Virtuosity and RPGs

 Posted by at 15:20  Add comments
Dec 022009

Wait, what?

A friend of mine is restructuring the 3.5 edition Dungeons and Dragons rules to be more to his liking. He’s calling it D&D 3.75. Though he and I disagree on some fundamental RPG theory stuff, I wish him the best in doing so and look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

On Facebook, he mentioned having recently finished setting up the requisite mechanics for the first level. This reminded me of an issue I have, in general, with the concept of level. I sent him the following bit, mostly as fodder for him to pick through as he desired. However, it also prompted me to think about the issue a bit more, too.

One of the things that always bugged me about levels was their divorce from any real concept of skill. Suppose you want to start the game as an 80 year old wizard. 80 years is a long-ass time, yet you’re still ‘level 1,’ with all the weaknesses that entails and no real benefit to being 80. As a result, pretty much every level 1 character starts out cut from the same cloth—a late teen/young adult “adventurer” who learns the ways of life as they progress through levels.

Even in this mold, level has no correspondence to real experience. Am I (as myself, not a character) still level 0 (or 1) because I haven’t gone “adventuring?” Will I suddenly be level 2 when I go and slay my first orc band? Why? What about my knowledge of programming (for example)? What about my driving skills? My ability to repair a toilet? And so on.

What I’m getting at is that it would nice to see progression manifest in such a way that it mapped closely to how people actually progress in life. I’m not arguing for a skill-based system (though as you know, I tend to think those are more satisfying than level-based ones), but merely that level have some tangible, satisfying meaning beyond “I adventured in this campaign, doing the things this campaign deemed worthy of acknowledging.”

In my “career” as a stage musician, I’m level 0. In my career as a technical artist, I’m…well, not level 0. 😉 In my career as an orc-slaying adventurer, I’m also level 0. Why does only one of these count? Suppose I don’t start my career as an orc-slayer until my 40s. Am I still level 0, despite having amassed half a lifetime (or two generations) of life experience?

It just seems false.

This comparison of skills reminded me of a tangentially related idea about actual skill metrics. There’s a book that posits the following about success: becoming a superstar takes about 10,000 hours of hard work. To get more specific, to become a true expert at one thing takes about 10,000 hours of practice at that thing. Assuming you work an 8 hour day and all of those hours are productive honing of that one skill, it would take a little under 5 years (assuming a 5-day work week with no days off) to amass that amount of skill. When you think about it, that seems about right.

What does this have to do with RPGs?

Let us take for granted that skill acquisition is an exercise in diminishing returns: the more time you put in, the less you get out of it. At first glance, some people might object to that, so let me clarify. When you first try your hand at something, you get better at it very quickly. You’re starting from no skill, and rapidly progressing to basic familiarity. Put in more time, and you get to a certain level of fundamental competence. Put in a lot more time, and you start becoming truly knowledgeable. Put in 10,000 hours, and you’re an expert. EVE-Online uses this very concept in its skill system: achieving the first level of a skill takes very little time (a few minutes). Achieving the second level takes less than an hour. The third level might be a few hours. The fourth level could be a good portion of a day (or more!). The fifth level will often take multiple days. Indeed, “diminishing returns” is a core concept behind every mechanic in EVE.

The concept of diminishing returns might be modeled as a logarithmic progression. Let’s go as simple as possible: start at 1 and go to, oh, 10,000 (see what I did there?).

  • Level 1: 1 “point”
  • Level 2: 10 “points”
  • Level 3: 100 “points”
  • Level 4: 1,000 “points”
  • Level 5: 10,000 “points”

Now, replace “point” with “hour” and the two things I’m talking about start to wind together.

Taking this from simple roots into a fleshed-out system is certainly beyond the scope of this blog post. The idea isn’t a new one, either. The Storytelling system uses something very much like this with its rank dots. Each successive dot costs quadratically more than the previous dot. Even D&D uses the idea, constrained as it is by character level: each level requires substantially more XP to achieve than the previous level. Typically in D&D, XP rewards scale so that progression rate remains constant and I think this is where it falls down.

Marry the logarithmic expertise concept to a pure-skill system and then advance skills based on in-game use, plus some extra pool meant to reflect “down time” not covered by the game. You may not role-play cooking breakfast, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to advance that skill over the course of a game if there’s reason to believe it’s being used in the background. This sort of system means that advancement comes quickly at first, then slows. I suspect it would work best in a Measure-of-Success environment (i.e. your ‘target’ is 16, and you roll 18; that’s MOS 2, which is different than MOS 1 or MOS 4) and with the skill ranks acting as dice modifiers (i.e. a rank 1 skill gives you a +1, while a rank 5 gives you a +5) or bonus dice in a dice pool.

Anyway. Some idle musing.

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