RPG XRAY

006 Progression

January 14, 2024 The RPG XRAY Team Season 2 Episode 6
RPG XRAY
006 Progression
Show Notes Transcript

This episode’s topic is PROGRESSION. Whether it’s levels, experience points, that scar your character has with an epic backstory, or some other measure of character development, PROGRESSION is a mechanic that stretches back to the earliest days of RPGs. We will dig into the layers of what and how games offer progression to players in this episode of RPG Xray.

Appendix X:

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

.

Jason:

As a reminder before we get rolling, please stay in touch with us and send in your own thoughts and questions. We're reachable via links on our website, rpgxray.com, or via our email, contact@rpgxray.com. Joining the RPG X-Ray team today are Eric Saltwell, hello, Eric.

Erik:

Hey everybody, hi, how you doing?

Jason:

[LAUGH] Ethan Schoonover and myself, Jason Beaumont.

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

As always, before jumping into the main course, we'd like to start things off with an amuse-bouche we call Appendix X.[BLANK_AUDIO] So in Appendix X, we do a little summary of all the media we're consuming currently. With a particular eye towards how it could be applied to gaming. Ethan, I'm curious what this is for you this week.

Ethan:

[LAUGH] Let's see, so I guess two things.

Jason:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

One, I think on a previous appendix x, I mentioned The Rook by Daniel O'Malley, which is a book that I really enjoyed. It's kind of a supernatural British spies. They have psychic powers and kind of fantastical powers, and it's so well written, so fun, such a media res opener, which I won't mention, because I don't wanna spoil even the beginning. I actually tracked down the TV series that was based on that, and I was hugely disappointed by it. So that was my media consumption, I guess. But besides that, I've been doing kind of like end of summer hiking and camping. Really, there is not a time that I go out into the wilderness where I don't think

Jason:

Eric, how about you?

Ethan:

about hex crawls, and just sort of the experience of clamoring over rocks and through forests. Every time I do it, I think, I never do a hex crawl that really reflects this kind of grueling slog across a mountain. We'll talk about hex crawls. I think we'll probably be doing an exploration and hex crawl episode, but I'm really looking forward to talking more about that.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

That's awesome. Yeah, so I have fallen into a particular niche of YouTube lately known as gun porn.

Jason:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

This is typically people who are talking about specific guns and calibers and sometimes doing test shoots of ballistics gel

Ethan:

[SOUND]

Erik:

to see how good is a weapon.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

And as a player of modern RPGs, especially as I've been delving more and more into Delta Green, I have found my lack of gun knowledge to be something that I think decreases the level of my play.

Ethan:

[SOUND]

Erik:

And so I have been digging in and my son who shares my YouTube account with me, I'm sure gets now really, really crazy videos popping up.

Jason:

[LAUGH]

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

I used to shoot competitively, actually, yeah.

Erik:

Yep. Really?

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

I grew up in rural America, I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and always around guns and hunting, but I never grew up hunting or shooting myself. But you sort of grew up with an ambient. I don't want to say comfort, because I don't think you ever feel, I mean, really, I don't think you feel comfortable with guns. I don't think if you really learn about guns, one of the things that you're taught is you shouldn't, I wouldn't say comfortable, you shouldn't feel casual around them, right? But I wasn't, I was never scared off by them. But I was always fascinated by them mechanically. And when I was living in Asia, of all places, I joined a gun club in Hong Kong. And which is a very different experience, by the way, than using firearms in America. It's very tightly controlled in Asia in general, and also in Hong Kong specifically. So that was actually where I learned to shoot, and then I started competing there at the gun club. Those were just pistol competitions, so

Erik:

And what kind of competition did you do?[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

semi-automatic pistols.

Erik:

And you were shooting for accuracy?

Ethan:

Yes, yes.

Erik:

Yeah, awesome.

Jason:

[LAUGH]

Ethan:

If there was a competition for lack of accuracy, though, I would have done very

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

well.

Erik:

See, I'm just exposing my lack of knowledge here about like, is it like how quickly you can shoot or?

Ethan:

It's almost always a combination of either accuracy or speed or both.

Jason:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

I mean, there's many types of competitions.

Erik:

I see.

Ethan:

So if you want to see some interesting video, by the way, on YouTube,

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

you can watch Keanu Reeves preparing for John Wick, where he actually does a lot of real competitive shooting involving both accuracy and speed, and many different types of firearms.

Erik:

Awesome.

Ethan:

So that'll be, we can do a field trip if you want.

Erik:

What was your? Yeah, I would totally love it.

Ethan:

Well, I learned on a SIG Sauer 1911, and I have a soft spot, I think, for

Erik:

What's your pistol of choice?[BLANK_AUDIO] Uh-huh.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

1911s because they are, when you look at them, they look like modern weapons to me. They're semi-automatic pistols, and they just seem like the, I don't know,

Erik:

Yeah, that's awesome.

Ethan:

the archetype, I guess, of semi-automatic pistols, despite the fact that they were designed in 1911.

Jason:

Yeah, I was gonna say, yeah, this is.

Ethan:

So they're over 100 years old. It's a testament to that general design that it hasn't changed radically, although obviously something like the Glock was a huge innovation. And thank you for joining us on this episode of "Guns" by RPG X-Ray.

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

So for me, my appendix X has been, I've been playing Starfield. Yeah, I think there's a lot of different opinions on Starfield out there. So for folks who don't know, Starfield is a big space exploration video game. And it clearly, clearly derives a ton of inspiration from Traveler. I think that Traveler is not one of the foundational games for the three of us. You know, I think in the 80s, we were on a lot of other systems, but Traveler was not one of them for us. And I've gone back, you know, in recent years and read Traveler and explore the different rule books, the different settings I've yet to ever run it, but from everything I've read it, you could just see the inspiration oozing into this game. And it made me think a lot about, there's a lot of Starfield that is as sandboxy as I think you can get for a game that is 2000 plus people or whatever. I don't know how many people worked on it for years and years and years where, you know, you, you don't, you're not just using your imagination. You have to actually create the pixels and create the world to put the characters that ended in the scripts, et cetera. It still manages to feel very sandboxy. I could go wherever I want. I could be a pirate. I could be, uh, I could go on all sorts of different quests that feel more like what I read from Traveler. What's interesting to me though, is that mix of creating a narrative through line and also having the sandbox material and for Starfield that is kind of clearly delineated for some quests are here's your storyline quests and here's some quests that are kind of more like your activities. These are things that you're off doing at an adventure, but they're not part of like a core narrative of a game. And it's made me think a little bit about my own tension that I have at games where I clearly want to tell some sort of a story. I have an idea in my head, but I don't want to railroad it. The interesting thing with Starfield is that there's a very player facing notion of this as part of the storyline. And this is part of kind of side quests. And it made me think about the kind of the old X files thing where one week would be the monster of the week and the other week would be like the storyline, right? The mythos episodes. Yeah. And you know, and you do like when the, when it's, when the, when the episode started within a few minutes, you're like, Oh, this is a mythos one. Right. And it didn't really, in my memory, ever mix the two too much. Right. And I, I maybe start to think about what I ever bring something like that to the table where, you know, the characters kind of know, here's the thing that I'm authoring that you can participate in. But here's a world of sandboxy stuff you can do and you can explore it as much as you want. But when you kind of want to get back to the authored material, here's a way in. And when you want to get kind of in the sandboxing world, here's the way that I've never done that. I've always tried to intermingle them and I've never created like a player facing notion there. So it's something that's been kind of kicking around in my head a bit of something that, you know, I will do someday when I retire and run infinite games all day. So yeah. My wife did. She loves it. She absolutely loved it. Yeah. Is that, so that's a show that did a similar thing or cause I always thought that was purely monster of the week. Oh, okay. Yeah, go, go, go on, go on. I will. I will. And. Right. Oh, okay. Huh? Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. Hey.

Erik:

I've been reading a state lately, which is a forged in the dark cyberpunk game.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

And they do actually something similar where, like many forged in the dark games, they have, it's very player driven and the players choose their missions based off of the state of their group. But in addition, they have a overarching danger clock, which is kind of the arc for the whole mini campaign.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

And so you might be undertaking a mission which is about like, we need to add a new claim to our corner, which is like a, you know, like a hold.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

But at the same time, if you do that, the danger clock keeps ticking and you either need to then counter it, or you need to react to, you know, the badness that it causes. And the campaign is really like, okay, it gets to the end once you're able to clear the danger clock.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. Can I?

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

[BLANK_AUDIO] Yeah, I love that. I've also been playing with it as a tool and trying to figure out where does it fit into my toolbox. So I would love to talk about that.[BLANK_AUDIO] Yeah, let's do it. And yes, your protein of choice. So let's start by talking a little bit about progression. What is it? We call this defining our terms. The definition that I wrote down really quickly before the episode is that progression is a system or set of systems in the rules where players, where characters actually, not players, but where characters advance mechanically through the course of the game. I don't know if that's the right definition because it excludes some stuff. It definitely excludes narrative advancement, which is like, oh, I got married, I had children, I got a house. And it also excludes, it says advancement, not change. And so it excludes things where it's just change. I think actually, Jason, at the beginning of the episode, you mentioned, oh, my character got a scar, right? That's a change, but not necessarily an advancement or in some cases, it's not an advancement at all, right?

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

It's actually like the Doom spiral in Call of Cthulhu.

Jason:

Hey, say it.

Erik:

So what do you guys think about that definition? Is it too restrictive?

Jason:

I think it's, I think it's totally where I like, cause what you want to separate.

Erik:

[silence]

Jason:

So here's an example. If I got a plus one four pole sword, is that progression or is that not? I do too.

Erik:

Actually, I think it's progression.[silence]

Jason:

Right? Yeah, I absolutely do. Right. If my character gets married in the game, I think that's progression.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Jason:

Right. Yeah.

Erik:

So what's the difference between just the narrative advancing, right?

Jason:

I, I have a hard time separating those two because to me in my head, progression is something

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

Or, you know, moving, the narrative moving forward. What's the difference between that and having progression in a game?[silence]

Jason:

like the player when they're going home from being at my table has in their head. Like I can't wait until next session because this one, this thing happened to me and I can't wait to go make use of it or, or explore that further. To me, that's progression in, in a game. And I think that's sometimes very deeply intertwined with narrative change.

Erik:

So I definitely, I think that when you say that, it makes me think about the topic of progressions as different from incentives.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

While I think these are very related topics, I'm not sure that for me personally, I think incentives is only one of the roles that progression can play, right?

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

Which is like, actually, I think it does two things, right? There is a sense in which, for video games, right, video games often have very strong progression mechanics.

Jason:

Was it

Erik:

And they do the video game thing where they put the feedback right up front in front of you so you can see what's my score right now and how many points do I have left till I get to the next level.

Jason:

right?

Erik:

And it's all that dopamine kind of, you know, casino style, you know, driving people to engage. The other thing that I think an incentive does is that it defines a standard of great play.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

And I actually think that people, this is one of the reasons that people who harp on progression systems tend to harp on progression systems.

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

Which is that you have to be really careful if you're going to define a standard of play that it's really what you want to see in your game. Because people will take cues from it. I don't know that they're driven in a Pavlovian sense, but if you only get XP for combat, then you're saying your game is about combat and that this is what the game wants you to do.

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

Yep.

Jason:

That's right. That's right. And I, and I think, you know, the classic example of this was back in the day with basic D and D you got experience for the gold that you got out of the Dutch chip in addition to the

Erik:

Yep.

Jason:

monsters that you killed. Right. Yeah. It was right. Yeah. Yeah. I I'm with you. Yeah.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

Yeah. It, it, it, it, it. Yeah. I think you're exactly right. I guess that gets to Eric's exact point, which is because that was a thing, even whether you were the DM at the table, pushing that idea, the players reacted to it because it

Ethan:

Yeah.

Jason:

was part of the core mechanical progression of the game. It was what they was told to them. This is how you advance. And so then they're going to go do the things that make them advance. Right. So.

Ethan:

So I would add one other element there.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

So okay, I guess we've alluded to this or maybe mention it explicitly, but there's kind of externalized to the character and internalized advancement, right?

Jason:

Right.

Ethan:

So you could have XP, which is derived from gold or from whatever. I mean, we're talking about ancient D&D now. There's also the external advancement of opening up a new level in the dungeon, for instance. So you could actually have, and I guess implicitly there are both video games and RPGs where you have kind of a purely exploration based advancement.

Jason:

Uh, yeah.

Erik:

Yeah.

Ethan:

You could play a whole dungeon where your character doesn't level up, theoretically. Obviously, most dungeons were not designed like that, where you just keep going deeper and deeper and deeper. And the dopamine hit, I guess, is like the finding the secret door, finding the stairway down, and you are able to explore this whole new space, which is cool.[BLANK_AUDIO]

Jason:

If I could expand upon that. So Eric and I, along with some others are playing through the blade runner starter set right now, and it's clearly in a sense, a time boxed game for us and that we're going to play through the starter set and maybe we'll continue to the new adventures that they just announced. But I don't think anybody is sitting there thinking, Oh, the blade runner rules have a mechanic where I earn promotion points and I can't wait to finish this case. So I get promotion points so I can call in bigger equipment and favors from the sci-fi LAPD. Instead, I think the progression is the kind of dopamine hit that you just described Ethan, which is every time they have a revelation in the case and they make progress in the case, that's the progression that I think the players are feeling from session to session. Oh, we got a layer deeper in the mystery and we kind of know a little bit more about what's happening right now. So I'm with you, Ethan, that that's not always a mechanical thing that is opening up a new layer of the dungeon or getting to a new layer in the mystery is also a form of progression. I think in players eyes. Okay.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

Okay. Yeah.

Erik:

One of the other roles that I think mechanical progression does, which I think is actually really central to the idea of progression, is that it allows for an increased scope of game. So what do I mean by that? I mean that if you're having a one shot, then progression is not an important element of the game. Because the truth is your incentive for playing the game isn't get XP. Your incentive is to have a fun time, right? And there are many ways to do that, among them this dopamine thing. But if you're going to have campaign play that is, you know, very, very, very long, then you need to have some type of change that happens.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

You don't need, but it is an advantage to have some type of change that happens in the game over time, that changes the nature or flavor of the game in a way that it helps keep things fresh and new.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

That's a value that makes it easier to run multi-year campaign kind of play. It's actually the place where I think 5e and Dungeons and Dragons as a whole, like what is the thing that it's done so good that it really has so many people playing it.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

And to me, it's that they have such a complex, detailed, rich advancement progression system. At every level, you're getting like new options and they feel really different. And this is why I think generally speaking, outside of some hardcore nerds like the people here, if you see long-term three, four-year campaigns, 9.8 times out of 10, those are Dungeons and Dragons campaigns because progression allows for increased scope.

Jason:

Yeah.

Ethan:

Okay, here.

Jason:

Hey.

Erik:

And I think, and my question is does narrative stuff, do narrative change do that as well? Sorry, Ethan, I didn't mean to cut you off.

Ethan:

[BLANK_AUDIO]

Erik:

Great. Awesome.

Ethan:

Yeah, no, it's okay. I have an answer for you. Provisional answer. Well, I'm going to pitch you this. Here's my opinion.

Jason:

Hi.

Ethan:

Dungeons and Dragons, which by the way, that type of character advancement where it's all like power and skill based, absolutely has ceased to interest me. 14 year old me, 100% into it. 24 year old me now. No, I'm just not interested at all.

Erik:

Yeah.

Ethan:

But I would say that that advancement is just a way of accidentally engineering character arc. And so in other words, I think that when your character is leveling up and getting those new skills, yes, that's cool.

Erik:

Yes.

Jason:

Hey.

Ethan:

But what's actually happening is it's a forcing function that creates circumstances in which your character through the ability to express new skills or powers has to change fundamentally.

Jason:

Hey.

Ethan:

Like personality or experientially, backstory, like it's creating new layers of narrative. And while on the surface it may look like my character has these awesome new powers, it's more that the character is then having to grapple or experience new strength or new opportunities or the repercussions of having those powers.

Erik:

Yes.

Ethan:

Or some players may lean into that character development, some players may not lean into it, but I think implicitly it's there. And that narrative character development is sort of like a side effect of the mechanical advancement that you see in D&D.

Erik:

Yes.

Ethan:

And some games are purely that character development, obviously. My hypothesis here is that that's sort of the fundamental experience is the character development. And that's why it's successful. That's the new RPG standard. If you look at online play, like streaming play, it's almost always about narrative arc, character arc.

Erik:

So let me push on that for a second.

Ethan:

Yeah, I'm not sure I'm right about that, by the way. I just wanted to take an extreme position and see if we can untopple it over, dread style.[silence]

Erik:

There's definitely meat there. So, I mean, I've talked to many people, actually, Brendan, who is often on the podcast, but who's not here this week, I think it feels even more strongly than you do about how he is super uninterested in what they would call power gaming, right? And that that gets rolled up into this concept of advancement. Definitely what resonates with me in like when I was hearing you and I was getting excited about the things that you were saying, part of it was like, and actually it is character development. I agree with you.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

Like that resonated with me, but also it's plot development. You know, in comic books, they often talk about how some superheroes are neighborhood level heroes and some are citywide heroes and some are, you know, that alpha tier and advancement allows for changing play by having that advancement in the story.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

Yeah, I like that a lot, Eric.

Erik:

Because as you get more powerful, the story is expected to change and the types of conflict that you're resolving change.

Jason:

And I think that when you tie that kind of progression in mechanically, it becomes even more powerful, which I think is also kind of part of your D and D thing is that it's the narrative is also represented mechanically, which then it's better supports that expansion and play.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

And I'll use an example. I think the progression and blades in the dark, the meta progression of your hideout and your gangs turf and the context that you're building that to me was the most exciting part of our blade to the dark play. I enjoyed the world building.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

I enjoyed the heists. I enjoyed the flashbacks, but I always really appreciated the downtime aspects of it. And I felt like such a deeper sense of progression of us as a gang building out kind of that stuff in between our adventures. And I think that that lends to that expansion of play that you just discussed. I think that the expansion play added to our ability to create new narratives, which then advanced our characters.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

And it's part of why I think the only thing that would bring me back to the D and D power gamer kind of five thing is some of the stuff that Matt Colville has been doing with like strongholds and followers and tying a little bit back to basic D and D again, where you moved from. And I guess this goes to Eric's comic book example. You started there with the red box as neighborhood adventurers. And by the time you got to the expert rules or the immortal rules, you were world spanning

Erik:

So let me ask a question to both of you here, and I'm not totally not trying to score points or anything.

Jason:

adventures with kingdoms and territory and followers.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

And I think that's that combo of narrative and mechanical heft that really creates at the table a better way to expand the narrative and adventure characters. Like back to my original point.

Erik:

I just am trying to get to the heart of the...no, right.

Ethan:

Well scoring points would be a form of advancement, so it's okay.

Jason:

Yes, it would be.

Erik:

It totally would. Yes. Okay.

Jason:

Yes.

Erik:

So, and I'm sure it is super clear that out of the three of us here, I'm the one who is the most comfortable with that style of play.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

I'm currently playing Baldur's Gate 3 and I find the advancement there to be very enjoyable and good and something that is firing my dopamine and changing the nature of play.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

And I look forward to that next power.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

And hopefully maybe part of that is because I'm playing alone and so there's no worry about that social dynamic of like toxic nerdistry. My question to you is, you both said, "Hey, I'm not super interested in this anymore." Does that also mean that you find yourself playing shorter length games?

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

And that maybe what's going on is that my point is that maybe I should reframe my point as saying that boredom and repetition is a problem in longer campaigns and progression is a tool for tackling that. And so if you're not going to run a two, three year campaign, then maybe that that problem just isn't there. I don't know what you guys think.

Ethan:

If you take my premise, which I think is probably overstated, but at the same time the idea that mechanics are a proxy for character development to an extent. If you look at the original kind of D&D arc, you have a lot of that development in levels 1 to 5, 1 to 10. That's an exciting time for a character. Like, "Oh, you're really coming into your own."

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

And then past that, it's diminishing returns. And then after a while, it's calculus. You're approaching the limit, but you're never achieving it.

Jason:

Effort.

Ethan:

Maybe that's the area that Matt Kilville has kind of opened up, then. He's increased the opportunity, that dynamic range. It's like HDR.

Jason:

Yeah, I think that's exactly it.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

Because if you look at what he had the team, his team did mechanically in that supplement

Erik:

Okay.

Jason:

is you translate the combat from local combat to here's what warfare looks like because there was a follow on warfare, I think focused one. I don't know. I they all blend together in my head. I have both of them. And then also the social element that becomes like a diplomacy level. I think it's a form of progression. I do kind of keep going back to Eric's construct. So he has one on this one, which is that the expansion of play the scale and scope of play. That is the progression that is really what is enabling that. Okay. Now you have followers in a kingdom. Now you're going to be talking to the queen of another kingdom and bartering with her, potentially going to war, you know, with her. And that is a new narrative unlock. We get character unlock because the you progressed in this in this particular way.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

So, and I think that if you did that without mechanical heft, you could maybe do it, but I just think it's supported by adding the additional mechanics to the progression of

Erik:

Yep.

Jason:

the progression mechanics, I think support it.

Ethan:

This is actually why I would say 5E makes a fundamental mistake, which is you start off as a hero.

Jason:

Yeah. Yeah.

Ethan:

I understand why people want that immediate rush of "I am powerful."

Erik:

Yep. Yep.

Ethan:

I keep thinking about this now as dynamic range. If you look at photographs from the '70s, it's all crushed shadows and blown-out highlights.

Erik:

Uh huh.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

There's a beauty to that and a simplicity to it. But modern photography, we have higher dynamic range sensors.

Jason:

Some of it.

Ethan:

And we've opened up the shadows and we've opened up the highlights, for better or for worse. I'm thinking about that as what Kilville has done with those expansion sets. He's where maybe Wizards has not done it. And by truncating that early experience of character development, I feel like they have lost that dynamic range in the beginning of play.[silence]

Erik:

Okay.

Jason:

Cause I do enjoy the dungeon crawl classic style of starting off. You, you know, the DCC philosophy, I would say is that, you know, and I think they explicitly say this, that heroes are formed or heroes are made, not born. I think as they're saying where you essentially start off explicitly, not as a hero, but through

Ethan:

Yeah. Yeah.[silence]

Jason:

your actions in the game, you turn into one big through your deeds and actions, et cetera. And I really liked that. So it starts in a sense in a deeper end of the dynamic range to keep using your analogy

Erik:

Yep.

Jason:

that D and D does where D and D does start you off as a hero.

Ethan:

Yeah.[silence]

Jason:

I do think what D and D does exceptionally well is as you gain mastery of mechanics progression expands upon the mechanics of the game to keep the mechanics interesting and fresh and your character doing new things. And you see that a lot of the feet system and when you gain new powers that that kind of is what that does. That's also a very video gamey thing. You know, you start off in the first level of Mario, you just kind of learn to jump over

Ethan:

Yeah.[silence]

Jason:

things and bounce on things. And then later you're kind of remixing that thing, your wall jumping, you're exploring new ways and subverting some of those mechanics. And I think that's what a lot of progression systems in tabletop role playing games do as well. Okay.

Erik:

I was reading Scott Rehm of the Angry GM and he was saying, making a similar point about for him, the best amount of distance between two progressions, two levels in 5e is three sessions.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

Because you need a session in 5e in order to get comfortable and learn your new mechanics, a second session to like, okay, now I'm using it, but I'm using its basics. And by the third, I'm really thinking about how to be creative with it.

Jason:

Okay.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

And then now here comes a new set of mechanics again.

Jason:

That's right. That's right.

Ethan:

Let me ask a question for both of you then. So we've talked about games that have this type of mechanical advancement. What games would we use as an example where there's almost no mechanical advancement, but there's still a sense of progression?

Jason:

Yeah, yeah, no, I think so.

Erik:

I think blades is a good example because there are these rule systems for how the narrative advances and that that's not just rulings or the GM coming up with what happens next, but there really are like clocks ticking and your whole crew is blowing up and able to encounter new enemies.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

But in blades, I feel like, okay, there actually there is advancement in blades too. So what about Call of Cthulhu? And my claim there is, okay, so in Call of Cthulhu, if you fail a roll, then you have a chance that at the end of the session or at the end of the adventure, your points go up.

Jason:

I think so for sure. Yeah, yeah, I'm with you.

Erik:

But I'm going to make the argument that that is such a small change that like it's like two, three points out of D100 is like nothing. It's not really advancement.

Jason:

And I would say just minor knit. I think with call a Cthulhu, it's when you succeed. And with Delta Green, it's when you fail.

Erik:

Okay, sure. Yep.

Jason:

Which, which actually speaks to their worldviews a little bit, right? As somebody who's running intermittent at this point, masks campaign for a long time, Bassem dial-up, though, tap campaign for call a Cthulhu. I never have experience where the players are like, now we get to add some more points to our horseback riding skills. Like nobody seems to care at that moment. They just want to get through it and get back to the adventure. Right. So there is progression, but the more interesting player progression and call of Cthulhu is

Erik:

Yep.

Jason:

the doom spiral. I think that taps into the kind of regression mechanic that for some thematic, some games thematically is the actual progression. And I'll use a couple examples and call a Cthulhu your gradual loss of sanity. Players always want their characters to go insane. At some point, that's like part of what they're signing up for is they want the madness. Delta Green, the degrading of the bonds with your family, or, you know, like that's part

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

of what they're signing up for. And with dungeon crawl classics, I would point to their spell casting mechanics where the spell can go haywire and beget kind of body horror mutations. There's nobody in DCC who signs up to be a spellcaster who doesn't hope their arm turns into a lobster claw at some point. Like that's part of what you want out of the game. And so to them, like progression is the regression of their character in a.

Erik:

To pull that back to what Ethan was saying, I think those two cases, DCC and Call of Cthulhu's Doom Spiral, I think are great examples of mechanics as character development.

Jason:

And I think that's a really kind of cool part of some of those games. Yeah, that's right. That's right. Yeah, you're when your character gets that lobster claw in DCC, that actually now gives

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

you some creative fodder at the table as a player, same with your bonds degrading and Delta Green, I think that that, that you end up expressing that in play. And I think that's always really cool. Hey.

Ethan:

One other example I would bring up, or I guess two, one would be in DCC, just the idea of spell burning. Where it's not just a failure-based transformation, but it's in order to achieve success, your character can burn some of their stats.

Jason:

That's right.

Erik:

Yeah.

Ethan:

So they become physically weaker, you know, you develop just a terrible personality, whatever.

Jason:

That's right. I forgot about that part. That's a really cool. Yeah.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

Yeah. Right. Yeah.

Ethan:

But you're losing your stats in order to achieve some success. And that reminds me of course of the Devil's Bargain mechanic from Blades of the Dark.

Jason:

Spell burning is such a good mechanic.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

I'm so glad you brought that up. It's actually such a, it's a progression mechanic that speaks to the appendix ad theme. And I guess maybe that's part of what we're hitting upon here is our favorite progression

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

mechanics are ones that expand the scope of play that create narrative reasons for the player's character to develop and also thematically tie back into the setting in a, in a unique way to enhance the setting. I never thought like at the beginning of this conversation that Gresham mechanics would be so core to kind of everything we talk about at the table from the world building to developing your character to wanting to play again and having fun.

Erik:

Yeah.

Jason:

I never thought of it as so intrinsic. This conversation has really kind of opened up my aperture a bit on like how important progression mechanics are.

Erik:

I think part of what I hear the group talking about today is that I totally agree with you, Jason, and it's surprising. And thinking about it, one of the things it does is that the mechanical changes, going back to what Ethan said, either if it's character development or it's the plot situational development, that kind of comic book thing we talked about,

Jason:

Hey.

Erik:

that in both cases, what's interesting and what makes the game fresh and new or different or, you know, increases engagement is when the mechanical change that happens changes the nature of the game in either the challenges that I'm overcoming or the fictional situation or the plot or my character development.

Jason:

Hey. Hey.

Erik:

What's funny is I often hear, especially in the Forged in the Dark community that I've spent some time in, people often talk about how what makes the cool developments, the cool new abilities you get, what makes them interesting is that they're not just a plus one somewhere or one extra die. They're like, they're things that give you new abilities, which is again what D&D does great. It's things like now you can act as a whole group when you're trying to do a strength feat and therefore do strength feats you couldn't do before. But I think what I'm hearing from you guys, and I agree with this actually, is that no, what makes feats, what makes progression really interesting is the extent that it changes future play. Right? And that can be in character development, that can be in plot and fictional situation, it can be for those who are very more wargamer-y about like new abilities, but that it's about changing future play.

Jason:

Yeah. That's right.

Erik:

And I think that's really interesting. And when I think about how would I do progression or offer additional progression opportunities, even if they're just fictional, right?

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

They're just in the narrative, they're not mechanical, that that's what I need to be thinking about is how can I add new things that's going to change future sessions? Right?

Ethan:

I'd like to propose I guess a definition or distinction based on what we were discussing, especially with Call of Cthulhu and probably Gumshoe and other systems like this, where you have advancement mechanics that are vestigial advancement mechanics.

Jason:

Hey.

Erik:

Mm hmm. Yep.

Ethan:

Right, they're those mechanics that we expect because they're part of RPGs. So experience or adding points to whatever skill pool.

Jason:

Hey.

Ethan:

We kind of actually end up not caring about those things at the table. And then there's the core functional or operational mechanic, which is the Doom Spiral or whatever else.

Jason:

Hey.

Ethan:

And we could probably identify different ones in different games, but that's the part that's really load-bearing.

Jason:

Right.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

I think that that's a great term for a vestigial that absolutely captures it.

Jason:

Yeah, absolutely.

Erik:

So one thing we haven't talked about yet very much is the extent to which, and I think this is really exactly the thing that maybe you guys are saying no longer interests you, is that progression provides moments of Fiero.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

So in game studies, right, Fiero is this emotion that is the feeling of raising your hands over your head and going, "Woo hoo! I accomplished something!" And it's like valuable.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

And gaining a level, if it is tied to actually achieving something in the fiction and feeling like it was something that was hard to achieve,

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

those moments of progression provide opportunities to almost look back and say, "Hey, I did this thing and it was great and look how I've changed as a result of it." And so they're almost moments of recognition. I definitely have seen some circles online who talk about the role of experience points being, or the value of them being that at the end of a session, when you walk through and you say, "Oh, this character gets this XP for this, this character gets this XP for that," which is something I don't know I've ever done because I just find that math boring,

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

but that the value of that is it's really highlighting what people are proud of in the work that they did. And I actually think some of the really modern XP systems, like Blades in the Dark, where the player gets to say, "Hey, I embodied my drive and therefore I get to mark a playbook XP," it always sat a little weird with me because by leaving it up to the player, you're kind of saying that this achievement of XP is not something to be proud of because anybody can just decide to award themselves that XP, and so it removes that moment of recapping something awesome, but I feel like that's the grognard in me.

Jason:

Well, no, no.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

[silence][silence][silence]

Jason:

And the Dune RPG all by some Medefius or Free League or.

Erik:

I was about to say, I don't remember if it's Modiphius or Freeleag. Yes.

Jason:

Okay, okay, it's similar system, right?

Erik:

Yeah.[Silence]

Jason:

Like in world specific thematic specific terms for this as kind of part of your role of like whether you're going to succeed or fail on a test or not, that felt kind of neat to me, but also kind of awkward in, in the sense of like, I think we never really embodied.

Ethan:

[silence][silence]

Erik:

Yep.[Silence]

Jason:

It never helped us embody the character as much. But then when I reflected that on both of those systems, and we only played one shot, so we didn't play these in campaign play, they felt rather static. They felt like your characters were just going to be going through a world that their station in it wasn't going to dramatically change.

Ethan:

[silence][silence]

Jason:

They were going to continue on adventures, going from one planet to another and Star Trek and experiencing what happens there, having one spice crisis after another in Dune, but the kind of drive mechanic that you're talking about there was more relegated to the tests.

Erik:

Right.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

As opposed to you resolving that as part of your progression, and I'll bring up magical kitty save the day again, I think one of the most mechanically interesting games that I play as a as a counterpoint to that where, you know, it's a children's tabletop RPG.

Erik:

[Silence] Hey.[Silence]

Jason:

And one of the things that drives the kitties that you decide at the beginning with the children you're playing with, or adults, no judgment here on who plays magical kitty saves the day is what problems you're solving for your human and what problems you're solving for your neighborhood.

Ethan:

[silence][silence]

Jason:

And when you solve one of those, that's how you get experience points and how your character progresses and your kitty gains new powers. And so there the resolution of your drive is something that creates the progression, whereas I think in some of the more cinematic games like like a Blade Runner or a Star Trek or a Dune, the drive is not as core to the progression.

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

[Silence]

Jason:

It's more core to conflict resolution. Sorry, that was an extended diadrive on that.

Erik:

Yeah, that feels right.

Ethan:

Yeah, that is interesting, Jason. Yeah. Yeah. No, no, no, no. That's deep. That is...

Erik:

Yeah.[Silence]

Jason:

Yeah, and I think it's part of what makes campaign play and magical kitty save the day interesting because you are, you know, you're you're advancing almost like almost going to take it back to basic D&D where your kitty is solving more and more difficult problems for your human and taking on larger scope problems in the neighborhood.

Ethan:

[silence]

Jason:

So.

Ethan:

You totally have to watch Veronica Mars. I'm telling you. Yeah. I'd like to read that Magical Kitty Save the Day. I've heard that advertisement so many times when Ken and Robin talk about stuff. So, yeah.

Erik:

[Laughter][Silence]

Jason:

It's really well done, it's really well done.

Ethan:

[silence] I want to make a quick comment about Fiyero, actually. So, when you were talking about Fiyero, you know, you're sort of throwing your hand. It's not just a car from Pontiac. It's, you know, that feeling, that vibe that you get, right? Throwing your hands up, being proud of something.

Erik:

Yep. Yeah.

Jason:

Right.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

I feel like we could differentiate two types of Fiyero, and this will probably... and I want to correlate them to the two types of advancement that we've been talking about, or progression, which would be, you know, sort of the D&D heroic.

Erik:

Okay.[Silence] Yep.[Silence]

Ethan:

I guess you could call these, from a literary standpoint, comedic and dramatic. You could have Fiyero, which is sort of like based on that feeling of like, man, I put in such hard work. My character struggled so much, and I succeeded. Right? That's... and yes!

Erik:

Okay.[Silence]

Jason:

As a.

Erik:

Yep.[Silence]

Ethan:

And then there's the Fiyero, which is like Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, which is like, I sacrificed so much. I've given up so much, and I've succeeded at great cost. Right?

Erik:

Oh. Yeah. Yep.

Jason:

And.

Erik:

Yep. Yep.

Ethan:

And there's a tonal valence that is different between those two. That tonal valence is achievement through sacrifice versus achievement through struggle, I guess, would be the difference between those two.

Erik:

[Silence] Totally.[Silence] Yep.[Silence]

Ethan:

Right? One is a paring away. I've sacrificed. I've given up. I've given up. I've given up. And you're sort of revealing new parts of your character by peeling away layers of what their world is, who they are, their relationships, etc, etc. Whereas the other one you're building up, building up, building up a new form. Right? One is like chipping away the marble, and the other one is building up the clay.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

Yep.[Silence]

Ethan:

And you get something beautiful in each case, but from a very different procedure.

Erik:

Yeah. In a way, it's like a more abstract way of defining, okay, there are two different ways to have great play, right?

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

One is about really investigating what am I willing to give up for this, right?

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

And the other is like, is a style of great play that is about like, how creative and smart can I be about interacting within my environment? And in this ruling space world of RPGs, is my great play, can I overcome this challenge versus what am I really willing to give up here?[Silence]

Ethan:

[silence]

Erik:

At the end of the episode, I think we'd like to talk about what would we take away from this conversation back to our tables?

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

Interestingly for me, I would say that this really sparked a desire to go read Adventurer Conqueror King, which is just tying it back to that sense of like fictional change.

Jason:

Yeah.

Erik:

And that is a system that is, I think, known for really doubling down on these tiers of play as you move through the game, and it's really built on that. I'm really interested to go see how they do it.

Jason:

The revelation that came to me at this time was how central the progression mechanics are to what the players are going to do at inevitably do at the table.

Erik:

[Silence]

Jason:

And if you can embrace that, you end up actually creating a better thematic engagement or a better engagement with a theme of the world. And then you can then use that to expand the scope and scale of the problems that the players face. And so I always viewed progression as the kind of between session thing that happens where we're going to do a little bit of administration.

Erik:

[Silence][Silence]

Jason:

And now let's like roll some dice and check some boxes, and that's what I have to like find where the erasers are and not just the pencils. But now it makes me think when I'm prepping an adventure, regardless of what system, how am I reflecting the progression mechanics into the adventure itself?

Erik:

[Silence][Silence]

Jason:

And I think the more I can tie that into the play at the table, the better my games are going to be.

Ethan:

So I probably will take three key points away from this. One is that tonal valence between different types of Fiyero. Like, really focusing on that. Previously I would have played Call of Cthulhu, and still, always in the back of my mind, had that like, "Well, we need more skill points at this point."

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

You know, like that's sort of the advancement mechanic. But leaning into progression, the true progression being the sacrifices made in that scenario.

Jason:

Okay.

Ethan:

So, tonal valence of Fiyero. That'd be point one. Point two would be looking hard at the vestigial mechanics versus the load-bearing mechanics in games. Like, kind of revisiting that maybe. And maybe having that as a framework for how I interpret new rulesets as I read them.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

Yep.[Silence]

Ethan:

The next ruleset being Magical Kitties. Save the day, of course. Third point would be the concept of narrative dynamic range being really critical to the success of the sense of play. And sort of like, if you look at rule systems as like camera sensors, some of them are really good at certain, you know, certain tonal, certain dynamic ranges.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

They're very sensitive, but they compress in other areas. And the idea that, for instance, some add-ons or some expansions would expand the dynamic range, like we talked about, like the Goldville set.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

So those three points, I think I'm going to take away from this discussion.

Erik:

Can I just add there that, because you're making me think about it, the two types of Fiero, definitely we are all in a game with Brendan playing Alien.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Erik:

And I think it's an immediate opportunity for me to take that other sense of Fiero, that sacrifice sense, and really I hope to bring that to the game.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

And I'm actually super excited by that. Well, that's it for this episode of RPG X-Ray. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review on your favorite podcast platform. It really helps get the word out.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

Your feedback also helps us improve the show and reach more listeners who share our passion for role-playing games.

Ethan:

As always, we hope this episode has given you some new insights and ideas for your own table. If you have any feedback or suggestions for future episodes, please reach out to us on our website or social media channels available in the show notes and at RPGXray.com.

Erik:

[Silence]

Ethan:

Thank you.

Jason:

Okay.

Erik:

[ Silence ]