8 Levelling Up Tips

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0588

Brief Word From Johnn

A Quick Disclosure

Today’s tips are all about improving level up. Experience points, story points, build points – whatever your game system calls them, level advancement is sometimes a tricky thing. It’s also often a missed opportunity, as the first tip reveals.

Please note though, I wrote the tips below as part advertorial for the http://www.roleplayingtips.com/pathfinder-character-workbook/ Pathfinder Character Workbook bundles I’m currently promoting (the sale of which ends today). I just wanted to call that out. I make a few silver pieces from each sale.

However, today’s tips are usable by any GM, regardless of whether you own the workbooks or not. You can use your own level up system, Excel spreadsheets, an app, a piece of paper, whatever. There’s no vendor lock-in here.

So just some disclosure and explanation about that.

Chaos Keep “Best Session In Two Years”

While putting away his character at the end of the night, one of my players – Pat – said it was the best session in two years. That means it was a really great session. Or it means I’ve been a terrible GM these past 730 days. You decide:

In S1E2 of my new campaign, the PCs stay wary as they travel to a keep on the borderlands while guarding the new Baron and his family.

While eyes scanned trail and sky, the greatest threat was within the caravan’s own ranks.

Disagreement boiled over into murder.

During camp the Chelaxian mercenary provoked the PC elf, Zhahn’Darhm. A fight ensued.

The Abadar-worshipping PC, Finn, leapt to Zhahn’s defense and slew the mercenary.

Then the caravan leader arrived and demanded the truth.

Much conversation ensued – bluffing and intimidation, really – along with a bit of looting as the Chelaxian’s body was disposed of.

The caravan leader tried to enlist the paladin as a co-conspirator to hold Finn responsible. But the paladin backed Finn up.

So the leader instead told the Baron it was all the paladin’s fault.

There was gnashing of teeth and murderous looks, but civil war within the caravan was staid. At least for the moment.

Skip forward a couple of days. The caravan is resting at a way station. People are eating and resting.

Suddenly the Baron keels over dead!

Poisoned, it turns out.

The PCs quickly scan the tavern room.

Was it the soldiers, who’ve just learned they have a new Baron and tyrant to obey?

Was it the tavern owner with a possible handsome commission for the kill?

Was it one of the miners with an old grudge to settle?

Or maybe, just maybe, it was the dancing girls.

We find out this week as session three goes down Thursday night!

(My money’s on the paladin.)

8 Levelling Up Tips

The Pathfinder Character Workbooks Berin Kinsman created are selling like hotcakes (whatever that means :). And while grabbing them for my own campaign, Chaos Keep, I thought of a few different cool ways to get even more use out of them.

I also have a few tips to share on levelling up in general. Your game system might not have levels per se, but you should be able to apply these tips during any kind of big character growth or improvement events.

Create A Story For The Change

In D&D type games you earn experience points and level up. But often players just tack on the character improvements without any flavor, like a video game. That’s boring.

To remedy this in the old days, we used to pay for trainers and take X days per level achieved to acquire the new skills and abilities.

That was fine when it was just me GMing two friends. But it got tricky and a touch unbelievable coordinating a larger group. Why did every PC need the same number of weeks to train? Surely wizardry was tougher than fighting school?

And what if only half the party leveled up? What did the other PCs do while their friends trained? And then what happens when the other half levels up? And especially tricky, what if there’s a deadline or looming plot event? All that time spent training just threw my campaigns out of kilter.

Then the new D&D came along and level up became an instant Ding! moment. That wasn’t satisfying either.

So one nice solution is to tell the story of level up. Do it in writing or just take turns and go around the table.

Step 1: How Did The Level Up Happen?

Each player describes how and why their PC is better now. And they tell how they acquired their PC’s new abilities.

Most of the job is done for them, because they can retell the story of recent encounters and events in the campaign that earned the PC his XP. And this is a cool opportunity to recount the story of the campaign so far, through the eyes of each PC and player!

Those individual viewpoints are a gold mine for GMs. If we listen hard, we recover forgotten plot hooks and glean new ones. Also, the party can correct their facts and remind themselves of forgotten clues and hooks.

So ask each player to tell the story of their PC’s escapades (in brief) since last level and what they did that taught them so much.

Step 2: How Did They Get The New Abilities?

We can all understand growth to existing skills. Swing and cast enough times, you get better at it.

But how do the PCs suddenly get whole new abilities that can’t be extrapolated from their existing ones? How does the fighter suddenly have Preying Mantis flying kicks? Or the mage have Combat Casting when he’s always hiding in the back?

Well, this is a magical opportunity for you, no pun intended.

You want to create in-game rationale. And especially, you want to do this before level up happens.

Let players know in advance they need to justify how their characters get new abilities. Explain ways for them to do this (I’ll give you a couple examples in a minute). And, if needed, offer rewards for good justifications so you encourage reluctant players to do this in gameplay ongoing.

Then players add this to each of their level up stories. “Luther studied the Tome of Somnambulant Arcane Wonders he found in Dethco’s Dungeon every chance he got (remember Johnn, I told you he was doing this each day?). And one of the early chapters has a mysterious mental ritual that shows you how to split your mind so you can focus on a spell casting while still having enough attention to duck and weave and do physical things under duress. So he’s been practicing that and now Luther has Combat Casting.”

This is perfect. It ties past gameplay with good rationale into a fun little story that adds flavor to the PC and the campaign.

So, as part of each player’s recounting of what their PC did and experienced to account for the improvements, they should include how their character acquired completely new abilities.

I wager these level up stories will become treasured moments in your campaigns. They’ll give your players yet another opportunity to flex their imaginations, get some spotlight time, and experience their characters in ways other game modes do not allow.

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How To Justify Sudden New Abilities

How does a PC get a great new power out of the blue?

Ask players to find ways in-game to answer this question before their PC gets a new ability. This lets them work on their level up story in advance, and gives them incentive to do more than break down the door and loot.

Your job is to make these opportunities available. And to provide nudges when players don’t see the opportunity in the moment (at least until your players get into the habit and spirit of this).

Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Mentor – An NPC teaches them
  • Satori – PC gets sudden enlightenment from a:
    *Conversation with an NPC
    *Ancient rune
    *Piece of art
  • A book – Perfect treasure and reward opportunity
  • A magic item
  • piritual ancestors
  • Lots of experimentation

As you can see, there are many ways a player can justify a whole new ability. And the storytelling component during level up should drive more character development and plot hooks for you.

Clone NPCs

With the Pathfinder Character Workbooks, players record each new +1 added, spell gained, feat acquired, hit point earned and so on. Every detail. And in the proper order so players don’t waste time recalculating because they increased their strength at the end of the process instead of the start.

Whether you use the worksheets to step players through or blank pieces of paper, you end up with character snapshots at each level.

Horde these snapshots to slowly build up an army of NPCs!

Clone the PCs at any previous level and reskin into great NPCs, now with instant crunch. You just add personality, motive and plot purpose to populate your games fast and easy with interesting non-player characters.

Easy Audits

The topic of players who cheat is never easy. I have received emails from desperate and frustrated GMs who want help.

The typical scenario is they suspect their players have cheated with their characters at the time of creation or during level up. But they don’t have an easy way to audit the players’ characters without causing offence. And they don’t have the time to reverse engineer to find out what changed between levels to verify.

Aside from the cheating issue, sometimes we just want to know if any mistakes have been made. Honest mistakes happen. Plus, players new to your game system might just not understand all the level up steps.

Again, the workbooks (or whatever system you use) come to the rescue.

They give you an easy rationale to keep an audit of each detail of character builds and level ups. The workbooks make the process easier and faster for players. They help everyone track the numerous details whirling around during level advancement.

And you get a complete audit of every detail change. Just follow the guided steps and confirm any detail you think suspect.

Because all players are getting asked to do this, you don’t single any suspected cheating player out.

And you have a great way to help players avoid mistakes at the same time.

System Conversion

D. Stewart sent in this great idea for another use of the workbooks:

“Didn’t notice any problems on my end, I unzipped them to check the files. They all load up just fine as far as I can tell. I gave each class a look over, and these are great!

“I have a group that is going to migrate from 3.x to Pathfinder for the first time, and I think these are going to help them so much.”

I didn’t think about conversion between game systems, but he’s right. A breakdown of the level up steps and character details lets you see all the rules at play and what the differences are with your new system.

You can now map things so apples stay apples. And you spot where apples need to become dire oranges to create a conversion formula or rule.

Encounter Planning

Players get frustrated when they can’t find ways to use their shiny new abilities and powers.

A detailed level advancement system shows you exactly what’s new for each PC at a glance.

Take this information and use it to build encounters that will allow players to strut their stuff.

One way to do this is borrow or copy the completed workbooks. Then make a table in your own notes of all the abilities you want to highlight.

Next, as you create encounters while doing game prep or during games on the fly, look for ways to include one or more table entries. Think of the table as your encounter request list. Heck, roll randomly and use the results for encounter seeds if that inspires you!

Character Planning

I have a couple players who build out their PCs several levels into the future. Part munchkin, part planning and part game in itself, they really enjoy doing this.

So take advantage of this enthusiasm. We already talked about the storytelling aspect. Use advance character planning to add campaign elements so level up abilities are not only justified but rewarded with foreshadowing, setting support and plot support.

Berin sent me this note: “As a player I have filled out the next level long before I’m close to levelling up. Then I roleplay toward it, foreshadowing new abilities and such. I share with the GM so she can be sure I come across a scroll or spellbook with the spell I want or someone to teach me a new feat or class ability.”

Level Up Fun

Berin also wrote, “I keep a blank of the next level, and make notes during the game on areas where I am deficient so I can start thinking about spells, feats and such that I can select when I level up to compensate for the weakness.”

Characters that suck are not fun to play. If a player is invested in some mechanic, like having a lot of knowledge skills, being the group’s “face man” or dishing out a lot of damage, then if their PCs falls short of this the fun factor goes way down.

Having a level up worksheet lets players note where they want to improve during actual gameplay. Then they won’t forget where they wanted to allocate build points or what abilities they wanted to take or increase.

Take Bite-Sized Chunks

This is a minor tip, but I’ll include it here anyway, in case you are in the same boat. I bet parents can relate, for sure.

I don’t have large blocks of time for campaign planning. But I do often have 10 minutes here or there every day.

I like the Pathfinder Character Workbooks because I can flesh out details until I run out of time. Then I just put the pencil, papers and rulebooks away until next time.

Because I’m filling in the blanks as I go, I can pack up and resume fast. If I used HeroLab software, though, I sometimes get stuck in an operation and can’t exit without saving my work. That’s an extreme example, because most of the time I can just save and exit.

But as far as I know, HeroLab doesn’t record my changes to a log file. So I can’t review where I left off. It’s a minor thing, like I said, but I like it. Plus, I’m on the computer all day and it’s nice to work with real paper once in awhile. :

Character Keepsakes

I just thought of another great use for a workbook style level up system. You can bind them, along with character sheets, handouts and any player notes into a cool character record.

Players have done this in the past, and it’s been very cool looking back over these PCs after time has passed.

But usually character sheets just get updated each level, and you never capture the snapshot of the PC at first level, or fourth, or 12th.

With the workbooks, you’ve got those snapshots.

And crafty players can turn them into fun scrapbooks for future memory lanes.