I’ve talked before about children playing Among Us on the schoolyard by making up the rules and trying acting within genre expectations.
I recently saw a schoolyard Pokémon battle in the same style.
The kids, who were about 11 years old, stood opposite each other a few meters apart, and took it in turns to summon or attack with their mons. It went something like this:
Child 1: (Throws pokeball) Go Litten!
Child 2: Oh its a fire pokemon! I know, Gyarados I'm choosing you!
(Picks a pokeball off an imaginary belt and throws it)
Child 1: (looks up into the sky at where Gyarados' head should be) Oh no. Litten, Scratch!
Child 2: Gyarados DRAGON RAGE!
Child 1: Oh dang it. Come back Litten)
(mimes holding out a pokeball to retreat Litten from the battle)
I was loving this.
These children aren’t being immature – they were simply comfortable enough with themselves to openly play imaginative games without any concern for derision or mockery.
Though they were taking turns, there was no strict set of rules, just an unspoken understanding that they would conform to the idea of a Pokémon battle as much as possible.
Then something happened.
Child 1: (throwing pokeball) Pikachu, I choose you!
Child 2: Awww it looks so cute!
(dodders closer to Pikachu, doe-eyed, then leans down to pat the Pikachu)
Child 1: Pikachu, Thundershock!
(Child 2 jolts around, mimicing being electrocuted by a mouse)
I gave them a cheer and a laugh in approval.
They were so genre-aware.
They were engaging in unbridled imaginative play with no concern for the social optics.
In part 1 I discussed some things I do and don’t like about character progression in games.
In part 2 I wrote a criteria to examine character progression with: Is it appreciable, qualitative and distinctive?
Character progression often comes out of the blue.
You suddenly know countercharm because you are a 6th level bard.
We generally just handwave this away as the character having gained experience, but the experience generally doesn’t match the new progression.
Below are three ways of improving on this.
Critical Role’s system
In lower-level episodes of Critical Role, when the players level up and are in a city, they often spend part of the next session playing out downtime vignettes showing how they obtained their new features and abilities.
For instance, the wizard and the arcane trickster might play out a scene where the wizard teaches the trickster how to cast their new spell.
Or the Monk goes to a monastery in the city, spars with her superiors and can now do a punch which stuns opponents.
I like how the progression is represented in world, it’s preferable to suddenly getting new features, because the events in the fiction are matching the changes in the mechanics.
But its a bit cart before horse.
The mechanical changes have primacy, and the fiction is played out to explain them.
The Montage System
One of the first games I ever played in was an excellent homebrew mess set in Ravnica. When we leveled up we told the GM what sort of new feature we wanted the character to get. There would then be some collaborative discussion to make sure the feature was not too over/under-powered. Then we played out as a montage a series of short narrations representing how we had gained that feature.
The GM gave us prompts and we would improv off of them.
For instance, if I wanted my character to get a new poison attack we might spend a couple of minutes describing:
Chasing a lizard around the laboratory with a giant net
Swirling a purple chemical in a flask as I pour some green goo into it
Using a pipette to drop the poison onto a slab of meat, which sizzles and deteriorates at its touch
and at the end I have a new ability.
You can also put a short 2 minute song on in the background to act as a timer, it will make things more frantic.
This is better than the critical role system because it is quicker, more fun, and the progression is player directed. I don’t get a new feature because “the rules say that when I get to 6th level I now know countercharm”. Rather I get a new feature because that is what the GM and I both agree fits the character at this point in time.
I think we can still do better though.
The progression here is not flagged in advance. It doesn’t necessarily flow logically from the recent actions of the character.
The Flag System
Put a piece of paper in the middle of the table with all the player character names on it. Write Development Goals at the top.
Each player writes by their character’s name the next bit of development they want for their character. Like this:
Dillon, Sorcerer Supreme: Magic which will allow me to infiltrate the halls of the Archmage Candlestick
Jango the fighter: A magic axe
Thrasos the Biomancer: A way to hear better that will synergise with the screeching ability I already have to allow echolocation
Jessop: An audience with the Mayor
Sally: Access to the restricted section of the town library
By writing down development goals you are flagging for the other players, and for the GM, content that you want to appear in the game.
As a GM, this is useful because it makes prep easier – just look at the Development Goals and see if there is a way to work them in.
It also makes improv easier for the GM – have the development goals on your GM screen and use it for inspiration.
It also gives the party five self-made quests/goals.
When you complete the goal, you get the progression.
You can be very precise or a little vague. The more vague, the quicker you might complete the goal but the less precise the result. You get a magic axe, but you don’t get that particular one with that particular ability.
The fiction has primacy, and the rules and mechanics follow them. The horse is before the cart.
This system could be used on top of a comprehensive rule system like 5e. That wouldn’t stop the features you get from character advancement in the rules just appearing. However, it would still be useful for other progression. You could use it in tandem with the montage system.
This could also be used wholesale as a character progression system in a rules light game.
I’ve used the word development here instead of the word progression. There was a post by Dreaming Dragonslayer about development, wherein the terms development vs advancement were discussed. I think development fits the flag system better than the progression I was using before. Progression gives me an image of a continuous march towards an overriding goal. This is more haphazard than that. I’ve been thinking about this flag system for a while but reading that post gave me the push to write it up.
I saw a group of four or five 8-year-olds playing with Pokémon cards recently. The kid who owned them poured a bag of a hundred or so onto the table and they picked six cards each. The kids took it in turns playing cards onto the table (regardless of the evolutionary stage of the card) and then attacking other player’s cards (completely ignoring the mana costs for doing so).
Obviously they had a vague idea how the game was played, but were making up most of it
I let them get on with it.
At one point somebody had played a poison Pokémon, maybe a Nidoran? We’ll assume it was this exact card:
The kid played the card and attacked with it.
What should have happened: Assuming the card had sufficient energy cards attached (a poison and one other energy card of any type), it would have done 20 damage (before applying weaknesses and resistances). Additionally there would be a 50% chance the target would be poisoned, meaning it would take an extra 10 damage each turn until it feints.
‘I attack that one with my sting, it does 20 so its dead’
‘Nooo that’s not how it works, because he is poisoned it means every time he is attacked he takes an extra 20’
No flipping coins, no initial 20 damage, no weaknesses and resistances.
Was it balanced? No
Were they having fun? Yep
I also saw a group of six-year-olds the other day playing with multilink cubes
They scattered the cubes out across the surface as unconnected singles. They then each chose a cube and began hoovering around the table, and whenever they connected to other cubes they added them on.
At one point one kid accidentally knocked the front of their snake into another kids and then had to dismantle it into its constituent pieces and start over.
So they were playing slither.io. But they could choose how quick or slow to move their snakes with only “hey, that’s too fast” as a mediation tool.