Friday, September 16, 2016

Your Story Progression Doesn't Have to be Linear (Even if Your Levels Are)

We all know how character advancement works in class-based systems. You start off at level 1 as little more than a pest removal agent, and you fight, cast, and plot your way to level 15 or 20 where you're ruling over nations, or winning wars with a wave of your hand. However, because level progression is linear, we also tend to tell stories that are linear. Bob the Fighter got tired of being a farmer, and left home at 17 to see the world, and make his fortune. A dozen years later, he's become a champion of nations, and his name is a whispered legend in the iron trade.

Also, only his childhood friends get away with calling "Robert the Red" by "Bob" these days.
However, it should be noted that nowhere in the level progression sections of our favorite games does it state that when we gain a new level, or when we multiclass, that we are necessarily learning unfamiliar skills. While the books make suggestions for explaining where you picked up new skills (like the ever-popular, "the wizard has been tutoring the bard, and thus the bard now takes a level of wizard," example), I'd like to propose an alternative.

That alternative is non-linear character progression.

What, Precisely, Does That Mean?

Flavor and mechanics need to work together. Your mechanics have to support your story, and your story has to inform your mechanics. However, it's also important to remember that your level does not, necessarily, dictate the story you're telling. Put another way, not every first-level character is a kid, out on their own for the first time. Some of them are characters coming out of retirement, who may be a little rusty on their former skills, or people who have forgotten, lost, or had stolen from them who they once were.

I've been a city guard for ten years. I don't know if I've got it in me to take on a dragon again.
I first covered this idea in The First Level Badass (Freeing Your Backstory From Level Restraints), but there was a practical use for non-linearity that I didn't hit too hard when I wrote that previous post. Namely that there are a lot of feats, prestige classes, and other mechanical concerns that have a story requirement to them. For example, in order for you to become an assassin, you have to be evil aligned, and kill someone for no purpose other than to take levels of this class. So how do you make that work if you also want to have levels of paladin?

It's quite simple, really. You were an assassin in your younger years, but you left that life behind, and turned your skills to a more righteous cause.

Storywise, that likely means your character starts out older than one would expect. He has a varied history, and some skills you wouldn't expect a righteous warrior to have. Things that are easily done by taking the right background traits at character creation, and perhaps dipping a few levels into rogue for the sneak attack, and better skill ranks. Mechanically, the character still needs to have the necessary skill ranks to take the class. However, the evil alignment and requirement to kill someone were taken care of in his backstory. It isn't that he's only just now learning these skills; he's always had them, but has simply not used them. And in many cases, actually using them would break his paladin oath, which explains why he never put those abilities to use as a story tool.

If that sort of scenario interests you, then you might also want to check out 5 Paladin Multiclass Characters (You'll Never Expect). Just saying.

This works for almost any situation that has a purely flavor requirement. In 3.5 you had to spend several years in the Underdark before you could take levels of Dungeon Delver. In Pathfinder, you need to slay a devil with HD greater than your own to take levels of Hellknight. This list goes on, but I think you get the idea.

If You Like It, Give It A Try

This is not a technique I would recommend for newer players. In order to make a non-linear story work with linear mechanics, you have to be a deft hand at both roleplaying, and at explaining what's going on in your current story. You need to make sure that mechanical inconsistencies jive with what's happening in regards to your story.

Most importantly, though, you need to be sure that you, and your DM, are on the same page regarding your character, and where you're going with it. Not every DM is going to be comfortable with this sort of storytelling, especially if it's used to justify flavor prerequisites for abilities or prestige classes. However, it is an option, and if you want to give it a whirl, then you might find it to your liking.

Hopefully folks found this week's Fluff post interesting, even if it's not something you'd consider doing at your table. Often all you have to do is mention something is possible to start expanding horizons. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a little bread in my jar. All it takes is $1 a month, and you'll get some sweet swag from me as thanks! Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

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