José P. Zagal & Roger Altizer
University of Utah
There’s been a lot of recent interest…..
“both feature extremely
robust RPG-style
upgrade/progression
systems”
– Custer, 2013
Early players very excited
by the system for
character progression
 “role-playing games revolve around
creating and growing characters”
 Fullerton, Swain, Hoffman (2008)
 RPGs generally ...
(perhaps the most influential aspect?)
There’s lots of
academic work
on RPGs as well!
 Narrative
 Social
 Experiential
 Performative
 Rules / Mechanics / Systems
Hardly any literature focuses on:
 We need more:
 In-depth analyses of rules,
systems, and mechanics.
 Studies of design trajectories and
evolution
 Wor...
Jose P. Zagal & Roger Altizer
University of Utah
 What is it about progression systems that has made
them so impactful?
 What are some of the different ways that they ha...
1. Character Progression
2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems
3. Negative Progression
4. Borderline Character Progre...
 Rules and game mechanisms that define how player’s
characters improve from one game session to the next.
 Do the characters change over the course of the game?
 Are the changes a normal and expected aspect of the
game?
 Are ...
 Characters can be
hierarchically organized in
terms of power/importance
 “When a character earns
enough XP, he or she a...
 Improvements are
“piece meal”
 Generally at a skill
level
Character Levels
(stratified)
Skills System
(not stratified)
1. Character Progression
2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems
3. Negative Progression
4. Borderline Character Progre...
Informed Speculation to Follow
(further research is needed)
 From MMO research:
 “players build up their commitment to the game as the
level of their character increases.”
 Duchen...
 Zeigarnik Effect?
 People are more motivated to finish something when it
hasn’t been completed (or has been interrupted...
 Goal gradient effect?
 The closer you are to a goal, the more motivated you
become
 Getting close to “leveling up” is ...
 Endowed progress effect?
 When given “fake” progress towards a goal you’re more
 likely to persist towards reaching th...
 Nurturing Effect?
 Characters “grow” and “develop”
 Players become emotionally attached to them
 Probably NOT a reaso...
1. Character Progression
2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems
3. Negative Progression
4. Borderline Character Progre...
 Deteriorate, become weaker, less capable, less effective
 Normal part of the game and expected or inevitable.
 Permane...
 Inevitable
 Deteriorate simply by virtue of playing the game
“[a]ging eventually takes
even the most gifted
character o...
 Inevitable
PCs start sane and
competent and rapidly either
die, go insane, or must retire.
 By Choice
 Players choose whether or not to engage with system
Implanting cybernetics
reduces a character’s
“empathy sc...
 By Chance
 Character worsening happens due to random factors
beyond the character’s control.
1. Combat system includes
...
1. Character Progression
2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems
3. Negative Progression
1. Inevitable
2. By Choice
3. ...
 Systems that resemble or “feel” like progression but
work in slightly unusual ways.
 Frontloaded Progression
 Progression occurs during character creation
Character growth and
development (skills, career
...
 Unstable Progression
 Progression can be lost relatively easily or is “re-
invested”
“Progression points” can be
spent ...
 Reputation Systems
 Generally “incremental”, but often fragile and in need of
maintenance.
Character gains fame points
...
1. Character Progression
2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems
3. Negative Progression
1. Inevitable
2. By Choice
3. ...
 Many similarities
 The genealogy is pretty clear
 Terminology: “leveling”, “grinding”
 Progression is sometimes rejec...
 Negative Progression is uncommon
Stat loss due to Aging
“Resurrection Counter”
 Reputation systems are common
 New forms of progression?
 Inevitable Progression
 Character progresses even when the player isn’t playing
the game
1. Character Progression
2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems
3. Negative Progression
1. Inevitable
2. By Choice
3. ...
 Examining and tracing these systems over time can
help better understand them
 Better understand the design space
 Ide...
José P. Zagal
jose.zagal@utah.edu
Roger Altizer
roger.altizer@utah.edu
Images used in this presentation are the property o...
Examining 'RPG Elements': Systems of Character Progression
Examining 'RPG Elements': Systems of Character Progression
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Examining 'RPG Elements': Systems of Character Progression

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Slides from the talk I gave at the 2014 FDG Conference.

Paper abstract:
Much of the literature on role-playing games (RPGs) focuses on their social, performative, experiential, and/or narrative aspects. The emphasis is on the playing of the roles, as it were, and less so on the game mechanics. Curiously, the phrase ‘RPG elements’ tends not to refer to the role-playing aspects of the genre, but to the rules, systems, and mechanisms that have been co-opted by other game genres and ‘gamification’ practitioners. In this article we unpack the term ‘RPG elements’ by examining a single element: mechanisms and systems for character progression in paper and pencil RPGs. In these open ended games, player-controlled characters’ capabilities change. Characters usually get better; though sometimes they get worse. We describe different ways positive and negative character progression systems are implemented and the role they play. We also discuss some differences we observe between paper and pencil RPGs and those played electronically. We conclude with thoughts on the utility of breaking down ambiguous terms, such as ‘RPG elements’ into smaller, clearer units.

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Examining 'RPG Elements': Systems of Character Progression

  1. 1. José P. Zagal & Roger Altizer University of Utah
  2. 2. There’s been a lot of recent interest…..
  3. 3. “both feature extremely robust RPG-style upgrade/progression systems” – Custer, 2013
  4. 4. Early players very excited by the system for character progression
  5. 5.  “role-playing games revolve around creating and growing characters”  Fullerton, Swain, Hoffman (2008)  RPGs generally have “configurable player- characters that improve with experience”  Rollings & Adams (2003)
  6. 6. (perhaps the most influential aspect?)
  7. 7. There’s lots of academic work on RPGs as well!
  8. 8.  Narrative  Social  Experiential  Performative  Rules / Mechanics / Systems Hardly any literature focuses on:
  9. 9.  We need more:  In-depth analyses of rules, systems, and mechanics.  Studies of design trajectories and evolution  Work that clarifies and expands our language for describing systems, rules, and mechanics.
  10. 10. Jose P. Zagal & Roger Altizer University of Utah
  11. 11.  What is it about progression systems that has made them so impactful?  What are some of the different ways that they have been implemented over the years?  What role do they play in a game’s design?
  12. 12. 1. Character Progression 2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems 3. Negative Progression 4. Borderline Character Progression 5. Progression in Digital RPGs 6. Conclusions
  13. 13.  Rules and game mechanisms that define how player’s characters improve from one game session to the next.
  14. 14.  Do the characters change over the course of the game?  Are the changes a normal and expected aspect of the game?  Are changes intrinsic to the character or are they associated to things the character possesses?  Are the changes irreversible (or generally irreversible)?  Are the changes cumulative?
  15. 15.  Characters can be hierarchically organized in terms of power/importance  “When a character earns enough XP, he or she attains a new character level.” – D&D  New level implies  Bonuses and more options
  16. 16.  Improvements are “piece meal”  Generally at a skill level
  17. 17. Character Levels (stratified) Skills System (not stratified)
  18. 18. 1. Character Progression 2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems 3. Negative Progression 4. Borderline Character Progression 5. Progression in Digital RPGs 6. Conclusions
  19. 19. Informed Speculation to Follow (further research is needed)
  20. 20.  From MMO research:  “players build up their commitment to the game as the level of their character increases.”  Ducheneaut et al. 2006  “advancement” (gain power, progress rapidly) is one of the primary motivational aspects  Yee 2007
  21. 21.  Zeigarnik Effect?  People are more motivated to finish something when it hasn’t been completed (or has been interrupted)  RPG Rationale  Things are often left “in the middle” after a RPG session providing additional motivation to continue  E.g. In the middle of a quest
  22. 22.  Goal gradient effect?  The closer you are to a goal, the more motivated you become  Getting close to “leveling up” is increasingly motivating.
  23. 23.  Endowed progress effect?  When given “fake” progress towards a goal you’re more  likely to persist towards reaching the goal.  Endowed progress effect is intensified when the progress is tallied using an abstraction such as points  Players might be reluctant to ‘waste’ the time and effort they have invested in a character. (aka, the XP you have banked for next level)
  24. 24.  Nurturing Effect?  Characters “grow” and “develop”  Players become emotionally attached to them  Probably NOT a reason  Character Progression not the same as “leaderboards”  Competition/Competitiveness between players  My character has more XP, is more advanced, etc.
  25. 25. 1. Character Progression 2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems 3. Negative Progression 4. Borderline Character Progression 5. Progression in Digital RPGs 6. Conclusions
  26. 26.  Deteriorate, become weaker, less capable, less effective  Normal part of the game and expected or inevitable.  Permanent or largely irreversible.  Not the same as  general health systems (characters are routinely wounded and recover),  temporary effects  equipment that is used and replenished.
  27. 27.  Inevitable  Deteriorate simply by virtue of playing the game “[a]ging eventually takes even the most gifted character out of play, usually around age 50 or later.”
  28. 28.  Inevitable PCs start sane and competent and rapidly either die, go insane, or must retire.
  29. 29.  By Choice  Players choose whether or not to engage with system Implanting cybernetics reduces a character’s “empathy score” – reducing their social skills.
  30. 30.  By Chance  Character worsening happens due to random factors beyond the character’s control. 1. Combat system includes “critical damage” tables with severe consequences 2. Characters that die (and are resuscitated) can suffer stat losses.
  31. 31. 1. Character Progression 2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems 3. Negative Progression 1. Inevitable 2. By Choice 3. By Chance 4. Borderline Character Progression 5. Progression in Digital RPGs 6. Conclusions
  32. 32.  Systems that resemble or “feel” like progression but work in slightly unusual ways.
  33. 33.  Frontloaded Progression  Progression occurs during character creation Character growth and development (skills, career paths) takes place before the first play session.
  34. 34.  Unstable Progression  Progression can be lost relatively easily or is “re- invested” “Progression points” can be spent on permanent progression or re-assignable aspects.
  35. 35.  Reputation Systems  Generally “incremental”, but often fragile and in need of maintenance. Character gains fame points for success. Fame makes future missions harder – enemies recognize agents!
  36. 36. 1. Character Progression 2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems 3. Negative Progression 1. Inevitable 2. By Choice 3. By Chance 4. Borderline Character Progression 1. Frontloaded 2. Unstable 3. Reputation 5. Progression in Digital RPGs 6. Conclusions
  37. 37.  Many similarities  The genealogy is pretty clear  Terminology: “leveling”, “grinding”  Progression is sometimes rejected  Keep characters behind for secondary motives  Progression as hurdle rather than reward  Grinding
  38. 38.  Negative Progression is uncommon Stat loss due to Aging “Resurrection Counter”
  39. 39.  Reputation systems are common
  40. 40.  New forms of progression?  Inevitable Progression  Character progresses even when the player isn’t playing the game
  41. 41. 1. Character Progression 2. Appeal of Character Progression Systems 3. Negative Progression 1. Inevitable 2. By Choice 3. By Chance 4. Borderline Character Progression 1. Frontloaded 2. Unstable 3. Reputation 5. Progression in Digital RPGs 6. Conclusions
  42. 42.  Examining and tracing these systems over time can help better understand them  Better understand the design space  Identify areas for inspiration / new design directions  Establish connections to other areas  Gamification as progression?
  43. 43. José P. Zagal jose.zagal@utah.edu Roger Altizer roger.altizer@utah.edu Images used in this presentation are the property of their respective owners. Their use here qualifies as fair use under US copyright law for educational purposes and critical commentary. https://www.academia.edu/6789775/Examining_RPG_Elements_Systems_of_Character_Progression

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