Success), at the end of the game session they get a chance to improve it. They must make a feat roll with their Poor learning attribute (an Experience Feat) to improve. The difficulty of the Experience Feat is their current skill level. For example, if a character was a Fair swimmer to start with, they would need a Fair result on an Experience Feat to become Good. Since their learning attribute is Poor, they need a +2 result on Fudge dice (18% chance). Difficult skills could get a -1 to learn, while a character with an aptitude for some types of skills might have a +1 chance of improving. Skill aptitudes could be taken as Gifts by characters; however, they give a very large bonus to character improvement, so should be used sparingly. Note that if characters are Poor learners, they can never improve beyond a Superb skill level (unless you have an aptitude for that skill). Getting a Legendary skill level would be impossible, but could be appointed on a subjective basis as is suggested in the rules. Alternatively, you can treat any +4 on an Experience Feat as an automatic success, improving a skill one level. Note that Fudge points should not be used during Experience Feats, or improvement becomes too predictable and we lose the sense of diminishing returns.

To be counted toward character improvement, a Skill Success has to be under stress or further the plot in some way. In other words, we should call it a Significant Skill Success instead of simply a Skill Success. Don't let the players try their skills in nice safe situations and get chances to improve. They have to be gaining useful adventuring experience to get a chance to develop. To avoid this type of munchkinism, limit the number of skills that can be improved in single session to the two or three most significant skill successes. For example, the killing blow on a dragon would be more significant than bargaining down the price of a 10 foot pole. This also eliminates having to keep a list of all the Skill Success's during the session. The players and GM should be able to remember the most significant events of a session without writing them down. At the end of the session, it is only against these Significant Skill Successes that the character tries an Experience Feat.

This system can be used to gain new skills. If a character has a Significant Skill Success with an unknown skill at the default level, they deserve an Experience Feat. For example, if a character landed a jet plane with instructions from the control tower, the character can make an Experience Feat to get a pilot skill. If the default level for a jet pilot skill is Poor, they would have to make a Poor Experience Feat. If they succeeded, they would get a Mediocre jet pilot skill (i.e. Poor + 1 = Mediocre). The chances of succeeding at default skill levels can be very difficult, but players can spend Fudge points to help their chances. So indirectly, Fudge points are used for character development.

You can use a characters imaginative play to invent new skills in this system. For example, a character with a Good quarter-staff skill uses their staff to pole-vault into a kick to knock someone off a bridge. You might assign a penalty of -2 to their quarter-staff skill for this feat. If this was a Significant Skill Success, they could take a new skill in pole-vault-kick at Fair if they make their Experience Feat (i.e. Good - 2 + 1 = Fair). This gives players an incentive to try new things and be descriptive during play. Adding new skills in this way keeps characters improving when their skills are so high that improvement is unlikely; thus, making character development less granular. We had four objectives for this character development system. The first was direct correlation between the skills used and skills improved. If only Skill Successes can be used for improvement, this objective is met. The second objective was diminishing returns, which is satisfied by the Experience Feat becoming more difficult as the skill is improved. The third objective was simple book keeping. Since only the two or three most Significant Skill Successes are important, and character development takes place at the end of every session, no book keeping is required. The last objective was to use the the core Fudge dice mechanic, which is exactly what an Experience Feat uses. So we have met our objectives, and done so without using experience points. The system allows characters to develop as a direct result of their actions taken during play. This gives players incentive to play their characters well, which is the entire reason for character development.

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