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Experience: From Fiction to Roleplaying Games

Sergio Mascarenhas
September 11, 2000

In the present column I'm going to discuss experience in general terms. Given the broad approach that I'm going to take, I'll not look at any game system in particular. Instead, I'll look at experience in fiction and the real world. The point is that, in order to understand how experience works in games, we've better step back and look at how it works in the settings those games attempt to model. [1]

As always, I hope you find the present column interesting, and look forward for your comments.


Let's look at a popular character, Indiana Jones. It's not hard to say that he is able to outdo most of the adversaries that cross his path. He is able to do this because he is both well served with natural abilities (in game terms, he has some nice attributes: intelligent, endurance, agility, etc.), and because all through his life he acquired a lot of... experience (in game lingo, he got a lot of skills, both broad and specialized). That's what Indiana Jones is. That's not what Indiana Jones is becoming. In the movies we see Indy applying his skills to their fullest potential, in a versatile and creative way. We don't see Dr. Jones acquiring new skills, or enhancing the skills he already has.

Yet, we can't say that Indiana Jones was always like that. Enters the young Jones of the TV serial. What are the major differences between the mature Indiana Jones, and the young Jones? If we look at their relative performances as measured by the achievements in these two stages in life, we can see some key differences (and some similarities too):

  • The young Indiana is not as tough has he's going to become later; on the other hand, he displays already the prompt and kick wit of his future self.

  • He lacks the knowledge and know-how that he will develop later in his life.

  • He makes wrong decisions, takes unnecessary risks, and misjudges the situations he gets involved with. In other words, he is immature.

On the other hand, we can't say that Indy will remain forever at the level of performance he depicts through the movies. We can reach this conclusion when we compare Indiana Jones with his father. Like his father, it's probable that Dr. Jones jr. will one day loose his physical fitness, that his judgement and memory may begin to fail, or even become outdated in his knowledge. In other words, there's a decadent future ahead of our hero.

The different stages in the life cycle of a hero, stages that we identified by looking at Indiana Jones, are a common pattern in fiction. Think about Superman and Superboy, Conan and the young Conan, Batman and Robin, 007 and 007 in "Never say Never Again", etc., etc., etc. Fictional characters are subject to a life cycle where they go through three major stages, Apprenticeship, Maturity, and Veteran:

These three phases have very different characteristics. Let's look at the key aspects that differentiate them:

A - The apprentice

As I said before, the apprentice is characterized by his lack of skill, and by his undeveloped attributes. Yet, he already shows all the traits that will characterize him when he reaches maturity, and is able to achieve great levels of performance. He fails often, and things which may be easy for him later in life may be difficult now. So, we can say that:

  • On average, the apprentice under performs a mature character.

  • Yet, he may achieve top-level feats.

  • On the other hand, he his prone to spectacular failures.

These two last issues are very important. They point to a key aspect in the apprentice's pattern of behaviour: he is subject to high fluctuations in his performance (we can say that there's an high standard deviation in his performance). We can represent this graphically:

A second aspect characterizes the behaviour of the apprentice: it relies substantially in his natural abilities, his attributes, and much less in his acquired abilities, his skills. This is obvious, isn't it? After all, the apprentice has a lot of unfulfilled potential that he will grow into in his maturity. For instance, we can see that the young Indiana Jones already displays most of the qualities that will turn him into an outstanding hero later in his life, but he has a lot to learn, and his lack of experience is evident.

A third point is connected to the reasons that underlie success and failure. Young characters (well, at least heroic young characters) tend to rely almost blindly on their capabilities. They're bold and courageous. And they don't know their limitations - or don't allow these to drive their decisions. That's why they take risks, and venture crossing into the realm of foolish action. That explains both their spectacular failures and their unthinkable successes. So, both their successes and failures are driven by their personal characteristics.

B - The mature character

The mature character is at the top. On average, he performs better than what he did in his apprenticeship days, and better than what he will do in his distant future. And he does this consistently. This final aspect points to the fact that the mature character is able to avoid fluctuations in his performance (he displays a low standard deviation in his performance). This is so because he knows what he does, he is prepared to do it, and he knows his limits. His behaviour pattern is like this:

The mature character relies both in his natural abilities, and in his skills. He developed both of these to their fullest potential. He leverages on both in everything he does.

Finally, since the mature character knows what he is doing, and how to do it; since he knows his limits and doesn't attempt to go past these - unless in the most extreme cases -; he will usually perform close to his top performance level, and be able to avoid unexpected failures from inexperience. In other words, his success is driven by his personal ability: Since he his working within the realm of his limits, he doesn't risk spectacular failures. This is not to say that he always succeeds. What it means is that the failure of the mature character is not caused by a failure of his decision and action process, but by the influence of external factors: damage, sickness, poison, unexpected events, surprise, all of these may affect the performance of the mature character. But none of these is dependent on his will.

C - The veteran

For the veteran, his star days are past and gone. Other heroes came and took his place. All that's left to him is his knowledge - something he can share with others through teaching and tutoring -, that and to live on his memories. His loss of ability is manifest on an average level of success that's not on a par with his mature standards. He no longer is able to achieve top quality action, and is prone to embarrassing failures:

The veteran relies heavily on his experience to counter the degradation of his attributes. His knowledge allows him to compensate for his loss of ability. He does this in three ways: by anticipating and avoiding risky situations; by exploring external factors like the weak points of the adversary; and through means that he would not even consider to use when in his star days (like cheating, for instance). In other words, for the veteran the roots of failure are in his personal weaknesses, while the roots of success are dependent on external factors.

If we compare the veteran with the apprentice, we realize that the veteran is at an advantage if he is able to apply his knowledge, while he is at a disadvantage in a head-to-head confrontation or if surprised, since he will not be able to devise a surprising strategy.

Experience in the real world

The question is, does experience follow this pattern in the real world? Do we develop along that line? You know your answer. Mine is that mostly yes. Look at the stars of any profession: they have a natural fit for what they do; they learned their activities in an intense period of study / training; they stay at the top for a shorter or longer period, based on a stable set of abilities; finally, they fade away to oblivion as they lose their abilities, and new stars start to take their place. Think about a movie star like Harrison Ford: he got known for his interpretations of characters like, umm, Indiana Jones. His star status is dependent on the stability of his image and performance as an artist. What will happen (is happening?) when he gets too old to play these type of characters? Now, think about sport stars, artists, scientists, etc.

Yes, this is just a crude description of a complex process. There are lots of factors that can change this nice picture. But it is still fairly accurate. It must be coupled with a further observation: top performance in the real world is not only dependent on the character. It's also dependent on his environment, on his position and function in the world at large. In other words, we go only as far as society allows us to go within the role that has been ascribed to us.

On the overall

We can sum up the characteristics of these three stages in the life cycle of a fictional character this way:

There's another noticeable point that deserves to be remembered: Even if both fictional and real life characters share a development along the life cycle curve, they are not subject to it in the same terms. Real life characters are subject to the natural cycle of life, point. Fictional characters enter it where they want, when they want, stay at the stage they are in for as long as they want, and leave when they see fit. Well, you're right, it's not the character that decides it's his creator. But the point is, usually fictional characters are set in a given stage of their life cycle, and the previous or future stages only come as an after thought. Most fictional characters are stuck in the ever-present, a given stage of their lives where they basically don't change: they stay what they are, episode after episode (when they're lucky enough to live more than an episode, of course).


The most immediate observation that can be done is: do RPGs follow this pattern? Do they provide rules that allow the player to go through the life cycle of the character?

At first sight it seems that in order to handle the life cycle of characters in RPGs all we need is a nicely laid out experience curve: apprentices would be characters that are in the course of developing their abilities, going up in the experience curve; mature characters are at the top of the experience curve; veterans are characters that are moving down the experience curve after a life full of adventures. Next, all we need is character creation rules that allow us to create characters at each one of these stages.

Simple, isn't it? Actually, no. First, a simple observation: Many RPGs, starting with the grand-daddy D&D, only focus on the first phase of the life cycle, apprenticeship [2]. Characters are on an endless quest for power, be it increased 'levels', 'skills', or whatever. When a game 'levels off', when the characters reach the top of the existing abilities, this usually means that the character reached the limits of the system, the highest power level possible in the system. This is not perceived as a feature of the setting - in other words, as the situation where the character reached maturity - but as a failure on the part of the system to provide more and more steps in the power ladder. Needless to say, no system can avoid having a limit somewhere.

Why do so many RPG systems deal with experience this way? The most obvious reason is because the experience curve provides both a focus and an objective for the game. It fulfils two roles: It works as a substitute for the pleasure of victory prevalent in confrontational games; it provides replay interest to the game: a justification to keep on playing.

Of course, this leads to a paradox: rules provide for an ever-increasing quest for power. Yet, characters don't exist in a vacuum. They're dependent on their environment, the setting. If the setting is modelled in the same rules that drive our own real world, there's simply no way to avoid the consequences of the life cycle: Personal development is subject to a levelling-off we call maturity, and how high or how low this personal top level is depends on the constrains that our environment imposes on us. The focus in experience advancement is useful to role-play Robinson Crusoe in his island. It's not useful to represent Indiana Jones, nor real life situations.

That leads to the question: how can we use the life cycle concept to handle experience in RPGs? Here are some ideas:

Campaign focus

The differences in the life cycle allow for different types of campaigns:

  • Formative campaigns. These are campaigns geared to young characters. The focus of the campaign is in the process that will take the character from total immaturity to the mature stage in his life cycle, in other words, in the acquisition of experience. In such a campaign the experience acquisition rules play a major role. Characters for these campaigns start as totally inexperienced and finish as mature. A fictional example is the first volume in Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series. In it we read about the development of Sparrowhawk as a sorcerer. In a sense, both 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' are formative campaigns for their main characters, Bilbo and Frodo respectively.

  • Retirement campaigns. These campaigns are directed at veteran characters. They take the character from the end of his mature cycle to his final retreat. Losing abilities, and adapting to that change is the focus of the campaign. Characters for these campaigns start as mature and finish as retired elders. The game system must provide rules for the progressive degradation of abilities that takes place in this phase. For instance, in fourth and last volume of the Earthsea series we accompany Sparrowhawk in the sunset of his adventuring career.

  • Mature campaigns. In this case the campaign is directed at mature characters. A good example is the two middle books in the Earthsea series, the adult Indiana Jones, etc. In a sense, mature campaigns are the norm in what concerns RPGs.

  • Mixed campaigns. In this case we have characters that are in different phases of their lives. That's the case of the companions of Bilbo and Frodo, who are mature characters. In RPG terms this is what happens when a character dies and the player introduces a new character that's immature when compared to the other PCs. This is also typical of cop movies where is not uncommon to find the inexperienced hero by the side of a mature (or veteran) companion, or vice versa. A common combination in fiction directed at teenagers is the association of a young hero and his veteran tutor. [3]

  • Ageless campaigns. This is a campaign where characters don't evolve, no matter what's the phase in their lives they're set in: Young characters will always be young; veterans stay veterans for ever; ditto for mature characters. No matter what happens, they don't progress to another phase in their lives. Take, for instance, Batman and Robin: For decades Robin stayed an immature character, forever young, forever the minor companion of his mature partner [4]. Think about Conan, Tintin, Tarzan, and most TV serials. They don't age. In this type of campaigns all types of characters are relevant, not only mature characters. Both young and veteran can get a central role, and work around their weaknesses by emphasizing in their strong points.

Designing characters

How characters are to be handled depends on the type of campaign that the players are going to play. In any case, the rule system must provide a way to create characters set in different stages of the life cycle. And, if the set of potential campaigns includes the formative, retirement or mixed possibilities, it must include rules for ability advancement and loss. Mature campaigns can be treated as a special case of ageless campaigns where all characters are mature, but this is only a way to drop the potential for role-playing of the young and mature characters.

I must emphasize this last point: An approach based on the ideas about the life cycle presented above is that all stages in the life of a character have potential for role-playing. Young characters can be provided with a major hedge, a hedge that compensates for their general immaturity. This may be a special ability, a specific field of knowledge, or anything else at which they excel among the other characters of the group. The same goes for veterans. What's characteristic of young characters is that this special ability is based in raw talent, while in the case of veterans it's based on the hard-gained experience of a whole life.

The problem is that many game systems insist on the idea of progressive cumulative ability, where ability is represented by a line pointing to the top-right. This means that youngsters will always be at a disadvantage to their mature counterparts, and that the post-mature veteran comes as an after-thought intended for NPCs (or as an expedite way to get rid of all too-powerful PCs). This just puts a restriction on the type of characters that players can play, and on the goals that they may want to achieve.

Playing characters in different stages of their life cycles

When we consider the differences among the different stages in the life cycle, we can see that they open different qualitative venues for role-playing, which means a greater set of possibilities than the one resulting from quantitative power levels. Let's look at the above chart and consider each case:

  • For the young character the lack of experience determines failure, while his natural talents determine success. Exploring the errors of the adversary (like overconfidence) is a way to achieve his goals. Risk taking may bring high rewards, and can mean safety in dire situations. Learning is quick, and the present error is a lever to future successful action. In the course of an adventure the young character will fail in the preliminary clashes due to his lack of experience. Yet, he will learn fast from his mistakes, and use that new knowledge to turn the tide in his favour when comes the climax of the adventure. 'Act before you think' is the pattern of the young character. One of his key assets is the chance to surprise both enemies and friends.

  • The key word for the mature character is responsibility. That means an objective assessment of the situation, and a min-max approach to action [5]. In the preliminaries of the adventure the mature character will find that the environmental factors work against him, yet he will be able to work out a way to get the hedge on the final confrontation, where he will prove to be stronger than his adversary. 'Act is thinking, and thinking is action', that's how we can describe the behaviour of the mature character. One of the mature character's assets is his reliability: he knows what he can do, and so do know his friends and adversaries.

  • Being a veteran means that there's always a weak point where one does not expect. The mature character fails because he is no long up to the task at hand, and what's more troubling is the fact he does not know where or how this weakness will show up. He will learn the painful lesson that he is no longer at the top while in the preliminary stages of the adventure, a moment when he is outperformed by an adversary that should be easy to defeat. When the last confrontation comes, the new veteran is finally aware of his weaknesses (and that he is in a new phase of his life). That realization determines his tactics and from now on he will rely on his experience to use the enemy's weaknesses to his favour, or be more dependent on the help of third parties - without feeling ashamed for this dependence. Now is the time to 'think before you act'. Once more, the capability to surprise becomes an important asset.

As we can see, characters in different stages of their lives deal in different ways with the situations they face. Yet, each stage provides different possibilities for role-playing, and - what's more - possibilities to combine the abilities of the character with those offered by characters that are in a different stage of their life cycles.


From the previous discussion, it becomes apparent that changes in experience (especially gains in experience) don't need to play a central role in RPGs. But if that's so, what's left to motivate players to 'develop', 'deepen', 'invest' in their characters?

Well, there are plenty of things that can take away from experience the focus of role-playing. Here are some suggestions:

Wealth. Get rich. More rich. Even more rich. That's the goal. Do this through trade, plundering, social relationships, crime. Accumulate the wealth in precious metals and stones, land and other properties, money, goods, credit. But be prepared to lose everything at any moment.

Tools of the trade. Have the best weapons, computers, cars, offices, etc. Never spare on the last novelties, the more expensive tools you can find. And be ready to loose these in accidents, theft, "public requisitions", etc.

Social relations. Choose your friends (and enemies), patrons, family, and followers. Don't mix with people with the wrong race, class, caste, religion, title, club, or bank account. Expect to be judged that way, and to be subject to all the turns (both good and bad) that happen to your relatives.

Reputation, fame and honour. You have a name to project and defend. The worst think that may happen to you is loosing your face. Just never forget that it takes a life to build a reputation, and a small mistake to destroy it.

Career and power. You know there's a ladder to the top. You want to go up that ladder. Just remember that all that goes up one day will come down.

Faith. You've found the true path. You've seen the true light (or darkness...). You know that there's more to life than mundanisms and small interests. You do, don't you?

A combination of all or some of the above and more. Self-explanatory, I think.

... and Experience! Yes, experience is also a goal. It may even be a major goal for certain types of characters. Or a secondary goal for other type of characters. Just remember that like everything else it's subject to cycles. Let your warrior settle for a couple of years in a position of command, and see his skills loosing their edge...

An interesting point about these character drivers - a point that they all share and that's a powerful leverage for role-playing - is their volatility. Each of these factors can change... both ways: They can all be acquired or lost. And most of the time, they're easier to loose than to gain. In the hands of a skilful GM this makes for a more powerful motivator for playing. A careful usage of a carrot-and-whip approach will keep the players 'glued' to the game, not knowing what the future will bring to their characters, and not being able to relax and sleep on their laurels relying on their past gains, since these are always at risk.

In fact, this last word is the keyword in a game that departs from the 'experience acquisition' paradigm to focus in other 'softer' aspects: in this case role-playing is about risk. What else can be a stronger motivator to play a character?



[1] The issue of the present column is something that has been lurking in my head for a long time. Interestingly, after I decided to turn it into an RFF column it was the subject of a thread in the forum for one RPGnet review of Underword. You can access that discussion at http://trio.rpg.net/rf05/read.php?f=243&i=1&loc=0&t=1

[2] The same can be said of any game system that places a central focus on the concept of character advancement, and where character advancement is equated with the increase and advancement of abilities.

[3] In fiction writers can choose all kinds of combinations, depending on their creative goals. Cervantes choose one veteran as his leading character (D. Quixote), accompanied by a mature character (Sancho Pansa). This served well his purposes of an ironical and paradoxical approach to the well-established chivalry quest. Humour, especially in movies, uses a lot the 'mature unable', the character that's mature in his inability to do whatever he wants to achieve.

[4] This was so until the day that the editors decided that it was a good marketing move to let Robin take on his wings.

[5] Coupled with the input of the character's moral sense: a 'good' character will not use his adversary's weaknesses to his advantages, relying on his personal strengths. A 'bad' character will try to maximize his possibilities by any means he can use.

Sergio Mascarenhas

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    All Ruleslawyer For Free columns by Sergio Mascarenhas

  • Experience: From Fiction to Roleplaying Games September 11, 2000
  • The Applied Experience Curve Concept June 26, 2000
  • Experience Curves May 30, 2000
  • Trait Curves March 28, 2000
  • A Change of Course November 28, 1999
  • Spotlight on Alternacy, A Roleplaying System October 26, 1999
  • Introduction September 21, 1999