Monday, September 5, 2011

The Art of Character Progression: Planned vs. Evolution

     Do you know where your character is going to go in terms of development?  For an author, the answer should be yes – otherwise said character and story may find themselves progressing in quite different directions.  When it comes to table-top RPGs, however, the answer can be either yes or no.  The player is the author of his or her character's actions, but not of the story in general.  And there is something rewarding in having the character develop (via game mechanics) as the story dictates – or guides – rather than to have everything planned out as part of a surefire formula.
     I believe that character progression – advancing one through the levels with commensurate abilities – is an art.  It is more than a skill that can be exacted and mastered, in part due to the fact that the player must be satisfied that the end result meets character concept, character integrity, and the desired level of effectiveness.  True, many players – especially in OP campaigns – heavily favor effectiveness; being true to a character concept may not seem as impressive as doing the most damage or being the hardest to successfully hit, especially if the rest of the table will only see that character in action once.

     This favoring of effectiveness, however, does not eliminate staying true to the character.  Instead, the player oftentimes plans out the character – sometimes completely, but more often in a more flexible manner – and constructs the concept to fit the build.  The events in the campaign don't shape the character, but rather effect the character's relationship towards characters (PCs and NPCs), organizations, regions, and realms; the character is a stone around which the events flow.  Say what you will about potential limitations of this approach, it does much to ensure character integrity.  It does limit how much the character can grow and change as a result of the events of the campaign, but many players do not see that as a paramount concern.
     Does the reverse – having a character shaped more by events than by careful planning – lead to an ineffective character?  Not necessarily, but it can lead towards suboptimal performance if the character has no natural focus.  The character should still have a base concept, and that concept should not be one that prohibits effective play (more on this later).  The flexibility of being able to respond to the events that have shaped the character, on the other hand, can lead toward the character developing unexpected abilities and (sometimes) picking up abilities because experience mandates it (what do you mean that nobody can perform any kind of healing?).
     My examples in the ways of character progression will all be d20-related as they will come from the Living Arcanis and Pathfinder Society OP campaigns.  Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 and Pathfinder share much in the way of mechanics, so I'm hoping that the examples from one set transition well to the other.

Example 1: Primary Living Arcanis Player Character
I was going to play a horse archer
     After I had purchased my Players Guide to Arcanis from Henry Lopez himself, I set about making a character that I thought would be wholly rooted in the world.  I decided I was going to make a Yhing-Hir horse archer in the mold of a member of the Golden Horde (or what I imagined the Golden Horde to be).  I started off with visions of what a real-life skilled mounted archer could do in combat dancing about in my head, but quickly had to ask the important question about OP: "Will my horse be allowed in most of the places where we adventure?".  In a home campaign I would have simply asked the GM, but most OPs like keeping some things a mystery.  However, I knew the 3E/v3.5 rules well enough to know that most encounters would not be suitable to allowing galloping horses and immense battlefields.  What to do?  I guess the most obvious solution would to have left the concept alone but built him as a regular archer who just happened to have a horse.  That didn't seem very rooted in the game world, and it seemed a little less than impressive.  I needed impressive, especially if I were going to be stealing the name Arshak Yiidiz (from RSI's Hyborian War) for my civilized Yhing-Hir.  So I went back to the PGtA and looked for something to jump out at me.
The illustration for the Twilight Warrior in the PGtA
     And there it was.  Some kind of European – or maybe Byzantine – ninja, the Twilight Warrior.  It allowed for most of what I like my Dungeons & Dragons characters to do: fight well, be stealthy, have access to some spellcasting.  Rather than making a kind of Mongol-Turk doing battle from his mailed horse and having a ululating battle cry (but a manly one), I went and created my character in the mold of a lithe Greek warrior-thief.  I even did my research to find what type of appearance might be viewed as suspect by the populace – dark hair with light eyes.  He was human because I needed the two feats to justify his background (he would have otherwise been a Val, and my play experience would have been much different if that had been his race instead), both specific to the world.
     I felt that everything I needed to justify my character concept was covered in that first level.  He was a noble human (that cost a feat) and had served in the setting's equivalent of the French Foreign Legion (the other feat).  He was dedicated to a god (class selection).  He fought with a scimitar or a flintlock rifle (both coming with the army related feat).  I gave him a name – if Henry was going to use Leonydas as a significant character in the world's past, then I was going to take the name from an actual Greek hero – and I started playing him.
     And he kind of sucked.  He didn't hit much in combat, though at low levels that is primarily due to dice rolls.  His nobility didn't come up much, and when it did, it was treated as being inferior to just being a Val (not how it was described in the books).  He was stealthy, but nobody else in his play-groups were so it availed him little.  He got worse when he took Cleric as his second level class.  This was actually planned.  The character was going to be a half-cleric, but after doing one level of it I quickly figured out that there wasn't enough of a pay-off to Cleric (and the lack of skills was a killer, more than I had accounted for) to keep it up.
     So now the character was a little adrift.  He actually ended up looking like this at one point:
Twilight Warrior – 4 levels
Cleric – 1 level
Ranger – 4 levels
Master of the Hounds – 1 level
That made some degree of sense in terms of the character – and more in terms of the game world – but it left me with a character that couldn't really do much of anything well.  His skills were all over the place, with only Hide, Move Silently, Search, and Spot close to being maximized (stupid level of Cleric!).  What was worse was that of the character he regularly played, three of them were better Rangers than he was.  And that one level of Cleric designated him as the Cleric for that group.  Something had to be done.
     Living Arcanis allowed for a character to be rebuilt once per year, but I didn't want to go this route.  Yes, the character had become so sub-optimal that he was barely worth playing.  In fact, I had every intention of putting him away forever an playing my secondary character in everything I could.  Then the Living Arcanis campaign staff ruled that my character could not keep progressing in levels of Twilight Warrior if he took levels of (regular) Ranger.  He could take levels in Urban Sentinel (city Ranger) and stay true to his faith, but wilderness Ranger was right out.  Well, that French Foreign Legion service was in a jungle like environment and that seemed much more regular Ranger than Urban Sentinel.  So I rebuilt him.  He looked like this.
This is also where I stopped using the regular character sheets. I also thought the image chosen was more true to the character than the PGtA one.
 But now he could actually do things, things he could have been doing for quite some time if he had been planned out.  He had a lot of cool class abilities – most of which are of limited us in an OP campaign – good skills, some spellcasting, and finally had a weapon that could deal some damage.  Having to rebuild him taught me that there is much to be said for having a plan.  Mind you, I couldn't bring myself to put that to use right away.
     This character spent his 12th level feat acquiring a cohort.  It had proven too difficult to be the Cleric at 12th level with only a few 1st level spells.  I built the cohort to be effective, but not to be anywhere near maximized.  However, a quick look will inform that she was a mess.  The feats?
  • 1st – Legionnaire (which provided an easy way to reduce the level gap between PC and cohort; it also gave weapon and armor proficiencies which I quickly wasted; I will also note that she was briefly – I think three sessions – a veteran of the wrong legion.)
  • 1st – Iron Will (I had some unreasonable fear about the Cleric failing Will saves)
  • 3rd – Unfazed (this was an additional +2 to Will saves and +2 on Concentration checks)
  • 6th – Craft Wand (this was in the spirit of abusing cohorts and having them make things for the primary PC; I believe the cohort crafted a total of five wands, or about one per three sessions she played)
  • 9th – Exotic Armor Proficiency (Malfelen Battle Armor) (Never mind that she had magical armor fitting his Exotic Armor Proficiency for Lorica Segmentata, eventually I was going to pay to get her into some Malfelen Battle Armor; this actually paid off as in her third adventure she claimed a pretty good suit of the stuff by virtue of being the only character proficient in it)
Not the feat best selection for a cleric (or any character).  She looked like this:
The image just kept on changing, but this is the original idea of how she looked.  Not a great cleric.
Both the PC and his cohort stayed in a half-planned, half-reactionary mode when it came to advancement.  While both ended up being useful – actually, several of the people with whom I regularly played became upset when my PC proved (momentarily) more effective in a fight or mod than their PCs had been (I guess it was some kind of insult to have a character do worse than mine) – neither ever dominated play or would give another player the impression I knew how to crack out a character.

 Example 2: Secondary Living Arcanis Player Character
      My primary Living Arcanis PC – no matter how much I liked him – was too underwhelming to keep playing (until he was rebuilt).  The solution was to build a secondary PC with a goal in mind.  Sure, it was a vague goal – do lots of damage – but there was a plan.  And it was a plan that involved a small amount of cheating.  By that I mean that the PC would take Fighter as his first level, and then when he became second level, he would change his first level to Barbarian and take his second level as Fighter.  It really only affected skill points.  There was also an added benefit of another player making a PC to compliment mine.  My damage-dealer would play with a healer.  I would have to do the damage for two characters, but the chances of my dying would be rather low.  Win-win, right.
     Eventually, that character looked like this.  Note that I didn't check to see at what level the campaign capped the Strength bonus on composite bow (it was +4, higher with special permission from the campaign staff).
What did I give up?  Skills.  The damage-dealer could hit, do damage, and speak a fair amount of languages, but not do much that wasn't related to combat.  The healer in the equation also didn't do much out of combat.  We had adopted the philosophy in OP – at least for these characters – that all that mattered was winning the combats.  We could roleplay our characters to the hilt (I love the character that comes out when I give Gryst a voice), but we didn't bother about having the mechanics to back up the idea behind the character unless it was about killing (my PC) or keeping things alive (the healer PC).  The only misstep – if it is one – was that I took Iron Will as a feat because there had been a plan to take levels in a Prestige Class that required it.  Further investigation revealed that the PC would do more damage by just taking levels of Fighter, but I kept the feat.  Maybe I just didn't like the idea of having the worst Will save imaginable, or maybe it was because it was the best combat related feat I could take at the time.

Example 3: The Least Effective Character Ever
This was a hypothetical build for the Living Arcanis OP, and is adapted from what I wrote on 6 February, 2007 on the subject.  It is a proof of concept that a character of poor utility can be built (much more easily than just evolving into one).  It was made to 5th level with no magic items.
Race: Val
Bloodline: val'Trisin
1st Level – Aristocrat (NPC class)
2nd Level – Commoner (NPC class)
3rd Level – Cleric of Anshar
4th Level – Monk of Anshar
5th Level – Adept (NPC Class)
Feats: 1st Level – Inbred Val (You gain a +1 racial bonus to your Blood Rank, but you permanently lose 2  points from both your Constitution and Wisdom scores.), 3rd Level – Inbred Val, 4th Level – Improved Unarmed Strike, 4th Level – Stunning Fist
STR    10   (+0)
DEX   10   (+0)
CON    8   (-1)
INT    11   (+0)
WIS    11  (+0)
CHA   10  (+0)

BAB: +0   – Unarmed Strike +0 to hit, 1d6 damage
AC: 10
HP:  20

Fort: +3
Ref: +2
Will: +6

Cleric – 0-level:  3
          – 1st level: 1 + 1 domain spell
Adept – 0-level: 3
          – 1st level: 1

Bloodline Powers:
1st – Our Voice Rings Clear [Once per day the Val may sing or play an instrument in battle to inspire courage as if he were a first-level bard. Should the Val be in the company of a bard who possesses 8 or more ranks in a Perform skill, he may instead harmonize with the bard to inspire greatness for a total of 3 rounds (one round of singing plus two rounds thereafter).]
1st – Music Calms the Savage Beast [With a gentle song, once per day the Val may calm animals with a  maximum number of Hit Dice equal to his character level, though he may only use this gift on natural animals.]
2nd – Webs for My Heart [The Val may never be caught in a spider’s trap. He now acts as if he were  permanently under the effects of freedom of movement, though only when moving through or being ensnared by webs. Furthermore, even the most delicate webs will not break under the Val’s feet, and as long as he is barefoot he may climb along any spider webs as if he had cast spider climb.]
2nd – Steady Tempo [Once per day, for a period of no more than 8 hours, all those within 60 feet of the Val may receive a +10 competence bonus on their Constitution checks to resist the non-lethal damage and fatigue caused by making a forced march.]
3rd – Music Calms the Soul [Once per day, the Val may calm emotions while singing for a number of rounds equal to his character level.]
3rd – The Highest Note [Once per day, the Val may raise his voice to the heavens, reaching a piercing note capable of stunning even the greatest of warriors. All living creatures within a 30-foot radius that are able to hear the Val suffer 1d6 points of sonic damage per blood rank (6dd) and must succeed on a Fortitude save or be stunned for 1d4 rounds. Furthermore, all non-magical objects made of crystal, glass, and ceramics caught in the area of effect will crack and break apart. All such objects weighing up to 10 pounds per character level (not including any within extra-dimensional spaces) suffer 1d8 points of sonic damage per blood rank (6d8). A successful Fortitude save reduces the damage dealt to objects by one-half. The Val and all items he is carrying are immune.]

This character can still do a fair amount of things – I could not make one so without value as to have no purpose on its face – but it can't do anything well enough to justify adventuring with normal 5th level PCs.  I even came up with a story for the progression.  The character is a noble Val (Aristocrat), but is caught trying to carry on the legacy of inbreeding and is cast out by his family (Commoner).  While surviving on the streets he comes to take up the idea that he must care for the poor and afflicted (Cleric).  He eventually longs for a more visceral role in championing the weak (Monk).  While taking on this more active role, he comes to witness the many things that arcane spellcasters can do that he cannot.  He dabbles in magic (Adept) to make himself more useful in his calling.  He can do things, he just can't do any of them well enough to be a good party member.  And he certainly cannot survive in real combat.  It is the worst build I can think of.

Example 4: Pathfinder PC #1
     Over a decade ago, I came up with some characters for a possible fantasy novel.  Only one of them ever was made for game play – a 3E home campaign I played at NIU in 2002 – and it was in such a manner that I wasn't all too happy with trying to fit those characters into a game world.  But Living Arcanis went away and I still wanted to play in an OP.  So I made two of them into PFS characters, though in both instances I stumbled along in their progression.  I find that odd because I know what the characters should be, but I had to learn all the new things they could be (and I still had to make them effective so as to not disadvantage other players).
Close enough to how I imagined her.
     The first PFS PC I got to play started off as a Ranger.  This was tied to the original character concept.  She is supposed to be a half-elf (couldn't make those in Living Arcanis) who lives out in the wild rather than with her elf father (a wizard of some repute), at least in the original conception.  For PFS play, I moved her to a backwater town – this allowed for her to be a Ranger as a matter of course and for her to have a gruff, tomboyish manner – and introduced nothing about her family history.  The original concept was to make her a Ranger/Rogue, but I also knew that there was a shortage of Clerics so I left open the possibility that she would have to end up being a healer.
     I took three levels of Ranger, lamenting that the Ranger Knight fighting style was not available in Pathfinder (it would be replicated in the Advanced Player's Guide), but committed her to being a sword & board type melee fighter.  She carried javelins for ranged combat as they would not require her to drop her shield.  After those levels – and a favored terrain of Urban (because adventures happen in cities, not because she would be favoring them otherwise) – I took her into Rogue for four levels.  That got me Sneak Attack (it's nice but not necessary extra damage when it comes into play), Trapfinding, Evasion, Uncanny Dodge, Bleeding Attack (another effort to increase combat effectiveness), and Trap Spotter.  As she was built to have a good Perception, getting to Trap Spotter – 5th level – was a priority.
     So what to do after that?  I knew I wanted to do something but I leveled to 8th and I just couldn't remember what.  I must note a this point that properly planning your character does include knowing what the plans are.  Not knowing is the equivalent to not having a plan.  I went and took another level of Ranger.  I was playing her as trap-spotting light infantry and had the feats to back that up.  The plan for 9th level was either Spring Attack (most likely) or Iomedaen Sword Oath (which would mandate taking Weapon Specialization at 11th level), both of which would be combat related.  But because I had taken an extra level of Ranger, I had to decide if I wanted an animal companion or not.  Yeah, who doesn't?  But this one would be horribly underpowered.  Not so fast, I'm told.  Just go take Boon Companion and it will be as though you have the Animal Companion of an 8th level Ranger.
     Except that I was supposed to go right into Horizon Walker.  Good benefits in Horizon Walker, sure, but it also fits the idea of a well traveled guide, a survivor who can go nearly anywhere.  It just makes that animal sit right where it was, not getting any better.  Oops on getting an animal, and another oops on using a feat to make it somewhat more durable.  Made sense at the time, a kind of evolution of the character.  But in terms of the plan, it was far from it.  Three levels of Horizon Walker generated two more favored terrains and Darkvision (really useful for being stealthy).
     So what to do at 12th?  She wasn't going to take another level of Rogue and lose the BAB.  She wasn't going to stay in Horizon Walker (because PFS caps at 12th).  So back into Ranger she went.  Add another Favored Enemy and the animal gets a little better (but it cannot survive mods for 12th level PCs).  She evolves and she stays useful, she stays true to her character, and she is fun to play.  Sure, I had to waste a feat at 11th level (Iron Will) to get her Will saves to be something other than awful, but I had learned that she couldn't afford to be the Spring Attack PC in the party; she was too often the frontliner.

Example 5: PFS Character #2
     I would like to think that the more I learned that planning – some degree of it at least – was very important when it came to OP characters.  Yet when it came time for me to make a wizard, I knew I didn't want to make just a straight wizard.  The character concept (from the idea for the novel) was more of a thief who used magic to aid her in the recovery and acquisition of powerful artifacts sought by the elfin elders.  Normally that would just mean making a Wizard/Rogue and probably going into the Arcane Trickster prestige class.  But I had a Rogue (of sorts) already.  Even if it is true, I don't want to look like the guy who only plays one type of character.  What kind of Wizard to make?  I settled on Transmuter – and took Spell Focus (Transmutation) even though choosing Conjuration or Evocation would have made more sense in terms of mechanics – because it was the one the fit the concept of the character.  And then I needed to find something that would allow for some physicality.
     So the Wizard takes two levels of Monk.  Part of this was because the Wizard had to act like a Fighter in early mods (and ask how funny that is when the BAB +0 character is on the frontline fighting in melee).  Part of it was because there are just a lot of feats to be had as a Monk. Four extra feats just for two levels of Monk?  Yes, please.  An increased AC – even with a low Wisdom bonus – and the ability to increase it with Owl's Wisdom?  Yeah, that sounded good, too.  Do energy damage with a puch?  I like that; it seems arcane.  Better saves and evasion, plus making class skills out of Acrobatics, Perception, and Stealth?  I ended up with everything – other than Trapfinding – the concept demanded.  And wouldn't she likely use magic to bypass traps and such?
     Though I stumbled into something that worked – and spent far too much time and effort pretending to be a Monk (seriously, why spend two feats on making her a better puncher when she can't hit most things?) – I feel that it shows more of my inability to properly balance out the need to evolve the characters from play experience rather than build them toward something worthwhile.  Maybe part of my problem came from the fact that I'd never seen anyone build an Arcane Monk.  Finding my way through it by myself gave me a character I really enjoy, but she is far from optimized.  No one would have set out to build what she ended up being.

Example 6: PFS Character #3
I am the blonde Holy Vindicator Tim doesn't like.
     I have a character I don't enjoy playing.  I like his personality and his dim-witted arrogance, but everything about the mechanics of him just bothers me.  He moves slowly (20').  He can't see in the dark.  He wears heavy armor and is loud when he moves.  And there wasn't much in the way of a concept for him other than I wanted to have a character with some ability to heal.
     At first level, he was a Cleric.  He could fight some (+6 to hit, 1d8+3 damage), cast some spells, and channel positive energy 7 times a day.  Then I took him two levels into Paladin.  That was planned.  I wanted to have better saves, and the good Charisma score helped achieve that.  It granted him to utility of being able to detect evil, and the follow up of being able to smite said evil.  But a kind-of fighting cleric he really wasn't.  He had too much invested in being able to be a good channeler.  So what to do?
     I don't like to admit it, but I went looking for a prestige class that could make some use of what he was becoming.  What I settled on was Holy Vindicator, but there was a problem.  The not-so-bright Cleric/Paladin had been investing his skill points in Diplomacy – a function of his classes – and Profession (Sailor) – a function of his background (and a skill that comes up during play).  So a level of Ranger gave enough skill points to guarantee that when the time came, he could become a Holy Vindicator.  The only question was how his levels should break down.  Should he be 3/2/1 or 2/3/1 (Cleric/Paladin/Ranger)?  The third level of Paladin gave Aura of Courage, Divine Health, and a Mercy.  The third level of Cleric casting 2nd level spells and better channeling.  The smart move seemed to be Paladin, but if this guy was going to be able to stand in as a healer, Cleric would make more sense.  So that is what I chose.
     He has been decent in play, but he keeps playing with other Paladins and Clerics.  There is no need for him to do those things that he does, so he comes across as an underpowered melee fighter.  One that doesn't have a lot of skills.  And is incredibly easier to hit than the unarmored Arcane Monk.

     I guess, in the end, I have to admit that I have not come close to mastering the art of character progression.  Even when I do plan something out, I can't seem to stick to it (or maybe even remember it).  I know that I enjoy having what my character has experienced in game affect the choices I make as they move forward, but that isn't necessarily a smart move when it comes to making characters that best serve everyone at the table.

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