Your favourite RPG advancement systems?

So a bit of a theorycraft question but I am working on such a system right now so I could use good examples I havent thought of. What is your absolute fave RPG character advancement system? Digital or PnP.

Dungeons and Dragons has a level based system. Where you gain more abilities/spells/hitpoints but the rate of advancement slows over time.

Runequest/ BRP does advancement by USE. So if I have a sword skill of 25, then each time I use it I have a chance at gaining a skill point in it.

I think Diablo is a popular choice because of its fairly deep skill tree and because each advancement feels pretty meaningful.

But I would love your opinions (yes YOU!) Which are your faves and a quick note as to why if you could?

Any thoughts appreciated!

I’ve had a lot of fun with the “Might and Magic” style (no idea where it started). Something about having multiple party members and finding synergies between them. I always considered them facets of the same person, me, who was playing in first person. I like the idea of a fragmented person with multiple personalities which you could pick. Could make for some interesting conversations…

… to be more explicit, that would be skill point system with separate masteries / levels of mastery?

I’m not sure I could necessarily point to a specific system that gets everything right, but in terms of attributes:
HATE advancement by use, for a couple reasons. 1) it’s usually super granular, leading to advancement that’s difficult to notice in impact and certainly doesn’t feel rewarding or exciting. 2) It’s difficult to design systems where every potential thing you can improve this way has a consistent level of usefulness both over the course of a character’s growth and compared to other things competing to be used, so in a player-allocated system you can build towards late-blooming abilities while subsisting on weaker interim fare, but in learning by use you end up gravitating towards the most effective early builds unless you go out of your way to grind the other stuff (which is often a pain).
LOVE substantial, unique advancements. Making numbers go up is boring. Getting new powers and features, or significantly expanding the use of an existing power is great. Powered by the Apocalypse playbook moves are often a great example of this.
HATE systems where you get a fixed amount of points to allocate each (milestone) and to a lesser extent systems where you earn points one by one, but improvements cost increasing amounts or just default to costing more than you will get in a milestone. I do not ever want to be saving up for the thing I get. I just want to get something every time. It is, however, okay to have prerequisite chains. Also, never ever have levels or other milestones where you don’t get anything except maybe some HP (coughD&Dlookingatyoucough).
LOVE levels or other substantial milestones: make the increase in power noticeable, not incremental.
HATE relying on gear as a major component of character upgrading, especially in a random loot context. Gear that is an inherent part of the character identity and an available levelling choice, that’s okay. Again, to some extent this is a thing PBTA does.

The HERO System. I think I’ve tried them all, or damn near them all.

If you can do Superheros well, and that was your first thing, you can basically do any other Genre pretty damn well.

No levels
Point allotment

I generally hate “gain through use” because it promotes bad behaviors like grinding.
I generally hate levels because it can create artificial restrictions around exploring content.

I like classless because it is more flexible.
I like point allotment because it is simple.

I’m a fan of how Occult Chronicles handled things:

You gain XP as a potential reward from completing challenges (combat, diplomacy, etc).
You spend XP to buy an advance within one of your current classes or to purchase an additional class. E.g. you might start as a Soldier, and purchase a number of the health and physical combat upgrades available to a soldier. Later on, you might purchase the Psionic class and then and start purchasing new abilities from there to augment your Soldier abilities.

The system is simple, thematic, and flexible.

Oh yeah. I strongly prefer classes or the equivalent because it makes for character packages that have strong thematic unity, and the less you have to worry about combinations of effects the more exciting and rewarding you can make individual powers. Plus there’s less mental overhead when designing the character.

I have a strong preference for fewer ‘level ups’ that feel immediately noticeable and meaningful to those that feature frequent level gains of an incremental nature. I guess the former would be harder to balance though.

In terms of systems from specific games, the ones that most readily jump to my mind all seem to be from tactics games. I loved the job system from Final Fantasy Tactics, mixing different skills learned from different classes to see how they work together. I quite like the recent XCOMs’ approach too: you can’t change classes like in FFT, but you have different and often mutually exclusive skills to select that make units of the same class feel unique and viable in different situations. I guess that means I have a preference for gaining new skills / abilities to gaining levels in the traditional sense, but I never really had an issue with leveling up in the old DnD PC games, except the pre-third edition ones where certain classes had no real options or point allocations when they leveled up (e.g., fighter gains more HP and maybe some ‘frenzy’ type move automatically and that’s it).

Paging @ArmandoPenblade

The Monster Hunter system. The character itself doesn’t advance at all. There are no levels or XP, or even inate skills. All progression comes from the set of equipment that’s in use. The equipment can be changed pretty much at any time, and you can store an unlimited number of different loadouts.

Wow you are all rocking my world. This is fantastic and very educational stuff. THANK YOU!

I appreciate Warframe where weapons have their own experience and skills in addition to the class itself (represented by which frame you are wearing). It makes you feel that you are always advancing something.

I like the idea that in an RPG you could advance by level which adds an increase to skills you select. This helps one feel that you are truly becoming stronger since old skills also grow as your level grows (and being able to select skills not tied to a class becomes more personal).

Arcana Evolved was a D20 game that Monte Cook did after leaving Wizards post D&D 3.0. It was superior in every way, and a very clear precursor to what Paizo would do with Pathfinder. It only ever got two books (this was partly due to popularity I am sure, but Cook doesn’t seem to be one for “let’s publish 20 add on books” type stuff), so it doesn’t suffer from the rules bloat issues that plague 3.5 and Pathfinder.

What it changed from D&D 3.0 (and 3.5) and did better:

  • Classes had more inherent powers.
  • It had a more interesting magic system.
  • It had superior classes.

It suffered for having some of the d20 traits that cause problems in all d20 systems. E.g. getting another HD every time you level (as opposed to capping that in 0/1/2e). Or wealth by level/CR driving balance. Arcana Evolved > Pathfinder >> 3.5. But I think 1e is superior to d20 overall (I do like the idea of trying to bring the snazzier classes of say AE or Pathfinder down to 1e though, giving classes more abilities and powers).

I am perfectly ok with not getting some shiny new power on a level up, in party based games. Usually someone in the party is getting something, so not every class needs to be on the same schedule. And the idea that every level needs to bring something big and new can be dangerous. See: Fallout 3 (which served up watered down perks to compensate for getting so many, and a simpler, and weirder, skill system than what Fallout 1&2 did), which is one of Bethesda’s worst advancement systems to date.

I am not a big fan of Advancement By Use. The only TES advancement systems I haven’t hated are Arena and Daggerfall (which was mostly the same). It works in some games, but doesn’t work as well in PC RPGs IMO. But really I would never do anything Bethesda did in terms of designing advancement mechanics. They are bad at it. The only game that did ABU that I didn’t hate was Tom Proudfoot’s Nalakh. But it still had some issues in using it (and he ditched that for Natuk and the sadly never released Pirates of the Western Sea). Using a skill just made it go up (over time). You purchased attribute increases via “training” in town wirh gold. No levels/xp/etc. I think lots of weirdness has resulted in CRPGs that tried to do ABU but tie it into xp/levels somehow.

Wizardry - still has an amazing system for keeping things class based. The idea that could class change into something better, getting increased hd/attack powers/spells/what have you was super cool. The original does it elegantly and wonderfully. Wizardry 7 is the best example of going deeper in terms of having skills to go along with everything. Wizardry 8, while good, screwed this up by trying to put every class on equal footing (which simply missed the point). And trying to correct “flaws” in the Wiz 7 system but doing so in a bland way.

I generally perfer that everyone get credit either based on participating in [xp earning activity] by being present. Giving a small xp bonus for getting a kill (e.g.) is an enticing idea but it ultimately leads to minor annoyance. And making it a larger bonus just leads to obnoxiousness. Likewise, I’m generally in favor of giving xp credit to say members that didn’t survive combat conscious or alive. I just don’t want to hassle with that (where as I wouldn’t mind in a table top game). That said, a special shoutout to the Phantasie series. Upon returning from an adventure, you apportioned shares of treasure to each party member (1-3). In this way, you could give out extra to some members if they were behind (e.g. assigning a single share to each of four members, but then three shares to the remaining two). That’s an interesting idea with roots in the tabletop, and I wish more games would explore that sort of mechanic.

One of my favorite RPGs for many reasons is called The Magic Candle, it dates back to 1989, and it plays kind of like an Ultima if you aren’t familiar with it. And while I haven’t heard of the term before today, I guess you’d say it had an Advance By Use system of skill development. So, you’d fight with swords and bows to advance those skills, cast spells to advance that skill. One thing that was interesting was that races had inherent aptitudes or limits based on their numeric limit. The theoretical upper limit would be 99 - elves could get to 99 in bows, but humans could get to 80, and dwarves couldn’t use bows at all. Some skills were represented numerically but couldn’t be advanced by doing but had to find a teacher, like trades or charisma. I thought that worked really well.

Not every power has to be worldshaking. But every advancement should make a palpable difference to your game experience, IMO. Not just advance a 100-cap skill by 2 points or whatever.

One of the many things I liked about Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition, was the three tiers of the advancement track. Every class had levels. A character hanging out in levels one through ten was pretty heroic. Maybe you could slay a young dragon or save a village from an over ogrelord. At levels 11 through 20, the training wheels were off. Even if you had dabbled in multi classing before, now you were choosing one of a handful of really cool advances in your original class. You weren’t just making incremental improvements, you were catapulting into a new realm of danger and possibility. You weren’t just aspiring to the Platonic ideal of prowess or pacing before the platform of potential power, you had punched through all that. You were walking a Paragon Path. And if you fought on, and made the same incremental improvements (but cooler), then from levels 21 through 30 you got to choose an Epic Destiny. By now the scope of the game had widened like the last stage of Katamari Damacy, and you and your party members were all demi-gods making incremental improvements but also rounding third base to apotheosis, and you had such power that the rules of the game began to break down, and your DM would stare at you, slack-jawed, and whisper, “your character can do what?”

Or so I heard, anyway. We never got past level nine.

But making characters that in imagination if not through gameplay could reach those peaks reminded me of when I was ten years old and playing through Final Fantasy. There was a part where you talk to someone and receive training. Not just exotic weapon training like in the Ultimas of the day, but training that unexpectedly changed their very appearance.

(graphic from

I had become accustomed to those 8-bit faces. And now, suddenly, they looked so much more capable, as if they had hit the puberty that I was anxiously awaiting. In the illustration above, nice, approachable, mortal characters had reached a new level. Regular folks to the left, badasses to the right.

I could yammer on about unlockable movement modes and prestige classes, but in short, I appreciate when a certain amount of experience gives your character a new perspective. You can’t fit in the small world you came from, but that’s okay, because a wider world awaits… to be won.

I think my favorite character leveling system of all time is probably Asherons Call. You could combine skills in whatever way you wanted, but it if you spread yourself too thin, could make a very sub par character. Going from super min/max to broad generalist, and everywhere in between was really fun to explore and made for incredible replay depth. I also really like systems like Grim Dawn, that let you multi-class and try out different combos.

Really depends on the game though. If it’s party based, I love synergies between classes, and trying to find that perfect combo of party makeup. Hell, I’ve spent years in Everquest doing just that 3 boxing.

Nice write up! Back in my mis-spent youth our group got to the low 20’s in D&D4E. The main problem I ran into at that level was just that the characters just could not be killed. Between the temporary hit points, and the re-rolls, and the saved luck modifiers, and the healing surges, and the heals, and the mass heals, and the raise-deads, it was like fighting against a fleet of Borg cubes. The only time I managed to kill one of them semi-honestly was when a monster swallowed the main cleric, and then another character forgot the cleric was inside and knocked the monster off an extremely high cliff. Ah, good times. :D

I like the system used in Jagged Alliance 2. It felt right for that game. I don’t recall needing to grind at all. The balance was pretty good.

A mix of classic XP / use system would be ideal for me. Performing dextrous tasks gives you xp to spend on skills in dex/agi category, performing feats of strength gives you xp to spend on skills tied to strength, etc. I can’t think of any games except maybe Dying Light that use such system.

I also really enjoyed hunting down story/quest perks (that impact gameplay and attitude of npcs towards you) that were awarded for specific actions in Alpha Protocol and Age of Decadence (And to a lesser degree, Fallout 2, Oblivion, Skyrim), and would love to see more of it in rpgs.