Making Leveling Up a Part of Your Narrative

“Why was I pushing this boulder up a mountain anyway?” – Sisyphus the Ant

Over the course of the time I have been playing and running roleplaying games, I have spent time poring over countless rulebooks.  Most of these were laid out quite well.  Information was easy to find and tabulated in ways that were helpful to varying degrees.  Supplements got added and they too brought rules to the table in sometimes more sometimes less helpful ways.  What very rarely happened, however, was that the GM got narrative help.  I don’t mean that they never got advice, though good advice in that arena was rare until more recently.  What I mean is that mechanically, there was very little support for the narrative and even less suggestion on how a given mechanic could turn into a narrative.

This is, in my opinion, one of the things that Monte Cook Games does extremely well.  Take, for example, the process of leveling up a character in a roleplaying game.  In most roleplaying games, at best, there are comments for training in skills that say something along the lines of “you can have the characters take down time to account for the time it would take to learn and increase their adeptness in a given skill”.  While this hints at the idea that there might be something more there, it does not, in my opinion, explore the idea far enough.

One of the things that told me I was reading something different when I first picked up Numenera was the description in each of the Character Types that discussed background.  This carried over into the new versions: Discovery and Destiny.  If we look at the Glaive for example (Numenera: Discovery, page 29 – 30), it gives three separate, interesting methods of looking at how a Glaive might become a Glaive. 

The first is Intensive Training, which discusses simple martial training with a master, a guild, or a monastery for example.  The second is Inborn Traits which suggests that your toughness and martial ability come from good genetic stock or breeding.  The third and last is Biomechanical Modification, suggesting that somehow, you have become changed by the Numenera of prior worlds and have become stronger or faster than your fellows.

This is great, but what is even better is that each of these sections ends with a discussion of what advancement might look at for each of these type background paradigms, and they are all different.  Such ideas give a GM an interesting opportunity in the form of story fodder.  It is not simply that a character spends time in-game exploring and gaining experience and knowledge so that they can mechanically increase in level on paper.  It is an opportunity for the act of leveling up to become a story in and of itself.  This, by the way, is an amazing opportunity for smaller groups that may not have the breadth of resources to continually tackle new adventures to still “adventure” after a sort (to find the resources/do the activities necessary to level up).  It is an opportunity for the GM to introduce other NPCs, locations, and stories that may not otherwise fit and increase the player’s or players’ immersion in their world.

A couple of other options to consider in conjunction with this idea, and as suggested by Tomás Giménez Rioja in his excellent article on Tribality entitled How to Make “Leveling Up” a Narrative Tool are:

  • Consider occasionally leveling up your players at different times.  Yes, this creates a slight disparity between power levels between player characters.  However, when used in conjunction with the previous discussion about narrative leveling as presented in Numenera, it is just part of the next leg of the story and the entire party is experiencing it together anyway.  If you use such a story structure for taking an advancement, perhaps the next advancement will be for another character and the first is the one that will not directly apply.  If done right and with group understanding, this can promote party camaraderie as well.
  • This one is a bit more tricky to pull off.  The example is from Dungeons & Dragons, but narratively, it works in any situation, really.

“When the level 1 paladin is about to lay the last blow to the bugbear that took down his friend, you as a DM look at the bugbear’s hit points and understand the bugbear has no chance of surviving the hit. You ask the player if he wants to say some prayer or phrase as he lands his blow, to which the player says “By all holy and unholy, you shall perish under the ever-glowing light of Pelor!”. Then, you continue to describe his weapon glowing with the sun’s light as he absolutely destroys the bugbear, whose corpse falls by the side, burning with the holy fire from a divine smite. “Congratulations! You are now level 2”, you say to the open-mouthed player who absolutely loved the moment and got rewarded with a new level as a new wave of enemies approach to avenge his boss.”

In summary, there are always options to tie things back into a narrative story flow.  One of the fantastic things about the product lines from Monte Cook Games in particular, however, is that often, such ideas are suggested explicitly in the game rules.  Leveling up your character is one such example.  If you read through the rulebooks of Numenera, the Cypher System, and Invisible Sun, however, you will find other examples.  To me, this gets to the core of their design philosophy: Double down on the narrative, focus on telling an amazing story collaboratively with your players, and everything else will fall into place.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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