Writing Progression Fantasy

Over on the new /r/progressionfantasy section on Reddit, someone asked for advice on writing progression fantasy. I put together a basic list of some things that I thought were worth discussing, and I figured I’d copy it over here in case anyone is interested.

Notably, not everyone is going to agree on these points. There are plenty of different ways to write an effective story – these are simply things I’ve found that work for me.
Character Roles in Progression Fantasy

As a general rule, I have a strong preference toward systems and settings that allow for different characters to progress in different ways. This allows for multiple characters to be relevant, even if some of them fall behind in terms of the overall power scale, as long as they have a sufficiently unique niche.

For this reason, it may be a good idea to have an underlying system that supports diverse character styles. A classic example of this is character classes in RPGs. A 20th level fighter is vastly more powerful than a 5th level wizard, cleric, or rogue, but the other classes still offer things that the fighter might not be able to do on their own.

It’s also wise to consider whether important character attributes like speed, strength, and resilience should advance separately to some degree. For example, in Dragon Ball Z, a character’s overall “power level” increases all of these attributes – which often leads to the more powerful characters being better at virtually every relevant factor in a battle. There are still some techniques that can be game-changers, but I think a story like Dragon Ball would have benefited greatly from having some characters being specialized in different areas (e.g. Yamcha is high speed for his relative power, Trunks is high physical damage for his relative power, Gohan is high energy damage for his relative power, etc.)

For this reason, I often have magic and advancement types that explicitly only improve one or two things at a time (and often with downsides to other attributes). In Six Sacred Swords, for example, Keras’ “Body of Stone” technique makes him stronger and more resilient, but at a cost to his speed. (Notably, a technique like that does exist in Dragon Ball, but it’s outscaled to uselessness almost immediately because the speed penalty is so large. It would have been more interesting, in my opinion, if someone developed a variant of that technique that was actually useful.)

This is all for stories where you want multiple characters to be progressing and relevant – which, as a general rule, I personally find more compelling than only watching the growth of a single character.

Weaknesses in Progression Fantasy

Weaknesses can both be a good way to enforce the relevance of multiple characters and to show growth as a person gradually learns to overcome some of their weaknesses.

Notably, weaknesses that are irrelevant to the character’s style are (in my opinion) less compelling than weaknesses that are relevant. For example, physical weakness as a wizard has to be fairly extreme for it to serve as a major detriment. Physical disadvantages for a close-range physical fighter are much more immediately relevant, and thus, in my opinion, more compelling.

I would also resist the urge to “solve” or “fix” these weaknesses immediately. Working through a weakness can be a good long-term goal, and it can (in my opinion) feel unsatisfying to see it just wiped away without much difficulty.

Don’t Skip to the End

A part of what makes progression fantasy compelling, at least to me, is seeing the gradual process and the difficulties a character goes through on their journey. If a character jumps from Level 1 to Level 99 in a single book, that doesn’t really serve the same purpose. That can still be an interesting story for some readers, but it has a different sort of appeal from watching gradual growth.

Effort = Reward

A big part of the core of progression fantasy is, in my opinion, the feeling that the power increases are being earned. It’s okay if a character gets some kind of advantage from time to time because they’re clever, or hard working, or just barely survived. It’s less satisfying, in my opinion, if it feels like they get everything for free or simply because of good luck.

Other People Should be Competent and Believable

A common trope in some forms of fantasy is for the protagonist to excel simply because they found something that would very likely be immediately obvious to any number of other people (from our world or otherwise). If possible, avoid this type of thing.

For example, if someone gets super popular because they’re the only one playing an “unpopular” character class in a game with a million players…that doesn’t really make any sense. People data mine statistics and theory craft about every class in MMOs, often long before the content even sees a public release. And in cases where things aren’t super public yet, that’s an even greater reason for people to be trying whatever they feel like (and thus not having any “super unpopular” classes).

Any Power Available to Society Should be Applied by Society

Similarly, think about the common applications of the types of magic and technology that exist in your world and how they might be applied by the average person.

Resurrection, for example, would have a huge impact on cultural and religious views of death. The conditions under which resurrection can occur would be important, and you’d expect that important people would try to make sure that they can meet those conditions if they’re ever threatened (e.g. having powerful priests on retainer).

Teleportation could have potentially huge impacts on things like trade and the flow of information.

Elemental magic could have tremendous impact on crop growth, influencing weather, power generation, and even simple things like city lighting at night.

This is more of a “general hard magic” thing than just a progression fantasy thing, but it’s especially important here because progression fantasy often allows for unlocking potentially society-altering abilities over time. This means you should be prepared to address how the already powerful are utilizing their power, as well as how any characters that gain power might use their power.

For example, if no one has ever reached a high enough level in space magic to unlock teleportation before, the main character learning teleportation opens up a lot of options for them. They can choose how they want to trail blaze in terms of using teleportation for things like mercantile, spreading messages, etc.

This also applies on a moment-to-moment level. If a character has an ability that clearly would “solve” the situation, they should at least consider using it. (No author will be perfect at this, but keep an eye out for abilities that offer easy solutions to a lot of situations, like super speed, teleportation, and time travel. Be extremely careful giving these out.)

Interactions Between Magic Types

Similar to the above, but also consider things like how teleportation might interact with another character that is learning to make spells permanent, or another character that learns how to increase the area of effect of spells, etc.

If you don’t want certain things to be combined, establish why they can’t be early on.

Influence of Power Increases on Plot and Pacing

Consider the places and times in the story when you want things like this to “unlock”. If characters uncover these abilities too early, it may influence your narrative significantly.

For example, if you want it to take a long time for the heroes to return home after a quest, you may not want to let them get powerful enough to learn teleportation or flight magic before that point in time, or you might want to have a reason why they do not learn those specific spells.

Reliable Progression vs. Dramatic Moment Progression

Something to decide on early on is if you want a clear, linear method of progression or something that allows for more spontaneous “moments of awesome”. It’s absolutely possible to have a middle ground, but think about this ahead of time and how it will impact your story.

If power increases feel completely arbitrary, you run the risk of readers losing immersion in the believably of the story. If your progression is too steady, however, it may also feel boring or uninteresting.

Another element of this whether or not you want to tie progression to emotional catharsis. This is extremely common; a character has some sort of breakthrough, generally about their own inner struggles, and suddenly powers up. (See: Stormlight Archives, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, etc.) This kind of thing can be extremely satisfying if utilized effectively, but it can also be super cheesy if it feels arbitrary and unearned. If you choose to go this route, try to spend some time setting it up beforehand to make sure that the character’s path makes sense to the reader.

Methods of Progression

Think about which types of progression feel the most applicable to the story you want to tell, and which ones you want to explicitly exclude. Try not to change these mid-way.

For example, early on in Dragon Ball Z, the Saiyan characters learn that they grow significantly more powerful any time they get close to dying. This is a progression mechanic, and one of the characters figures out how to “game” this by getting badly injured and rapidly healed.

After this, that form of progression is largely forgotten for a long period of the story. It’s only relevant in a few patches, and explanations of why it isn’t used again are largely retroactive.

Avoid doing things like that. If you introduce a method of rapid progression, expect that people will try to use it repeatedly, unless there’s a good reason for them not to.

It can also be interesting to give different methods of progression to different characters. When yo do this, those characters should, at points where it may be relevant, be shown to be considering those types of progression (even if they choose not to). To go with the easy Dragon Ball examples again, Piccolo can gain power by fusing with other members of his species. He rarely seems to consider doing this, however, even when presented with situations where it might be relevant or useful (e.g. the most recent tournament arc).

Antagonist Progression

Keep in mind that if progression exists, your antagonists may also be progressing. This can offer challenges to your protagonist that aren’t often found in other forms of fiction, because they might have to find unique methods of progression that outpace their opponents.

Elements of Choice in Progression

When a character has to make a choice in the progression process, this can make it more interesting. This both helps ensure that niches are maintained and helps the reader engage with the story by thinking about what they would do when presented with the same choice. Even a disagreement with the protagonist can help with reader engagement. Just try to make sure that any choices offered feel at least somewhat reasonable; if the choice is too obvious, or the protagonist makes a choice readers might strongly disagree with, you could potentially run into trouble with your audience.

Options vs. Linear Power

As a general rule, adding something new to a character’s list of abilities that they can actively take advantage of is more interesting than just a straight power increase.

For example, adding a new special attack that has a condition – like, say, a Backstab attack that requires hitting an opponent behind – is generally more engaging to a reader than a +2% additional bonus to critical hit rate.

Similarly, when a character already has a bunch of attack spells, adding a utility spell is probably more interesting than just another larger (or different) attack.

That doesn’t mean straight power increases can’t happen. Rather, I would recommend interspersing them with adding new abilities so that the power increases themselves can be larger and more relevant when they do happen. And, once again, those power increases do not need to be global; a character can get a boost to speed without it increasing their strength or resilience at the same time, for example.

Conclusions

My TLDR version is that the key elements are variety and internal consistency. Allow for characters to be interesting and distinct from each other, and give them different progression goals and paths. And when powers are available, make sure people at least think about using them when they’re relevant.

8 thoughts on “Writing Progression Fantasy

  1. There are a lot of little things here that I feel like I’ve seen or heard other perspectives on in other places. A couple I want to mention:

    There was a design teardown of Final Fantasy VII that spent some time talking about how part of the success of that game involved how they split character level into parts, what the essay author called “wide levels.” You have character level, materia level, equipment level, limit break level, chocobo level, and access to new materia, and the currency you use to gain these levels are money, experience, AP (for materia), story progression (unlocks shops for new materia and equipment), and monster kills (which factors into limit break level, but is distinct from xp). During the late game you can convert money into other things, but the point is, things don’t go infinitely skyward just because you stick your sword into the bad guys. That part of the essay can be found here: http://thegamedesignforum.com/features/rd_ff7_6.html

    There is also an author I have read for like 20 years who has a related pattern to his protagonists’ rise. L.E. Modesitt, Jr, in his Recluse series, follows a given protagonist for a couple books, mostly just chronicling the rise of each to a place in history; it’s perhaps most interesting because the books were never in anything like chronological order. He started at the end, then went back and wrote about notable historical characters, describing parts and pieces of why the world is the way it is by the end. His characters are all mages of one of two basic energy types, Order and Chaos (but mostly Order), and they all start off not quite knowing how things work, figure out a few tricks, get themselves in trouble, and mostly end up being in the right place at the right time with a sense or moral obligation or need for self preservation that requires them to do something significant. An alarming quantity of his heroes change the world defensively, by either winning a strategic retreat or turtling, and by being alive and in a position of strength after everyone else has wasted power on stupid conflict, they end up being de facto leaders.

    But another part of his heroes is that they aren’t what we might call “professional adventurers”; none of them get by on “loot” from monsters or enemies. Few even are professional soldiers, though some are. Many are craftsmen professionally, which both gives them a reason to defend their homes, and gives them a plausible non-combat way to practice and improve their magical abilities. It also allows a smoother passage of time, since you don’t need to justify them standing by and doing other things while a situation develops to a boiling point. And, and this is important to me, it allows you to view a given protagonist as being genuinely “good”. Professional adventurers often have a morality problem where they solve everything with violence, which is very different from someone who has a day job and only flirts with death when someone is threatening their home.

    Having read his books half my life, it’s difficult for me to read a lot of cheaper litRPG-style books where the author assumes that a world “just works” with professional adventurers constantly solving problems with violence, at every possible level of threat. You can build a setting where that makes sense, for instance, an ongoing war against demons or a source of infinite monsters… but it’s difficult to custom build a threat or set of threats that give that constant threat at all levels. I think that progression fantasy in general will have some trouble with that, because the structure of the story requires that the protagonist rise to challenges with some regularity.

    Really, I imagine, part of that just comes down to tying progression to numbers, which seem like an objective measurement of someone’s worth. It’s okay if, like with Modesitt’s characters, sometimes a character you like gets to a point where everything is solved, settles down and has kids or becomes mayor or even dies making sure other people will live. It’s okay if years pass without you getting stronger. You aren’t a success because your number is high enough, and you aren’t a success just because you reach the same level as other successful people. You are a success if you survive all of life’s challenges, and some of the more interesting stories in life aren’t about epic battles, but rather about more relateable, small battles.

    That’s also why I enjoy the Arcane Ascension books. Little things like trying to defend your own tiny bedroom are more relateable than standing up to dragons. Yes, sometimes life requires crazy nonsense from you and you have to dive into a dangerous situation, but you can only understand the people who do those things if you can see them living normal life as well.

    1. Thanks for the awesome reply!

      I hadn’t seen that article on Final Fantasy 7, but it’s a really interesting one. That is the type of thing systems designers for games discuss all the time; things like your expected treasure per level, what a level (n) item translates to in terms of an increase in effectiveness, the progression of skills and spells, etc. It’s rare to see that sort of analysis for JRPGs, so I appreciate the article very much.

      You’ve also got an excellent point about characters leading realistic lives.

      People often ask me why there aren’t a bunch of Emerald running around, and try to crunch the math on what would be possible in terms of mana earnings per day based on seeing what the main cast of AA are up to. There are missing values in the math side (meaning there are things readers aren’t aware of that impact progression), but a larger part of it is that at a certain point, people have lives outside of training and drinking elixirs every day.

      Attending Lorian Heights offers a degree of relative freedom to focus on mana level improvement, but once people get into military service and beyond, they’re going to have to worry about making money, dealing with family obligations, and all sorts of other things. It’s implausible for everyone to be training for several hours a day every day all the time. *Some* people might do that, which is why we see exceptional cases – usually with Climbers and Delvers, because training is a part of their profession. But that’s dangerous work, and only so many of those people survive long enough to reach high attunement levels.

      Eventually, even people who do survive often settle down.

      I appreciate you explanation about Modesitt’s works, which sound like they have some similar philosophies behind them.

  2. I’ll have to take a look at your subreddit, Andrew. I like that you brought up “Any Power Available to Society Should be Applied by Society”. One of my big pet peeves in reading fantasy novels is that you sometimes run into books that have all these wizards and sorcerers running around in a society that is otherwise completely medieval.

    Why wouldn’t a king have been able to talk a wizard into giving home one of those magical orbs of long distance communication that the protagonist learned to make at chapter 12? Those things should be worth their weight in gold. And why does the circle of sorcerer’s stay ominously lurking in the background plotting world domination when they could just as easily provide a genuine service using their abilities to live a life of luxury.

    I’ve read a lot of books like yours and Will Wights and I think one point that isn’t addressed is that there should be a metric for progression. Some benchmark for characters to be measured against, and to have define increases in standing/power when they hit those benchmarks.

    In Will Wight’s Cradle books, when a character hits a new level of “Advancement” they are completely transformed. They live longer, they’re more attractive, they’re physically stronger, they’re magic is stronger, and they receive a huge boost in social standing.

    A smooth progression where the character’s ability is increased incrementally isn’t as exciting. You don’t get that endorphin rush of success when reading about a character slowly get a tiny bit better. Like you said, you don’t want the character to go from level 1 to level 99 in one book, but watching them jump in level so that the bandit who would have been a problem for them one level ago is instead forced to meekly back away plays a huge part into the appeal.

    Anyway, I like where you’re taking this, because I truly do like “progression” novels. I’ll have to pop into your subreddit at some point and look around.

    1. I strongly considered adding a requirement that the progression be clearly visible (like in Will’s Cradle or my own Arcane Ascension), but I think that’s a *little* too restrictive. Maybe that should be “hard progression fantasy” or something.

      I’d still like to be able to include series that have clear progression that isn’t quite as easy to numerically quantify – Hunter x Hunter or Tower of God, for example.

      1. Yeah that makes sense. Mother of Learning clearly has progression in it but it, though it seems like it was abandoned at some point (Zorian said Zack must be a mage of the seventh circle or something during the first timeloop?) Now the progression system is more “Now they know dimension magic” or “Now Zorian can beat an areana in mind magic”.

        Which is fun, but I still prefer the sudden qualitative leap of abilities when a character makes it to “the next rung on the ladder”. Hard progression fantasy or Stratified Progression fantasy might be good terms to use once it’s more of its own subgenre.

      2. Yeah, Mother of Learning is a great example. The “circles” of magic seemed to be pretty clearly analogous to D&D early on, but as power levels have gotten higher, progression has gone wide rather than focusing on those levels.

        I generally prefer those clear levels, too, but it depends on the specific story.

        Maybe I’ll make some tags on the subreddit for people to use when posting content.

  3. I found this post from the progression fantasy subreddit. The overall impression I got from reading it is that you put a lot of thought into your stories and the craft of writing. Both of those are great things, imo, so I took a look at one of your books.

    Unfortunately, I have this weird pet peeve about using italics for artificial emphasis. Every time I see it, I hear Chandler Bing in my head, and it completely pulls me out of the story. It’s gotten so bad for me that I literally scan the Look Inside for italics used in that manner and don’t buy if I encounter it.

    I know that I’m probably the only reader that you’ll ever encounter that has this problem, but please consider whether you really need to use italics like that. In most cases, it adds nothing, and it forces readers to concentrate on the writing whether than what is written.

    1. I appreciate your feedback, but I feel that it’s a useful form of emphasis. Everyone has different stylistic tastes, however, and I hope you find books that work better for your particular style and interests.

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