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What's in Progression?

Over the past 20 years, character progression, once a hallmark of role playing games, has become ubiquitous as a game mechanic in video games, being in everything from multiplayer shooters to racing games. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a wonderful way to keep players invested in your game and a part of the conversation. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about character progression as I work on my tabletop role playing games, particularly about how character progression can be tied to satisfaction.

Satisfaction in games comes from feeling like the hard work put into them pays off. This generally is done by having the game respond to that effort. Games are the only media where the way that the player interacts with them is a main draw, and that’s why game mechanics change as a player spends time with them. But I’m beginning to think that some of that satisfaction can come from change in the player, and how games can take advantage of it.

Pretty much all tabletop rpgs reward players for their experience and time by allowing them to raise the value of their statistics, the numbers that correspond to different aspects of their characters and are used to determine the likelihood of success for different actions. Higher statistics mean a higher chance of success. Tabletop games need numbers to represent proficiencies because they abstract actions for the players’ imaginations to interpret. Tabletop games also give players access to new abilities, or verbs, but they alone don’t have the same impact on player success that stat values do.

Video games on the other hand, can directly translate some of a player’s proficiencies to the game world, allowing them to not just roll dice to see if their special attack hits an enemy, but rather enter a specific combination of inputs to get the desired outcome. Video games allow for a more direct degree of control.

They can’t translate all a player’s characteristics into a game, though, and must give numerical values to some character aspects, like how much damage a punch does, and how successfully a conversation goes in a players’ favor. These numbers aren’t as readily apparent in video games because they go on in the math that runs behind the scenes while players are presented with just the results of their efforts.

Compare this to tabletop games, where players can play an active role in the mechanics by doing that math themselves. Before performing an action, players are able to gauge their likelihood of success for themselves because they have at the very least a passing knowledge of the probability mechanics that determine their success. A tabletop player is going to be more aware of what that +2 protection against fire attacks means for their character than a video game player might. Or at least learn what it means as they play the game.

This separation from the math means that video game designers must take a different approach to character progression then tabletop game designers in order to keep players engaged.

As a result, a lot of video games introduce new verbs to a player’s vocabulary in order to show their progression and make the experience feel worthwhile.

In Nintendo's Metroid, players begin their journey with nothing more than the ability to jump and attack, and confined to a guided path early on. As they progress though, they'll find power-ups that give them access to new abilities, or verbs, that expand their options for proceeding and even provide access to previously unavailable areas. (By Duffy Austin)

The Metroid franchise from Nintendo has built itself around rewarding player progression with new tools to navigate the area that they acquired by traveling on the paths already accessible to them, These can manifest in the ability to take on a new form to traverse an inaccessible area, or a weapon with properties to take down a barrier. Players can return to previously blocked off areas that they encountered earlier in the game, after learning the significance of their new abilities through play in order to unlock new content.

This mechanic is actually uses a common tool that video game designers use to highlight character progression. While it can often be seen as padding, and can slow the player’s experience down, bringing them back to previously visited areas and facing older enemies can be a great way to show how a player has progressed. Enemies that were once major obstacles now fall easily to you and previously inaccessible paths are now open to explore. By showing players that they can now accomplish what they once could not gives them a sense of achievement and growth.

This can happen in tabletop, too, as a game master may have players face the same enemy multiple times after extended periods to gauge how much the player has changed. In Dungeons & Dragons, typical enemies like Kobolds can be a major threat early on, but experienced players can breeze through them through sheer force or by knowing the best tactics to handle them.

In From Software's Bloodborne, players face overwhelming odds to the point where dying and retrying an area is a core component. As they progress, players are able to give their character new equipment, raise their stats, and gain a better understanding of the game that will allow them to progress further. (By Duffy Austin)

Good examples of this in video games are the recent RPG video games by From Software: Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne. These games actually maintain a lot of tabletop’s design principles, by making stats matter a great deal in the game. When players begin, they’re thrust into a harsh world with creatures much stronger than them and who are much more at home in the setting and using the mechanics.

Player satisfaction in From Software RPGs comes from conquering previously insurmountable odds. Enemies are defeated in part because players have better equipment, higher stats, and an understanding of their significance.

If you take an end-game character who has been built up to take on the final boss, and place them in the game’s starting area, it’s going to be a very different experience than it was starting out. A new weapon can give the player a different move-set than what they started the game with; a raised strength stat means each attack is exponentially more powerful; and most importantly, the player now has a better understanding of the game and the systems that govern it.

That last one is key: players grow with their character in the game, coming to understand how it works and how to take advantage of mechanics. This makes a player feel rewarded for paying attention and putting an effort into the game. People make a point of going back to old games, both tabletop and video, in order to try out the knowledge they’ve gained and see how their experience changes.

Tabletop games like Dread and Fiasco don’t even have character progression systems, and are meant to be played in self-contained sessions with their own individual stories. People keep coming back to them though because they grow to understand the game and what it gives them; like the mounting anxiety of Dread or the ludicrous turn of events that can occur in Fiasco.

With video games, it’s the appeal of a simple replay, or of speedrunning a game to see if your knowledge of the system is as good enough to succeed with as little assistance as possible. The roguelike genre is even built upon the idea of players learning through repeated failures to master the ins and outs of a game, rewarding them for learning.

Players can progress just as much as the characters they’re playing as, and through that progression they can master games through understanding and find new ways to engage with them.

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