Thursday, 23 October 2014

Advancing Icons

So as often happens,* I was trying to find Japanese equivalents of complicated lit-crit vocabulary, and stumbled across an RPG blog. Sadly, the post I found is dated to 2012 and the blog rarely updated, but I thought I'd post something here anyway, because that's how I roll. I would like to thank mwhill42 for this diversion, as it's not like I'm trying to learn an entire language while simultaneously producing an RPG about magical spacefaring lizard secret agents or anything.**

* This is a lie

** This is also a lie

The post in question refers back to a longer one by Robin D Laws, which is about writing and stuff and not directly relevant here.

Here's our discussion topic:

How would you handle character advancement (or experience or ...) for the different types of characters? The dramatic hero seems pretty typical for a RPG but the iconic hero ...

Simple solutions

Thought one: don't. The whole shtick of an iconic hero is that they do not change, or grow. They enter our world already competent and retain that competence throughout their careers, with no significant changes in capability or character.

The characters will not change much, but this doesn't necessarily make them not fun to play. Having a set character doesn't preclude things like developing relationships (although the character's persona should not change), learning small non-mechanical things, gaining specific items of equipment, or a growing history of accompishments. Speaking of which...


The character might not learn much, but everyone else can. Growing fame, or infamy, brings a measure of power. A repute-based advancement system would allow the character to exert greater influence or call in favours, while still doing the same kind of things they used to do. The exact mechanics would vary by genre. A high-repute PI might have pull with the police, be owed favours by society figures, even have a fan club (official or otherwise). A high-repute gunslinger can stop a fight in its tracks just by dropping their name - although they'll also tend to draw unwanted attention. An occult investigator might be able to get official help despite the weirdness of their claims, because someone in the authorities has dealt with them before. A time-travelling alien can bulldoze his way through arguments and make would-be-interferers hesitate, because people have gradually learned the name The Doctor.

This is, essentially, the approach I suggest for Monitors, which is leaning on the Saturday morning cartoon style of iconic hero. They will be able (if they choose) to earn either official seniority, or favourable reputation, with their organisation. This allows them to lean on their authority or the trust they have earned, while not being able to mechanically do so very often - this makes sense in the setting, where their organisation walks a careful line between fulfilling its duties and getting people's backs up.

While it's designed for an organisation-based game, you could perfectly well transfer some elements to a more individual game, and treat it as reflecting favours owed, tales that grow in the telling, and other advantages.

Incidentally, I use "repute" here deliberately to avoid confusion with "reputation", as the latter is sometimes uses on a good-bad axis and this isn't what I'm driving at here.


Our iconic character may have their established shtick, but that doesn't mean they can't improve mechanically. After all, game systems often involve a lot of randomness, and that can disrupt the kind of stories we want to emerge from iconic heroes. In fact, it undermines that iconicity if said hero randomly rolls ten 1s in succession and looks like an amateur at their main area of expertise, or whatever. As various systems have suggested, increasing player control may help support the iconic hero (as well as the dramatic) by reducing the chance of things going wrong that should go right.

Token systems like Savage Worlds bennies or FATE points can address this issue, and one way to model advancement might be to offer more to more experienced characters. However, this risks ramping up their power rather than smoothing out the rough patches - in many systems, a token that could turn a failure into a success can also make a moderate success excellent. Unless you limit the usage of such tokens, it could undermine what you're going for. Also, they usually have several uses, some of which may make having a large pool overpowered, or just weird. For example, it makes little sense if a timid stay-at-home mathematician can spend tokens to soak a dozen bullet wounds.

You could instead implement a system where characters gain some ability to "finesse" unwanted results, particularly where these pertain directly to their iconic abilities. Essentially, you'd be creating a tolerance for error so that a slight failure becomes a success, a moderate failure becomes slight, and so on. I think this is broadly preferable to offering outright bonuses; it won't make them able to achieve beyond their normal limits, which can cause mechanical issues in many systems.* The idea here is that the character will be less likely to fluff their core competencies.

* For example, systems sometimes have thresholds like "mortal/supernatural", and you don't really want to push those. It might affect mechanical balance, but it also kind of stops being an iconic hero if they ascend to godhood. And while in some systems it's really just a matter of what number you end up with, those with a broader or more narrative resolution may have bigger problems. If you suddenly manage to deflect bullets or walk up a sheer wall while being a regular mortal, that's a problem.

So for example, in a percentile system you might allow, oh, three skills to be noted as Iconic Skills for your character, and allow a 1% tolerance of failure on those skills. Have the tolerance equate to some nominal level. By 10th "level", they have a 10% margin that still counts as a mild success.

Alternatively, you could have a resource-based system, where the player has some number of points they can use to mitigate failures. You could make this affect narrow failures only, or you could decide they can also reduce the severity of greater failures - the Great Detective makes mistakes sometimes, but never catastrophic misjudgements. So maybe three times a day they can cancel a failure, or once per scene, or something.

In most cases I would advise tying this to the specific nature of the character, so they can rely on this when they're doing something iconic, but not when doing something outside their shtick.

I think that's about all I've got. Anyone else?


  1. Like you, my first instinct for "how to advance an iconic character" is "don't". Sherlock Holmes doesn't strictly get *better* at solving crimes in any meaningful way.

    Indeed I wonder if the solution isn't some kind of inversion of the "running to stand still" effect you get in D&D 4E. A sense of progression for an iconic character comes from their facing greater and greater challenges, all of which they overcome with, in essence, the same abilities they started out with. So while in 4E D&D you're always aiming for an 11+ on a D20 because your enemies' ACs increase at the same rate your abilities do, in an iconic game you're always aiming for 11+ on a D20 because while the challenges you face escalate, they always prove equally amenable to the methods by which you approach them.

    1. I think this is basically what you're aiming for. Although, I think it depends on what kind of campaign you want. Escalating challenge is a bit of a Buffy thing, where you're basically always facing something bigger than last season. A lot of iconic characters, especially those that tend towards one-off stories rather than storylines, are perhaps more inclined to hop about in terms of the technical challenge they're facing? I'm not sure that Sherlock started with easy stuff and escalated, for example. Maybe that's a detective trope, though, rather than a general rule.

  2. Oh, another idea just came to me, which might be nice for that continuity-evoking feel that some iconic characters have. You could borrow a leaf from DITV (or indeed, H&H) and have a sort of Wot I Learnd mechanic. Let's call it "As You Will Recall, Watson" (AYWRW). Simply note down one or two things about each 'case', be they contacts, facts, items acquired or whatever. You can then evoke these for a very minor benefit in future cases, rewarding you slightly for building the character's canon a bit, but hopefully not being significant enough that people will tie the game in knots to eke the benefit from improbable things.