The one most frustrating bit of meta-gaming I see among my players is the urge to view characters as merely sums of their abilities. Playing games based on what characters can do rather than who they are stifles any possibility of letting characters get deeper.
Apocalypse World and its derivatives take care of this in an interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive way by listing out every special move and ability in each playbook at the outset. There is little to no character growth inherent in gaining new moves…they’re all right there, you know exactly how many of them you’ll be able to have, and indeed if you wanted you could trace out your character advancement path for a 25 session game in about ten minutes. And the thing is, as one quickly realizes, your character may be able to do more things, but they don’t grow all that appreciably more powerful. From beginning to end, there are plenty of things they will fail at.
Having no safe options helps create interesting moments for characters. In a game which mechanically collapses into a few logical options, the player is making the choices. As soon as statistics is taken out of the equation, you get closer to the character making the choices.
It sounds simple but isn’t. Ultimately, any game where there is directional momentum (whether from plot, mechanics, or other goals), the player has a motivation to push their character in the direction that will resolve the plot, get to the next floor of the dungeon, or help them level up. And to be fair, it is a game, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But it makes for boring and repetitive stories. Characters have their own reasons for doing things, and characters tend to be more interesting than their players (because if they weren’t, why would they be interesting to play?). But the players are only going to really listen to their character when they have a strong sense of who the character is and what they’d do, and a sense that the resulting story would be engaging.
Biggest thing I find necessary to really build characters is time. After maybe a dozen sessions, players start to understand what makes their character really unique, and they pop above their stats and either mechanized or contrived backstories. That time, though, can be shortened if the mechanics encourage more grappling with the character as a person. In a group where 12 sessions is more than halfway done for a typical game, shortening that time has significant payoff.
As mentioned above, Apocalypse World does this, you earn XP not for mechanically optimal actions, but through actions the GM and other players deem interesting (via highlighting stats). Or, in the case of Dungeon World, you earn XP by failing (and therefore pushing yourself to do actions that may not be “safe”) and by playing through and resolving conflicts with other characters. When in-character behavior is rewarded, more of it happens.
I want to see more systems of advancement that reward taking risks and playing to character. For something like GURPS, where disadvantages are legion but often inconsistently implemented, there may be value in writing an advancement system like this. The difficulty ends up being in figuring out exactly how to write it. Encouraging players to stack more disadvantages onto their GURPS characters isn’t necessarily a good thing…and in theory, someone with a disadvantage like ‘Blind’ that is intrinsic to their character is going to earn more XP than someone with a disadvantage like ‘Enemies’, who earns points based on how often the disadvantage appears.
So the two questions I end up having are “what should you incentivize to encourage character development?”, and “how do systems like Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel make their incentives work?”. Dungeon World works in incentivizing failure because most actions have a decent chance of failure anyway, and because the system is built to ensure that failure remains interesting. A system of incentivizing failure wouldn’t work as well for GURPS, where more actions are supposed to be easy and plenty of failures have minimal knock-on consequences.
There are definitely options; after running my backup game of Apocalypse World I’m pretty certain I’m going to run it or Dungeon World with my online group sometime in the future. As I think about game writing, though, as well as the games I’m playing in now, I want to figure out how to make character come to the forefront. I have two relatively new characters in new campaigns coming up, and thinking about this from both sides is going to help keep those experiences rewarding, and prevent me from falling into a slump like I did with our other Star Wars and Exalted games. There is the issue of underlying group direction, which I won’t be able to do anything about as a player. That may be a large reason I’m looking at it from a GM perspective…both because I have more control of it in games I will be running, but also because it will help frame conversations I can have with my GMs about how I want these games to go. I don’t only want to run games where the characters pop, I want my characters which I’m going to be sticking with for some time to start to pop for me, and I want to be playing in games where spending time on enriching my understanding of my characters is as valuable as mechanical optimization. With two new games on the horizon, I have strong opportunities to do just that.