Johnstone's Eschaton Design Essays #2
Character Improvement and Personal Goals in the Face of the End of the World
Why are there experience mechanics and character improvement in Black Seas of Infinity? Are they necessary? The short answer is no, not really. They might be necessary in games that are actually about self-improvement, but even then, you can still "improve" without them, as long as you accomplish things in the fiction. Maybe you get a job opportunity that pays really well and you pull it off. Hooray, you have money! You've definitely improved. Also, for short-term play, even three or four sessions, improvement doesn't really add that much, unless it's fairly dramatic, and Apocalypse World advancement a sight less dramatic than, say, 20th-level wizards in D&D or characters becoming gods in Mythender. You could still collect more than one new special move over the course of a session, but in doing so, you might not have the opportunity to even use them all.
Improvement does have some important uses, however. First, it provides a character arc for long-term play, and it's been doing this since the original edition of D&D. The way Black Seas is set up now, you can start in the middle of this arc, with five out of ten improvements right away. This means your character is extremely competent and effective, which makes for a great spec-ops one-shot. Or, you can start less effective and build your way up to the top, with all ten improvements—a place you can only get to if you start at the beginning. This arc makes long-term play both more interesting, because the improvements increase the amount of change your character goes through over that time, and more satisfying, because that end-point is something you have to actually work towards.
Second, it drives play forward, by making improvement contingent upon characters pursuing and achieving personal goals. When characters are motivated to act, the game has a hard time stalling. When the MC has to drag them around and fight to get them engaged, stalling is pretty much the default position. Attaching actual mechanical rewards to character agendas works to motivate players, just like competitions bring out more in competitors when there's a prize at stake.
And third, improvement is another way for the players to influence the fiction. If there are more options than just personal improvements, like +1 to a stat, they allow players to make declarations in the fiction without having to go through the MC to get it. An improvement that allows a character to resolve an obligation gig for good, for instance, or change the details of their followers, gives the player permission to declare things. When a player chooses to improve and get a gang, there's rules backing her up, instead of when she has to say "I want a gang. How do I get one, MC?"
Personal Goals and the Eschaton
In the pre-eschaton, the impending end of the world provides a major source of motivation for players and their characters. As the MC, you ask the players what their characters consider valuable, you find out where they aren't in control, and then you push against that stuff. Let them tell you what their characters believe in, then threaten that and allow them to fight back and defend what they cherish.
Characters also have their own agendas, and their own personal goals. Pursuing these goals are how they gain experience and improvements. But if characters concentrate only on their own goals, the eschaton will win, and it will all be for nothing. Everything they fought so hard for will be gone. This dichotomy reinforces the themes of cost and sacrifice. How much will it cost you to defeat the end of the world? Characters need to strike a balance between putting themselves in a good position when the eschaton's threat is over, and actually making sure this defeat becomes a reality. What those actual goals and agendas themselves are isn't even really that important, at least to the game itself. It's the tug-of-war between them and the threat posed by the eschaton that really brings the tension to the game.
Once the eschaton becomes inevitable, though, all that goes out the window. In victory, the eschaton stops being a force motivating the characters to unite and work together. Because that particular fight is now futile, those personal goals become the real heart of the game. In the pre-eschaton, concentrating on your own goals and not fighting the eschaton guarantees your doom, but in the post-eschaton, the exact opposite is true: in this new era, it's fighting the eschaton that guarantees failure. Your personal goals are still what put you in an advantageous position later, but now they propel you towards the uplift to post-humanity. They're what allow you to make the transition you want to make, instead of the one the eschaton forces onto you.
In the pre-eschaton, characters either try to balance the fight against the eschaton with their own personal goals and attempts to accrue power, influence, and security, or they sacrifice themselves to the fight so that others can live. In either case, however, they're fighting for humanity to stay human, as we the players know it. So a list of improvements that stays within those limits, and the limits found acceptable in other games, is appropriate here. Characters improve their stats, gain new special moves and advantages, increase their social influence perhaps, but don't progress along radical tanshumanist lines. That's left up to the fiction in each individual game's setting.
In the post-eschaton, that list of improvements is totally unnecessary. Since the main economy of this future is personal change, improvements can function as simply as player-dictated changes. Throughout play, characters will have various changes forced on them, through trauma, social influence, or demands made by the eschaton. This is why mechanized trauma mechanics are mostly unnecessary: as the eschaton, the MC is in a position to frame all consequences as choices between changing to suit the eschaton (and hopefully gain an advantage when forced to do so) and trying to instead change in a way that honours your own self and still allows you to survive in the post-eschaton world. As the fiction unfolds, most of these choices will be between changes that the MC invents, with some tweaking here and there by the players. With improvements, however, players have a way to dictate their own inventions—their characters' own inventions—straight into the fiction, with little or no negotiation between them and the MC's creativity. This also makes sense from the perspective of the fiction—as characters pursue and succeed at achieving their goals (which include surviving these post-eschaton times) those successes become actual elements in the fiction. They become real for the characters, which is exactly what they were striving for in the first place.
And so it should be obvious that the fourth important function of experience and improvement rules is to distinguish the pre-eschaton from the post-eschaton, and vice-versa. Just by changing the context they operate in and the final product, agendas become completely different animals in these two games.