It’s been awhile since I’ve talked about the Cosmothea Blended-Genre Roleplaying Game itself — much more often, I’ve been delving into the campaign setting itself, which I affectionately call the Cosmoverse these days. So, in Part 1: Life’s Rewards, I’ll tell you about how characters change over time via level advancement, and in Part 2: Personal Growth, I’ll tackle advancement from a different angle, focusing on how the roleplaying game addresses a character’s experiences and what impact they have on the character. Still with me? Great. Let’s get started!
Part 1: Life’s Rewards
In real life, we are constantly adding to our repertoire of talents and knowledge every day. When we’re very young, we’re like sponges and soak up information and learn quickly, but even later in life, we continue to learn and grow in various ways. As such, I built that into the game. Cosmothea, like some other RPG’s you are likely familiar with, uses a levels system of granting new goodies.
Maybe it would have been trendy to go the route of some indie games and skip leveling to distance Cosmothea from games like D&D, but the fact is, the concept of levels is an easily understood one, and if done right, it can work very well. D&D 3.5 was heavily criticized for the way their leveling system worked. Cosmothea handles leveling very differently. Of course, we aren’t making another version of D&D. Although like some other games, we too have some familiar terms like Constitution, we are providing a very different system and experience. There are no Experience Points in Cosmothea, and health works wildly different than in D&D, just to name two.
But like many games, characters do get better at things when they go up levels. Every level, a character improves in a number of ways, from getting better at skills to learning new skills and other benefits. In Cosmothea, every time you gain a level in a career path, you gain 2 new talents, selecting from a wide variety of universal (social and physical), racial and career talents. This is in addition to any small improvements you may automatically receive (such as getting a little better at social interaction and combat).
In Cosmothea, your health is based on your Constitution, size and mass. It’s a simple system we’ve been using since the early 80’s, though we’ve changed a few nuances here and there over the years and added conditions that affect your ability to perform efficiently. Once your “Life Points” are determined, it never changes unless your size category changes (which is of course NOT normal), or more likely, your Constitution increases through significant exercise, special physical rituals, scientific or magical augmentation.
So, if you were unable to defend yourself (like being tied up like a mummy) at first level and could be cut down by a couple quick sword thrusts, that doesn’t change just because you go up levels. If you were tied up, completely unable to rescue yourself, and were tossed off a bridge, it wouldn’t matter if you were 1st level or 40th, you’d take the same damage during the fall, and if the bridge was very high up, you wouldn’t be walking away from it.
What does improve is your ability to shrug off aches and pains, minor cuts and bruises and even mental resolve. Just as you get callused hands over time due to constantly working with your hands under rough conditions, you learn to push past the pain and keep going. You get used to rough conditions and adjust. You toughen up, and also learn how to minimize an attack so that it does little or no damage to you, and you learn how to dodge (and other survival tricks). But you don’t magically get better at taking stabs, falling helplessly or ingesting poison or ignoring disease. Therefore, some attacks and conditions are much more dangerous than others. None of this affects your Life Points.
And you also improve socially in your ability to deflect sharp remarks, roll with the social punches and resist being intimidated. Social conflict is not merely physical conflict worded differently, but there are some parallels. As you go through life, you do get better at handling difficult people and circumstances socially.
One of the things I like about the Cosmothea Blended-Genre RPG is that you have so many options. If you want to create a character that focuses a lot on their race or family’s heritage, you can do that. You can select racial talents, cultural and even wealth talents. Every race has at least 10 talents you can purchase as part of your 2 talents per level bonus. You can invest money and purchase wealth talents to simulate getting better at investing or explain an inheritance. You can purchase social talents to get better during social conflicts, improve or add on new skills, and purchase a host of other talents. This level of flexibility along with Character Growth, I talk about below in Part 2, enables you to make just about any kind of character.
One thing we do in Cosmothea, is create an environment for the player and GM in which anything can theoretically improve the character. Now, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that all experiences are a good thing (for example, I don’t suggest jumping off a cliff as a good experience to improve your character; not all experiences are created equal or are beneficial. But in Cosmothea, we do enable GM’s to reward a variety of experiences as valid for gaining levels. For example, you can go on an entire adventure at a special amusement park in Alliance Space that is real, but your body never physically participates in it.
The adventure is not in your mind, but … well I wrote a whole novel that included the amusement park, called Beyond Xanadu and one day I’ll have to release it so you can read more about it (or wait for the RPG to get on the market for more on that wild amusement park!) Needless to say, I recommend in the game that any adventure taken, whether in the amusement park (or some simulated “Danger Room”) or even in cyberspace, qualifies for what we call “personal growth” for gaining levels. Our leveling system is uber-simple, yet I think you’ll agree, fairly robust.
While allowing personal growth in such cases isn’t 100% realistic (which is rarely the point in RPG’s anyway, and never is in really good RPG’s, IMO), it serves as a very useful tool for GM’s, as it means they can occasionally spend game time pursuing some unusual adventures that the players can get into without feeling robbed as they still get credit toward gaining a level. Because our focus isn’t on getting treasure or defeating monsters, players aren’t consciously or unconsciously pressured to do just that. They can explore and enjoy that if they want, and gain credit for it.
Cosmothea isn’t about filling up your Portable Hole with treasure, though you can do that too (though perhaps not in most adventures like I just described), but such rewards can be achieved in other ways and even in those “imaginary adventures” a clever GM can find ways to reward the players with treasure, if that’s a goal (such as a powerful psi creating a dungeon of the mind for players to journey into, so as to waste their time while he carries out his evil scheme; after the fake adventure, the players escape the “dungeon”, realize they were merely in an illusion, and so lose that illusory treasure, and then go into the next room to face off with the psi villain and take his hoard of treasure there — or heck, turn his castle into their own!
Rewards don’t always have to be treasure. They can be prestige, a new headquarters, honor and respect and allies (taking over the local thieves guild or megacorporation), special access to restricted areas or special equipment only available to special operatives, secret knowledge, etc.
The Cosmoverse is filled with many mysteries and conspiracies and so we reward for discovering the truth behind secrets, mysteries and such. We grant a special bonus when you complete missions and quests. A character can even come up with their own GM-approved quest’s and get a bonus for it. None of this is done through piles of crunchy rules like some big games do. We believe this approach to gaining levels is more character and story-rich than just focusing on hack and slash.
Part 2: Personal Growth
When I think back over my life, and as I’ve read about cognitive development, personality and social development, I’ve noticed that people change over time (wow, big revelation, huh?), and so I incorporated that many years ago into the way that characters change over time. For example: When you first start working out at a gym, just a little bit of effort regularly over a period of time, shows a significant improvement, but when you are an Olympic athlete, it’s harder to improve – the increments are further apart, as such, I made it so that it’s easier to increase your Strength when it’s low than when it’s high.
Another thing I noticed was that people’s interests change a great deal over time. Not every interest, but especially with new players, they later realize that they “should have chosen this talent or that” or maybe they didn’t think through part of their character concept early on and now are regretting it, so I built in Growth Plateaus every so many levels to allow players a chance to alter their characters in significant ways. In real life, people sometimes look back and go, “Shoot, why did I take that Major in college?”, “Why didn’t I learn Spanish when I had the chance?” or whatever.
I don’t let players pretend they didn’t purchase certain talents or let them “fake it” but if a player can come up with a good excuse for what they are doing, during a Growth Plateau, they are given a chance to make small changes. They can also purchase excuses so to speak, to enable them to refine their history and even motives to make adjustments make more sense. They can also swap out two skills by phasing out one and begin practicing another. Now, I let GM’s decide how much these concepts have to be played out during game sessions.
For one group, it’s enough to just have the rationalizations indicated, which frankly is good enough for me (though I prefer — not enforce, the characters to begin acting like or doing the things they want to see changed). For another group, they may insist that 1 level prior to the changes, the player begins displaying the changes in-game.
Whichever method is used, Growth Plateaus can be a very useful time to begin or conclude new story arcs, using personal quests, clarify character concepts and ensure that a player’s character is going in the direction they want. After all, considering how much time is invested in characters, it’d be a shame to realize that you messed up on your character concept or should have done something differently to achieve your goal.
And just as we can get set in our ways and change comes difficult, it becomes more difficult to change your ways as the character goes up in levels, but a high degree of change is always allowed, just not as significant as earlier in the character’s life. Of course, we always include special options available for story-rich character changes to maximize a character’s potential theme-wise and fun-wise. Players actually have some control over story development using Boons (I’ll talk more about those another time). We’ve kept the complexity for these various concepts minimal and with these options; we feel it’s a win-win situation.
For those of you in America, have an awesome Thanksgiving! For everyone else, every day’s a gift, enjoy it, appreciate it, and let’s hang out again. Let me hear from you folks. What I’m doing right and wrong… what you would like me to share about Cosmothea and any questions or comments you have. Thanks, and see ya next week!