The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 2)

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First Part here.

B: Tabletop Progress

It could be said that the origins of tabletop RPG’s (and by extension of CRPG’s) can be traced back to tabletop/board games, as well as on storytelling and character acting. Let’s examine how progress appears in each of these:

A game, of any genre and form whatsoever, includes in its structure the notion of progression, of working towards an objective. The objective could be set by the game itself (via existing rules) or by the player, and could be set in stone, or be constantly changing. Whatever its nature, an objective requires a response on the part of the player, leading towards either its completion or its abandonment. A response is a choice and an action, however trivial it may be, physical or mental in nature. The player, responding to an objective, re-establishes his position inside the game’s infrastructure, for better, for worse, or inconsequently.

In the vast majority of board games, the whole of action takes place on a single gaming session (which, in extreme cases could be separated in more temporal spaces, but this is purely of a practical nature), the players antagonizing or cooperating towards a number of objectives, which are pre-existing (of the session itself) and incorporated in the whole structure of the game. The game progresses as one, more, or all of the players draw closer to the completion of the objective(s). This progression could entail an increase in difficulty, resources, risk, complexity, or any combination of these. The fact remains, that the players are presented with a goal, which they must achieve, so as to win the game. One could speak about two basic game states: Win and non-Win. The Win state is presented as the desired one, as better for the player than the non-Win one, which is the absence of the Win state, as far as the game is concerned. Thus, the notion of progress appears. One must work towards the improvement of his state. This is not to say that the path towards the Win state is trivial to the player experience of the game; in most cases this path is the game itself, and many players are only interested in this path, in the feel of the game mechanics and their implementation inside the game. But the idea of progress is essential, since it showcases the starting and end point of this path of indulging in the game mechanics.

The difference of progress between board games and tabletop RPG’s lies mainly on the former’s independence of each game session. Progress in a board game is self-contained inside each session. After each session of play, whatever progress has been made (leading to victory, or not) is erased, discarded, so as in the next session all players begin at the starting point, the whole of progress being in front of them (apart from meta-thinking and rules/structure understanding). Thus, progress is contained and remains unimportant outside a particular session. The mental image of a cyclical process is fitting, the linearity of progress being apparent only in each session.

On the other hand, RPG progress is cumulative between each game session, at least as far as the same story (and probably the same characters, but not always) is utilized. Especially the concept of campaign (as a grand story arc, or a collection of adventures) is based upon the characters’ progress inside the story. The lack of “Win” states, in fact the absence of win conditions in the rules, makes it possible for the players involved to keep setting new goals for the characters ad infinitum. Long-term thinking has a definite place here, since the character development is crucial to the evolution of the campaign itself. What has been mentioned in Part A is applicable here. There are of course the exceptions of the one-shot sessions or adventures, which however are not the norm, are more akin to a board game or a small theatrical play, and almost always do not take into account a large pillar of the genre, namely character development (through game mechanics). Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu adventures is a prime example of situations that tend to escalate frequently towards that kind of experience.

Apart from board games (and gaming in general), storytelling and acting/impersonation of characters, are also pillars of role playing games, maybe the most important ones. But progress in storytelling is only a necessary characteristic from a technical point of view: since a story must be told, recited, its external structure must have a beginning and end, though its content can be free of such linear shackles. On no account is the ending to be considered, from a formalist standpoint, as an improvement of the beginning, or vice versa. Still, the gradual revealing of the story’s content, plot, and folds, can be considered a sort of progression towards improvement of knowledge of the listener, concerning the specified story, creating thus a progress through quantitative assimilation. But between that and the betterment of the individual that assimilates the story lies a wide gulf, that is totally subjective and circumstantial.

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The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 1)

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A: A general perspective

The concept of progress is deeply rooted in the RPG genre (pen & paper or otherwise), the most obvious expression of it being the whole leveling structure. A character (or a multitude of them) almost universally sets out (the spatial verb is not ambiguously chosen, for progress is based upon spatiotemporal pillars) as a “low-level” (meaning weak in comparison to most challenges lying ahead) person, who is bound to improve (in an array of personality characteristics – physical, mental, social) as time passes, space is explored, and she indulges in actions that either hone her skills, expand her understanding of the world, help other beings, etc. This improvement is of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature, as will be apparent below. The implication of a forward movement towards this practical betterment of the being is evident.

The notion of Progress is deeply rooted in western thought, as much as is the linear concept of time. Those 2 concepts are irrevocably intertwined in the mental construction of evolution through time, namely the idea that as time progresses, so civilization as a whole evolves, improving in comparison to its past aspects; not necessarily in every single time step it takes, but on a macro temporal level – for example: “civilization (and through it humanity) has improved during the last century, it has moved forward”. It seems that our linguistic mentality has connected the spatial (and subjective) term “forward” with the future (though on a subtler level this is not always the case – see for instance the phrase “winter has moved on”, which refers to a past season as having moved on, implying forwards). Still, it is good to remember that progress is not a humanity-wide idea (the Australian Aborigines for instance have no concept of it).

Returning to role playing games, let’s trace progress inside the mechanics of the genre. As mentioned, leveling is perhaps the single most obvious mechanical structure that is tied to the progress wheel. The whole leveling process is usually depicted in tables, in which a direction is specified as that of progression through the levels (usually from top to bottom, but not always so). Story matters aside (though even there we say that we want to see how the story unfolds or progresses) one of the reasons that we play RPG’s is to improve our character. How is that achieved? It depends on the game system, but in most of them, the experience point gain is central. Experience point: the word experience refers to a past event, experienced by the character, that has in a certain way enriched the character’s being, thus making it more “powerful”. All past experiences that matter (a thing decided both by the rules and by the dungeon master – in the tabletop/pen & paper variety) are enumerated and categorized, each translated to a certain number (or fraction possibly) of points. These are added up, summarized, and the specific nature of the event experienced is lost once turned to points (we do not usually have many categories of XP – for instance social, combat, etc). Thus, knowledge (as experience) is revealed in the game as cumulative and progressive, always adding upon the existing corpus of experience, as it was considered by science before quantum physics (and philosophy) came in to view. Whatever one experiences (apart from certain niche encounters – as are the level-draining undead in D&D for instance) contributes towards this character’s betterment.

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Thus is leveling made possible through the adding up of past experiences, leading to the Level-Up! Moment, the culmination of the effort and time invested (see below), and an improved character. But what is exactly entailed in this improvement? Most, if not all, of the character improvements are of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature. Incoming damage threshold (aka hit points) is increased, more skills are added to the character’s arsenal, some innate powers could appear or be awakened, and inherent stats (corresponding to physical, mental, or other abilities) are improved. The practical nature of the improvements is necessary, in order for the player to fully reap the fruits of his labour. If the improvement was of a theoretical, conceptual or mental nature, then they would simply serve the character and not the player, apart from situations of great identification between the two. To clarify this, how can a player feel, understand, and experience an attribute improvement, for example the rise of his character’s Intelligence by a number of points? Only through indirect means, by application of the new attribute or attribute bonus in situations where it is required to overcome an obstacle, or through the empowerment of a spell, the acquisition of a new one, etc, since direct perception of the improvement is out of the question (the player’s intelligence, if such a thing exists, is obviously not raised by the raise of the character’s one).

Thus, one ends up leveling through the accumulation of experience through a number of encounters experienced by his character, in order to improve the character, so as to be able to see the change in the overcoming of more encounters, which are required to level furthermore; a hamster’s wheel of sorts, that obviously does not take into account the desire of the player to experience a story or a game world. My focus here concerns the leveling mechanics and their progressive nature, which is somehow reflective of the frantic and vain quest for progress that permeates the western thought, at least from the Enlightenment paradigm shift onwards.

Of great importance is the idea underlying the whole aforementioned structure, that one can improve through devoting a quantity of a “currency” towards that improvement, whereas the currency is time, effort of thought, hand-to-eye coordination (in certain cRPG’s). This exchange (one could say investment, though an investment is an exchange nonetheless) is in the core of most RPG’s. Time improves the being. Improving it in a way that is meaningful for (and is subservient to) the situations arising inside the game worlds, governed by the game rules. The progress framework is set by the game itself, and the character follows this (more or less) linear course through it, a course whose end point is occasionally the level-cap.

Second Part here.