Mandatory Advancement

It has been observed to me that a lot of things I write as threads on social media would be better off as blog posts. I always agreed, but I also always thought of that as a function of how verbose I got (maximum verbosity). I wasn’t inclined to just copy the content to the blog because I’d already said it, after all. Who would want to read it twice?

However, with the ongoing collapse of Twitter and the move to other places, I realized a few things:

  1. When I was ONLY on twitter, i was reliably findable. I don’t think I’ll ever be in the situation of being on only a single platform again.
  2. I have absolutely lost track of people from twitter and that SUCKS, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to find me wherever I come to roost.
  3. It turns out that finding old threads is actually a giant pain in the ass.

So, between these things, I’ve bought into the idea of capturing relevant threads as blog posts. I don’t really have a workflow for this yet, and the process is going to be janky for a while, but this is my first swing at doing it. As such, apologize if the cadence of paragraphs sounds weird – writing in tiny social media snippets demands a somewhat different from. Thank you for your patience.

From a Bluesky thread on 5/18/2

Icon of Gears. Image sourced from game-icons.netOne more random Shadow of the Demon Lord thought. One of the main pitches when we started this was that it would explicitly be bounded to 11 adventures (which is going to be ~ 20 sessions). I’ve changed up the adventures, but I’m sticking to that premise very deliberately.

At the heart of that is the SotDL advancement engine. The game is designed for characters to level up after each adventure (from 0 to 10), which is why the adventures are constructed that way. I was enthusiastic to do this, and I think it’s been great, but it has still managed to surprise me.

It has moved advancement from a pull economy to a push economy (or maybe vice versa). My usual mindset on advancement is “Have the characters done enough to merit advancement”. In this model it’s “I have two sessions before they advance. Can I put in enough content to make it feel worthwhile?”

Having that responsibility pushed onto the GM is a little disorienting – I absolutely had a moment last night of “I dunno, are they ready to advance?” Before I caught myself. But that is entirely a result of my own experience and expectations, not a problem with the model.

Given the time to think about it, I love that the responsibility is pushed to me as a GM. Weirdly, it feels right, and very much aligns with my personal philosophy of GM authority being genuine, but also being received.

To dip into a bit of business terminology, I consider GMing to be one of the truest forms of something the nerds call servant leadership. So, having the decision to advance removed from the GM, and making the GM beholden to it, feels like the antidote to many problems.

Advancement (whether in XP, gear or other things) is, after all, the most powerful of the GM’s soft* tools of enforcing their authority. Don’t play along? No shinies for you!

* – or indirect. Contrast with “hard” tools like narrative/mechanical authority or dropping pianos on characters.

And to be clear, this is not a problem we need solved in this group. We don’t have players grubbing for XP, and we don’t have GMs withholding rewards. But even without the problems, the explicit push to advancement changed up the game in useful ways.

(Ok, that last bit is not strictly true: we do have one XP grubbing player. However, he’s me, and I can testify that it has nothing to do with authority and is strictly a result in the joy I take in pushing the limits of game engines.)

In this specific case, the advancement is forcing me to keep up the pace as a GM. To get behind the curtain, there were only two real fights this level – the drake, and an assassin and her minions last session. Both fights were good, but there was a lot of intervening stuff with travel and talking

My old instinct would have been to say “Really, I need one more session at this level, so they can get in another fight”. And it would have been a decent instinct, in part because I have the sensibilities to make it work. Which is why having it blocked was such a shock to my system.

In opting not to talk myself out of following the rules, I’m forced to turn a much harder lens on my own GMing. In very practical terms, this challenges my sense of pacing. I had never considered this before, but by controlling advancement, I could always buy myself more time as a GM. That’s what I would have done with this. I would just have tacked on one more session, put some cool stuff in it, and carried on. This is one reason my campaigns run the risk of bloat. I can always add more. Always.

It also changes the questions I ask myself. In classic D&D mode, where fights are the driver for advancement, then as a GM the first thing I must ask is if the fights were enough. Yes, sure, I will also think about other things that happened, but the real backbone is the fights.

It’s reached the point of being an old joke that “We didn’t roll dice once the whole session!”, but that sentiment that the dice and swords are supposed to come out is baked in. What you don’t often hear is “We didn’t roll dice one, and we leveled up!”

Because of this focus on fights, I also end up unintentionally weighing my own performance as a GM on the fights first. Were they engaging? Dangerous? Good tension and stakes? Did everyone have an opportunity to shine? Those are all good questions, but they often overshadow the rest.

When advancement is going to happen anyway, fights are pushed down to parity with every other kind of scene. And by extension, I now need to cast a wider net to judge the session. Those hard questions I might ask about a fight now also need to be asked about everything. And that’s marvelous.

This is technically a bit of GM disempowerment, but it is not wrapped in the usual cloak of handwaves and judgement. It removes a SPECIFIC choice, and in doing so increases responsibility and accountability for the GM. This won’t always be welcome, but in this scenario, I LOVE it

Now, critical caveat – I’m explicitly talking about XP and advancement in the D&D shaped space of gaming, which SotDL falls very solidly into. Outside of that space, lots of games have found other fantastic ways to tackle advancement which may or may not resonate with this.

Specifically, the implications of this (and any advancement system) have profound resonance with the interaction between the fiction of leveling up and the mechanics of leveling up. And that absolutely introduces a creative challenge.

One upshot of D&D having as many levels as it does is that the HP difference from one level to the next is not so huge as to be jarring to explain. You can take a little more punishment. Without that kind of frog boiling, it would be hard to explain the same character going from 10 to 200 HP

(Yes, HP are an abstraction, blah blah blah. We all know this, but we also know that is a VERY THIN layer of rationalization, one that is quickly dismisses through an exercise of dropping characters down pits of different depths. I’m using them because they’re a simple example.)

When advancement is guaranteed to chug along, you are faced with trying to come up with a narrative under which it makes sense that your thief is now a ninja. Thing is, it’s a good kind of challenge, and it has many solutions.

The two easiest are “don’t care” (handwave) or just say that’s how things work (the JRPG solution)

The hardest is for the game designer to have created really mechanically satisfying advancement which does not introduce enough change to raise this problem. I think these are mutually exclusive goals (that is, the satisfaction relies on change) but maybe someone can pull it off.

In between, we have the more reliable solution of “creative narrative”. This might just be that the GM can BS really well or it might be an opportunity for the GM to cede some authority and let players narrate. Between those two ends are useful techniques like montages and flashbacks.

As someone who very much like techniques like montages and flashbacks and who ALSO very much likes opportunities to invite players to narrate, the “challenge” of smoothing over the fictional bumps starts feeling very much like an opportunity.

Bottom line: I have played around with a lot of different designs for handling advancement in a lot of contexts, but this is the first time I’ve really dug into anything like mandatory advancement. I really like the knock on effects, and I need to think of how else to use this delightful tool.

2 thoughts on “Mandatory Advancement

  1. CommanderTso

    Found your blog via M.T. Black’s newsletter – this is an excellent and thought-provoking post. I run an RPG club for middle/high schoolers, and had an awful slog of a time with the campaign I ran this year. I think this kind of jujitsu could help a lot with how I approach things. Thanks!


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