Focus on the World: Development

A mutant brain stole into the duck’s head. Now, it is a mutant duck. Simple, really.

This and the previous post are now part of a new series: Focus on the World.

There’s been a shift here. Used to be that I talked XP required to level. Then I talked about the many fun ways events in the world can trigger XP gain. Then I talked about how children aren’t really interested in the numbers or tracking them but prefer the crazy stories of RPGs. They like the idea of finding and clearing a massive warship instead of spending points on a skill tree.

In keeping with the recent theme of keeping the focus on the world, let’s talk development.


When you step into a college human development class, they will tell you that development is more encompassing than growth. Growth only moves up and out, whereas development covers any movement of traits, up or down. Grow four inches taller at the age of 16? Development. Lose two inches of height at the age of 61? Development.

Development in this context refers to the traits, skills, items and more that are gained and lost over the experience of play.

(We’re using “development” as in the process of change instead of “developments” which could refer to events or outcomes. It’s like how “growth” and “growths” mean two very different things.)

Players are often working towards positive/additive development, which we call advancement. Systems that use advancement often make this very choice-driven and predictable. Development happens regardless of whether players working towards them as they’re a by-product of dangerous and lucrative adventures. Systems that use development make this very action-driven and unpredictable. Chris McDowall calls this messy and unplanned, like a turbulent childhood.

Mutations are a great example of development, something I’ve heard referred to as the “advancements of the OSR.” Extra eye? Slimy skin? Forked tail? Sharp teeth? Allergic to sunlight? Lumpy flesh? Development.

Development has few factors that makes it so appealing. It…

  • Comes from the world.
  • Changes behavior.
  • Produces more adventure.

Development comes from the world

Development is diegetic. It happens in and interacts with the world.

  • Looting a sword.
  • Picking the lock to a treasure chest.
  • Harvesting monster parts.
  • Foraging apples.
  • Learning from an expert.
  • Being bitten by a werewolf.
  • Being the subject of a life-changing ritual.
  • Having your legs broken.
  • Getting new legs with artificial or elemental replacements.

These things aren’t from the rules, they’re from the adventure. Remember, the world is experienced at the table, not from a book or character sheet (Another McDowall-ism).

Notice also how some examples are things a player can do (“I pick the apple”) versus other examples where things are done to them (“You fail to dodge the werewolf and she bites you.”). Being from the world, developments can happen at any time during play, not just at the end of a session or when you level up. This keeps players on their toes. It’s alive!

Oddly, most games have accepted that items are from the world, but usually don’t apply the same logic to traits or skills. For example, most classic fantasy RPGs don’t have this:

  • “You gain a +1 sword with your third level of fighter.”
  • “Spend 2000 XP to make a wand of fire appear in your inventory.”
  • “You get 100 gold pieces when you become level 5.”

The game recognizes that those things come from inside the world. Apply the same logic to traits and skills:

  • You become better at performance by performing.
  • You learn cooking skills under a master chef.
  • You get mutant powers when bitten by a mutant spider.

(As an aside, not all items, traits, and skills come from the world. Characters start the game with their necessities before adventuring in the form of character creation, which is imposed on the world. But character creation is merely a sliver that happens before play. This is focusing on where the game takes place, not where it starts.)

This also solves a problem people have been having with gaining levels and skills in their campaigns for years: how do you rectify the advancement on the sheet with the character in the world?

  • “How did Clovis the fighter gain a level in druid while doing nothing but fighting goblins?”
  • “We’ve been poking around in a crypt for weeks. Why did the gnome get an increased Persuasion bonus?”
  • “How did our characters go from peasants to gods in a manner of days? That kind of Strength-gain in such a short time would make any doctor hate us, for sure.”

As an additional upside, the closer we get to the world, the language and actions of the game become more universal and transferable. System-neutral adventures do this well, listing objects, effects, and ideas that can be understood no matter which ruleset you ascribe to. Systems like clunky UI fade away and you start thinking of the world as a real place. Then questions arise, leading to a change in behavior.

Development changes behavior

This is why the +1 sword can feel so lackluster: it doesn’t change how you interact with the world. You were still probably going to attack the monster, +1 sword or plain old shortsword. Now if the sword is flaming, you might use a different weapon against the water elemental. “Fire” as something in the world changes how you act, where a +1 does not.

Magic items, oddities, arcana do exactly this. An immovable rod is just more interesting than better armor. A spellbook instead of spell slot allows wizard-types to hunt for, collect, write, and purchase spells instead of having them in a planned, predictable fashion that feels a lot less magical. Superheroes getting new powers or new methods to use their powers changes how they behave.

Getting a new development opens new actions:

  • “What can I do with these monster parts? Sell them? Make something? Apply them to a wound?”
  • “How can I use this newly-acquired Flying Monkey jump technique against this giant?”
  • “When we have that mansion, we can store our extra equipment there for a rainy day.”
  • “With our new boat, we can go sailing around the islands!”
  • “Now that Gregor is a werewolf, we should avoid being out during a full moon.”

One of my kid players got an extra eye mutation on his hand! He then became the party scout, checking around corners and peering under doorways. The development changed his role and gave him a useful tool.

Development produces more adventure

Someone lost their arm. Gasps around the table. Their journey to replace what was lost becomes part of the adventure. Happened on The Adventure Zone podcast.

Development can unlock new areas, help in specific fights, modify interactions with NPCs, and more. There are more things to do and discover with good development.

  • “Where can I acquire more monster parts? Who can I sell them to?”
  • “How can I use this newly-acquired Flying Monkey jump technique to scale this mountain and see what’s up there?”
  • “We have the deed to an old mansion now, but there’s a gang that’s already made it into their hideout here.”
  • “We have the secret location of the boat, but how can we get to Bloodwhale Island to claim it?”
  • “Maybe the city council will finally listen to us about the werewolf infestation when we show them Gregor’s bite.”

Players make their own plans and opportunities to use the development of their character to their advantage. It’s leverage that they make use of, not something the game or designer foresaw them selecting.

Final thoughts

This post came about while playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There’s a flying Divine Beast that must be tamed and more or less exorcised of darkness. When you do that, an NPC gives you a skill, which works very much like a spell, allowing you to create a gust of wind that propels you upward.

This changes how you travel as you can fly farther distances in less time. This changes how you fight as you can execute a DFA (that’s Death From Above for you non-Battletech fans) from nearly anywhere. This changes how you solve other puzzles as you can get a increased heights on a problem, seeing new things, climbing to new places.

All of these things produce new adventures by encouraging the player to go to new places that allow for more development. And so it continues!

Plenty of Zelda’s design removes the barriers of play, the fiddly bits that get in the way to water down the experience.

Development of characters in terms of items, traits, and skills puts the focus back on the world, not on XP or CR or level or feats or skill trees. Not that these things are evil, just cluttered. Like having too many steps to set up and manage the game when all you really want to do is play.

Pairing it down to the core of the game that takes place in another world. That’s the goal.

Continued reading: Justin Hamilton on advancement. As he says, if you want to become an awesome griffin knight, “You study the temperament of birds and beasts, make your climb of the peaks and befriend a young griffin. You go on adventures, learning the rights and the customs of the Knightly Order you’re climbing the ranks through, doing good deeds and maybe rooting out corruption.” Do that instead of spending XP to “option in to the Renowned Knight prestige class and you spend your talents on “Acquire Griffin” and “Leadership.””

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6 thoughts on “Focus on the World: Development

  1. Having just wrapped the fourth Dolmenwood session in a row focused on the players deciding to track down enough troll fat to pay an arcane legsmith to construct a prosthesis for the knight whose leg was pixelated into oblivion in a corrupted cathedral basement, I fully affirm the conclusions drawn from development over advancement. The party has found curious artifacts and tools, met interesting people, made craven enemies, rescued ensorcelled children, befriended an austere noble, sparked a minor civil war, and wrestled with a deep existential crisis as adventurers since setting out to find this fat months ago. Also the knight’s new fey-infused leg allows him to sense nearby portals to Fairy at all times.

    In short, “development” play is a 10/10 experience.

  2. Only just read this one. Breath of the Wild is my favorite game of all time for the same reasons you love it, haha. I’ve actually had a fun idea recently: I have my players write their character’s stats in their character journal! I even bought them all little physical notebooks and I said “This is your character’s journal” and then had them write down their stuff in it and everything on the first page.

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