I've been thinking a lot lately about RPG characters versus characters in the stories that we consume through books, movies, and other mediums. It seems to me that there is an interesting break between them; how the character progresses, changes, and grows. No story is considered good if the characters in it don't change, don't grow in some way, but how that growth happens is often very different than how it is in RPGs. So, today I'd like to talk about that.
Batman Doesn't Get Better
I've been an avid reader of Batman comics, as well as a consumer of his stories for a long time. As we speak, I have all save one of the Batman movies on DVD (the one I'm missing being the made for TV animated movie, not the theatrical release one), all of Batman Beyond, Batman The Animated Series, and several other programs featuring Batman. You know what is interesting? Batman doesn't get better as time progresses. When we see Batman (Specifically Bruce Wayne) he is already pretty much at the peak of his abilities. This is also true for a number of other characters. When was the last time you saw Spider-Man get better? How about Sam or Dean Winchester (albeit, they did learn some new wards at one point in the series).
These characters still grow and change, but they aren't becoming more powerful. Their stories are mostly about how they apply what they already have to solve that situation. Their growth comes in their relationships with others, who is in their life, and changes in their world view depending on what they have witnessed over the course of the story.
This type of character is actually incredibly common in the stories we get outside of our games. Even in videogames where the player's abilities get better over the game, the character in the game is always portrayed to be about that competent (I'm looking at you Mass Effect).
We Need A Montage
Even when we do see a character get better in a story, it is usually done in the middle of the story. We don't see the characters continued growth over time, but rather there is a set break in the action where the character trains up. Rocky can't win how he is, so he has a montage where he juices up. We only see real progression as a cause of these montages. Rocky isn't a better fighter after fighting Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang until he gets his next montage. After which, he is pretty much the next level of super saiyan and all is well.
Not, this is theoretically possible in RPGs. Any time the GM only allows XP to be spent after certain sessions (say, between stories for more episodal games) this is basically going on. The story happens, it pauses, there is a montage, and everyone gets better. Still, this is rare, and still not the case with most games.
Terry McGinnis Becomes Batman
Terry McGinnis, the star of Batman Beyond, is closer to how most RPGs handle their characters. As the episodes go on, Terry gets better skill wise as well as picking up better gear. This is the kind of character that we're used to in our RPGs, but it also means that we are restricted to one specific kind of story. Namely, the kind of story where the heroes are coming into their power. Not one where they already have it.
So, the question I have is, is it possible to do a long term RPG with characters that are mechanically static? Has anyone done one? Obviously, the characters would have to be fairly powerful to not need to grow, and it would take some careful GMing. Alternatively, has anyone simply had players reach a peak? I know that D&D capped at level 20 for a while, and L5R used to cap at Insight Rank 8. Theoretically, after hitting these ranks there wasn't really anywhere to go.
Are there any games where characters are static by design in this way? With the focus not on the growth of the character ability wise, but in other areas? Would one like that even work? Or do we, as players and GMs, need/want the ability for our characters to grow mechanically as the game progresses?