Gain Competence

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The goal of being able to perform a specific ability to a certain level of competence within a game.

Part of the charm with playing games is the possibility of becoming better at doing so. This can be because one has become better as a player or because the avatar, character, or units under one's control have become more powerful. Gain Competence describes the goal of the latter.

Note: Gain Competence is not the ability for a player to perform an action skillfully, see Gameplay Mastery and patterns regarding specific actions for this.


Both making a queen (or other piece) out of a pawn in Chess and making a king out of a piece in Draughts can be seen as an example of a Gain Competence goal.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS offers players Gain Competence goals both through acquiring new equipment and through developing their characters attributes, skills, and powers. Similarly, Computer-based Roleplaying Games such as Torchlight, the Neverwinter Nights series and the Elder Scrolls series, have abilities that are either not available to the players initially (most commonly spells) or are not very efficient compared to the most powerful opponents. Learning these abilities significant help in completing the games, and gaining them may become explicit goals that are the focus of player actions on the expense of the main goal.

Deathmatch games in the Quake and Unreal Tournament series have Gain Competence goals that are linked to acquiring weapons, since the different weapons have radically different abilities. While weapons have different abilities in most First-Person Shooters, it is often not possible to have goals concerning them since either one has all weapons one will have in a match (e.g. the Team Fortress series) or new weapons are provided as part of a game's story.

Using the pattern

Gain Competence goals are basically about wanting New or Improved Abilities affecting Attributes, Powers, or Skills. A special case of this is regaining Ability Losses or Decreased Abilities. The actual completion of Gain Competence goals are often packaged as Rewards, e.g. advancing in Character Levels or Technology Trees, receiving the benefits of previous Investments, or gaining entry or acceptance of Factions or Helpers. A common way to provide Gain Competence goals is through Gain Ownership goals of Tools but Chargers and Power-Ups show that Movement to specific places in Game Worlds can suffice as well. In games with Card or Deck Building, getting the right Cards or card upgrades provides a mean to Gain Competence while Pre-Customized Decks makes the goal to either own it so it can be placed in Decks before gameplay or that the goal depends on Combos. The presence of Competence Areas create Gain Competence goals for players except when these Competence Areas are given to players before game sessions starts or without their input.

While the above describes how Gain Competence goals can be created, another important design aspect is why players should be motivated to adopt these goals. Having Player/Character Skill Composites is a generic way to motivate players to want to succeed with Gain Competence goals since this will then empower them. In games with Competition or Conflicts, the wish to be better is another cause for players to strive for these types of goals. Providing players with a Freedom of Choice between different Gain Competence goals can make players more willing to adopt specific such goals since these can then be part of Player-Planned Development and succeeding with the goals can be Character Defining Actions.

When Gain Competence goals can be Symmetric Goals shared by several players or Agents, this gives rise to Red Queen Dilemmas (if they are also Excluding Goals this instead becomes a Race).

Narrative Aspects

Gain Competence goals can quite easily be incorporated into Predetermined Story Structures, e.g. having to develop a Power or Skill to be able to defeat a Boss Monster, hinder a developing catastrophe, or be able to pass through Conditional Passageways. This makes them candidates for the goals of Quests.


Gain Competence goals give players offers of Empowerment due to better Abilities and can be motivated by Limited Set of Actions or Asymmetric Abilities where the players feel disadvantaged. While it is not necessary for players to have them for Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development to occur, players who have adopted such goals can have more Anticipation. For these reasons, the goals easy emerge when players can do Player-Planned Development due to having a Freedom of Choice regarding what competences to improve.

Gain Competence can provide players with Smooth Learning Curves, as players do not have to have all possible actions but can prepare for which actions will be possible.


Can Instantiate

Anticipation, Empowerment, Quests, Smooth Learning Curves

with Freedom of Choice

Player-Planned Development

with Excluding Goals and Symmetric Goals


with Symmetric Goals

Red Queen Dilemmas

with Tools

Gain Ownership

Can Modulate

Abilities, Abstract Player Construct Development, Attributes, Character Development, Skills, Symmetric Goals, Powers

Can Be Instantiated By

Ability Losses, Card Building, Character Defining Actions, Character Levels, Chargers, Competence Areas, Competition, Conditional Passageways, Conflicts, Deck Building, Decreased Abilities, Factions, Helpers, Improved Abilities, Investments, New Abilities, Player/Character Skill Composites, Power-Ups, Pre-Customized Decks, Rewards, Technology Trees, Tools

Can Be Modulated By

Asymmetric Abilities, Limited Set of Actions, Predetermined Story Structures

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



An updated version of the pattern Gain Competence 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.