Character advancement vs Character development

Anakin Skywalker's journey to become Darth Vader: Fear, Anger, Hate, Suffering.
Character advancement and character development sometimes go hand in hand… but character development isn’t always a joyful experience for the character itself

One of the great joys of playing roleplaying games, especially playing a single character through a long campaign, is in seeing your character grow and change. In traditional high fantasy games, it’s fun to rise from humble beginnings to be an important and powerful figure in the campaign world.

However, it’s relatively rare in roleplaying games to see the sort of deep, personal character transformation that you might see in books, TV shows or films. That’s because the sort of growth and change encouraged by traditional roleplaying games is different from the growth and change that most popular media is built on.

Character advancement is not the same thing as character development.

Some definitions

Most roleplaying games designed for campaign play have the option for characters to do more things once they have accumulated experience. This might be by increasing (or decreasing) the absolute numbers on their character sheet (levels, stats, skills, or other traits) so they have better chances of succeeding at what they do, or by giving them new abilities (moves, powers, skills) so they can influence the world in different ways.

This is character advancement. Character advancement is great. It helps keep players interested in their characters over long periods of time by giving them new mechanics to play with, but it also helps prevent new players from being overwhelmed by gazillions of rules when they only need a basic starter character. Within the fiction, character advancement is how naïve farmers become undefeated warriors or world-shaking wizards.

Character development, on the other hand, is the gradual change of a character’s personality over time. It’s the way a character adapts their worldview in response to their life experience, and the resulting shift in how they react to and interact with their environment. This could be fundamental, with characters questioning everything they ever believed, but it could also be small-scale, with characters more simply changing how they feel about another person or thing. Character development is a key component of good drama.

The (slightly cliché) criticism of players who respond to every suggestion by saying “My character would never do that” arises in part because they are happy to let their character advance but refuse to let their character develop.

There is a connection between advancement and development. There is even some overlap. The undefeated warrior likely reacts to being attacked in a very different way than they would have done when they were just a naïve farmer. But advancement and development are not the same thing, and shouldn’t be confused for each other.

The three types of roleplaying games

Roleplaying games designed for campaign play often have character advancement built into the mechanics of the game, but mechanics for character development are much rarer.

It’s possible to play a roleplaying game with a character that doesn’t develop over time. This is fairly common for one-shots and short campaigns. But for longer campaigns, I would argue that this is limiting and less fun. More often players let their characters develop organically, regardless of what the system tells them to do. Whether they can do that depends somewhat on which game they are playing.

Roleplaying games can be put into three broad categories, based on how their mechanics interact with the development of their player characters. Games can:

  1. allow character development,
  2. prevent character development, or
  3. encourage character development.

These seem mutually exclusive, but games may have some mechanics that put it in one category and some that put it in another.

Games that allow character development

Most games allow character development in one way or another, by which I mean they do not care whether it happens or not.

Most games that allow character development do so by not reflecting a character’s personality in the game mechanics at all. There is very little in Dungeons & Dragons, for example, that reflects a character’s personality or how a character should act. (I may talk about Alignment another time, but in most cases Alignment has no mechanical impact. Even the characteristics from backgrounds in 5th Edition are just suggestions at character creation.)

A druid character in one of my 4th Edition D&D campaigns began like Forrest Gump and became more world-weary over the course of the campaign. There was nothing on the character sheet that led the character down this path, or recorded the journey afterwards, but there was also nothing to contradict or hinder the player’s choices in how they wanted to play their character. This kind of thing happens all the time in D&D campaigns, but I mention this example specifically because of the way that the player dovetailed their druid’s development with his advancement, including agreeing with the GM that the druid would briefly vanish into the Feywild before returning with some new powers and a new mindset.

Other games may actually reflect a character’s personality in the game mechanics or traits on a character sheet. When traits can be updated based on a character’s development within the fiction, these games can be considered to allow development as well. The main example here would be Fate Core, in which personality traits (or other key facets of a character) can be recorded as aspects on a character sheet. These can be changed over time. Stunts and skills can also be swapped or tweaked at milestones. Character sheets evolve to keep pace with the characters they represent.

Another example of a game that allows character development without insisting on it is Vampire: The Masquerade (as do other games in the World of Darkness line). Masquerade had a Humanity score for each player, but despite the game’s focus on personal horror, it didn’t care what your Humanity score was or whether it changed. Certain player actions and personality traits triggered potential loss of Humanity, but the score reacted to what the characters did in the fiction and there was little or no feedback to incentivise players to change their play styles. If players and GMs wanted to explore it, the Humanity score could be used to measure the character’s development; if they chose not to explore this part of the game, Humanity meant nearly nothing.

Games that prevent character development

Game mechanics that prevent character development are ones that say things about a character’s personality, but never let the player change their personality or traits over time. They may even penalise the players for deviating from them.

Totally preventive games are thankfully rare. Consider, though, if Fate Core did not include rules for rewriting aspects or swapping stunts or skills. Characters would still be able to increase their skill scores, but they’d be stuck with the aspects they had at the start of the campaign. If the aspects are no longer relevant to the story that the player wants to tell, they are penalised by being unable to invoke (or compel) those aspects. A simple inability to change your traits can turn a supportive game into a preventive one.

Games with a strong focus on character advancement can sometimes neglect character development as a result. For instance, in Vampire: The Masquerade, a player character can purchase backgrounds, merits and flaws that say strong things about the character’s personality. However, as far as I recall there are no options in the rules as written for decreasing these if they become irrelevant. Experience can only be spent to increase the traits.

One-shot and story games may intentionally prevent character development in order to drive certain styles of play. They do not include rules for evolving traits simply because the rules are unnecessary and would be counter-productive to the goal of the game design.

Games that encourage character development

There are some games that actively encourage development. The mechanics of these games not only reflect the characters’ personalities and can evolve over time, they also give players incentives to roleplay their characters’ development.

Sometimes these mechanics focus on very specific areas of character development, such as the stability rules in games like Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies. These are like Humanity from Vampire: The Masquerade, except that the numbers change based on what happens external to the character and dictate your character’s internal state (as opposed to Humanity, for which the numbers change based on a character’s internal state and imperfectly reflect what happens externally).

My best example of a game designed to encourage general character development is Smallville RPG (aka Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying). Characters in Smallville have a fixed number of Values and some number of Relationships with other characters in the setting. These are collectively called Drives, and they are the central traits of the game. All rolls that a player makes are built of at least one Value and at least one Relationship.

The clever thing about Drives is that, although each Drive has something that it is about (Relationships are about another character, Values are about fixed concepts such as Love, Power and Justice), they also have a statement that shows how the character feels about that thing right now. The statements are intentionally transitory, based on emotion and not on facts, because characters get short-term bonuses to rolls when they act contrary to their statement instead of acting in line with their statement. This is called challenging the Drive.

When someone challenges a Drive—when they do something that relates to the topic of the Drive but for a reason that is not covered by the statement—they roll three times the number of dice (and more dice is better). Afterwards, the Drive rating is reduced for the rest of the session. There is a short-term benefit as the character makes a decision or comes to a dramatic realisation, but afterwards there is a medium-term cost because they no longer hold the previous belief so strongly. Then, at the end of the session, when characters come to terms with their decision or realisation, they get to re-write their statements (and also get some character advancement).

Because of the rules around challenging Drives, characters in Smallville consistently develop more and develop faster than in any other roleplaying game I have ever played. That’s something that I’d be very interested in seeing in other games.

There are other mechanics too, especially in one-shot story games, that could possibly be ported into longer campaigns. A mechanic of asking and later answering questions about a character’s personality or backstory, as in Psi*Run or Stiainín Jackson’s Heroes of the Hearth from the Seven Wonders anthology, could also encourage character development. This would obviously need to be tweaked to work for long-form play, but I think it’s possible.

If you know of any other games that encourage character development, please let me know. I’d be really interested in seeing how they work.

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