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Running A No Character Advancement Game

file8821288042550 [1]A few days ago I was talking with my friend Alec about games we were running. He’s recently gotten into an old school superhero roleplaying game. One idea he had going into it was that there would be no character advancement in the form of EXP or buying new skills.

Wait, what? No character advancement? That’s crazy! That sounds dangerously close to being one of those independent games that makes you think! 

It does sound a little crazy at first, but the more you unpack the idea there are lots of benefits. I can see where his idea came from. It was a superhero game and how often do you see superheroes getting significantly better with new skills. Less often than they die and come back to life, surely. Think about it. Cyclops starts out a story arc being able to shoot lasers from his eyes, and that is the exact same way that he ends it. If Spiderman gets some freaky new power, it usually goes away and is only there to give him a new moral dilemma. Like a sitcom, things start and end the same, but superheroes are still interesting despite their lack of constant advancement. There are a lot of hidden advantages to that when looked at through a gaming lens.

Living Without The Need To Go Up

Ok, if you look at it in a different light, there are lots of things you can do differently in a no character advancement game that can make it better.


There are a lot of ways you could do a no advancement game, and it might not be for everyone. This isn’t quite the same as Troy’s article on taking away experience points and favoring other types of advancement [2], but there is a lot of synergy here. Instead of replacing advancement with some other system or reward, you’re just taking away the uncertainty of, and yearning for, what comes next in the character’s career. You can focus on the mechanics of the current level and play out a fulfilling and roleplaying heavy game without giving up the crunch.

What do you think about a no advancement game? Have you ever done anything like this before? Are there any RPGs out there that already do this that you’d recommend?

37 Comments (Open | Close)

37 Comments To "Running A No Character Advancement Game"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On July 18, 2012 @ 2:40 am

Just a quick point about none advancing supers – and an apology for being a massive geek, hang on, scratch that, being a geek is awesome, so being a massive must be massively awesome – because I can think of two straight off the bat that have changed up. In Marvel you have Tony Stark/Iron Man. The man himself changes as the character grows, but since he is effectively a walking armoured supercomputer with guns, as technology changes, the suit is going to have to stay ahead of the curve.

In The DCU, you have Superman. Gone from leaping tall buildings, to being able to manage interstellar flight. I’m sure there are more out there, but since the question was about non-advancement in RPGs, I’ll leave it there.

I have played a game where XP was so scarce that the speed of advancement was actually reasonably realistic. the equivalent of spending months at a range to improve your skill with a rifle a little bit, or hours a day poring over old manuscripts to learn more on the local history of the area. The characters never had any magic/super powers so there was never a massive surge on doing superhuman stuff at all.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 9:18 am

Rock out with your geekiness!

There is advancement in comics over great spans of time, but that is as readership changes over decades and the story gets different. I couldn’t see playing for a year in a no advancement game without some jumps in power, but I could see doing 2 to 3 month arcs at the same general area.

Was the slow crawl game fun? Did you know about the speed of advancement beforehand? Buy-in is a big thing with this.

#3 Comment By shortymonster On July 23, 2012 @ 3:52 am

It was actually great fun. The rewards were for hard work, not just killing X number of bad guys. Sure, there were times when we would have liked to have been able to change up our characters a bit quicker than we were doing, but just a quick reminder on the realism of that style of play got everyone back on the same page.

The best moment was when we realised we only had one character that could drive a car, and we looked into teaching a back up driver. But in the real world, that’s weeks of lessons and then still having to pass a test if you want a full licence. The guy actually worked out a schedule for his character to go on an intensive two week course, but then dropped out having learnt enough to do the basics, but with bugger all in the way of a skill. Almost every tiny dribble of XP from that point on he put into driving, but because he was doing other things – not just concentrating on his driving – it was realistic that even after months of in game time, he was still a nervous driver who would cock up more than he would actually succeed.

#4 Comment By MasterSilverback On July 18, 2012 @ 6:34 am

Allow me to share an anecdote that backs up your general point, John.

My group has been playing Star Wars Saga Edition. Last year I was gripped by an idea for a Clone Wars campaign focusing on the troops of a Republic battle group. As I began to sketch out the bare bones plot (I don’t want to railroad, but we need to move in a certain story direction), I found myself realizing that I might not be able to fit all the ideas into a campaign that moved from 1st to 20th level, which is the max level attainable in Saga. I can put that aside as an example of trying to do too much in one campaign, but there was another problem accompanying it.

As the timeline moved forward, cool adventure or encounter ideas became bogged down by the need to amp up the power curve. Even though I was at the earliest stage of concepting, I was already finding myself thinking about whether I should use this droid starfighter or that droid starfighter for an encounter because of challenge level. I found myself throwing out a cool adventure idea because beefing the adversaries up to where they would challenge the characters wouldn’t make story sense, and it would disrupt the plot if it occurred earlier in the campaign. Lastly, the final adventure in the campaign had to be a challenge for 4 or 5 people who are each as powerful as Yoda. Not an impossible task, of course, but if the characters are 10th level it’s a piece of cake to build and much more believable from a narrative standpoint. I can see that problem being even worse in systeems like D&D where 20th level is in the middle of character progression. And never mind the fact that if we went from 1st to 20th during the Clone Wars the characters are going from “Can barely lift rocks with the Force” to “able to go toe to toe with Palpatine” in less than three years.

Now, take the advancement out. Say we run the campaign in Saga and tell everyone to make an 8th level character. Or we use a system with no or slow character advancement like FU or WEG Star Wars. If we use a level system there’s still some CL finagling to be done, but every challenge is within a pretty well-defined range and there’s no worrying about side quests (or the opposite problem, getting all the main plot ideas in) or power curves. If the players want to stick with this thing for a decade you can do it. If they get bored with it, you can bring it to a swift end without having to explain why something that was a suicide mission last week (going after the BBEG in his lair) is now managable.

In short, sometimes advancement is a hassle that keeps your group from telling a good story. If that’s the case, throw it out.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 9:20 am

That is a great real world example, and enabling better narrative without the power curve is definitely a big part of this concept. I didn’t know WEG star wars didn’t have advancement. I’ve played in 2 games of that, but they both broke down right after the first session.

#6 Comment By MasterSilverback On July 19, 2012 @ 5:03 am

I should have characterized WEG as a game with slow advancement, or more precisely a game with fast advancement early and very slow advancement after that. If, for example, a player has a skill of 3D in blasters, moving it to 3D+1 takes 3 character points (which are given out each session as XP), because you have three dice. Moving it again to 3D+2 takes another three. When you’re up to 6D, you need 6 points to move to 6D+1 and so on. When you consider that there are almost 40 skills on the WEG character template and you get about 2 or 3 character points per session, character progression can get downright glacial for all but the most narrowly specialized builds.

FU, meanwhile, has options for character progression if you want it, but in the plain vanilla version characters can change but don’t become more powerful mechanically.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 18, 2012 @ 9:46 am

We had a great SWSE game, but experienced exactly what you’re talking about in moving beyond the sweet spot, and the GM having to discard interesting opponents as no longer challenging.

I like the idea of rebuilding/advancing between arcs–so you have characters who change between short stories/movies, but don’t have to redo the math or recalibrate the opponents frequently in an ongoing game.

As both a player and GM, though, I’m pretty lazy about advancement generally. I tended to be “after three sessions you advance” so I didn’t have to mess with XP in D&D; as a player, I enjoy advancement, but usually don’t plan much in advance or enjoy shopping for the perfect feat.

OTOH, I do love acquiring new skills and improving in DitV, and thought that advancing in mastery of spheres (and aerete) in Mage was an important part of the story. Of course, in Mage, it was also due to the characters starting below “optimal” (for my concepts).

#8 Comment By Svengaard On July 18, 2012 @ 7:04 am

I kind of picked up on something along this line by accident last year.
I found I was being extremely cheap with dishing out XP and the players didn’t seem to mind too much (or if they’re resentful they haven’t said anything about it yet). By being cheap I could do things like use the same mooks without having to buff them up constantly to keep in line with the PC’s power level. This made sense as I didn’t want to have to change the enemies being fought constantly. None of this goblins to orcs to ogres to dragons stuff. They still fight the same city guards they fought a year ago.
Since XP gain is slow (it isn’t turned off) the main antagonists still grow slowly to ensure they still remain a challenge.
Also the players still have the sense of improvement, even if they aren’t an uber level yet.
I’m not sure if I’d totally turn advancement off, but slowing it has worked pretty well for me so far.

#9 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 9:22 am

A slow advancement game could work pretty well. It definitely fits the feel of a grittier world better. Yeah, you get better, but you do it at a realistic pace.

#10 Comment By black campbell On July 18, 2012 @ 7:50 am

I rather like slow advancement in games, anyway, but for the superhero genre, pointed out, characters jump into the pages fully formed and rarely change unless there’s a story hook (or a new writer that thinks it would be uber-cool to turn ts character from X to Y.)

It’s one thing I really like about the new Marvel system — XP is more for “buying” contacts, allies, and other save my ass stuff, rather than “Gee, I’ve got all these points…maybe I should pick up flight for this gy that’s never flown, or mental powers for my gun bunny…”

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 9:25 am

I’ve got my PDF of the new marvel system just waiting to be read in-depth. The things I’ve picked up from it are really exciting. I’ve run a lot of games with quick advancement (to match the quick pace) and the level of “oooh, I want this new thing” that comes along with it does kind of kill realistic-ish characters.

#12 Comment By callin On July 18, 2012 @ 8:57 am

I was in a no advancement campaign. Hated it.

Many of the points you made are seem awesome on paper, but actually playing in one is different. It begins to feel like a grind, always using the same old tired abilities again and again. Advancement brings along with it new abilities and new ways of doing things. It is another component to an engaging game. Sure the campaign and story can keep change going, but character advancement is another facet of a campaigns change.

Also, someone mentioned that in “real” comic books the characters never change. That is true, but at the same time that has long been one of the biggest failings in comic books. Spiderman is a 68 year old teenager who does the same things he did 50 years ago. It is that stagnation that drives comic book readers away.

Since that no advancement campaign I won’t play in another.

#13 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 9:27 am

This definitely doesn’t fit every game or play group. What system were you playing in and what was the focus of the groups actions? I can definitely see needing to modify some things about group goals and play style for some games.

#14 Comment By Ernst Seeth Laemmert On July 25, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

Maybe the game just took too long. I love advancement, but if I’m running a short campaign (<5 games) it would work well, I think.
If I'm a player, I don't like it much unless the story is progressing well. I *need* change to indicate my effect on the environment, levelling up is a good way to say "Good job! You lived!"

#15 Comment By Razjah On July 18, 2012 @ 9:53 am

I’ve done no advancement, games. They work pretty well, especially for genres where characters don’t really improve in power.

I also like E6 for D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. The characters stop advancing in levels after 6th level, but they can get feats every 5000 XP (this is easily changed to a higher number or lower). The game maintains the sweet spot, but the players still feel like they are advancing. Additionally, it can be bolted on to pretty much any d20 game. They all have similar problems somewhere around level 10-15 is that game bogs down. Staying low level help keep it easier and it feels more realistic and faithful to literature. Aragorn was awesome, but there was no freaking way he was 20th level. Conan is the same way, Beowulf, the characters from original Dragonlance trilogy are all low leveled too.

A problem with no advancement games is that over a long time, the player can feel like nothing changed. At all, they have nothing to prove from gaming for 8 months every week, or years of gaming. Having something small build up as they slightly “advance” gives the players something to show for their efforts. I prefer that. It keep my players happy.

#16 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

That is actually a really phenomenal idea that I’m not familiar with. Where did E6 come from?

#17 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On July 19, 2012 @ 6:39 am

The first time I heard of it was on the ENWorld boards, but here’s a link to E6.


#18 Comment By Razjah On July 20, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

Basically, Walt covered it. I know that an article on The Alexandrian about calibrating expectations with d20 systems has been used for evidence to stop the level advancement at the peak of human capacity.


#19 Comment By BishopOfBattle On July 18, 2012 @ 11:39 am

I haven’t ever run a no-advancement campaign, but I have for short run, mini-campaigns before. My group played a short run of D&D games over a single story arc using fifth level characters, enough to get a taste for the good powers without having to worry about leveling or power creep. It let me tailor the challenges to the group pretty well and I would do it again for another mini-run.

For longer campaigns, I don’t think I’d want to run a no-advancement campaign, but maybe that’s because I’m a slacker GM and I just want leveling up to provide some of the fun / goals for the players rather than having to provide it all myself. 😉 I would, however, make use of the third, fourth and fifth points in a sort of modified version which is advancement by checkpoint. I’ve seen this type of a system used to great effect by a friend in his games where, instead of gaining experience and leveling up per battle, the party gains levels by reaching major milestones (ie: You saved the kingdom from the invading barbarian horde, you finally tracked down and obtained the legendary Dragon Crown, you freed the king from the control of the evil cultist conspiracy, etc). This has a lot of the same benefits while still allowing advancement in a controlled fashion.

#20 Comment By Roxysteve On July 18, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

Wait, what? No character advancement? That’s crazy! That sounds dangerously close to being one of those independent games that makes you think!

Actually, it makes *me* think of Traveller, the one from before Call of Cthulhu. Everyone and his space dog complained about the lack of on-paper advancement in it.

I’m with Callin with the exception of the “supers don’t change” thing.

I’m a supers-cold person and even *I* know Jean Grey changed radically in terms of her super persona. Tony Stark re-envisioned his suit numerous times and both the Human Torch and Iceman underwent eerily similar “power-ups” (admittedly those last three were so the bored artists could draw them differently but even so).

The idea sounds cool and great but has a very limited shelf life in a campaign I think. I bet you’ll find people wanting to abandon characters and make new ones more often than with advancement-allowed characters.

#21 Comment By Nojo On July 18, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

As Roxysteve said, this is nothing new. Classic Traveller, where you could die in character creation and then never improve or change your skills. I played that for years. And yet, I always hated the static character concept.

Trail of Cthulhu has an interesting take on this topic: For Purist games (as opposed to a Pulp game), you don’t get any XP. But the Keeper can let you reassign points.

“I’ve let my Photography become so rusty, what with spending all this time in libraries.”

#22 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 18, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

More-or-less non-advancing characters is one of the things that’s tripping me out the most as I delve into Classic Traveller. I want to try it to see what it’s like, but it seems like it’ll take several sessions before anyone knows what to think of it.

#23 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 20, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

The key to Traveller is that you advance in contacts, wealth, and favors owed. Much like the real world, actually…

#24 Comment By Darkechilde On May 11, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

I thought the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG (FASERIP) from TSR handled this beautifully – Heroes earned karma, which they were encouraged to spend during the game on their rolls. A player could horde karma for character advancement, but, as GM, I noticed my players rarely doing this.

Within the story-telling arc, GMs were encouraged to alter the PCs for the purposes of a good story (Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix, secondary mutations, etc). A gadgeteer like Tony Stark could and should be encouraged to come up with new suits, but he’s still really just Tony Stark in a new suit.

When I first began reading this article, MSHRPG was absolutely the first thing I thought of.

#25 Comment By Vantage On July 18, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

In my last three (FATE) campaigns, and the GURPS one before that, the players didn’t really seem very interested in advancement. I kept track of the points so they could spend them when they felt like their character was missing something, but I stopped reminding them about it. And everyone seemed to be happy with it.

The games were focused mostly on intrigue and mystery, rather than combat. Therefore the ongoing interest was sustained by revelations rather than new abilities.

#26 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

That was the way my last fudge game went. People didn’t really know what to do with advancement. It was more or less about what they did in the game, and they didn’t really think too much about how to spend their points. I think that came with play style though. They already had really fleshed out character concepts. Was that the case for your games?

#27 Comment By Lee Hanna On July 18, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

I like the idea, in certain contexts. Traveller has been mentioned, those characters tend to start with some career (“levels”) behind them, and don’t advance much, it at all. I’ve heard of E6, but haven’t experimented with it yet. My idea of D&D’s sweet spot might be a little higher, but we’ll see.

I think it would work best in a short game, one in which character advancement, rapid or not, would seem illogical. A three-day dungeon crawl? Not so much. World-spanning, demon-blasting, eight year epic? well, yes.

As it happens, I’m (accidentally) running a no-advancement game right now. It’s Twilight:2000, for my 13-year old son and his pals during the summer (for me, it’s Cold War nostalgia; for them, it’s Modern Warfare/alternate history). Since we’re limited to about 8 sessions, we know it’s going to be a short game. As it’s a skill-based game, advancement is very incremental, and easily overlooked. So easy, in fact, that I forgot to count experience points until one of the players asked me about them. They haven’t worried about it, and I can always tell them that the bad guys aren’t getting any, either.

@John: I read E6 on ENWorld here: [9], but I suspect I first read of it on RPG.net.

#28 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 18, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

I’d recommend looking into E6. It has a lot of elements in this line.

#29 Comment By John Arcadian On July 18, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

I was on some sites looking it up earlier today. I might have to run a game like this for some people soon.


Any idea where it originated from? I couldn’t find any definitive answer in my quick search.

#30 Comment By clight101 On July 18, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

I look at no advancement as not the best thing but it can work for stretches at a time. I think a better way to go about your game is lateral advancement where you don’t get more powerful but change across the board. I think of The Dresden Files RPG when I say this. While there is upward advancement in this game there is also lateral advancement where you can swap skills out or change aspects showing how your character has changed from their experiences from one session to the next. Expand this out and you could have a game with no upward advancement but lots of lateral advancement where characters change, gaining new abilities but leaving old ones behind. Just a different way to create a similar game

#31 Comment By Roxysteve On July 19, 2012 @ 10:02 am

Two comments: I hear the “chargen ends in dead character” comments all the time (often by people who are too young to actually remember which game they are talking about) but seriously, how dim do you have to be as a GM not to head this one off at the pass? It’s been some years since I ran Traveller but as I recall our solution to this was a simple roll that replaced death with honorable discharge without benefits or dishonorable discharge.

Unless we were simply whiling away a rainy afternoon playing the chargen as a mini game in and of itself (it was a reasonably entertaining experience).

Heck, Trail of Cthulhu was born out of the same lack of GM acumen – not simply replacing “You missed the spot hidden so you don’t find the vital clue – game over” with “You missed spot hidden so it takes you all day to find the clue” or “you missed spot hidden so you now have to find the duplicate which has been broken down into x easily findable parts and scattered across the rest of the scenario”.

Second comment: I like the Call of Cthulhu advancement scheme which is actually two parallel tracks: Cthulhu Mythos which is useful but dangerous XP in hard-to-open packing and skill increase which gets harder the more skillful the PC already is.

#32 Comment By Nojo On July 19, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

LOL, back in the day we thought Traveller’s death in character creation was “hard-core” and we played it that way. The ref just shook his head and made the player start a new character. We didn’t want some wimpy GM! We played with the classic little black books and had some good times.

We did whine about our static characters. Not only were our skills set in stone, but character creation was mostly out of our hands. Roll on this table, then roll on that table. You might want to be a sniper, but end up as a medic. A medic that could never learn to shoot.

#33 Comment By Tsenn On July 19, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

Diaspora, another FATE game, also lacks advancement. Want to be better at something? You have to step another skill down, as you’re not spending the same time and attention on it as you were. Instead, characters develop their Aspects and create new ones as they are resolved.

Development is the key. Your characters, the setting, relationships, the context. Anything you can think of. In an advancement free game, development is mandatory.

#34 Comment By 77IM On July 19, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

Your first bullet dot is kind of a negative, for me. I habitually envision characters slightly more awesome than the system allows. Having the promise of advancement allows me to say, “Well, I can’t afford selective area telekinesis now, but I can in just six more sessions.” When I don’t have that opportunity, it is incredibly frustrating.

I had this most recently in Spirit of the Century. I actually built my character with only a novice understanding of the system and didn’t realize there was no advancement! So when I was picking Stunts, I got some nice ones, but there were others I wanted but couldn’t get, even though they fit my character concept quite well. “I’ll just pick them up later,” I thought…

#35 Comment By Tsenn On July 23, 2012 @ 4:14 am

@77IM: think that your comments on SoTC speak of the need for the communication of intent, as discussed in another article. If you’re clear with the GM as to what you want your character to do and where you want to go with it, you’re much more likely to get what you want.

As for the way it turned out, I would suggest that perhaps that’s an advantage of an advancement free system. It’s usually more open to editing characters so you don’t end up with abilities you never use.

#36 Comment By Kitchen Wolf On July 20, 2012 @ 2:26 am

Character Advancement is a treadmill. In D&D 3.x deliberately so, what with the challenge rating vs. party level mechanic/philosophy (the monsters get tougher at the *exact same pace* that you do). If your character seems to be a wimp with no food, talk to the GM about character power level. It took work to learn how to paint minis, or to get your degree, or to train for that 10K run. It takes no real work whatsoever to monkey with numbers on a character sheet to have the capabilities that you want to play with. Life’s too short to play with the character you don’t want for “just a little bit longer” to turn him into the character you do want. There is no reason whatever to have your power fantasies artificially constrained by a deceased insurance salesman from Wisconsin (unless that’s your thing).

In computer games, upgrades are constantly mentioned as something needed to make a game enjoyable or compelling. But the Master Chief of Bungie’s Halo franchise has the exact same capabilities at the first level of the game that he does at the last. He seems to do all right.

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#40 Comment By Josiah Bradbury On August 29, 2012 @ 9:32 am

Recently I have become a little disenchanted with D&D for some of the same reasons pointed out by this post. Then I discovered savage worlds. I think it is about the right character advancement for me and its easy enough to slow down as well.