Character Development

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Changes in characters' abilities, skills, or powers as part of gameplay.

Games that include characters under players' control often make it possible for these to have Character Development. On a general level, this can either be in the form of becoming more likely to succeed with actions, or make actions that were previously unavailable possible. It is typically explained within the setting of the game as the development of powers or skills, possibly through access to new tools, or the change of other characters' attitude towards that character.


The characters in the Sims series have numeric values of how well they are at the existing skills, and increasing these are a form of Character Development. Improving (or possibly decreasing) relationship values towards other characters can also be seen as a form of development, as can the increase in material wealth. Using a less complex model, the influence of virtual pets that Tamagochi toys allow players to have can be seen as a similar form of Character Development.

Many Tabletop Roleplaying Games allow various ways of Character Development. Some allow increases in individual skills (e.g. Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Hârnmaster, and Mutant) while other use character levels (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) as the main measure, but practical all let the acquisition of tools and equipment affect mechanical aspects of gameplay and the development of social relations affect narration or social actions. Gaining new powers is also common, e.g. both GURPS and Dungeons & Dragons supports this. The various systems have carried over to Computer-based Roleplaying Games, e.g. the Elder Scrolls series letting skill improvements drive level improvement while gaining levels in Dragon Age II and Torchlight allow players to give their characters new powers.

Both Bloodbowl and the computer-based version of the game have rules for individual players gaining experience points, and, when enough are acquired, new star player powers.

Using the pattern

Character Development is defined by two characteristics: what caused the development and what effect the development has on the Characters (which may be Companions, Non-Player Characters or Player Characters). Common causes for Character Development are as effects of Rewards. This is usually done by various forms of Collecting (e.g. "experience points") to complete Gain Competence goals; Character Levels is a common way of structuring this that supports Leveling and can be found in Dungeons & Dragons, the Elder Scrolls series, and the Dragon Age series. What specific events lead to Character Development can vary: while many games, e.g. Torchlight and Dungeons & Dragons, provide "experience points" for winning Combats or finishing Quests, others make the use of Skills the prime mechanism for improving these (this is found in the Elder Scrolls series and to a certain extent in Hârnmaster) while other still simply make it an effect of the unfolding of Predetermined Story Structures. A specific case related to use of Skills is to reward Crafting by making this lead to Character Development.

The actual development is often by explicitly affecting the characters possibilities to influence the game state, most typically by changes in the Characteristics of a Character. This can be in the form of New or Improved Abilities, which may either expand a Limited Set of Actions or increase Attributes, Resource Caps, or Skills. The changes in abilities may also be explained as changes in which Powers the Characters have. A form of Character Development can also be achieved by letting them have access to better Game Items such as Armor, Equipment, Tools, or Weapons. Providing Character Development in this way opens up for it being lost through Stealing and makes it easier latter have, maybe temporary, Ability Losses. Character Development may also take the form of joining Factions or having improved relation to them (see for example Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas for examples of this), and this provide another explanation to have Ability Losses, e.g. not being able to attack Faction members or innocent bystanders. These kinds of Ability Losses do not need to be explicitly enforced, they can instead be enforced through Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences.

Regardless of what the actual development is, there are several ways of modulating it. Letting players chose one or a few options regarding Attributes, Powers, or Skills it a way to give them a Freedom of Choice in the Character Development but restricted through a Limited Resource of "development points" (see Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, and the Fallout series for a couple of different examples of how this can be done). Having Character Classes in games is a way to limit which Powers and Skills can be affected by Character Development based on a thematic stance, and Enforced Agent Behavior can be used to make individual variations. Making the advancements into Irreversible Events is a easy way to make the choices more serious for the players. Character Development, especially of Skills, can be limited by Balancing Effects such as Diminishing Returns to modulate the increase rates over time - for example, Skill increase may happen often when one is a novice but rarely when one is an expert. GURPS implements this by having different costs for different Skill levels while Mutant does it by making the chance of improving Skills less the higher the level already is.

Roleplaying can create Character Development since it makes players' try to fulfill the goals of Characters, and succeeding or failing with these can be a form of Character Development. It should be pointed out that this provides a motivation for players to strive to Character Development that may have little or nothing to do with gameplay empowerment but rather with affecting the unfolding of Narration Structures. An extreme form of this is Playing to Lose, where the successes of Characters takes a back seat to creating a good story.

Diegetic Aspects

To maintain Thematic Consistency, the development of Characters should in many cases be noticeable in Game Worlds through how their associated Avatars look. In some cases this is more or less automatically present, e.g. when Character Development is through the equipping of new Game Items, but the Fable series shows how the appearance of players' Characters can change due to how they develop. These change may in most cases only be Extra-Game Consequences, but can serve as reminders for the players that caused the Character Development and can provide clues to other players of the Characters' abilities to other players.

Interface Aspects

Character Development typically requires the updating of Character Sheets or special Secondary Interface Screens, or at least special components in those provided for viewing Characters.

Narrative Aspects

Character Development is a way to make Characters advance Narration Structures of games. Especially the use of Character Defining Actions can be a clear way of combining the development of the character with the development of the story. Even if Ability Losses and Decreased Abilities can both modulate Character Development, Predetermined Story Structures can make these two patterns be part of Character Development from a narrative perspective even if it is not so from a gameplay perspective.


Character Development is a form of Abstract Player Construct Development that, quite obviously, affects Characters. When the Characters are parts of Teams it equally obviously affects Team Development. It can provide players with Varying Rule Sets simply since they do not need to consider rules regarding specific Powers or abilities before their Characters have them (as long as no other Characters have them earlier). For games that rely on player skills, Character Development is likely to modulate Player/Character Skill Composites since it typically augments the possibilities of Characters to affect the gameplay.

When players are aware that Character Development can occur, and especially when they can follow explicitly how close they are to significant development, make the development into an Investments and something which they can feel provides a Value of Effort - while this may be the case in any type of game it is even more so in games with Persistent Game Worlds since there is no predetermined limit on how long the effort will valuable and since other players may notice the effort. When players have some Freedom of Choice over the development this is quite likely to lead to Player-Planned Development and the Anticipation this gives. If players are given significant amount of control or have this Freedom of Choice before gameplay begins, it gives Player-Created Characters. Character Development can easily lead to Grinding and the use of Mules, especially when it is based on Collecting activities.

The introduction of New or Improved Abilities are examples of Unlocking and can over time produce Paper-Rock-Scissors structures that provide Varied Gameplay between playing different Characters. Any Character Development can give an Exaggerated Perception of Influence, but is perhaps most common when players are provided with New or Improved Abilities - especially when these are Privileged Abilities. Character Development can upset Player Balance in Multiplayer Games with Persistent Game Worlds since players that have played more or started to play earlier than Late Arriving Players are likely to have better Characters (Character Development can in any Multiplayer Game cause conflict with Player Balance but the issue becomes more pronounced for Persistent Game Worlds). This can in turn lead to Extra-Game Consequences in the form of Game Element Trading.

While Character Development can be planned as part of Narration Structures through Predetermined Story Structures, it can in itself create Narration Structures. Similarly, while Character Defining Actions can be designed to be options in the allowed structures for Character Development, making improvements due to Character Development into Irreversible Events also makes them into a form of Character Defining Actions.

Character Development between game or play sessions are a form of Trans-Game Information that not only passes the original Characters between sessions but also introduces changes. When this is accessible, it is a form of Gameplay Statistics.


Can Instantiate

Abstract Player Construct Development, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Extra-Game Consequences, Game Element Trading, Gameplay Statistics, Grinding, Investments, Rewards, Trans-Game Information, Unlocking, Value of Effort, Varying Rule Sets

with Characters and Freedom of Choice

Player-Created Characters, Player-Planned Development

with Improved Abilities or New Abilities

Paper-Rock-Scissors, Varied Gameplay

with Irreversible Events

Character Defining Actions

with Teams

Team Development

Can Modulate

Attributes, Avatars, Character Sheets, Characters, Factions, Limited Set of Actions, Narration Structures, Player/Character Skill Composites, Powers, Resource Caps, Skills, Secondary Interface Screens

Can Be Instantiated By


Characters together with Ability Losses, Character Levels, Character Defining Actions, Characteristics, Decreased Abilities, Game Items, Improved Abilities, Leveling, New Abilities, or Roleplaying

Can Be Modulated By

Ability Losses, Balancing Effects, Character Classes, Collecting, Combat, Crafting, Diminishing Returns, Enforced Agent Behavior, Freedom of Choice, Gain Competence, Irreversible Events, Limited Resources, Mules, Persistent Game Worlds, Playing to Lose, Predetermined Story Structures, Skills, Stealing, Thematic Consistency

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Player Balance when used together with Persistent Game Worlds and Multiplayer Games


An updated version of the pattern Character Development that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.