Personal Growth in RPGs
Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM. http://talesofagm.com/
This article was written as part of my hosting of the January 2016 RPG Blog Carnival. My chosen theme was Gates and Portals, but I broadened out the topic in this essay.
The topic for the January Blog Carnival grew from the origins of the name January. The Roman god Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions. The bulk of the contributions to the Gates & Portals theme focused on the physical transition from one location to another.
Yet, there is a more personal aspect to the concept of transition. For many people, January sees the start of a personal journey to a new way of life. Such a transition may be physical, mental or spiritual. The popular declaration of New Year Resolutions embody the belief that January starts the transition towards becoming a different person.
Such transitions are also embedded within RPG games. One of the core principles of D&D is the idea of “levelling up”, the incremental process of improving the Hero. This concept of levels has spread to video games, and remains a common feature of many RPGs.
There are, however, more avenues of personal growth within RPGs than just the accumulation of levels. The journey from, say, first level Fighter to tenth level Fighter is a well-worn path. This essay explores two of the other possibilities found within our fascinating hobby.
Broadening the Hero
The classic levelling system is a narrow path of character growth. The lowly Fighter slowly becomes better and better at fighting. Yet, this is not the only way characters can grow. Sticking with D&D for the moment, one common method for broadening a Hero is to acquire a Prestige Class, a modern interpretation on the older concept of Multi-classing. In this way the standard Fighter takes a level in, say, Thief, to acquire a fresh set of skills.
This method of growth broadens the Hero. The Fighter remains a doughty warrior, yet has a new set of abilities to call upon. In turn, this opens up more options at the table, as simply attacking everything in sight is not the Hero’s only viable tactic.
Of course, many rules have abandoned the class/level model of D&D. Characters in skill-based rules, such as my beloved HeroQuest, inherently have the potential to be broader than their level-based cousins. However, just because these skill-based Heroes have the potential to develop a broad range of skills, it does not follow that they always do so. Sometimes, it may take a conscious effort on the part of the GM to encourage Players to explore a broader set of abilities for their characters.
At your Table: There are several ways a GM can encourage Players to broaden the skills of their Heroes. First, and most importantly, do not penalize Players for these choices. Scale back the challenges of encounters, avoiding the need for Players to optimize their Heroes in order to survive.
Instead, present the Players with varied challenges. Place physical characters in situations where they need wit or knowledge, instead of strength. Likewise, present physical tests to the more cerebral Heroes. Switch around these challenges often enough, and the Players soon understand why their Heroes should diversify.
Furthermore, take the story into different settings. Even a predominantly dungeon-based campaign can spend time in a tavern, or feasting hall, where wit and social skills are required. If the Heroes are more diverse, then the GM can present a broader range of challenges to them, and thus take the story in new directions.
Finally, take every opportunity to deliberately reward those Heroes who have diversified into unusual abilities. Make the Duke an expert on fine wines, if this matches the latest knowledge skill of the Fighter. If the Mage can now wield a sword, then give them the chance to fight off burglars in the sage’s library. When the Heroes have the opportunity to display their new-found abilities, the Players feel they made the right choice.
Rebuilding the Hero
A more radical transition is also possible in an RPG, when a Hero is literally reborn. Unlike the broadening outline above, this option is more about a total rebuild. This usually requires the intervention of some serious magic, or a major plot event. Think of Luster at the end of Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising, who is transformed from a Wild Magic Sorcerer into a Priest at the whim of a goddess.
My current Sigil PD campaign has also seen a couple of these transformative changes. One Hero resigned from the Police Department, and thus we rebuilt his Police Investigator Keyword into a Private Eye Keyword. The abilities were broadly the same, only with appropriately-themed titles.
The other example was when a second Hero physically transformed from a human into a demi-elemental avatar of fire. The Player had nominated the character’s unique trait as being the son of a fire god. Following a fiery encounter with an oil-laden barge, the Hero suddenly embodied his heritage. As a result, we altered the Hero’s Species Keyword to reflect his new, fiery nature. Such a radical transformation is easy in a narrative-heavy system like HeroQuest, but similar options are possible in almost any game.
At your Table: Where broadening the Hero was mechanics-focused, this method of personal growth in RPGs is far more story-focused. Emphasizing story, sometimes even over the rules, is very much a play style. This approach may not suit every table, but there are ways for the GM to enable this type of character development.
First of all, simply be aware of the potential of this method of dramatic personal growth. While it may not happen regularly, the GM should be on the lookout for cool opportunities to bring about such radical changes. Know what your Players want, and who would accept a serious alteration of their character. This option is more likely to suit those Players styled “roleplayers” or “storytellers”, not the “tacticians”.
Divine intervention, powerful artefacts and wild magicks can all power the transformation of a Hero. These forces are unlikely to be common, but you can build them into your game nonetheless. Sprinkle these powers into your campaign to ensure plenty of story opportunities, giving you the chance of transforming a Hero at an opportune moment.
Finally, it is worth considering how the radical transformation of a Hero may serve the group as a whole. Players can make genuine mistakes when building a character. Those unfamiliar with a game, especially one with levels, may find an initial choice turns sour on them. The classes may be unbalanced, or the game could develop in an unexpected direction. What seemed like fun at the start of the campaign may become a drudge at higher levels.
In these circumstances, the chance to rebuild a disappointing character into a more competent one is appealing. This transformation keeps the Hero, and Player, in the game without losing any of the continuity already established. A radical transformation like this might just keep a group together, and the campaign running.
A central feature of many RPGs is the incremental growth of the characters. While this can be a linear growth, there are other ways to build a better Hero. The Player could choose to broaden the skill base of the Hero, or possibly seek to totally rebuild the character. This essay shows you ways to achieve both of these methods.
How would you use transform the Heroes in your campaign? Have you experienced the total rebuilding of a Hero? How else could this be achieved? Would you even allow this to happen in your game? Share your thoughts with fellow GMs in the comments below.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.