Dungeons & Dragons have had many options over the years on how you can personalize characters (e.g. training for acquiring class abilities upon leveling up, skills, feats, downtime activities, etc.). I enjoy drawing upon all these sources, but for my Castles & Crusades campaigns I have come up with my own formula for character improvement.
In AD&D there were secondary skills, in AD&D 2nd edition we got non-weapon proficiencies and later kits, in 3E there was a certain sequence when people would acquire skills or feats, 5E shares a similar approach, plus they have subclasses and downtime activities. They all offer something for players seeking to personalize their character, but they also tend to present things in a restricted manner which can make everything feel the same, such as getting a feat every fourth level. Why every fourth? What is so special about that fourth level? I want my players to have maximal amount of flexibility to mold their characters the way they want for the particular campaign they are in (each of my campaigns can have a very different feel and approach).
Now, if one were to offer new feats or skills every level, then that could easily make over-powered characters and I have far too many experiences with power gamers and min/maxers that ruin the game for the other players that are quite happy to simply play what they have and enjoy it for what it is. Can one accommodate everyone?
My approach is to offer players the opportunity to acquire a new ability every time they level up if they want to, but there is a price. In what follows, I will present what players can gain upon leveling up, and then provide the formula I use.
After gaining a level, some players may have discovered that they need to upgrade or expand an ability or skill based on their experiences during the previous level. Here are some of the options open to them.
1. Learn a new language.
2. Learn a new profession (e.g. blacksmith, herbalist, gem cutter, sage).
3. Attempt to raise an attribute (my formula for the player is to roll a d20 with no modifiers, and if they can roll the attribute or higher it will go up by one, if they fail, they can try again next level. This obviously makes it easier to raise low attributes, but more difficult to raise high attributes).
4. Increase a class skill (e.g. a 1st level fighter specialized in the long sword, but half way through 1st level discovered a +1 battle axe and now wants to specialize in the battle axe).
5. Enhance a racial/ancestral ability, a combat ability (melee/ranged), a defensive ability, a magic ability through a feat (or as they are called in C&C, advantages).
When you are younger you tend to pick things up a lot easier, and as you get older you become more set in your ways and things become more difficult to learn. My formula accounts for this.
Time: Level x 2 in weeks to learn/acquire the new ability.
Cost: The experience points you need to gain your next level x 10% in gold piece cost.
A fighter called Ecbert is specialized in the long sword. Halfway through 1st level he gets a +1 battle axe and decides he wants to make that his main weapon and specialize in it. He continues to use it through the remainder of 1st level and upon 2nd level he seeks out a warrior in the area that is a known specialist in the battle axe and has them train him. Since he is 2nd level, it will take 4 weeks (2nd level x 2). To go from 2nd to 3rd level as a fighter requires 2,001 XP in C&C, so 10% of that is 200, as a result he will pay this person 200 gp over that 4 week period.
Some time has passed and part way through 4th level Ecbert acquires a +3 spear that does double damage against undead and now wants to specialize in that. He will use this new spear until he reaches 5th level, upon which time he will seek out an expert in the spear. Ecbert is now a bit more set in his ways, so learning to specialize in the spear will require 10 weeks (5th level x 2), and the XP needed to increase from 5th to 6th level for a fighter in C&C is 17,001, so 10% of that is 1,700, which means he will have to spend 1,700 gp for the training and any materials over that 10 week period.
An elven wizard named Kythaela who knows the common, elvish, and orcish languages, encounters numerous gnomes in her first two levels of adventuring and decides that she should learn the gnomish language so as to better interact with them and understand them. When she reaches 3rd level she seeks out a local sage that knows gnomish. Learning the rudiments of the gnomish tongue will take 6 weeks (3rd level x 2), and cost 520 gp (as a wizard in C&C she needs 5,200 xp to progress from 3rd to 4th level).
As she adventures some more she travels through ancient elven villages and decides that when she reaches her next stage of development (i.e. gains her next level), she will want to take some time off and delve more into her elven culture and pull forth new elven abilities and reach a new stage of development (i.e. gain an elven advantage, or feat). When she reaches 7th level she heads off into the dense wilderness and spends 14 weeks (7th level x 2) with her elven elders to acquire this new elven ability (which, let us say is the Affinity to Nature elven advantage found in the Castle Keepers Guide, which gives her a +1 on checks to avoid surprise, detect hidden foes, and to initiative when in natural surroundings). The cost will be high, since she needs 85,001 xp to go from 7th to 8th level, thus the cost will be 8,500 gp for materials, training, supplies, and anything else related to enhancing her elven awareness.
Comparing players that do and do not use this system.
What you might have seen in the above examples is that you could gain abilities every level, perhaps take a new language at 2nd level, at 3rd learn a new background, at 4th take an advantage, at 5th level try and raise an attribute, etc. You could rack up a lot of abilities. However, this takes time and costs money. Each level will require time off, and unless the party you are in agrees to take time off with you, your character will have to stop adventuring for awhile and that will slow their level advancement (I should mention that in my C&C campaigns I encourage all my players to make several characters and swap them in and out depending on their preferences for that game session, to meet the needs of the group for that session (perhaps a player with the main rogue can’t make it and you have the other rogue in the party, or perhaps you know you are about to enter a trap-heavy dungeon and having two rogues would be useful), or to swap out if they are acquiring a new ability for leveling up. This will also cost a lot of money. Characters in my C&C game are encouraged to have their characters begin building towers, castles, establishments, temples, etc. based on their classes when they reach 9th level (much like AD&D) and that costs a lot of money. If you are spending all your gold on extra abilities, then you might be a bit short on cash to build your class structures and pay the staff and followers.
As a result, those players who are a happy with what they have, may have less abilities than their fellow party members, but they will be higher level then those that take time off (since they will be adventuring more), and from that additional adventuring they may have more loot and treasure as well, and of course they will have more cash sitting around to construct their buildings and draw in followers, since they didn’t spend it on training.
I’ve been using this system since 2018 and it has worked quite well. It also allows a campaign to spread out over time. Weeks and months can pass in game time between adventures, and the players see the seasons change, members of the town may pass on, children are born, others grow up and move on, and the regional politics in the region continue to develop around them. I’ve been able to present the larger world around them grow and change as they grow and change. I think it has made my games more immersive and feel more lived-in.
I’d be interested in knowing what you think of this system.