The Best RPG Character Development System?

I was discussing with friends of mine about the “best RPG character development system”, and here’s few of the ideas suggested:

  • Using of skill makes the skill better (in other words: if you use sword, you’ll become better in sword usage)
  • Experience points, that can be put to different skills (but so that you cannot develop everything, you need to choose which skills to develop)
  • Description for skill levels (Cyberpunk style, where skills had values from 1-10 and for example value 5 in leadership equals plummer, value 11 is Captain Kirk (the value which you can never reach))
  • Certain natural elements (race for example) define the maximum values, and then the closer the maximum you get, the more difficult it gets to develop the skill.

I personally enjoy a system where you have experience points (and even ‘levels’ – at least in some context) and then can put few points to different skills as you please. In addition to this, I like if characters have options to choose from different special skills, but so that they might need to choose their ‘path’ (bit like Jedi-style: choosing between The Dark Force or The Light Force, which then defines what sort of specialties you can get).

It was interesting to see, that people prefer to have very different ways on how to develop a gaming character. Some guys wanted a realistic approach, while others thought it was boring.

What about you? What kind of character development system do you like most?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. I don’t think there’s a best system. I’ve played at least a dozen different P&P RPGs and they all had good and bad points. For CRPGs, there are times when I like tweaking numbers and times I just like to dive in.

    It at least partially depends on the game – in Champions for example a character can’t start blasting things with energy bolts unless he buys it and explains how he got the power (at least in the campaigns I was in it had to be explained). Fortunately coming up with an explanation was easy. For the PC version, City of Heroes, you could get new powers as well, but limited to those of your archtype. It worked well I think.

    I like the Rolemaster system overall, for both the skill system and combat. A character can try anything, but if he hasn’t done it before he’s going to be at a disadvantage. It’s also harder for a character to learn something outside of the skills normally used for his profession. A CRPG based on this system could either hide the numbers from the player by tracking how much the character uses what skill and assigning points to them gradually, making it kind of a Dungeon Siege type game, or let him tweak them.

  2. You are assuming that player characters are going to experience an extended campaign, that their power increases steadily and that this power increase is a skill improvement: learning new skills or increasing the rating of old ones.
    All three assumptions have plenty of exceptions.

    Some games are not commonly played, or are designed not to be played, as an extended campaign. Paranoia (the first editions in particular) encourages death and ruin of throwaway PCs, and one-shot adventure that plan for the death or retirement of characters are possible in any RPG.
    These games don’t need any character development beyond the special cases decided by the GM (or programmed into a computer game).

    In some games power increases are useless and inappropriate. For example, in Primetime Adventures a character that becomes significantly more powerful would be unacceptably different from the original concept and more silly and/or boring: the rare character changes happen by consensual decision.

    Other games don’t rely on the character’s intrinsic abilities. Many computer games implement powergaming by pure accumulation of stuff: for example the items and the Pokemon themselves in Pokemon games.

    As an alternative to skills there are discrete powers without ratings, like the feats in recent D&D, which might be a better model than skill ratings and checks, and levels of packaged improvements (good for constraints and special cases and to reduce useless details).
    Experience systems need to take care of the different improvement types, usually by tying new special abilities and assignable skill points to “levels” in level-oriented systems (e.g. the D&D family), by simply not having non-skill numerical increases (such as hit points) or special powers in skill-oriented systems (e.g. Call of Cthulhu, where the main experience award is not raising skills but recovering Sanity), or by flattening all sorts of improvements to a unified point buy scale (e.g. GURPS).

    I personally like (at least in theory) point buy systems, even if they are unlikely to be very balanced, because they are flexible: if some change makes sense (e.g. the GM decrees that during a long cruise everybody picks up some Sailing skill points), it can be compensated with available experience pools and other changes without changing the power level of the characters; if the power level changes (through experience awards or planned inflation) there is the maximum flexibility for converting the improvement to actual power; the character’s point value can take into account gear and other externalities.

    Among strictly skill-based systems for extended campaigns in which characters can become quite powerful, I had a good experience with the “improvement points” in Cyberpunk 2020 (and Mekton, Cybergeneration etc.): by spending 10*N IPs a skill goes from level N-1 to level N (on a practically linear scale between 0 and 10).
    Improvement points have two main virtues: they are small, so that they can be given frequently in small numbers without sudden and unrealistic increases of multiple skills at once, and they can be given as a generic experience award (assignable to any skill) or for a specific skill after training or skill use.

  3. I would tell you that I don’t like systems where the more you use your skill, the more it levels up…but then I would go sink hours into Oblivion/Morrowind. So my preferences contradict what I actually do, lol. One thing I would do to improve the “practiced skill” method is have the ability to change “focus” each level up. So you can put your focus on “Sword fighting” for one level, and earn much more xp there than in other skills. And maybe switch the focus the next level to “Fireball” the next level. I would also add things to the game to encourage practicing, such as attack dummies. I remember there were attack dummies in Oblivion that wouldn’t help raise your skill, and found that weird.

  4. I didn’t read all your posts, but I think there is something you didn’t take into account.
    People are getting used to gameplay. I believe.
    After playing for many hours a certain game, getting back to the same game won’t be as fun as it was in the first time.
    The XP leveling system is good, but it is used in so many games, that people are very used to it. For the better or for the worse.
    So somtimes, making something in a different is refreshing. Although, being creative and being different doesn’t always mean being good, and thus some companies are afraid to take that risk.

  5. The concept I’ve liked the best so far was the license board in Final Fantasy XII. It was interesting that learning one skill (license) could potentially unlock up to three others. However, it is definitely flawed in that learning the skill and obtaining the skill are two different things altogether. And some skills were silly (“I need to learn this skill to wear this armor!”) Another issue I had was that the characters all had the same board and the same skills in the exact same places, so they weren’t really all that unique when it came to gameplay.

    Like I said: Like the concept, but the execution is flawed.

  6. The best system is a totally universal system, which works like real life.
    You have only so much time in your life to learn a skill perfectly.
    However, since that would fear the casual players away, it’s good to have a time-warped pre-populated universal system which appear to be classes and professions, but still based on the very same universal real life skill system.

  7. It isn’t really all that strange. killing things nets you food/stuff you can sell to buy food, which is your livelihood sorted out so you can spend your time on learning magic. It’s just been drastically simplified ;)

  8. I was always sort of thinking/imagining a system along the lines of what you describe and was pretty convinced that it didn’t exist. Then I was goofing around with a group and they showed me Burning Wheel.

    * It lets you describe who your character based on what they’ve done in life and defines available skills accordingly. For example, if you grow up in a rural/farm setting, you’re unlikely to become a City guard unless you move to the city.

    * The system doesn’t have any concept of levels at all… you define who your character is based on the skills you practice and the tasks you perform.

    * Using a skill does improve it up to a point, but once you get good enough at it, you have to try harder and harder things – and more often – to improve it further.

    * More interestingly, it’s trivial to pick up new skills – Throwing is common for me – but you start off mediocre at best and have to continue working on them to improve.

    Anyway, check it out. The base books are about $20-25 but that’s all you need… and it’s d6 based, so there’s not much else to buy.

  9. The first method was used in Dungeon Master. I used to just stay in a room and make fireballs, eat, sleep and do it again until I was totally powered up :-) Of course I’d wasted a lot of food, (and my time) but that was the only downside.

    The XP model, whilst commonly used, is weird if you think about it. You kill a load of monsters with a sword, then can spend your XP on magic. It’s totally unrealstic.

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