Checklist Leveling and GLOG-lite Gaming

So those who’ve read some of this blog’s backlog know about my obsession with space fantasy. Comes as no surprise then that I just got done really enjoying Outer Worlds. This was my first foray into the first-person conversationalist genre, and I gotta say I enjoyed the heck out of it.

I also started noodling the GLOG again. I know I’m late to this particular party but I absolutely love the idea of magic dice. What a stupendous way of inventing spells and creating a strange world of magic. That’s a tangent but a fun one.

These two things sort of gave rise to today’s blog. I’m thinking about ways to put experience points into the players’ hands, to make their leveling something they have more control over than simply “go out, get loot, return, blow cash” or – more properly – “go out, manifest your destiny, steal the indigenous resources, return, blow cash.”

I love the idea of having Goals. Capital-G style. These are anything you could consider a quest in a game like Outer Worlds, from talking to someone to sneaking past some guards to choosing where to send the power. But in a tabletop game, these Goals can go deeper.

Tabletop RPGs have this excellent potential for embracing the same design philosophy of OW, which is “depth, not breadth.” You don’t have to have a world-spanning epic (but those are certainly very cool) or a Truly Evil Villain to have some compelling story. Players are the best measure of what makes a good story, and they’ll give DMs feedback on that sort of thing by selecting what to engage with. What your players do is what they want to do.

So player Goals can be things like “I want to repair my mother’s axe,” “I want to increase my AC,” and “I want to write some more of my backstory.” These things increasingly move away from the gameplay and into the metagame, but they’re still viable Goals for a player to have.

So my idea is this: Let your players define their own Goals, assign those goals some smaller sub-Goals, and assign each sub-Goal and Goal its own XP value. Then, play the game.

This might take some negotiation between players and GMs. But it can be really excellent when done right. As a baseline, Goals that advance a character’s primary desires and have setting and party interaction should be worth more XP than individual Goals that only benefit that player. So “raise my AC” is worth less than “catch the Minister’s murderer” or “help Tyan visit her father in the northern kingdom.”

Goals should probably have three values. The values can change throughout a game, especially in a system like 5e which has exponential XP values necessary for level-to-level advancement. But in a game like Forbidden Lands, this type of thing is already spelled out. 1XP is gained from doing certain setting-specific things, like exploring a new hex or killing a monster. These are setting-defined Goals that are the same from session to session, and that’s a great idea! That should be ported into every system ever.

So you have player Goals worth 1/20th of what’s necessary to get to the next level: these are minor goals. A goal worth 1/10th of the XP to get to the next level is a moderate goal. And a goal worth 1/6th the XP to the next level is a major goal.

Subgoals can be used to break down the awarded XP into smaller chunks. A moderate Goal’s XP can be spread across four sub-Goals so there’s more rat-brain reward stuff going on for your players. Incremental advancement is addictive, and players love seeing numbers tick up (just like non-players and literally everyone else; it stimulates our basest instincts).

And then you can have Setting Goals, which are things players can do every session to get a little XP. Make Setting Goals worth 1/50th of the XP necessary to get to the next level. They can rack up, but you can only earn them once a session (like killing more than one monster a session in Forbidden Lands only gives you 1XP).

In my home game of 5e (albeit a very, very hacked and modded 5e), my Setting Goals would probably be something like this:

  • Interact with the Otherworld.
  • Interact with the Nav (the spirit world).
  • Interact with the remnants of the Old Gods.
  • Explore a new hex.
  • Go on an Expedition.
  • Recover lost (re: not owned by anybody) treasure.
  • Defeat a monster.
  • Destroy a curse.
  • Meet a new NPC.
  • Complete a task for an NPC.
  • Construct a fortification or workshop.
  • Gain Stress.

Those are my Setting Goals. A player can do all of those in a session, but that’s likely to be a very fast-paced, very insane session. Likely, a player will do about 3 of them. Sometimes they’ll get five or more in one go, but it’s the exception, not the rule. And I include a way for players to become more worldly (i.e. gain XP) by also accumulating Stress.

Let your players define their path to advancement. Let your setting reinforce your gameplay by rewarding players for engaging it. Put the power of story direction into the hands of the people who make and live the story.

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