I was just reading one of Necropraxis’ posts, and there I encountered the phrase “flexible, classless character progression system.” It caught my attention, and after mulling over the concept for a while I was suddenly struck by a (tangential) idea for a sort of combined campaign setting and advancement system for a tabletop pen-and-paper RPG. (Why is it always called “pen and paper”? Don’t we mostly use pencils?)
The inspiration is Children of an Elder God (illustrated version; complete version), an epic horror fanfiction mash-up of the classic Evangelion TV series and the post-Derleth Cthulhu Mythos. It’s set in an alternate science-fantasy future (now present, actually: 2015!), but I’m jettisoning most of the Lovecraftian anime sci-fi trappings and keeping a single aspect as a game mechanic.
See, part of the horror of the story is that these kids are piloting giant “mecha” that are actually biological in nature. When they defeat their foes (beings such as Atlach-Nacha, pulled from a mythos Who’s Who), their rides tear apart and devour the enemies… and as a result, both the pilot and the “mecha” gain some aspect of their victim: unearthly knowledge, the ability to command spiders, the ability to sprout wings and fly, etc.
And that’s the hook: the PCs are normal-ish people in a fantastical world of some kind. Their basic abilities don’t significantly change. They might go through a certain amount of growth in terms of skills and equipment, but the real payoff is in hunting down special beings and stealing their power. Here’s how to set it up:
0. Choose a mechanical system that you enjoy, and strip out any level-based stuff. The simplest way is to make starting characters like normal and then just ignore most or all of the experience / power-increase mechanics. Borrow E(1), for example.
1. Make, buy, or borrow any sort of world you want: bog-standard medieval fantasy, sci-fi future, modern-day, historical; gritty, heroic, gonzo; it all works as long as the details of the steps below are tailored to fit what you’re trying to do with the mood and setting.
2. Seed the world with legendary entities: angels, beasts, colossi, demons, elementals, faeries, godlings, whatever. Each of these has an aspect or set of aspects or powers that can be stolen if they are defeated (and consumed in some form, although it may be symbolic or toned down depending on the tone and themes of your campaign).
3. Place each of these entities at the center of a series of challenges for the players to tackle. It could be a dungeon full of traps and/or monsters, a hostile wilderness or waste, a Byzantine social or political organization, or a simple mystery overcome by investigation and problem solving.
4. Most gameplay should be pretty normal: solving problems, defeating foes, exploring, interacting with other characters in the world (including intra-party role-playing). PCs should be spending resources, running into trouble, gaining rewards, leveraging them to solve further problems.
5. But what they don’t do is level up or gain special powers. It should be known, or at least very strongly hinted, that that sort of benefit comes solely from defeating and consuming the entities.
6. Give the party a map and ways to learn about and locate their targets.
And there you have it: a setting foundation, and a sandbox-style campaign setup that ensures that the players always have something to do, whether it be researching possible targets, gathering resources to tackle those targets, or the actual act of taking on the challenge. These should be large-scale undertakings, with equally large-scale rewards. Remember, the boost gained is a quantum leap in power, equivalent to leveling up in a level-based system. Thoughts? Let me know what you think in the comments!