Fighting Fantasy and Character Advancement

There are a few issues I often find with rules-light RPGs. Some have easy fixes, others are simply compromises that you have to live with if you want to minimise your mechanics. The one I’m thinking about today is character progression.

Watching your character develop as they achieve their goals and survive their failures can be great, but it can easily break a game. Competent low-power characters can leave you with little range in your dice mechanics for building that character. My Tribe 8 campaign (years ago) was going great until PCs powered up too much and the system broke. Alternatively, if beginner characters start rubbish, some players never get to higher levels because they get bored of wiffing. Anyone who has played the Warhammer Fantasy RPG or the 40k games based on it, will know the pain of new characters trying to hit, well, anything.

Bounded accuracy in D&D 5e is one solution. Characters start reasonably competent and the actual odds of hitting don’t change much throughout the progression from level 1 to 20. Characters instead gain new abilities, feats and spells every level. Bounded to-hit bonuses are also matched by a truncated range of Armour Class for opponents, and the linear, swingy d20 also helps ensure that the game remains interesting towards the extremes.

All of this was running through my mind as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do for my return to Fighting Fantasy Roleplaying. I am planning to use it for short campaigns, maybe up to a dozen sessions? So some character advancement would be nice but it isn’t exactly required. That being said, I would like to have the option of running longer campaigns and I’d like other groups to have the option of using it for an extended campaign with all the character advancement that requires.

I don’t have many options here for improvements. Characters are only defined by three stats, (Skill, Stamina, Luck) and a few Backgrounds. Increasing Skill will be pretty massive, so maybe only doable once or twice per character. +1 Skill would mean quite different things for different characters, which is nice. Those with 10 Skill and no Backgrounds would move up to a formidable 11 Skill for combat, but will still be relying on Luck for everything else. Characters which start with 7 Skill and 3 Backgrounds will advance from being a jack-of-all-trades to a competent generalist both in and out of combat. I think a character who starts at 8 Skill and 2 Backgrounds would possibly gain the biggest benefit from an increase in Skill as rolling 9 or less is a pretty safe bet and having that on two different areas of expertise will be very useful.

Adding new Backgrounds to a character will have a similar effect on character competence. So I could say that a character advance is either +1 Skill or a new Background. I want to try and avoid having character with a Skill of 12 and some backgrounds because then it will be impossible to fail. I could say that a double six always fails though, that would mean that after Skill 11 increases to your Skill usually only affect your combat ability. A hard limit of two Skill/Background advances would probably be sensible.

Stamina and Luck can also be increased, and with a lesser effect on overall character power. I’m thinking that I could put in alternate advances of either +1 Luck or +4 Stamina.

It might look something like this,

1st +1 Luck or +4 Stamina
2nd +1 Skill or +1 Background
3rd +1 Luck or +4 Stamina
4th +1 Skill or +1 Background
5th +1 Luck or +4 Stamina

If the GM was to hand out one of these after every three or four sessions, then they would be good for about twenty sessions. That would be enough for most games. These characters will be super competent by the end, but that can be a good thing if that’s the sort of heroic adventure you are going for. For a longer game characters could start a couple of advances lower (Sk 9, St 2d6+8, Lu d6+5) to give more room to grow.

The thing is, this isn’t what I had in mind when I started, and while it would work, it’s messy. When I feel like a design isn’t working I look back at my original intent, in this case, “Make an RPG which plays and feels like the FF gamebooks.” Characters didn’t grow like this in the gamebooks… Except just once, in the Sorcery! Series.

The Sorcery books were four linked adventures where the hero you make in book 1 carries all the way through to book 4, and they do grow. There’s a few points where they grow through achievements and awards. I think if you find and kill all seven serpents in book 3 you get +2 to your Skill for book 4. Mostly though, advancement is through equipment. A ring which boosts your Luck, a sword which boosts your Skill. I think there might have been some magic armour or a shield too.

This is what I was looking for. At the end of a big adventure, you get an advancement like in the table above. But this only happens every dozen sessions or so. It’s a big thing. The rest of the time, your characters are gaining smaller advancements through the weapons, trinkets and spells they find.

This is great because magic items can come with drawbacks as well as bonuses, and you can only carry so many of them, both of which help keep tabs on the power creep. Also I was trying to figure out a way to keep weapons interesting without a lot of detail to make them different. This way players can choose from a short list of basic weapons at the start but then find weapons which are actually better as they adventure. It’s not too complicated because players only need to learn them one at a time and I don’t have to make sure they are all equivalent and balanced because the players need to find them to use them.

Basic Weapons

  • Knife (Light, d6-1)
  • Sword (Medium, d6)
  • Mace (Heavy, d6+1)

Advanced Weapons

  • Spear (Medium, 2H, d6 | Due to the long reach, take no damage the first time you lose in each combat)
  • Flail (Medium, d6 | Inflict your damage when tied in combat)
  • Axe (Heavy, 2H, d6+2 | Good for breaking doors & chests)
  • Cutlas (Light, d6)
  • Magic Sword (Medium, d6+2 | Mind of it’s own -1 Skill, Glows just enough that monsters can see you coming)
  • Large Hammer (Heavy, d6+1 | Double damage if you roll a double)

It looks good but I’m going to think about it. They certainly look like the sort of stuff you find in the gamebooks. I still need to figure out what I want to do with armour and shields too.

More soon!

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