On Goals Both Personal and Common

There’s a neat article gone up at Hack and Slash about character progression in Dungeons & Dragons, both analysing the old school-new school split (and in particular the impact of removing XP-for-gold), as well as batting down some of the more common (and less useful) points people tend to raise in such discussions. I had a mild quibble at the point towards the end concerning setting personal character goals and pursuing those in games where character advancement is based solely on sessions attended (a point raised in response to the common “I just level everyone up after 3 sessions or so” thing), which grew into this.

My quibble is that accomplishing your character goals isn’t necessarily connected to the level of your PC. Yes, being level 11 instead of level 5 might come in handy when you want to seize the throne of Aquilonia, but your level 5 dude might be able to pull it off if they’ve gathered sufficient allies, or uncovered suffiicent weaknesses of the current incumbent, and have a plan which leverages them effectively. You are correct that there’s no behaviour you can engage in to increase your rate of advancement to achieve your goals faster, but that is not the same thing as there being no behaviour you can engage in which would allow you to achieve your goals faster – it’s just that you’ll need to work out that behaviour by looking at the in-game situation and saying “what do I need to do to take this guy down, and what resources do I need to accomplish that?” rather than saying “OK, what level do I need to be to take this guy down?” (I concede, however, that this requires referees to actually provide sufficient in-game meat for you to make that assessment.)

I’ve also seen “level up when we feel like it” play based not on attendance but on advancement towards goals – usually the common goal of advancing the “main plot”, but I can see running a game where the GM could give out levels if they believe a PC has made concrete progress towards accomplishing one of their declared life’s ambitions (or has accomplished a more short-term major goal) – indeed, I could even see a game where the referee and player sit down before hand and identify a set number of landmarks towards achieving the goal in question which they both agree constitute a sufficient challenge to merit a raise in level.

But I personally wouldn’t do that if I were running a traditional D&D game, which is what I’m currently doing.

What I think the people who focus a lot on “but you should have personal goals anyway” are really missing is the benefits to be had from having common goals beyond “show up and play”. If there’s a course of action which clearly and objectively benefits every single party member, then that provides an in-game stimulus towards co-operative play, whether that’s co-operation in grabbing gold or killing things, and whilst there is a long and honourable tradition of player-on-player backstabbing in RPGs, most games assume that the players will tend to co-operate. Although most players will sit down at the table with that in mind, presenting an in-system incentive towards co-operation helps to focus their mind on that, whereas concentrating on personal goals pushes each player towards thinking “what’s best for me?” rather than “what’s best for the party?”.

If you just give out levels for attendance and encourage players to select their own personal goals for their characters, then I can foresee three possible outcomes, two of which may be undesirable (and would probably be considered undesirable by most groups) and the third of which is functional but not interesting:

  • Some of the PCs have goals which are directly incompatible in a way which doesn’t leave much room for compromise: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to overthrow her. This is fine if you don’t mind a game focused on player-versus-player conflict, and that’s cool but it’s not really what I use D&D for.
  • Some PCs’ goals are entirely disconnected from each other: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to visit the moon. Viable, but gets awkward when you want to explain why Gabriel is accompanying Lyra to the moon or why Lyra is hanging out at Bess’s court when she really wants to go to the moon. Why hasn’t Lyra joined a party who want to go to the Moon with her? Why is Gabriel off on interplanetary adventures when Queen Bess has bigger problems closer to home?
  • By lucky chance or careful planning, the players actually manage to come up with mutually compatible and interrelated goals for all the PCs; Gabriel wants to protect Queen Bess from the Archdemon Throatstabber, Lyra wants to go to the moon to learn how to defeat Throatstabber from the kindly toad people who live there. Great, your personal goals now tie into a common party goal – explain why experience is tied to session attendance instead of progress towards the party’s common goal again?

Another point which is missed if you go with “level up every X sessions” is the point that, especially in TSR-era editions of D&D, the experience progression is set such that you don’t actually necessarily spend the same amount of time at each and every level. Experience requirements for levelling up tend to double with each level in these editions of the game, but treasure doesn’t necessarily increase exponentially.

In my 2E campaign I do give XP for session attendance, but at the same time the majority of XP given in my game is for stuff accomplished in-game (monster defeat plus gold plus class-specific stuff). The attendance XP is enough to accelerate character development (helpful since ours is a fortnightly campaign) and encourage attendance but not so much that it dominates progression – for instance, by my reckoning if I were only giving XP for attendance at the present rate then the PCs would only be level 2 and still be quite vulnerable after over a year of play, whereas currently they’re level 3 and 4 and beginning to come out of the squishy lower level portion of the game.

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4 thoughts on “On Goals Both Personal and Common

  1. There’s also potential for goals to just not be very good.

    Wanting to overthrow the Queen seems like a fairly promising goal for long-term play. It’s a thing you can work towards achieving and you can tell when you’ve achieved it. Same for going to the Moon. Both could reasonably involve going to interesting places, talking to interesting people, and doing all kinds of other things towards that end.

    Wanting to protect Queen Bess feels like an awkward goal. It’s indefinite – your job only finishes when one of you is dead. If you fail, there isn’t really any potential to try again and do better (unless you decide to protect Zombie Queen Bess). Perhaps most importantly for this kind of game, that goal deters you from going around and doing other things, because to effectively protect her, you should generally be nearby and not distracted. Sure, there might be the odd trip to escort her on, or some mission you can do on her behalf, but it’s prone to feel contrived if you have too many. There’s also a tension between your goal of protecting her and your goal of doing X with the aim of protecting her, because doing one tends to undermine the other.

    For reference, Icosahedrophilia used fiat levelling for most of the history of the campaign, although I think it changed a little while ago to XP. That made a fair bit of sense for that campaign, though. It’s quite linear and has distinct phases throughout the narrative, and changes of level and challenge fit that well. Also, level balance is important in 4E.

    One of the odd things about level as a mechanic – there’s a reasonable chance that the monarch of Aquilonia is only level 1, if they have a level at all. Like you say, it’s about political pull and/or having a lot of powerful people believe you can be a useful puppet.

    1. Well, I was using “protect the Queen” as shorthand for “go adventuring to counteract threats to her” but yeah, that’s a good point.

      It’s also going to be less than obvious what is going to be a good goal and what’s going to be a bad goal if the referee hasn’t telegraphed their plans clearly (“protect Queen Bess” from her enemies is rubbish if the campaign is meant to be a travelogue but good if the action is mostly set in her court; “go to the Moon” is great for travelogues, lousy for politics”), though really the onus there is on the referee to make the campaign concept clear.

      1. I think there’s still a tricky distinction here between goals that involve your character wanting to achieve a specific thing, and goals that involve your character being nebulously inclined towards doing particular types of thing.

        Interestingly I think *both* types of goal come with their own problems, and both are suited to very different types of campaigns.

        Specific goals have the problem that one tends to feel that one should always be working towards them – “overthrow Queen Bess” is something you can work towards from day one, continuously. This can be disruptive, particularly if it’s a personal goal rather than a party goal (and even if it’s a party goal, this can be disruptive if the GM wants to run a more plot or exploration focused type of game).

        By contrast vague goals aren’t that helpful in driving the narrative, but can be very helpful for providing plot hooks. If your goal is “protect Queen Bess” then the GM can put potential threats to Queen Bess anywhere they want the player to go. It makes it quite easy to tie players together and to the world. The flipside is that it puts the player in a passive role, which isn’t for everybody.

      2. I am reminded The Shadow of Yesterday‘s advancement system, which was that game’s Distinctive Thing that a lot of indie games borrowed, where part of character gen was choosing precisely what sort of activities earned you experience.

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