I’m Not Growing Up

I’ve been thinking a lot about advancement in RPGs lately. I’ve also been looking at the laundry list of projects I’m working on. These things are related.

I published LUMEN a few years ago to capture that “numbers go up” power fantasy that I love in action RPGs and looter shooters. I love picking up a new piece of gear in a game, looking at all those green numbers, and going “hell yeah”.

My attitudes towards character advancement have fluctuated a lot in my years in RPGs. When I was just playing/running, I was super into it! You’d think of all the potential your character had in them. If you just ran, 5, 10, 100 sessions, you’d eventually get enough XP to get that super cool power. It only took a couple of campaigns that died out at the 3-4 session mark to realize those dreams were just that, dreams. Our characters were never ever going to get to that level, unless we just started that way.

So then I made LUMEN, and fast tracked the whole thing. Characters already had all their cool powers, and now they were just fine tuning them through advancement. Loot and builds were the name of the game. I always describe NOVA as a game where you are already level 20, and you’re finding that perfect build by combining mods in just the right way.

Even still, those games take time to reach that point. There are a shit ton of mods to unlock in NOVA. In LIGHT, you are constantly grinding out guns to get the right one, or to get the ability to craft your perfect weapon. You still need to play a lot to really unlock your character’s potential.

And nowadays, I don’t like that.

And there are two reasons I want to cover for that. One from a player/GM perspective, and one from a designer.

As a person who runs and plays games, and also as someone with a job, family, friends, dog, etc, I’ve got a limited amount of time in my life. For me, long gone are the days where I had weekly sessions. I’m sure if I did, this wouldn’t be a problem. But the reality is, when I do get to play a game, it’s usually as a one shot, or a very small arc of 2, 3, maaaaybe 4 sessions. After that, we’re onto new things.

Part of that is because there are so many freaking good games out there. It seems absurd to me now to imagine sitting down with my friends and deciding we are going to play this one game, and only this game, for the next year or more. We want to try all of our new shiny toys! We want to tell exciting stories that fully resolve in a couple sessions, so that we can either start a new arc, or a whole new game.

Character advancement can be a big ol’ blocker for that experience. So many games work under the assumption that you will just. keep. playing them. And to incentivize you, your characters are going to get a little stronger each time you do. It’s the carrot, right? Just another 2 sessions and I finally can make two attacks on my turn! Just another 8 hours of my valuable time and I can get there.


This means, purely from a practical sense of using my time, and making the most of that time spent, I want games that give us the full potential of our characters from the get go. The carrot is the telling of a cool story with these fully fleshed out characters, not in watching them incrementally get better over weeks and weeks of time.

The second reason I’m moving away from big character advancement systems comes from my time as a designer. Remember that laundry list I mentioned above? I’m not getting those games done because there is something they all share in common that stops me. Character advancement.

How are characters in these games getting better? What’s the carrot driving players to want to play this game again and again? I’ve already established that myself (and probably a lot of people like me) don’t have time for that. So why am I making it a part of my games?

I’m supposed to be making the games that I want to play. You gotta remember that, Spencer.

And so, I’m transfixed by these projects. The major concept of the games make sense in my head, and yet they don’t progress because I have to figure out how the characters keep getting better. How are you going to make a year long campaign with this game? NOBODY IS GOING TO DO THAT SPENCER.

I’ve let this assumption of game design hang heavy on these projects. It’s drained enthusiasm for ideas that I think are really fun, as I can’t imagine what they look like beyond a one shot, or a short 2-3 session campaign.

So, my goal is to shift that mentality, dislodge it from my mind. Move my games in the direction of being really tight experiences that can be played out in a shorter amount of time. There’s a reason I’ve written NULL and HUNT in record speed, and left projects I’ve been working on for months (even years) to rot on my To Do list.

I want to make games that I want to play. I want fully realized characters that can be maximally effective and awesome for the short time we have them. Sure, they can grow in that short time, but it isn’t the beating heart of the game.

Wish me luck.

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