Character Advancement in RPGs

”Action is [Spider-Man’s] reward.”
— Xander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“Leveling-up” has become such a ubiqitous part of the RPG experience it has even survived the migration to console games, where character advancement is heavily based on it. Nearly every RPG includes some kind of “advancement” system, generally along the lines of: do well in adventures, get more skilled/powerful, rinse and repeat. But shouldn’t playing the game and having a good time be “reward” enough? Is an advancement system really necessary?

Strictly speaking, it isn’t, but character advancement does seem to be a significant part of the fun of playing an RPG. So perhaps rather than “is advancement necessary,” the question should be: “How do we make advancement even more fun?”

Most character advancement systems are like shopping: you have an amount of points and you “spend” them to get things, or “save” them up to get even better things later, assuming you can resist the impluse buy. If we stick with the “shopping” metaphor, then maybe there are ways to “hunt for bargains” or be the very first to get some exclusive new thing no one else has yet. This approach works well with point-based design-your-own-character systems like GURPS, since they usually provide tools for “bargain hunters” to figure out the most efficient uses for their points. The analysis for taking different feats or class levels in D&D is similar, based on what provides the most “bang for the buck.”

Of course, this type of character advancement is a meta-game mechanic. The player chooses what the character gets. Another approach is to have the character’s own actions determine advancement: if a character uses a skill, it gets better over time. This is the approach taken by systems like Basic Roleplaying (Chaosium). However, it doesn’t necessarily cover developing entirely new traits or advantages, just the development and improvement of graded skills and abilities. Perhaps a system like FATE could also apply this approach to non-ranked “aspects” of a character: the more they’re invoked, the stronger they get.

There are also in-game rewards: characters get titles, wealth, medals, jobs, etc., from grateful patrons and allies. They can also lose such things over the course of the game. The same is true with a lot of equipment and material possessions, although some “signature” gear has plot-immunity in some games and genres: Iron Man might temporarily lose his armor, but odds are it won’t be for longer than a scene or maybe a story arc at most before he gets it back.

Meta-game rewards like “brownie points” (or the equivalent thereof) are also common: characters rack up “good karma,” allowing them to better influence the story and save their own bacon when things get tough. Ironically, this sort of thing is probably most beneficial to lower-level and weaker characters than it is to the more experienced and powerful ones, unless this is the only kind of benefit you get from experience in the game.

How important is character advancement and improvement in an RPG and what are the best ways of providing it?