Saturday, May 27, 2023

Mario vs ActRaiser vs Final Fantasy vs Zelda - Types of Advancement in RPGs

A new video game title came out recently and a few other bloggists did Zelda posts, so I felt left out and jealous. 

When you level up in a pen and paper RPG, you sometimes grow more powerful. Let's talk about types of TTRPG advancement by making a shaky analogy to the last video games I played: Super Nintendo Games. 

Mario advancement 

In Super Mario World, you gain power ups for sure. But Mario does not gain levels. He always takes damage the same way: If you're hit while Big Mario (even if you have a powerup like the cape), you become Small Mario. 

Advancement in Mario comes from you, the player, being better at the game. Your twitch reflexes get better, you learn the interactions from the different items in the game, you learn the patterns of the enemies, you learn the layout of the levels.

TTRPG paradigm: Player skill 

Some RPGs have little mechanical advancement. Often, these games are intended for one-shots, but some are intended for long term play even though they have few mechanics whatsoever (FKR is one example). But more broadly, this sort of paradigm comes into play for lots of games.

Player skill is noted as an important feature in OSR games. Learning that a troll's regeneration is stopped by fire is a player skill. Learning to drive pitons into the door of your room before you sleep is a player skill. Learning to listen at doors (and then not doing that because of ear seekers) is a player skill. Player skill makes you more successful at overcoming the challenges of the game in a persistent way.

ActRaiser advancement

In ActRaiser, you play as God ("The Master" in North America). You have to manifest to slay demons, and also help your worshippers build their towns by delivering well-timed miracles. Gameplay moves between two modes: platforming and "simulation" (which is really an overworld, top-down flight shooting/town building hybrid). 

TTRPG paradigm: Endgame shift

In ~D&D games, there's talk of tiers. 4E D&D covered three tiers of play (level 1-10 = heroic > 11-20 = paragon > 21-30 = epic). Other editions and D&D-alikes have cut this pie up in different ways (adventurer > conqueror > king), but the gimmick is still there. OSR bloggists insist that this is important. 

In practical terms, I've played lots of high level games and never really done domain management. I think this type of shift is rare, but understand that it exists for some people. 

Advancement in this paradigm comes from abilities that obviate the early challenges of the game. Dungeon challenges such as starvation, darkness, and spiked pits are completely overcome by higher level spells such as Create Food, Light, and Flight. 

(There's a reason that early tournament dungeons had long lists of spells that simply didn't work: Passwall, Teleportation, etc. Those spells removed the challenges of the dungeon, so they were removed from tournament play almost as soon as they were put in. Similarly, 3E making Create Food and Create Light into spammable cantrips removed dungeon crawling as the essential focus of the game. But I've digressed).

Once the early game challenges are trivialized, gameplay opens up into new pathways. This can be political intrigue in a city-centric game, getting your own castle and beginning a wargame with Chainmail, or blasting off in your spelljammer to explore other worlds.

Final Fantasy advancement

In Final Fantasy 6, you move around the overworld getting sucked into random and scripted battles, assembling a team of misfit heroes with different powers, and trying to save the world (and failing). Pure JRPG stuff. 

You begin the game fighting hornet and leaf bunny, and end the game fighting ymir and zone eater. You begin by casting Fire, which costs 4MP and deals 21 damage. You end by casting Ultima, which costs 80 MP and deals 150 unblockable damage. 

There's some new strategies that emerge as you have your full roster of heroes, but the gameplay is essentially the same. You get new powers, new spells, and new items that are slightly better than your old ones. Sometimes, you visit the starting levels and can totally destroy leaf bunny in one hit, but usually it takes the same number of moves to defeat the enemies in your current zone. 

TTRPG paradigm: Deep growth

Games coming from the design tradition of 3E (including Pathfinder and 5E) live in a space of "challenge ratings" and "adventuring days." The gimmick is this: The game should have narrative tension where players almost are defeated, but manage to win the day. At the end of a quest, you should be beaten, bloody, and without any spellslots, but you defeat the boss and get the McGuffin. If you're level 1, this might be a fight against goblins in a cave. At level 10, this might be a fight against giants and trolls in a cloud castle.

(These games claim (and consistently fail) to provide this experience, and all the number crunching in the world can't seem to get this right.)

Advancement in this paradigm comes from getting more, bigger numbers. You start off with a base attack bonus of +1. You end with a base attack bonus of +10. You start with 10HP. You end with 100HP. You can see the numbers going up, and that makes you feel good. 

Zelda advancement

In The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, your little guy (Zelda, I think his name is) explores a sandbox world. You can go anywhere, but find yourself facing roadblocks of "Big Boulder" and "Water." Later, you find the power glove that can move the boulder and flippers that let you swim. As you continue to explore and delve dungeons, you get all sorts of persistent power-ups that let you engage the game in new ways, traversing new environments or adding new types of moves and attacks to your core set. 

Link to the Past does have small bumps in advancement. The normal sword does 1 damage, the forged sword does 2 damage, and the master sword does 3 damage. But for the most part, advancement comes from the range of options available and the interactions between these items instead of more numbers. 

TTRPG paradigm: Wide growth

In some games, the number of abilities you have access to increases, but these abilities are neither inherently more powerful (Fire > Fire 2) nor game changers (Flight, Wish, Resurrection). Rather, they're incomparables.

His Majesty the Worm lives in this space. There are very few abilities that actually increase your base numbers; for example, your attributes never go up. But you can learn any talent in the game, training with your friends to learn their skills. 

Advancement in this paradigm comes from new options that let you approach problems in new ways. 


  1. > your little guy (Zelda, I think his name is)

    … You ain't serious, are you?

    1. Ummm, I have my copy of Hyrule Historia right here and his name is clearly labeled as Zelda. He's the guy who saves the Princess

  2. That sinking feeling at the end of every riseupcomus blog when it hypes his majesty the worm and you have to remember it doesn't exist yet to read

  3. Sits on hands waiting for HMTW... but in the meantime, Pathfinder 2e seems to be the one to have achieved the Final Fantasy growth style. At least in my experience of the game, and I run and play games as RAW as possible. Encounters I can follow the basic numbers and they come out as nail-bitingly tense, without me having to adjust anything behind-the-scenes as we play, and it works at every level of play, 1-20.