There’s plenty of problems with character advancement. Granted, I’m not against it, but I know people who like to argue against it. Still, there are problems, and this is one of them, but from a different viewpoint than I’ve heard before.
Recently I learned the term iconic character. I had been aware of the concept, I just didn’t know it had a name. I don’t know how widely this term is used, but since I think its an important concept, I’m going to use it here. Iconic character is a character which doesn’t really change as time goes by. On the other side, we have the dramatic character. Dramatic characters have arcs. They fall in love, out of love, learn to live with trauma and so forth.
Examples of an iconic character:
Sherlock Holmes is interested in intellectual problems. He doesn’t move away from them. Watson gets married (twice, in fact), but Holmes only meets a woman to show how invested he is in what he does (although the more modern version have made him more interested).
Each of the Simpsons is very iconic, but I guess Homer most of all. He might have become lazier and his fatness is emphasized more, but basically he is still the same (granted, I think I haven’t seen any episodes after season 14, which would be about a decade ago).
I first identified this type of character in House, who is strongly based on Holmes anyway. I felt the show lost its way when House began to change, or they tried to change him. I guess its a natural inclination for current stock of writers, who have been taught to write arcs, but sometimes its just wrong.
Now, from the point of view of a classic RPG advancement, it mostly forces or at least strongly coerces the characters into becoming iconic. You don’t change. You just delve deeper into what you already were. Fighters become better fighters, magi learn more powerful spells, cyborgs update their hardware and/or software and forth. None of this helps with their arcs.
As RPGs are moving towards dramatic storytelling as opposed to the more epic storytelling of the past, when campaigns where basically just a series of events in the lives of the characters, moving into systems, which support more dramatic approach in this regard as well, would probably be for the better.
I guess certain systems have bypassed this and some systems support this kind of gaming. Apocalypse World has bypassed this by emphasizing the stuff you’re not good at, so even if you use your advancements to make your character even more iconic, he or she will still have to face the world as a dramatic character (although I’m a strong proponent of letting people use what they are good at, at least somewhat).
Then, of course, we have the DramaSystem. I have Hillfolk on my desktop, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. However, from what I gather, the system uses some sort of currency for letting players win or lose scenes, so that everyone gets their spotlight, but will have to give up something to get it. We’ll see. Probably when the physical book finally arrives.
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