Episode 130: Character Description Language

This month, Roger and Mike consider class-and-level and other ways of building and improving characters.

We mentioned:

Hostile returning to the Bundle of Holding (until 2 October), Mistborn Adventures at the Bundle of Holding (until 9 October), RuneQuest, Shadowrun, GURPS Action, Rolemaster Burning Wheel, GURPS, Powered by the Apocalypse, Traveller, Dragon AGE, Cypher System, Call of Cthulhu, Primetime Adventures. Savage Worlds, FATE,

We have a tip jar (please tell us how you’d like to be acknowledged on the show).

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


I remember my early experiences of levels in AD&D being extremely frustrating. What I wanted was to get better at (say) archery and stealth, but when I reached level 2 neither of those improved and instead I got more hit points. Because someone who was not me, knew ‘what was best’ for my character and if I wanted something else I was trying to have Bad Wrong Fun.
In fact, the mere fact that getting better at hitting things was never, never, never on the cards in the AD&D levelling up ‘improvement’ drove me to frothing fury. Given that bloody hitting things was 99.99% of what the scenarios were about!

So me and most of my mates charged towards CoC and GURPS with open arms back in the 80s, because we could create the characters we wanted. And if they weren’t quite right we could push them towards our original concept with xp.


I think AD&D forces you to stick with the stereotype, while from what I hear of more recent versions you get your basic “I am now a pretty good fighter” package with the level advance but you can also specialise in some cool thing or other. You still need a class that’s broadly compatible with what you want to do of course.

(We did get better at hitting things, but it was “you’re now a level N fighter so you use this column on the to-hit charts”.)

I think my greatest revulsion is for things that are not classes but act like classes which break the value of advancement. Clans in VtM being the one I dealt with the longest which vexed me the most. Also that had the trick I didn’t like that points at character generation were different from experience points so there could be arbitrage issues.

Something Rolemaster did that intrigued me was the “no profession profession” at Character Law 14.2.1 in the 1990 second edition I kept failing to get folks to play in 1998.

With that sitting there next to the professions it gave idea of what a neutral point cost for a skill could be and place from which to gauge the effect of a particular profession choice from a mean. This brought Rolemaster back more in-line with GURPS and Champions for me which oddly made me like it more.

Talislanta (a favorite of mine of old so I am not impartial) through editions 1 thru 4 is a template system with no formula for making templates. I did pull apart a bunch of them from 4e in excel and got within an approximation but the design choice there was that certain templates would just be better in combat or magic and a kind of casual shrug attitude of “why even game balance, just play” seems a cute quirk of its time and place of origination. That is a certain shift from the “combat must have a known scale across opponents” which seems such a wargaming artifact.

I like the class vs playbook distinction for whether the game or the player decides what advance comes next.

I think the big player dislike is the “you can never improve” as opposed to “you cannot do x”. I think that hits two bedrock ideas very hard. The first is that folks learn and improve over time which seems like a religious ideal over here in the US. Second is the artifice of continuity of the game world. It seems like a big dichotomy in the hobby as it ages is folks who want to play in a world as opposed to in a story. Maybe it hits both of those. For both no advancement seems to admit that the characters are temporary playthings. More like a plastic toy soldier than an Action Man with accessories. Maybe it limits the scope of imagined stories and scenarios even if they are never played. Like no one at the table wants to admit a game will end when it starts and while it’s in progress and advancement at the end of a session is a little promise there will be more play together to stave off the grief inherent in all endings.

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This confuses me since leveling up very much improved your chance at hitting things.
A 1st level fighter, paladin or ranger needed a 20 on a d20 to hit AC 0.
A 10th level fighter, paladin or ranger needed a 12 (or higher) on a d20 to hit AC 0.

Fighters got better every 2 levels.
Clerics got better every 3 levels.
Thieves got better every 4 levels.
Magic-Users got better every 5 levels.

The progression was oddly non-linear for Magic-Users and Thieves, but everyone did get better at hitting things as they leveled.

I have very clear memories of crunching the numbers on the probabilities and working out that every time we levelled up and (potentially) got better at hitting things, the damn monsters got harder to hit and/or took longer to whittle down to 0 hit points. I can’t remember if this was before or after THAC0 was a thing.

Actual numbers and monster stats in the following are made up because I can’t find the file with the actual crunched numbers in it:

  • So for instance when you were Level 1 and fighting a kobold, you had a 30% chance to hit it, and you needed to hit it twice to kill it with your d6 shortsword.
  • When you were Level 10 and fighting a giant, you still had a 30% chance to hit it and you needed to hit it 10 times with your d12+2 magic sword. Which made the giant fight last longer than the kobold fight… and therefore doesn’t make me feel that my character is better at fighting!
  • If you were Level 10 and fighting a monster which was more wimpy than a giant, but had a lot of hit points (as ‘high level’ monsters did back in the day), you might have a 40% or 50% chance to hit it. But because you need to hit it 10 times with your magic sword to kill the wretched thing it is still – logistically speaking – harder to kill than a kobold.

And even in the editions of AD&D with actual skills, where you could choose to put points in to increase your Riding or Acrobatics or whatever, there were no bloody combat skills. I could not put any of those points into Sword or Bow or Fisticuffs, because those were not skills in AD&D. I had to wait until Level Blah-Blah-Blah to get the ‘THAC0 change’.

EDIT: A major part of getting “better” at killing monsters was not how good your character was a hitting them, but what you were hitting them with. Trading in your d6 shortsword for a d12 bastard sword made you a much more effective warrior than levelling up.

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I definitely believe that.

On one hand, this is a matter of adventure design. If the GM is always ratcheting up the opposition to match the PCs’ current level of ability, it can feel like you’re on a treadmill. Once your character level and/or combat skills get higher, it can feel really good to go back and fight the lowly skeletons and goblins that used to be difficult and take them out easily. If the GM never gives you that opportunity, then shame on them.

On the other hand, the game system definitely plays a role. There was a really interesting episode of Extra Credits from years ago that I couldn’t find on YouTube, but it talked about how break points in (video) games affected the challenge of an encounter. If you do 6 damage on each hit and the monster has 10 hp, it takes 2 hits to take them down. If you increase your damage by 50%, or 9 damage on each it, it still takes 2 hits to take the same monster down. It doesn’t feel like you’ve made progress until you can take them down on a single hit.

Increasing fighting skill should affect both your chance to hit and how much damage you do on each hit (which may include getting multiple attacks per round).

I believe in 3/3.5 the “balanced encounter” was made an explicit goal: each fight should use up X% of the party’s hit points, daily resources, etc.

The concept of class and levels is ubiquitous. WE have them in TTRPGs, CRPGs, board game RPGs, and now LitRPGs. They are here to stay.

Classes are a straight-forward hook into a character that are easy to communicate and understand.
Levels are a straight-forward means of assessing and summarizing the character’s level of ability.

Modern class-and-level systems have flexibility and customizability–including “dipping” into multiple classes–that rivals point- and skill-based systems. I cringe when players talk about “character builds,” but it is a common way to approach character creation; class-and-level systems are designed for this mentality.

Personally, I think a game like Savage Worlds finds a good balance. There are no classes, but you can have various “builds” with specific Edges and lining up your prerequisites. Advances and Tiers act like levels, but they’re more incremental–you gain an Edge, increase an Ability, or increase a skill or two. The skill list is very manageable and doesn’t require micromanagement; there is only one Fighting skill rather than one skill per melee weapon or weapon type.


On one hand, this is a matter of adventure design. If the GM is always ratcheting up the opposition to match the PCs’ current level of ability, it can feel like you’re on a treadmill. Once your character level and/or combat skills get higher, it can feel really good to go back and fight the lowly skeletons and goblins that used to be difficult and take them out easily. If the GM never gives you that opportunity, then shame on them.

Indeed. The treadmill has always been somewhat implicit in D&D, as much in the concept of the game as anything else; you grow into a more powerful adventurer, and you face more powerful monsters accordingly. I rather thought that third edition accidentally said that quiet part out loud, by cleaning up the system and making the scaling of hit points, armour, hit probabilities, and the rest explicit.


Yes. What old-hand gamers find too easy to forget is that classes are an incredibly powerful introductory tool for RPGs. Many gamers (especially but not solely new players) don’t start with an idea of what sort of character they want to play; if you ask them, they say “What do the rules say I can play?” The answer “hitty hero, sneaky hero, magic hero or healing hero” really does make things so much easier.

The other side of this, for more experienced players, is niche protection. If I’m playing the hitty hero, then what makes my character fun is being good at hitting things. Hopefully, I don’t resent it if other characters are better at picking locks or casting spells, but when things get down and dirty, I’m supposed to be the one who shines.

The danger there for points-build systems is that sooner or later, everyone gets good at everything, and my amazing hitting-things expert doesn’t look any cooler than anyone else, even in big fights. This is especially a problem if the GM is a bit too generous in dishing out experience points and if the system makes advancement progressively more expensive as you get better at things.

For a quick-and-dirty fix, I quite like something like Trail of Cthulhu, which has a careers system. You buy any skill, at character creation or later, but not only are career-appropriate skills cheaper to buy, but each career has a couple of small but useful advantages that are never available to other careers. So your niche is protected; your Antiquarian will always be the one who happens to have a useful relic back in his study, whereas the Soldier is always the one who can fight on effectively through pain or fear.


I liked the approach from Cyberpunk (at least 1st & 2nd edition) in which each career had a career-specific skill but was otherwise very skill-based.

Pity it made the classic error of having flat costs in chargen and rising costs in play.

I’m not sure I agree. The way skill costs are done in Savage Worlds, I would say that advancement is throttled in play.

To summarize, both character abilities and skills are ranked from d4 to d12. If you increase a skill, it costs 1 point so long as you don’t exceed the associated ability; it costs 2 points if to increase a skill to a higher die than the ability die.

For example, if your Agility is d8, it costs 1 point to increase your Fighting from d4 to d6 or from d6 to d8; to go from d8 to d10, it costs 2 skill points. This applies during character creation (where you start with an average ability score of d6 and you have 12 points for skills) and advancement in play (where you get 2 points each advance).

There are two ways skill increases are throttled in play:

  1. They don’t allow you to increase a skill twice in a single advance. So even though you got 2 points, you cannot jump from d4 to d8 in Fighting. You can spend 1 point to go from d4 to d6 and you’d need to spend your other point somewhere else. A kind GM may let you break this rule.

  2. If you are already at d8 Agility and d8 Fighting, you have two options. You can use the advance to increase your Agility to d10 or you can increase your Fighting to d10. You can only increase an ability score this way once per tier (~every 4th advance).

It used to be that going from unskilled to d4 cost 1 point at character creation and 2 points in play. That was changed in the SWADE edition to be 1 point regardless.

I started with Starter Edition Traveller, so I always liked Trav and as a young boy I spat upon class and level as a boring game mechanic that solely existed to make planning hack-n-slash adventures easier to plan. As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that levels really do only exist to make planning fights and hazardous encounters easier to assess, but that also some of my best roleplaying moments have come playing hack-n-slash games where something unexpected happened.

The one advantage of class & level is that you can create a character a lot more quickly without decision paralysis. I’ve never generated a GURPS character in less than four hours of intense book study, as I get enticed by shiny advantages or shuffling the skills points around.

As for experience, if you want complicated try Artesia - it’s a lovely adaptation of Cyberpunk rules for fantasy to reflect the comics it’s based on, but there is one type of xp for each of the major Arcana (OK, so The Fool xp are actually Luck points earned from in-game actions or by swearing oaths that will result in intense shame if you fail). Now that takes a lot of tracking.

I still prefer anything that’s not class and level, but wherever you go the majority of people love class and level and it’s harder to get people to play other games.


Ah, good! We seem to have touched a lot of nerves with this one and a lot of memories of being pissed off with the system, whatever the system happened to be. (Must try and be even more stimulating next time.)

I think the way I feel about class and level is that I can creat characters quickly but only within the framework that someone else has already decided upon. And I keep banging against the bars of the cage that forms.

I don’t know that point buy systems always produce identical characters, all omni-competent. I do get a lot of characters who have picked up skills that are useful to them but not part of the core career of the character. Priests who have a smattering of tracking (and Detect Lie), fighters who know how to pick locks, rogues who are good field surgeons, sorcerers who have learned to handle stun blasters because their attack spells are rubbish. (I speak feelingly.) But it’s only happenstance: mostly the cobbler sticks to his last.

I do agree that not keeping the points value and advancement mechanisms is a primary mistake. “You should have taken it at character creation” is annoying but it is sometimes justified by the nature of the world: I wouldn’t write it into the game system but I would write it into the setting if it’s how the GM sees the world.

Oh, God Artesia. The world as depicted in the comics looks fascinating (f probably too adult for most gamers) but trying to get my head around the rules made me twitch.

I don’t quite understand WolfeRJ’s point about clans and similar mechanism.

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I think the main thing I was getting at is that clans in VtM back when offered a discount on three disciplines (magic powers) but they were still cripplingly expensive to advance. Simultaneously most intrinsic advancements (attributes and skills) cost the same for everyone but certain intrinsic advancements (willpower, humanity) and extrinsic advancements (backgrounds) encouraged some mix of roleplaying actions during play and an experience point cost which was nominally the same for everyone but in-play never seemed to work.

So if you look at it all Brujah can be combat monsters (potence and celerity get a break) and all Malkavians can be spies (obfuscate and auspex get a break) it never quite seems to work out with the XP guidance in the book and a lot of choices turn out off.

This seemed doubly egregious as WoD at the time was a dice pool system with variable target numbers that counted successes and had a botch mechanism to gobble successes. So bigger dice pools weren’t actually necessarily better.

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There was also a mismatch in WoD Werewolf the Apocalypse between how powerful the NPCs were described to be in the fiction, versus how powerful the PCs could get by getting Renown points and spending XP.

For example, all Clan Elders are Rank 5. Grizzled veterans of fighting the Good Fight, who took 20 years to attain their rank and abilities.

At campaign start the PCs are Rank 0 or Rank 1. They are spotty teenagers who are wimps compared to the Rank 5 Elders.
After a year of playing (which amounts to about 5 months of in-setting time), most of the PCs are Rank 3 and the Ragabash is Rank 5, because the system made it waaaaaaaay too easy for Ragabash to go up in rank. They are still all spotty teenagers, but somehow they now outrank and outclass folks who have been doing this for 20 years…


This definitely happens in D&D and its derivatives, but it’s a feature, not a flaw. The enjoyment that many gamers get out of advancing their characters and gaining new & better abilities outweighs the narrative dissonance in the campaign timeline.

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In Werewolf it is only partly the new and special abilities that are the problem. You can kind of handwave a PC who has boosted their strength to max by saying they are a warrior in the prime of their life. Or say, yeah the elders can do that healing magic too - they just never mentioned it before.

But the Rank thing is about political power and status within the Tribe. And it only goes up to 5. Thus a PC can have done absolutely nothing but pull the heads off gribbly monsters for the whole campaign, and suddenly they are equal in Rank to the Prime Minister, The King and the Pope.

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