So when I'm not designing material for Storm Bunny Studios, Design Camp, or another publisher, I frequently pop over to Total Party Kill Games and help them out. Recently, I've been working with Brian Berg (TPK Games's founder) on his pet project - Empires of Ash. We've covered a lot of territory over the last few months, from play testing new rules (Dark Inspiration, baby!) to revisiting older, revised rules (like Mike Mearls's alternative Greyhawk Initiative rules). But mostly, our collective focus has been on developing the world in which our characters live.
While there's a lot of technical feedback about rules (often after a session is over), almost all of us roleplay our characters, too, so there's a lot of action and descriptions going on around the table. Anyways, I've been in this game for two months now and after several months of grueling near-death encounters, we finally hit 5th level.... leveling right before facing some rotting, ghoulish noble Mahgra, who I'm pretty darn sure is serving the Lady of the Long, Deep Earth.
So here we are, weak and wounded, and I know we'll probably die when we play next. And if we don't, well, I see things getting really, really dark. But even if we do perish, I've already accomplished a few of my in-game goals, and that's why I'm writing. You see, while I've been making good use of my character's strengths, I like to focus on my character's shortcomings/weaknesses, as well.
Because when games are about growth and development, you embrace that growth.
For my example, I'm going to talk cleric-y stuff, but you can easily look to your character for other option. So, for this example, we're going to take Channel Divinity for instance (and remember, we're talking 5e here). Technically, I can only use it once per day. However, I'm a longtime Pathfinder guy who plays a lot of clerics. And I like channeling. So, the 1/day thing doesn't work well for me. So, Brian and I looked for ways to let me do just that. So far, I've been able to sneak in additional channels (think of it like "over-channeling") by burning some of my Hit Dice to regain channels (I'd burn 1d3, or average 2). While relatively useless at lower levels, this gives me an incremental stage of growth at levels 3 and 4 - at level 3, if I skip my short rest, I can now channel once more per day. And by 4th level, I can add another chance to channel. By the time I reach 5th (where I learn to destroy the undead), I've been focusing on "channeling" for so long (at least 2 levels) that when I finally do learn to destroy minor undead, well.... I've created an in-game path that clearly enshrines that growth.
But more to the point, letting me use this alternate rule let me do two things. First, it allowed me to be of better service to my group. I was able to turn away foes who would have done much more damage to us (and helped us possibly avoid a TPK). Secondly, it let me focus on developing this as a power. By playing around with the rules, I was able to show the group I was actively developing a critical skill in game, and when I finally do get to destroy some minor undead.... I'll get to showcase this kind of awesome ability.
Focusing on Failures...
...but what if I had focused on Ash's failures, instead? What if I had treated turning the undead with a degree of uncertainty, and at each instance, developed him toward a single event; his milestone or benchmark for development - his ability to destroy the undead (5th level sounds pretty important, doesn't it?). Had I spent more time thinking about it (or discussing it with Brian, at least), we could have taken steps to develop him further; I'll have to do that.
With this in mind, let's look at failure and see what it represents; can we use our own lack of understanding or lack of abilities as a launching pad for greatness, instead of viewing those deficiencies as being life-stopping failures. While I would never dream of writing this in as a rule for any game, I think it might be an excellent optional guideline that encourages immersion, some laughter, and a real sense of accomplishment once abilities manifest later on.
For the sake of nostalgia, I'm going to call this the Karate Kid Rule.
When you first select a character class (or character concept), select 2-4 abilities that occur at higher levels (it helps if these are capstone abilities; powers that are currently inaccessible, but will eventually manifest). These are your benchmarks. Someone playing a bard might select Countercharm (6th level) as their first benchmark, while a paladin might select Divine Health (3rd level) and later, Aura of Protection (6th level). Mind you, you're not gaining any additional powers; you're simply showcasing the powers you already get, setting them up goals to be achieved. It's pretty simple, really.
Of course, you could also get a small benefit if you wanted, and if so, when you reach this level and unlock your benchmark, you gain a single +hero die that you can trade for advantage on any d20 roll you make during your newest level (in addition to any and all powers normally gained at that level). In short, giving your character some personal goals adds some of that depth, especially when those goals are clearly attainable, but currently out of reach.
Of course, in order to make good use of these benchmarks, you need to try and do the things they represent - knowing you're going to fail - over and over in game. Because in order to really the most out of finally succeeding, you need to fail. Over, and over, and over.
Maybe you're a wizard trying to turn yourself invisible (a second level spell in Pathfinder, for instance). Maybe, each morning when you prepare your spells, you give making an apple disappear a go. But instead, you keep turning your keys or something else important invisible. Or maybe you learn to disappear for a few moments (the 1st level Pathfinder spell vanish is good for that), but haven't quite worked up for full invisibility. Or maybe you have this elaborate background, describing how you're the only orc smart enough in your tribe to ever decipher the spells you found in Libre Sangre Invictus. And the only spell you haven't mastered is the final spell, the Rite of the Invisiblé One (or some other equally immersive and fancy name).
Or you're a boy wizard, off to Hoppsworth (it's for WitchCraftBrewers) to learn some minor spells and a proper trade.
Whatever. The whole point is, you have a tangible "in game" goal that you'll eventually reach - something you can practice "in game" that adds depth and immersion to your character, and by extension, the world they inhabit. When you think about it, it's almost like co-GMing a session, as a more collaborative approach to your story-telling.
And once again, Narrative is Queen!
Of course, with some creativity and communication, you can turn nearly anything into a milestone. Maybe you're a war-mongering barbarian and have promised to kill all of the Jackal Clan before you die. Or maybe you're a rogue who has vowed to steal Hadrana's Jeweled Helm of War, and you won't rest until that treasure rests quietly by your side. Or maybe you're a paladin, or a wizard, or a cleric of Nergal....
The point is, you could easily set up some lofty goals that are tied to your background (or if you're a Pathfinder player, your traits) and help others dive into the story. Naturally, this creates immersion and if all goes well, helps others immerse themselves into the story and setting; if you ask me, this only creates an environment where everyone involved can have a little more fun, and isn't that why we game in the first place?
And if there's anyone "winning" at D&D/Pathfinder, it's the people having fun.