Vertical, Horizontal and Z-axis character advancement in LARP rules

Most of any rules-heavy LARP system involves character advancement.  Those of you that are min-maxer scumbags (myself included) quickly figure out that all character advancement is not alike.  Let’s first break it down.

Vertical Character Advancement

A character advances vertically by having more of something.  More damage, more armor, more hit points, more mana.  Vertical advancement is the easiest read on a character’s power, relative to other characters.

Problem #1 – There is no limit to Vertical Advancement

In theory, you could allow characters to have unlimited vertical advancement.  That works reasonably well for MMOs (although even WoW had the “stat crunch” recently to roll that back.  It works horribly for LARPs.  I have only read about NERO/NERO-clones that have allowed people to swing for over 100, and get 1000 health, and the issues that it has caused.  

I know from IFGS experience that even numbers in the teens are bad (it’s very hard to do math quickly with those numbers).  Shoot, the math got hard in 4e D&D tabletop because the numbers got unwieldy to add and subtract in a reasonable amount of time.
Many systems just hard cap a number, which is likely the best solution for it’s clean and final approach.  This amounts to a “no matter what you do, you cannot swing over X”.    This is “good”, but the gamers will just get themselves to that cap in the most direct route, and then move on to damage replacements (disarms, and other instant kills).

I believe the stat limitation should be built into the advancement mechanics behind the scenes, giving diminishing returns.  This is transparent to the non-min-maxer, who often just enjoy being the guy that swings “big”.  The min-maxer get the choice of continuing to try to get “MOAR DAMAGE MOAR ARMORZ”, but it gets more and more expensive to get there.   If that curve is steep, you end up with a soft cap instead.


I do think there’s a bit of overkill in the Accelerant-clones (endemic to Socal) that make the numbers VERY small (i.e. a weapon swings 1 damage base, but 1 damage is lethal).  The problem lies in vertical advancement.  Quite literally, the only way to vertically advance damage from the base is to double the damage.  (i.e. going from 1 to 2).  As a result, a lot of the systems fail to scale this properly, giving out “2” super cheap.  The min-maxer grabs the 2, and but doesn’t chase the 3 or more.

A solution to that overkill is handled two-fold.  Keep the “2” relatively cheap, but make sure npcs are stat-ed to handle “2”.  6-10 health/armor/soak/turtle points makes an npc be able to take 3-5 hits, which is usually adequate.  If “2” becomes the defacto required “1” for effectiveness, then it is mission accomplished.
Problem #2 – Player Disparity is most apparent with Vertical advancement
It’s hard to design encounters when characters are vertically so largely different.  When a monster swings “1” and one PC can take that three times before dying, and another PC can take that 52 times before dying, it’s probably a problem.

As a result, many systems attempt to limit or thwart vertical advancement, or silo players into appropriate encounters.  

I’m not a fan of the dominant Socal method, which is character retirement, since it fails to really solve the issue.  These methods only approach total character points, and doesn’t really remove the issue of there being very distinct character power.  I can’t think of a Socal game where you can be halfway to retirement, and you are just disgusting compared to starting character.  
I’m a fan of the siloing method, but that’s difficult to accomplish in a world course open enrollment game (i.e. all of the Socal games).   I have seen some mods that were tailored for specific power levels.  I would call this external siloing, since an external source (plot) is deciding which players go to a silo.

The other method I suggest is internal siloing.  Make it a another decision for the players to make, with one silo clearly meant for “lowbies” or at least non-combat focused characters, and the other clearly meant for combat monsters.  The decision is theirs at that point how to divide their resources.

The last method requires very good NPCs with knowledge of your player base.  I call it mixed siloing.  Some of your monsters will be powerful, but most will not.  The big monsters conveniently engage the big players, and not without very clearly swinging a very big number into a prop NPCs.  If the big monster is initially engaged by a weak PC, they swing their big number, but they make sure it is blocked/dodged.  Then it is on the weak PC to figure out that they should fight elsewhere.

Horizontal Character Advancement

A character advances horizontally by having more variety to their capabilities.  A very “vertical” healer would be able to heal a lot of hit points, in big amounts in a short amount of time.  A more horizontal healer would be able to diagnose ills, cure a variety of effects that are not “damage”, raise the dead, etc.  In the context of an MMO, horizontal advancement is having more buttons to push.

Horizontal advancement is usually a great thing to offer players.  Many players don’t care about swinging 1 more point of damage, but they will put a pair of lips on layaway to wrap around adding “silver, radiant, holy, lazer” to their attacks.

Problem #1 – There’s only so much usable Horizontal Advancement

This is especially true for combat effects, since these require calls that everybody must understand.  The other is that without a GM present, informationals tend to be missing or lackluster.
Get 1 GM per 15 players (shoot, even 20 players) that is present for informationals, lore, divinations and detections.  Then you can open up to a HUGE swath of cool abilities.  Yes, if you wander off into the woods, you won’t be able to detect magic, or read elven, or craft +2 macrame dildos.  Players get this, and live with it.  They would much rather have these abilities in the game than not.  It does require 2-4 bodies (depending on your game size), which you might not have to spare.
Problem #2 – Traps
Horizontal advancement is the land of “trap choices”.  For those not familiar with the concept, it comes from Magic the Gathering.  You’ll open a pack of cards, and see a “sweet rare”, and go through a lot of effort and excitement building around that rare.  You only find out later that it’s a crap rare (pro-tip, about a third of all rares are crap rares)

This happens in LARP systems all the time, especially on racials.  OOOHH, you are a race that’ is immune to enthralls.  Sounds incredible, and you make up all kinds of mall cop fantasies about how you were immune to that enthrall that an NPC threw.  Three years later, and no enthralls thrown by NPCs, and you realize it was a trap choice.


Larps almost never see traps as a problem, as they do allow retraining to dump crap you buy.  Again, this pretty much solves it, except for the negative experience of carrying a skill for several games before discovering it sucks.

I’d like to see the traps get bundled with “good stuff” in packages that are attractive for their other contents.   A pure point buy system has this problem, but you don’t have to go to a class system either.  A hybrid, where packages of skills such as “Shadow Spy” would include the usual backstabby stuff, but also includes usually useless tool of writing in code, etc.

Z-Axis Character Advancement

Z-Axis advancement is cosmetic.  In the MMO context, these are character skins and the appearance of your loot.  These are wildly popular, and many games base their entire profit model on the Z-axis (skins in LOL, for example.).  In a LARP context, Z-axis is having specific reps. limited to a game effect.  Flags, armties, headbands are the usual here.  However, this also segues into heraldry and sumptuary laws.  Examples include being permitted by the in-game authorities to wear the Sigil of the Broken Knight, or bear the Mark of the 4th Circle tattooed on your arm.  These have huge value to players, but even more so to your game as a whole.  When you see the tabard of the Knights of the Silver Dragon, you know something about the lady wearing it, even without knowing the character.  This comes for both PCs and NPCs.  

The best part of Z-Axis advancement is that it has no downsides.  It has little cost to the design team, no impact on balance, and a huge upside to game quality.  Unfortunately, there’s little effort made in the game rules for these things.  Joining the Order of the Monkey Tacos isn’t in the rulebook, it’s something you have to “find about in-game”.

<rant>Fuck that.  Put it in the rules.  Give people something to dream about, and the ability to plan ahead.  Conan/Furiosa/Ash didn’t kiss a line of asses to become awesome, so don’t make players do that either.  Nobody ever said “I’m so glad I had to dig around, ask random people, and then spend 56 downtime points to find out how to perform the left-handed jizz wipe with my sword”.  That’s just bullshit content creation.  Create real content, not roadblock content.</rant>


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