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Handwaving PC Advancement

In this thread on EN World [1], punkorange posts about handwaving 4 levels and over a year of game time in his D&D campaign. Reading this, my first thought was, “Neat! How does that work?”

And more importantly, how could you give this a shot in your own game?

Punkorange’s question is framed around getting advice about the specific monster (a dragon) that he wants to use to challenge his group — that’s not the part that interests me. What I’m curious about is how easily this technique could be applied in any RPG that places importance on PC advancement.

I can think of two ways to approach handwaving significant PC advancement (and game time): as a one-off for a change of pace, or as part of the structure of an entire campaign.

Punkorange’s post talks about the first approach — presumably after making the “big jump,” the PCs in his game will go back to levelling up normally. Fox’s new show Reunion is a perfect example of the second way: one year passes between each episode (which sounds pretty cool to me!).

In both cases, this is definitely something you’ll want to talk over with your group ahead of time (and doubly so if you’d like to use it as the basis for a campaign). Assuming that everyone is interested in the idea, though, here are 5 questions I think you should address in the process:

  1. Handwave advancement once only, or several times over the course of the campaign?
  2. After the jump, where does the group want to wind up (time and place)?
  3. Is there a story-driven goal in mind?
  4. What events transpire “offscreen?”
  5. What happens to the PCs’ stuff (particularly important in D&D)?

Questions 2 and 3 are directly inspired by my recent reading of Sorcerer and Sword [2] (a supplement for the indie RPG Sorcerer), which addresses stepping out of the traditional GM/player relationship in RPGs. This seems quite relevant to handwaving significant PC advancement and large chunks of game time: to get the most out of this idea, the whole group — players and GM — will need to brainstorm and toss around ideas about what sounds like the most fun for their game.

What do you think: does this sound like fun to you? Have you ever tried it, or something like it, in your game? Are there games that are particularly well- or poorly-suited to handwaving PC advancement?

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Handwaving PC Advancement"

#1 Comment By Frank Filz On September 17, 2005 @ 10:41 am

I have used hand waving when switching from XP systems that left the PCs spread across several levels to trying to keep the PCs at the same level. Equipment wasn’t much of an issue because I regularly re-base the characters at the DMG expected wealth levels.

An interesting way to do this kind of hand waving would be to play the PCs at three or four different stages in a long history. So they might start as 1st level characters when their homeland gets over run. They play for a while, gaining a few levels (or whatever the advancement is) while they escape from their hometown and reach a sanctuary. Then they stay low and get training and are advanced a few levels. Then you play a round of them starting to flex their muscles and harrass the conqueror’s patrols and such. After that gets boring, you handwave another sequence, and now they are sneaking back into the capital city, with enough experience to be able to take down the conquerors.

Such a campaign would take planning, and should have a good reason why you’re handwaving. Do the PCs really need to skip those levels? Or can you just do the time handwave?

Definitely the players need to all be on board with any such handwaving. A pitfalls could be the players feeling cheated of gameplay. Or they might wonder, well, why can’t we just take the conquerors on at our current level?

Clearly D20 with it’s well thought out rules for creating high level characters is far more suited to this skipping kind of play than AD&D was. GURPS and Hero would be well suited. Narative supporting systems might be less suited, though they may also not need the advancement of power levels and fit more in the skip time model. FATE would be well suited. TSOY with it’s keys might feel weird to jump advancement.


#2 Comment By Alan Scott On September 17, 2005 @ 3:02 pm

I plan on doing some level skipping in a Dark Matter campaign I’m going to run later this year.

Once every 10 sessions or so, they’ll play as different characters in a past era, but at the level of experience. So while they’re playing in the modern era, their past character advancement is handwaved, and while they’re playing in the past, their present advancement is handwaved.

I hope it works out okay.

#3 Comment By DNAphil On September 17, 2005 @ 6:01 pm

I have done handwaving as well. The two times I have done it were cases where campaigns that I have run, were put stopped and then re-started over a year later.

One time, I had a d20 Modern campaign where the characters were all professional thieves who had retired. Of course, they came out of retirement for one more job. There had been an actual gap of one year real time from the last official session, and the new job.

So I decided that a year of time passed in the campaign, and I advanced everyone by one level, to cover the time lost.

In the second case, I ran a D&D campaign in 2000 that took the characters from 3rd to 10th level, before we stopped playing. In 2004 we decided to pick up the campaign again, and decided to advance the characters 2 levels to cover the time passed.

In both cases, I did not handwave off too many levels, since the things that happen out of session, are not as “intense” as the in game session.

Handwaving works pretty well, and it is a nice way to jump back into an older game.

#4 Comment By Tavis Allison On September 17, 2005 @ 6:04 pm

One way I’ve thought about to do this (also inspired by Sorceror and Sword) in D&D is to have the characters design their entire progression from levels 1-20, stuff and all. Scenes can then be played out at any point in this continuum – either through a time-travel adventure, a foreshadowing thing where the first scene establishes the problem they face as they approach epic level and the subsequent scenes fill in the background. One interesting thing would be for players to have some say in what timepoints are played out next.

I’ve been doing this less formally in the one-on-one game I play over the phone with an old friend. His character may be the reincarnation of an ancient god; we’ve done some flashback sessions in which he plays this god, and sets up things that he can use later (like starting a cult that he can contact in the god’s future/his past).

#5 Comment By Crazy Jerome On September 17, 2005 @ 11:20 pm

We did some handwaving in our current Arcana Evolved campaign. We wanted the characters to grow from first level, but did not want to spend a lot of time there. The handwave was a good compromise versus playing it out or starting at 5th level. We played one short adventure at each of the first five levels. After the adventure, time passed (sometimes weeks or even months, where the party was researching, patroling, etc.)

We also considered jumping again from 8th to about 12th, but decided that the intermediate “nautical exploration” campaign proposed instead sounded fun enough to play out. That’s the key–you want to get to a certain point, but don’t have a fun idea of how to get there in the time you want to spend.

#6 Comment By Martin On September 18, 2005 @ 9:50 pm

These are all great — and in many ways, strikingly different — ideas for putting handwaving to good use. Neat! 🙂

#7 Comment By Judas On September 19, 2005 @ 7:28 am

As always, my input is D&D oriented.

I don’t know if the start point is considered a hand wave or not, but I start the characters at level 5. IMO, D&D 3.X works best from levels 5-15. At low levels the players have few options and it only takes 1 critical to lay them low (and may the Gods forbid an Orc armed with a great axe meeting a lvl 1 wizard). At level 5, the characters are 1 level from that important second feat and dedicated spellcasters are eyeing 3rd tier spells. I think the game mechanics start to unravel around level 15 due to a large number of “Save or Die (or essentially dead via total incapacitation)” effects.

I havent done hand waving yet, but I think it would be a fine way to jump start a campaign that might have gone off track or is just stagnating. I could see the DM/GM pausing the game and skipping a session or two to re-tool the campaign, advancing the characters, and such. For the D&D system, it would be important to rebalance the gear as the characters are item dependent in this system.

I finished an epic campaign where the players put in almost a year of time (10 months) defeating Acererak the God at the end going from level 5-> 13-15. This was sort of a sequel to Return to the Tomb of Horrors were the party was brutally slain in the final encounter and Acererak ascended. It seems like a shame to just shelve these characters so I will do a short high level game where they will get a free level “in the meantime” (although considering their accomplishments, i am prolly shortchanging them on Exp).

Like most things, I think it can work if used wisely. This is key, because character advancement is one of the prime mechanics that drives the fun for the players.

#8 Comment By Martin On September 20, 2005 @ 12:06 pm

(Judas) Like most things, I think it can work if used wisely. This is key, because character advancement is one of the prime mechanics that drives the fun for the players.

This is a very good point. Even if the whole group agreees that it’d be fun to try handwaving a few levels once, that doesn’t mean everyone will enjoy it after the fact. If you give handwaving a shot, it seems like a good idea to ask for feedback afterwards and go from there.

#9 Comment By Rudolf Kraus On September 22, 2005 @ 8:55 pm

It’s more than just levels, people. Think outside the box.

I did this in a campaign I ran for years (AD&D), and I gave every character two years off, and had them describe what they wanted to accomplish. One started a family and built a home, another entered politics, another quested for a particular magic item, another started a business to make money. I gave them “free” levels, sure, but lots of character develpoment and perks too.

#10 Comment By Martin On September 28, 2005 @ 12:24 pm

(Rudolf) It’s more than just levels, people. Think outside the box.

I think Judas’s point was more that in D&D, levels carry a lot of importance to many players’ enjoyment of the game. As far as handwaving being more than just levels, I agree completely — that’s covered pretty well in #s 2 through 4 on my list.

#11 Comment By Lilith On October 3, 2005 @ 12:24 pm

I did something of this myself. We had an extended hiatus from gaming (because of Real Life(tm)), and the characters had advanced in the game. One went to War Wizard College, another set up a Druidic Shrine, and another decided to go on a little revenge mission to right some wrongs done to his fellow party members.

Consequently, they advanced in levels.

#12 Comment By Martin On October 3, 2005 @ 1:22 pm

Lilith, I hadn’t thought of that angle at all — the in-game handwaving brought on by a real life hiatus. Good point!