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I've been fiddling around with a game system for some time (ever since the 2010 Game Chef competition) that's based around characters that are shape-shifters. Because of this, characters have a fluid dice pool that they can move around their different Attributes so that their stats shift throughout the game. There are some limits to this, so they can't just do it at the drop of a hat, but obviously it gives even starting characters a lot of flexibility.

That said, I haven't included any mechanism for character advancement--no XP, no gaining a level, no adding another d6 to your dice pool. At this point, the dice pool acts as their health as well (I won't go into detail, since it's mostly irrelevant to the question). Given that, I don't want players to just end up with nigh-infinite health by gaining more dice throughout the game. As it stands, the best you would get as far as advancement would be that it could become easier for you to shape-shift, say you can do it faster or into a wider variety of shapes, but that would pretty much be a situational thing in-story as shape-shifting is ritualized. I really like the idea of the game being mechanically light-weight, but I might be overdoing it.

TL;DR Is an rpg still fun for more than a one-off session if there's no mechanical character advancement?

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I'd say yes (some games I've played involve the players getting worse over time, with lots of fun to be had). Separately, I'm not sure how this is an answerable question, as it's effectively a poll to see if people might enjoy this. –  Ian Pugsley Dec 21 '11 at 18:37
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@Ian Good answers will provide arguments and at-table experience. Great ones will provide direct experience with similar designs and/or citations of research on the matter. See: Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. –  AceCalhoon Dec 21 '11 at 18:42
    
@AceCalhoon given that he's not getting into detail of the rules themselves, it doesn't seem like he's asking "How can I change my system to be fun despite a lack of char. advancement?" nor "What systems succeed despite a lack of char. advancement?" I'm not saying there's nothing here (the contrary, I think this is an excellent subject) - rather, I don't know if the question is phrased correctly for the desired answers. I'd recommend adding a request for details of similar successful (read: fun) games in of this type to succeed. –  Ian Pugsley Dec 21 '11 at 20:05
    
@IanPugsley—Now you're moving away from subjective, and towards lists. Personally, I like the question how it is (tho the TL;DR doesn't summarize it nicely, imo.) –  dlras2 Dec 21 '11 at 20:16
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3 Answers 3

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I would argue that "mechanical character advancement" isn't necessary, but advancement as a whole is.

Non-mechanical Character Advancement could fille this purpose. This could be accomplished not with dice and stats, but with abilities granted as plot points, character development by the player and the GM (GM's acknowledging character development is very important,) or some other manner.

The point is, players don't like feeling like they're playing the exact same character the whole time. The mechanical system addresses this by increasing power and abilities at set intervals (levels) because you can't write mechanical-based plot advancement. Players love trying new things, and even if you don't use levels, giving them new items, special abilities, or some other "new thing" can fill this desire players have.

Story and Setting Advancement can also work, even without any character advancement. The first think that pops into my head at this is the Myst series. Your character (to the best of my knowledge) never changes. You don't level, gain abilities, run faster, etc. What advances is the plot. And with the plot advancements comes new worlds, settings, and puzzles, each unique. This would be an amazing game to play—even if your characters never changed—but it would necessarily be heavily role-played and non-combat-centric. Note, though, that you're moving away from role-playing games and towards puzzle games and storytelling. Some players may love this, and some may just want to kick in doors; this is up to you to gauge for your group (probably by asking them!)

Admittedly, a dynamic setting and story line are goals of any RPG, but in the non-mechanical character-advancement system you're proposing, it would be absolutely essential. Unfortunately, it would be lots and lots and lots of work. Think about how many hours of planning went into each of your favorite RPGs, and now reproduce that level of intricacy for your campaign, each time. It's doable, and can be a lot of fun, and super rewarding, but sometimes is infeasible.

In conclusion, it could absolutely make for a great game. But it would never work as a "system." You may be able to publish adventures on it, but you couldn't go the D&D route and successfully publish rule-books. Without mechanical character advancement, you really cannot build advancement into a system like that, and it's entirely up to the GM to add it.

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Mechanical advancement is only one part of character advancement. So long as the characters are developing with relation to the plot, mechanical advancement can be avoided all together.

Primetime Adventures is the only system I can think of off the top of my head that completely forgoes mechanical advancement (although it does have mechanics that ensure your character's plot gets advanced, so in a roundabout way I guess it is in there).

Dogs in the Vineyard is another interesting example, because its mechanics for character development don't necessarily result in character advancement - players can choose to develop their character by reducing dice or removing traits etc, as is appropriate to the story.

It's worth noting that both of these systems are really only designed for up to a dozen sessions at most. That's not to say that it wouldn't be perfectly reasonable to carry on such a system for longer, but you have to be very careful to avoid stagnation. If your game contains combat, without some kind of external variety, the players will just develop a tactic and stick to it.

Ultimately my answer is yes, it can still be fun, but you have to be careful. Development is an important aspect of an long-running game, so if you're going to drop it entirely from the character sheets you need to be very confident about the variety the rest of your game can provide.

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I don't think a game like that will only work as a one-shot, but I also don't think I'd run anything longer than 4 or 5 sessions with it.

One variable to consider is how often players will be rolling dice. Will a character make a roll using his best attribute twice a session or fifty times a session? The fewer rolls your characters are making the more time you'll get as they continue to tweak the character. The way I see it is that they may not advance in the sense of gaining more points, but they'll advance in terms of how finely tuned their characters are.

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I disagree with your conclusion; I know most of the people I play with fine-tune their character as much as possible from the start (min-maxing). They would not change their strategy or character without some external impetus such as a new item or ability, and would most likely tire very quickly without them. (Granted, this might not be the type of player you want to target.) –  dlras2 Dec 21 '11 at 18:50
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@DanRasmussen Depends on the system. The players I know min-max the systems they've played before. They're more willing to just run with a new system and see what happens. I'm going with the assumption that this particular system is going to be treated as a first play, rather than something you've done several times before. I also think players are more likely to adjust on the fly when their stats are modular instead of set in stone. –  valadil Dec 21 '11 at 19:39
    
Both very good points. Perhaps we just need to break out of comfortable d20 system. =] –  dlras2 Dec 21 '11 at 19:41
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