In some ways the heart of role-playing games is that they are success-and-improvement simulators. (There are other hearts, of course, so RPGs are similar in that way to how certain dinosaurs are said to have been, but let’s not stretch the analogy further than we have to.) They simulate many other things, of course – tactical combat, gleeful mayhem, puzzle-solving, investigation, exploration – but the aspect of the tabletop RPG experience that has carried over most pervasively into video games of the same appellation is the part where overcoming challenges grants some form of in-game currency that translates into new and improved skills and other advantages.
The most common of these currencies is “experience points” (usually known as exp or XP). In some systems, when a character has accumulated a certain number of points, they “level up,” improving on their existing skills and possibly gaining new skills and powers. In systems without levels, of course, this is impossible; alternatives have to be found. For example, White Wolf allows characters to use a pool of points to buy upgrades to their various statistics. But even this “pool” system is a little too dissociated for my taste, though. If you have an adventure that forces you to learn a lot about knitting, there’s nothing there mechanically to keep you from investing the episode’s XP into, say, helicopter piloting.
The obvious solution is for each skill to have its own pool of XP. When that skill is tested in a meaningful way – when one would expect to see improvement in its use – then it gets an experience point for its very own pool. When the number of points in a skill’s pool exceeds the current level of the skill, then the pool is emptied and the skill’s level rises by one. This is automatic, so there can never be more points in a skill’s pool than in the skill itself. And each gain in skill takes progressively longer, giving us a nice learning curve.
Example: Pierre has a Pastry Chef skill of 5, and the Pastry Chef XP pool has five points in it. The next time Pierre has a learning experience, instead of the pool filling up to six, it empties and the skill rises to 6 instead.
When should a character get XP? In part, that’s up to the consensus in each gaming group, again following the two golden rules of It Should Make Sense and Be Consistent. But in general the character is more likely to have learned something from overcoming (or merely facing up to) difficult challenges, and in general a more thorough success is likely to leave the character knowing what to do (as opposed to merely what not to do) next time. Suffering a solid or worse failure, though, indicates that the character was out of their depth, or having a very off day, so XP should probably not come from that.
There are also temporal limits. There’s only so much new information a mind can process at a time, and muscle memory takes time to build up. Except in a few rare, extreme cases, skill XP should not be gained faster than about one point per week of in-game time. This doesn’t need to be the exact span; whenever the flow of events hits a natural pause or the story demands a “time passes” fast-forward, that’s an opportunity to assign XP and recalculate skills.
What about training? After all, you don’t start teach someone to be a car mechanic by throwing them into a warehouse full of cars and let them start trying to fix things. You teach them the parts, their functions, and standard methods of dealing with common problems. So clearly skills can gain XP in situations other than skill checks. For system purposes “training” will include any guided, hands-on activity that could improve skill use that isn’t a skill check, from homework problems to paid internships.
In the back of my head I want to work out a detailed system of checks for trainer and trainee to pass for training to be successful. Does the teacher know the material well? Are they skilled at passing on their command of it to somebody else? Is the student ready, willing, and able to learn? In a realistic system, there’s definitely a place for a Teaching skill. But too much complexity would have no other effect than to prevent people from using, or wanting to use, rules for training.
Let’s break it down like this: the teacher makes a Teaching check each time-unit (week or so). If the check succeeds, then the student automatically gains an XP in the relevant skill. The check is against a static target of (15) + (the level of skill the student is training for) – (the student’s relevant attribute modifier). That final factor might be a little counterintuitive because of the negatives, but remember that a more talented student will (presumably) learn more easily. For kinesthetic skills – ballroom dancing or capoeira, for example – the relevant attribute should be Agility; for intellectual pursuits it should be Wit; for more intuitive or aesthetic fields, it should be Sense. How many skills a person can train at a time is up to the group and common sense.
Example: Pierre takes an apprentice. He has a Teaching skill of 4; she has dabbled in Pastry up to a skill level of 2, so she’s training for level 3. They’re both using their Sense modifiers; his is +1 and hers is +2. So his target is (15) + (3) – (2) = 16. His player rolls 10 and 1, plus 5 for skill and attribute, for a total of 16. A tie! Whether the apprentice gains an XP is up to the group, as long as they’re consistent in their ruling – perhaps the bare-bones success means that that training session took an extra-long time, or was unusually taxing. This is a good opportunity for creativity in interpreting the consequences of a roll.
There’s one last way to learn, I think, that bears distinction from the others: book-learning. As opposed to training, which I envision as hands-on, study is simply the absorption of data. When one engages in study, the source of information (generally a written text, but potentially far more exotic sources, from ancient wall-paintings to cybernetic neural links) will have a couple important ratings. First, it will have a skill level (or range of levels, for sufficiently expansive sources) depending on the difficulty of the material contains. For example, a calculus text would have a higher Mathematics level than a first-grade arithmetic primer. And second, it would have an obscurity rating; a measure of how difficult it is to extract useful information from the author’s style.
To gain XP from this kind of source, spend about a week of time studying, as with training. But instead of a teacher making a check, the reader makes a check of the skill being studied, using their Wit modifier, against a static target equal to the source’s obscurity rating. A successful check earns the character an XP in the relevant skill. There’s one wrinkle that comes in here, and it arises from the fact that it is challenging to learn anything new from a text simpler than one’s current understanding of a subject, or from a text far enough above it to be incomprehensible. If one’s target skill level is below that of the source, then all checks are increased in difficulty by one degree, i.e. five points. If one’s target level is above that of the source, on the other hand, then the difficulty rises by one degree for each point of difference.
Example: In addition to taking apprentices, Pierre has written a book on the pastry arts. It covers skill levels 2-5, with an obscurity of 17. Bill and Ted find it and decide to learn from it, so they take turns studying from it for several days. Bill and Ted have respective Pastry Chef skills of 3 and 6, and Wit modifiers of -1 and -2.
Bill’s aiming for a Pastry Chef skill of 4, which falls within the book’s range. His target is 17. He rolls 4 and 9, plus 3 for skill but minus 1 for Wit, for a total of 15. The book is too dense for him, and he leans nothing new. If he had been a complete neophyte (current level 0, target level 1), then the terminology in the book would have been much harder for him to wade through, for a target of 22 (17+5). Bill, on the other hand, is aiming for a skill of 7, two above the book’s range. Each point of difference is +5, so that’s a difficulty increase of 10. His difficulty is 27, so no matter what he rolls, there’s simply nothing there for him to learn that he doesn’t already know.
If Ted had tutored Bill, even using the book, then that would simply have added a teaching check for Ted to pass, doubling Bill’s opportunities to gain an XP that week but never allowing him to gain two points in the same span. Bill cannot teach Ted, because the latter has already exceeded anything he could teach him.
One thing I noticed is that in the current version of the training rules, student skill level has no bearing on the training. I’m not sure it feels quite right, but – first, I’m not sure how to compensate for it mechanically, and second, I suppose that the more skilled a student is, the less there is that anyone can teach them. Of course, this is offset in game terms by increased chances of success when practicing in a more hands-on way, so for now I suppose I won’t worry about it.
Okay, that wraps up skill experience. I want to include a parallel system for improving attributes as well, but this has gone pretty long already and I’m not clear exactly how I want it to work, so that will have to wait for another post. ‘Til then.