Monday, March 12, 2018

Random Advancement Preface

[This was written to be added to the Random Advancement compilation, which continues to grow.]

Preface: Why?

A few people have questioned the need for an alternative advancement scheme for use with any fantasy roleplaying system (you know, where “any” is meant to stand for “that one game and all its closest imitators”). Although I cannot speak for my many august collaborators, I think it would be useful to outline my personal reasons for embracing random advancement in my own campaign. I will try to be brief.

The earliest versions of the dear old game featured what I might call Lockstep Advancement. Apart from the die throw for hit points, nothing distinguished one fighting man of fifth level from another, in terms of class abilities. Obviously different ability scores, equipment, magic items, character disposition, and player skill could easily set one Swashbuckler apart from the next, but all their abilities as a fighter 5 could be expressed with a hit total and a level title. Clerics, thieves, and many other classes acted in much the same way; each level of advancement brought the exact same benefits vis-a-vis their class designation.

This was, in fact, a very useful state of affairs for the prospective referee. NPCs could be expressed quite succinctly. The one exception to this scheme early on was the magic-user, whose spellbook determined their class abilities. Other class ability customization started to creep in via things like druid bonus languages and weapon proficiencies. Inspired by skill-based alternatives to the original game (RuneQuest, Rolemaster, etc.), non-weapon proficiencies appeared in late first edition AD&D and skills showed up in BECMI.

Later versions of the game pushed more towards what I call Total Customizability, following in the wake of points-based affairs like GURPS and the HERO System. The rise of Feats and Prestige Classes sent a million players scurrying to make the perfect “build” for their D&D character. This is a great thing if you have a specific vision of what you want your PC to be when they grow up, or if you’re the kind of player who likes to find the most potent combo allowed by the rules.

Random Advancement is proposed here as a third alternative. Not as a substitute for either of its predecessors, but as an alternative for certain kinds of campaigns, certain kinds of referees, and certain kinds of players. Note that the concept of random advancement is not new. Traveller character generation had it from the beginning. And see Jonathan Becker’s nifty Exceptional Traits rules in The Complete B/X Adventurer for another implementation of it in D&D.

Why try random advancement? I can think of a few reasons why I like it:
  • Rolling dice when you level up is fun.
  • Players can access all sorts of kewl powerz without having to do a bunch of planning.
  • Since said powerz show up by random die roll, you can sprinkle the chart with some doozies (or some sick power combos) without them coming up every dang game.
  • As a player, not knowing how your PC is going to grow and change appeals to me.
  • As a DM, not knowing what the PCs are even capable of keeps me on my toes.
So if discovering the capabilities of the PCs sounds just as interesting to you as discovering the what lurks in the dungeon, then maybe this alternative is for you.