Where do you see your character in 5 levels?

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 02 October 2011

"Where do you see your character in 5 levels?"

Early in my experience with D&D, I tried out a 3.x D&D game my friend was in. My friend and I were trying to create my character when he asked that question. I had no idea how to answer it. I barely knew anything about the classes, or well, the system, as it was; I just wanted to play a game, but doing that seemed to require a fair amount of system knowledge. If you don't necessarily see the relative importance of the choices between characters at level 1, how are you supposed to know where you want to be at level 5?

I prefer it when a system can make a lot of these thoughts disappear for newer players while not erasing them fully for experienced players. This is one of the things I love about Ascension, especially the digital version. In my experience, the game grows with you. The game play itself, along with the randomization, helps narrow your focus and your choices, making the game less overwhelming to a newcomer. As you learn the rules, the different strategies surface as a natural part of the game.

Ascension's victory condition is pretty simple. The player with the most honor at the end of the game wins. The most obvious way to gain honor is by defeating monsters. Heroes and constructs can provide honor during the game as well. Honor gained as the result of game play comes from the shared pool and when the pool reaches zero, the game ends at the end of that round. Most heroes and constructs have an honor value that gets added to the player's total at the end of the game. So both how much honor you gain as a result of game play and how much you collect by building your deck matters.

On your first turn, you have 5 hero cards, all of them give you +1 to one of two resources, runes or power. You use the runes to buy heroes or constructs and you use power to defeat monsters. The center row has 6 random cards, each representing one of those 3 sub-types. Whether or not you can buy or defeat any of those middle row cards depends on their cost compared to your resources for the turn. In addition, there are 3 cards in the upper left that are always available to you, a hero that gives you +2 to runes, a hero that gives you +2 to power, and a monster that gives you +1 to honor.

The digital version highlights the cards that are available to you given your resources. I haven't done the math, but it feels like you often only have to choose between 2-5 options each turn. Just as important, the 3 permanent options in the upper left means you can always do something each turn. The limited options along with the randomization means as a new player, you don't have to worry about all of the strategies for success. You can have a satisfactory game, in my opinion, by making the best decision given what you have before you and you still have a chance at winning the game.

The more I played, the more I saw how certain decisions might build upon one another. Cards bought early in the game can have bigger effects on game play than cards bought later in the game. So as the honor pool decreases, my buying strategy often changes to cards with more honor. Unless I have certain constructs in play, such as the one that puts mechana constructs into play when you acquire them, I don't emphasize constructs over heroes. (By the way, that one combined with the one that treats all constructs as if they were mechana creates a bad ass combo.) There are a bunch of these strategies for a player to discover as he gains more experience.

I like this style of learning in games and would love to bring it to D&D. There's an argument that early D&D games did this, particularly with random ability rolls and frequent character death. The current emphasis on long character arcs, often across 3 tiers and 30 levels of adventures makes it harder to experiment with characters and means players have fewer opportunities to try out different styles of play. This means decisions made early in play are built upon and magnified in later levels, especially in 4e where multi-classing and hybrid classes aren't as robust as they could be. However, the ability in earlier editions, such as 3.5, to gain levels in a different class doesn't necessarily help, since those classes often don't interact with one another. Since the systems assume you will make certain decisions to keep up with the system's math, even new players feel a pressure to know where their character will be in 5 levels when, in my opinion, they should be experimenting with the system to learn how the various bits interact.

I think there are ways to bring this to 4e. I'll write about this more tomorrow, but currently I'm thinking about combining aspects of D&D Encounters, Lair Assault, and Phil "The Chatty DM" Menard's Level 0 rules.


Hmm. Very interesting idea which I was rolling in my head myself. Nothing real, just thoughts that "it could be cool if we have this in D&D" so I'm eager to see your approach. Even more so 'cause I'm starting a new campaign.

I would be interested to read what you would like to combine from Encounters, Lair Assault and Chatty DM's Level 0 Stuff.

I am not a fan of Ascension but it does not mean it is not a great game. Character Development I think took a backseat in 4e. When you look at games like 3.xx and Star Wars Saga Edition you had paragon classes. They all had requirements for class, skills and/or feats along with level requirements as well.

Same with with certain feats, you needed to plan out your advancement at a young age. I might look at it differently because back in those systems, my players actually read the books and invested the time. Now... which give the most x[W] and effects stacked on and go from there.

When I have to take an active roll in character development after they level and the complain because the powers they are using are not working right. I do not know, I love 4e but the more I read about things that should be in this edition the more I realize it does not have what I want.

Prestige classes for 3e represent the most extreme example I've seen (in RPGs) of the opposite of this kind of design. There were frequently 3-6 independent kinds of character choices that had to be made *just so* in order to qualify for a particular PrC, and many of them required you to have planned correctly from 1st level. On the other end, there were many, many choices to be made each time a character gained a level, with a large number of both `very, very strong' choices and `very, very weak' choices (for example, it was entirely possible to have a 7th level character that was +0 to hit). Figuring out which was which required a good amount of system mastery and/or the ability (and desire) to peer far ahead into the character's future.

4e has its own strong rewards for system mastery during character creation, but until you get used to it, it looks a lot like the choices don't matter. There is also a pretty strong effort in 4e to remove choices that are `just bad', while 3e had a large number of choices that were `bad' for a very long time, but eventually turned into something good. If I had to estimate the number of 3e characters I saw who were described by their players as something like ``really sucks for now, but in 3/5/9/etc levels, it'll be awesome'', it would be dozens, maybe scores. 3e really stacked system mastery heavily into certain classes while removing it from others, resulting in vast disparities between characters' ability to contribute to the team. While 4e has its own places for system mastery, it also tried - and largely succeeded - in wearing down those differences, flattening out the contributions of each party member, and reducing the number of `bad' options.

Quite often when I heard from people who didn't like `the feel' of 4e, it turns out that what they really didn't like is that their hard-won system mastery from 3e didn't help them in 4e, and when they tried to apply their 3e knowledge, they could see how those specific options had been removed. While this made for a much more balanced game, which really helped the new player, it also turned off many of the `hard core' who didn't like feeling that their experience was no longer useful.

Of course, this compares 3e and 4e along a single (heavily gamist) axis. That axis isn't the most important for many people, and that's why you see things like the `Essentials-style' builds - those builds that cut down the player's choices even further, giving them a `solid' character (in the gamist sense) without requiring too much effort, leaving them free to focus on the narrative, story, and simulationist aspects. IMHO, this is why you see such a strong split in opinion on the Essentials-style classes.

This reminds me strongly of the discussion that you, Samuel and Thadeous had on the DM's roundtable about introducing new players to D&D 4E with video game tutorial like situations. This is all relevant to the steepness of the learning curve vs. the complexity of the system.

I have to agree with you locking a new player into a role and class for 30 levels is a commitment that is hard to make before your first session of play.

One of the things that has helped our group is using test encounters the first night we gather to build our PC's for a campaign. This doesn't completely solve the problem but highlights powers and features that seemed like a great idea on paper but prove worthless in combat or role-play. Building PCs as a group also helps to ensure the roles are covered and that skills and backgrounds are aligned.

This coupled with alternative PCs for players with PC ADD has helped the longevity of our campaigns. Nothing like the new shiny power/feat/class in DDI to leave some players dissatisfied with their choices. Nothing worse than losing your party leader because he/she doesn't want to play their character anymore.


The Issues As I See Them...

It seems like you are trying to address a couple of different issues here.

1) Learning Curve: The learning curve for new players can be rather steep in certain games. For me, the best way to learn a game is to make a character and then actually play the game. Reading the rules helps, but seeing the mechanics in action especially with regard to D&D really gives you the perspective you need to gain a deeper understanding.
That being said, perhaps games need to employ some sort of rules hierarchy so that you can start with the basics of a game and add in increasingly advanced rules until you get to a point at which the GM/Storyteller and Players are comfortable. Many games have optional rules, but in my opinion this only scratches the surface.

2) Player Death: This is always a touchy subject for me. I don’t like killing off a character unless it’s really justified. If a player puts in 2-6 hours creating a character, they don’t want to play for 30 minutes and have it die. However, I do see your argument for having the players try out different combinations of classes, abilities, and roles to gain a better understanding of the game and a better feel for what they really want to play. As a GM I simply allow my players to change classes if they really want to. I try to work it in whenever possible that it remains the same character as far as background and relationship to the story, but that isn’t always feasible. Many GMs/Storytellers would frown at this because it does make things harder in terms of continuity.
Many systems have rules for death that are, in my opinion, rather harsh. Conversely, if the players feel that there is no challenge then they may lose interest or run all over the story doing things they really shouldn’t be doing. Many of these systems have a caveat that allows the persons running these games to change the rules. GMs should take more creative licenses with the systems they are running to fit the needs of their players and group. I say needs, not wants. There is a difference.

3) Character Advancement: If character advancement takes a long time it can be a very long time for a new player to see the consequences of choices during character creation and development. However, if character advancement is too swift the player may not take value in the work done to achieve that advancement. Again, it is a difficult balance that GMs and Storytellers may alter to the needs of their players.

Ultimately these systems were made to be used and to be enjoyed by their players. Being a GM can be a thankless job, however I believe that it is the responsibility of the person running the game to meet the needs of his or her players which may mean breaking some rules and taking creative license with others. I don’t think that anyone will ever make a RPG system that everyone adores. That is the ideal, but there are too many different “types” of player to really make that happen. In my opinion the key is in the person running the game. The key is having a good Game Master or Storyteller.

I downloaded the free digital version of Ascension, and my experience was similar to yours. I've moved on since then (maybe I'll buy the full version sometime), but I would love to see this approach in D&D. It sounds daunting, so I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

I have a new 4e game coming up and I have a rough idea of my progression up to level 30. There's plenty of flexibility to see how it develops along the course of the campaign.

There are different games for different purposes. 4e D&D is not a very casual game. It's a very detailed tactical game. It leaves character development to the players instead of the rules. It works best with a group that wants to play that style of game. I think that it would probably be easier to start with something closer to what you want than to modify a game that's not to your style. But if you do want to adjust 4e, I have some suggestions that don't involve rewriting the game.
1) Retraining is your friend. As written, you can change an aspect of your character every level - a feat or power. I could see extending this to class features and allowing characters to change more items more often. This will let you play around with more options within the existing character class and race.
2) Changing characters. We've had many stories where some of the characters continue and others find reasons to leave and new characters coming in. One easy hook is to have a character develop an attachment to an NPC or community and stay to protect them. Then the characters can recruit a replacement. Some people will insist that the new character fill the same role as the previous character. I've found that 4e still works well when people don't have all the roles filled. It handles it better than most previous versions of D&D.
3) Radical transformation. This is high fantasy. If you want to change your eladrin fighter to a tiefling warlock, then this should be possible. "As the ritual draws to a close, Tevalia struggles mightily against the possesing spirit. The power of the diabolic engine nearly overwhelms her. But she delves down to the core of strength and manages to throw out the invading soul at the last minute. As the smoke clears, she finds herself changed in every way but the most important." I could see some campaigns being based around this - "Since the Gods of the other comos tried to invade our reality there have been cracks in the nature of the multiverse. Sweeping reality storms come forth, leaving the world transformed in their wake." This could be a challenge to some kinds of players. The idea that they must make some radical change every few levels would be interesting.

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