How come we start at 1st Level?

Originally Published at Rob.BearSwarm.com on 2011-10-19.

I find myself asking why so many table-top role-playing games start you out a first level. Why so many games limit or control your character advancement. It seems like there is an idea that says you need to barely have any unique abilities until you’ve “earned” them. Then you have to spend a few sessions to gain that privilege. How would you feel about a video game that makes you wait multiple hours before you get anything new?

I want to elaborate on why I think this is a terrible idea. After the break, I’m going to talk about how Arkham City made me realize that character advancement in table-top role-playing games is broken.

Arkham City came out on Tuesday. Arkham City is the sequel to Arkham Asylum, a critically acclaimed video game. Everyone is saying the same thing about the game.

I am (the Goddamn) Batman.

I couldn’t agree more. From the start of Arkham City you feel like Batman. This is true of Arkham Asylum as well, but since Arkham City is the new hotness it’s what I’m going to focus on. If you haven’t played Arkham City, feel free to substitute Asylum. The same ideas apply.

From the moment you don the cowl and look out over a rooftop you’re given a plethora of gadgets and attacks. All of these unique abilities can be looked at like the majority of special powers in table-top role-playing games. Except, you get to start with all of them.

I start Arkham City as Batman. It seems like in too many table-top role-playing games I start playing as Bruce Wayne… outside the Monarch Theater… As his parents are gunned down in front of him. Completely helpless to the events happening around him.

There is a certain appeal to that but I have to spend game after game, week after week, in order to eventually be Batman. That just seems tedious. Why can’t I just skip ahead to when I’m Batman and start playing the game?

This doesn’t mean I’m a perfect character either, or even a complete one. Just look at Arkham City. For as much stuff as you start out with, you also start with a ton of potential stuff to get picked up later. Arkham City even rewards you with XP and Level Ups, like a traditional table-top role-playing game.

As a bit of a tangent, I want to talk about a concept my buddy John exposed me to  that I absolutely abhor. John holds the idea that character advancement isn’t an important element in a table-top role-playing game. He’ll cite examples in film and literature of characters who “never advance” and while I agree with what he’s trying to say, I disagree with the message.

Keeping with the Batman analogy. In a table-top role-playing game, John thinks a player would be able to buy off Batman’s flaws. He could get rid of Batman’s lost parents or self-destructive relationship with Selina Kyle\Talia al Ghul\Every Woman He Ever Fucking Meets. While John’s right about this, Batman shouldn’t be able to “improve” by eliminating his lost parents, there is still a very important element of growth and advancement for the character.

If Batman didn’t have a strong experience point system, he’d never have been able to buy a new side-kick when Dick Grayson became Nightwing… or when Jason Todd was beaten to death. He’d not be able to modify his gear to take done Freeze or upgrade the Batcave with wireless internet. Character growth shouldn’t be looked at as a way to make a character more powerful, but as a way to expand their repertoire. Character’s need to evolve, and experience points can help us simulate that.

It’s this author’s belief that game designers and game masters need to start approaching their groups like how Arkham Asylum approaches Batman. You get to start out being as awesome as you need to be and then the challenges need to be presented at that level. As long as you don’t let your players steamroll through everything, as long as you tug at the chinks in their armor, they will find a way to grow, change, and advance.

What I’m trying to say, if I want to start at Level 6 who am I hurting? As long as all the players feel like equals and still have something to strive for, why do they need to slog through game after game of sub-par characters?

Just a thought.

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