Achievements and Levelling Up

Screenshot from Alto’s OddyseyI’ll be back to weird aspect tricks in a bit, but I had an oddball thought.

My son is a big fan of Alto’s Adventure, a tablet game, and I just got him the sequel, Alto’s Oddysey.  He’s happy as a clam, and I’m watching him play, and I was struck by something.

In the game, you level up.  I admit, I don’t 100% know what that means in play – my sense is that it unlocks things in the environment and possibly your access to extras – but that’s not what caught my eye.  Rather, the means of levelling up is, effectively, by getting achievements.

That is, to his level 3, my son needs to collect 50 counts, bounce off a balloon and score 500 points in one run.  These are all things that are likely to happen in play, but the balloon one caught my eye – while the other two will pretty much just happen if he plays enough, the balloon bounce would seem to require some intentionality and luck.

I suspect the way the game is set up is that situations where he needs to bounce off a baloon to progress are now either being introduced or will be more common.  Or at least I would hope so – if the game requires that I do a thing, it seems good design to then tilt things so I’m able to do the thing.

So, of course, that lead to tabletop.  We’ve got lots of different ways to handle advancement, and many of them are well designed for their particular needs, but I admit that I now find myself thinking what achievement based advancement would look like in an RPG.

The first question is where the acheivements come from.  I think “The GM” is a bad answer, but I could see them as part of the system. I could especially see it for a lifepath style system (like WHFRP or Burning Wheel) where the chain of acheivements kind of organically build into a story, but the model could work for almost any game where you’re expecting the character to have an arc.

The other possibility is for them to be authored by the player.  The upside of this is that the player is very *clearly* communicating to the GM the things they want to see in play.  If a player has an achievement “Defeat one of the Red Swordsnakes in single combat”, then that is a *gift* to the GM. And if everyone has 3 of these, the GM can quickly scan to see where spotlight needs to go.

This would require some checks.  It’s abusable, of course (if the player picks trivial acheivements) but even with good intentions, it may require some discussion to line up the acheivements with the game.  I think the best compromise would be pre-written achievements (from the GM, the game, the adventures, player input, everywhere really) which are then chosen among.

These could even be meta goals.  The first three acheivements might all be system mastery things.  Heck, in 5e, advancement from first to second comes so fast that it might as well be:

[] Have a fight
[] Make a stat check
[] Take a long rest

I don’t think this is a good match for every game, but I can definitely see some situational uses as well – this could be a super easy and fun way to do a live mid-session level up at a con game, or provide clear direction in a short arc.

Not sure what I’m going to do with this thought, but it’s in the stew now.

9 thoughts on “Achievements and Levelling Up

  1. Jesse

    Have you seen the new edition of Promethian: the Created or Angel: the Fallen?

    They use “the gym, within some constraints” as the source of these achievements, and while they don’t make XP dependent on them each comes with a significant parcel of XP.

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  2. Jesse

    Er, GM not gym.

    With regards to achievement-based leveling systems in games — they’re pretty common in endless runners for tablets of all sorts. But there are some important features to making them work well.

    First: they work best if you always have three available: replace old ones with new ones when the old are done.

    Second, they need to be known to the player, and it’s good to have a mix of specific things and accumulating things.

    Third, there needs to be a way of dropping an achievement without accomplishing it, and getting a new one. This helps prevent frustration.

    In terms of what they unlock — they usually provide a currency to buy cool things (and which is also accumulated just through play) and unlock new options to buy.

    You know, I think there are some games that do things like this. 1st (or maybe 2nd edition) WFRP let you pick up a new class as long as you had the starting skills and equipment. So before becoming a Squire, you needed a suit of well-tailored clothes. And before becoming a kingpin, you needed a vast criminal organization.

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  3. Malckuss

    I know the new edition of 7th Sea has a player-driven mechanic, just like you suggest, with stories that have a number of steps equal to the value of experience they a specific trait earned equal in XP to the number of steps taken. I think Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine does something similar.

    It would be very easy to tie Aspects into such a system.

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  4. Benj

    Makes me think of the method of upgrading gear in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Each has what amounts to an achievement which, if you complete it while you’ve got that bit of gear equipped, unlocks the ability to upgrade that item (for a token amount of currency) to new powers and improved stats.

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  5. Josh Culbertson

    I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Key system for experience in The Shadow of Yesterday RPG, which is another descendant of Fudge (or at least shares a fair amount of DNA with it). That system contains a mechanic for explicitly writing what the players will be doing to cultivate XP, often with wildly different experiences from each other (a character who has the Key of Cowardice gains XP when they hide from conflict and sidestep it, while a character who has the Key of Bloodlust is all about getting into violent messes).

    Like Jesse indicates above, there’s a Buyoff mechanic to get rid of the Keys which no longer fit your character, either by accident or by design–whether this is a “Turns out I’m playing a different character than I thought” or a “Now is the time in my narrative arc when my pacifist character is forced to take up the sword once more, lest injustice reign.”

    I’ve oft-considered trying to do something similar with Aspects in Fate for those rare games where I want an advancement mechanic, and this is fueling those interests again, getting me thinking about it one more time.

    Rob, in terms of your concerns about players setting the goalposts too close, I think some of this is solved between the player-GM compact, talking through the kind of story that the characters want to tell and making sure that there’s an interesting challenge, and then the rest of it is up to the GM to actually put some obstacles in the way of seemingly easy goals. Consider how many stories are told about all of the complications around what should’ve otherwise been an easy task–such as going on that first date, or just opening and staffing the shop on a day that you weren’t even supposed to be there. Players are often delighted to discover that they had a goal in mind and that the GM has devised a new delightful speedbump in the road or guardian which is going to keep them from achieving it the way they thought they were. Or at least they usually are delighted around my table, but again, perhaps that’s more of that player-GM compact at work…

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  6. Nevyn87

    Any further thoughts on this? I’ve been kicking around a concept based on this and discussions about Worlds in Peril which features a great Drives component. In Fate, drives are covered by Aspects so I thought: let’s augment that. I have a post on G+ that probly needs to be paired down but the jist of it is based on charging an Aspect with Perfect Invokes and then Detonating it mid session. This keeps the focus on the Aspects and drives the character’s arc.

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