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Monday, May 21, 2012

ELs and general questions about AE

I’ve fielded lots of question about Arduin Eternal (AE) over the course of its development and even more after its release.  A common question/complaint has revolved around the why ELs (experience levels) were removed from the game.  The outcry seems to hinge around a couple of topics, some more legitimate than others.  

Previous iterations of Arduin revolved around ELs because, frankly, the games Arduin grew out of used them.  They were a measure of power, of durability (how long you played), and were a core mechanic in the gaming system.  They were the levels of achievement to measure off and the roadmap of improvement.  The growth from greenhorn to veteran and to legend was measured out in the slow (or fast) ascension from EL 1 to EL 2, 3, 4, 10, 20, and beyond.   It was effective but too integral at the same time.  It quickly became the focus instead of the game play.  EL 5 is better than EL 1 and EL 10 is better than EL 5 and if EL 10 is greater than EL 20 is grander; only EL 30 could trump them all and beyond that EL…anyone who has observed or played MMORPGs will quickly note this fact.  The journey of progression and growth from EL 1 to EL infinity is lost in the footrace to the top.  It’s so evident in so many ways it’s almost painful.  

Also, totally off topic, but look up MMORPG in the urban dictionary, and read the definitions for MMORPG like:  “a treadmill that makes you fatter” and “…perfect for people who are too slow for Counter-Strike and with no friends or imagination for role playing” just gets me to laughing…

Back on topic, Arduin Eternal combats the “race to the top” by removing the use of EL as a core mechanic.  Instead of balancing the game off of a scaling single value, Arduin Eternal uses the values hidden under the hood of EL.  Most EL-driven (or level if that’s more comfortable) games also use a holistic and mechanical advancement system.  Holistic advancements means iterating from EL 1 to EL 2 provides a benefit to all the values hidden within.  If EL is an umbrella for saves, attack/defense bonuses, access to powers/skills/spells/goodies (etc), bonuses to starting attributes, or other mechanics, then it’s holistic.  Compleat Arduin (CA) and the Arduin Adventure (AA) used this mechanic, for instance.  

Don’t be fooled by games that provide pools of resources as EL are gained.  With a few exceptions these games feature holistic advancement or hybrid holistic advancement.    They seem individualized but are not.  And don’t be confused by the window dressing.  Individuals of the same level and similar configuration will have a tight pattern of resources at their disposal.  Two EL 8 Thieves from the CA, for instance, with equal attributes will have the same amount of resources mechanically.  Use similar grading for your own favorite system:  If you cloned two people so the attributes were the same, EL was the same, their archetype was the same (profession, class, etc.) -- do they look alike within close variance?  If so, the game is probably holistic.

Right.  So how is AE different?  Well, let’s see.   It uses an individualized advancement system.  Not just one but actually two of them acting in parallel.  One of the advancement systems is driven by game events and player choices in game.  This allows role playing to directly influence mechanics.   If your hardbitten, crusty warrior spends the evening wining and dining instead of swinging his sword and shield butting people in the face,  he’ likely get better at it.   I say likely because it’s not automatic.  Just because you utilized interpersonal skills in game doesn’t mean they automatically advance but it does mean you will get the “chance” for them to advance.  Advancement systems of this sort are nominative, meaning that performance of some kind nominates a game mechanic into the advancement system.  Also, in AE, this advancement is failure possible.  In its basic sense, AE uses a d100 roll against a difficulty of your current value.  If you don’t attain this threshold you don’t advance.  I’ll give an example.

Our tough warrior spent the evening smoozing, using his Social skill left and right.  This game action nominates the Social skill for advancement.  At the end of the night when the GM asks people to check for advancement he makes this advancement check.  His current skill ranking is 7.  His chance of seeing some advancement is high (93%).  Rolling an 8 or higher means he’ll see some increase.  Should he roll less than this, however, he would not.  So while the skill was nominated, it can fail.  As skill ranks increase chances to succeed decrease.  If you charted it, it would be a bell curve.

The second advancement system is an individualized option system.  Gameplay is rewarded nightly or by story arc (depends on the GM) with experience (EPS).   Usually 1-3 EPS is given, which can be saved or used by the player to gain secrets, buy advancement bonuses, trade for skill points and basically tailor your character.  Let’s say our tough warrior didn’t make his advancement roll.  He could use his EPS to buy skill ranks and advance the skill anyway.

“How do I tell how powerful my character is without levels?!!?”  has been a frequent outcry.   The ability to say with a certain level of smugness that you have a 50th level mage or EL 30 Warrior carries with it a sense of confidence that’s hard to give up.  People know hearing you say it that the character is powerful, unique and “important”.  Even if you juiced them up to that point, it still gets a reaction out of your audience.  The AE equivalent is to say you are genius or legendary instead.  A character with legendary secrets (not skill) is truly legendary , since it takes the investment f hundreds of EPS, and consequently games to get there.  In my personal group, one player is just now ascending to legendary status, and that after 332 games and nearly 3 years of real time.  It has been a long, beautiful road  and they are as truly bad ass as that EL 30 or EL 50 from previous games.

Another outcry has been from GMs, who use ELs to “balance” an adventure for their players.  Granted, to a point everyone does this, especially for one-shot or convention games where the players are unknown and your snapshot of time is short to play in.  Outside of the above and perhaps a few other unique situations, its more akin to wrapping your players in bubble wrap.  I’ve previously released methods to do the same thing, using EPS as a mapping tool.  A little digging should recover it in the blog.  I’m not a fan, however, of doing this.  I find it unnecessary.

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