Heroes Fall: Advancement

Advancement in RPGs is a difficult topic to discuss and a difficult mechanic to design. Players like advancement because it gives a sense of progress and provides a clear track of the journey the character has undergone. That progress also typically provides characters with more problem solving and conflict resolution options than were initially available at character creation. There is a thin line to walk with advancement: too much and the characters will become unbelievable or cease to function in the game; too little and the characters don’t change enough to provide an interesting change in circumstances throughout the story. Much of the tone of Heroes Fall is taken from the Conan the Barbarian stories. In them we see Conan grow and change from a wary, uncouth thief and savage into a learned, cultured, and even philosophical king. That’s quite an arc!

Heroes Fall has advancement in the vein of Apocalypse World and its various other hacks. Characters mark XP on a track and after a set number of XP has been marked, the track clears and an advance is selected. At this point, before any campaign-level playtesting, advances occur after every 5 XP.


As the characters of Heroes Fall progress, they learn new moves and improve the basic moves. The splats are deliberately made so that the players can never have all of the moves on the splat at once. Choices must be made. Even with advances characters will have to leave one or more splat moves untouched. By allowing some more moves to be taken from the splat as the character advances they can see how the character grows in their niche. The Chieftain starts with tribal leader (which allows him to roll+hard instead of roll+smooth to command his tribe) and one other move. Most of the available Chieftain moves all improve the tribe. So as the Chieftain advances and selects new moves, his tribe will improve as well. All of the splats have a core focus in this way.

Each splat also has one or two advances that reads, “Get a move from another splat.” This allows the characters to branch out and explore the cool things other splats can do.


Every splat has advances that improve the character’s stats. Improving the stats makes the characters better over all, improving the chances of succeeding with various moves. This also follows the idea of Conan growing in power, wisdom, and wit as he goes on. It’s also a very common and easy way to advance a character in RPGs.


A subsystem I am adding to the engine is one of scale. Scale measures the character’s ability to influence groups of people. A character may take any action he wishes but will be bound by his scale for the effect. That is, Temair the Keeper can make an impassioned speech in front of a huge throng of people but if her scale is only personal, at best only a few people will be swayed to action by her words. Scale ranges from personal (a handful of people) all the way up to global (everyone on earth). This is somewhat modeled on a similar system in Ron Edwards’ Trollbabe. There are six degrees of scale. Characters begin at personal scale and step up in scale at every third advance (3, 6, 9, 12, and 15). This gives a slow, steady progression up the ladder to gradually more epic scales.

Fans of Apocalypse World are probably familiar with the gangs in that game. Gang size has been tied to scale in Heroes Fall. Personal scale is a bodyguard or handful of followers while national scale is an army or barbarian horde. Many splats have advances or moves that give them a gang. Most of these are tied to the scale of the character, advancing as the character advances.

My hope with scale is to model the all sizes of conflicts and give the players agency to lead armies in war or rebellion. Scale allows them to do that but also requires them to work for it over time.


Timo of the Jank Cast describes Apocalypse World as “color first gaming.” It’s an intriguing concept and certainly one of the reasons I enjoy the game. I wanted to build on the idea that the game encourages player-created fiction in a variety of ways. There are a number of moves in the game that incentivize adding color to the fiction. There are also advancement options that specifically add color to the game. Heroes Fall is pre-apocalyptic. The characters live in the last days of splendor that an ancient civilization has left to it. Throughout the game, there will be opportunities for the players to describe just what the fall of man will be. In essence, they are adding color specifically to build up tension for this apocalypse.

At the first two tiers of advancement, there is one option for the player to add color to the world. The Righteous, for example, has the option to, “Choose a virtue that will flourish after the fall.” This is a first-tier option so the Righteous could choose to take that with his first advance. What I find cool about that advance is that the Righteous gets to say something very real about the morals and virtues of society. It fits the character, as the staunch defender of the faith, and it reinforces the idea that the fall of man is coming.

In the second tier each splat has the option to, “Tell a legend that will survive the fall.” While this is generic it gives the players a moment in the game to talk about something cool. Remember that the characters are mythic figures. The legend that the player tells can be an embellished retelling of something that happened in the game – this establishes the character in the realm of myth and legend and also drives home the color of the fiction while giving the player a moment to bask in the glory of her character.

The third tier is made entirely from color-adding advances. Here it is in its entirety:

After ten advances, you can pick the top available item on the list below. Everyone checks it off; no one else can take it.

  • Tell a legend that will survive the fall.
  • Choose a place to rebuild after the fall.
  • Choose who will be blamed for the fall.
  • Give shape to the fall.
  • The fall occurs. Tell of the doom it brings.

This is a little different. The tier is shared amongst all of the players. Any one option can only be taken once in the entire game. I hope this actually creates a bit of a scramble to reach the fifth advance here, which is also the end-game trigger. Who doesn’t want to narrate how a terrible cataclysm befalls an entire civilization? Moreover, who doesn’t want to be the one to narrate that to your advantage? The scramble to the end-game may get very bloody and messy. Right now the best way to earn XP is by interfering with the other PCs.

Advancement Tiers

The tiers I discuss above have a little more to them. The first tier is the largest. It has eleven options and is focused on making the character more potent. This is where you have the options to boost stats, get more moves, and recruit followers. About half of the options are unique to each splat, with the other half consisting of improving stats, getting a new move, or getting a new move from another splat. The color adding advance is different for each splat and is phrased to encourage the fiction to be driven toward a character’s interests and abilities.

The second tier is more of the same but also very generic. This tier is unlocked once a character has taken five advances. You can advance any one stat, improve the basic moves, tell a legend, or make a second character to play. Each splat does have a unique advance in this tier that speaks to the heart of the splat. In Apocalypse World this is where the player has the option to retire a character to safety. Heroes Fall doesn’t have that option. It’s not in the cards. The fall is coming and no one is safe.

The top available option on the third tier can be taken by any character who has already taken ten or more advances. This tier is all color. Every option gives the player broad authority to declare things about the world. None of the options give mechanical weight to anything. To be honest, I don’t know if this will work. In my mind, I see players nervously circling around that pool of advances. No one is quite daring enough to take one, so they all continue building up their characters with tiers 1 and 2. Then someone, some foolhardy son of a bitch with nothing left to lose, takes the first option. The rest of the game is a series of bloody betrayals, violent upheavals and death driven by the petty hatreds the characters have for one another. Until one of them takes that last option and the fall of man comes to pass.

There you go. That’s what I’ve got. Let me know what you think!

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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2 Responses to Heroes Fall: Advancement

  1. Jenn says:

    Looking good! I like the color options to speak about the fall- I was missing that in earlier incarnations. I get what you’re doing with scale, and it’s appropriate, but the hopeless storyteller in me wants at least a slim possibility that a green adventurer could sway the masses. Even if it’s a fraction of a percent.

    I majorly love the third tier of advances- totally cool that it’s all color and full of authority. I want to play that out and see what it looks like! I also just want to play again- the Redemption was great fun.

    • PK says:

      Thanks, Jenn! One of my biggest notes on the GenCon sessions was that everyone deserved a chance to add color to the world. This includes adding named NPCs to the mix as well as making broader statements about the fiction. I was struggling to fill in all of the advance options for the splats with interesting, unique things. Then I realized I can use distributive storytelling. As a game designer, I’m making tools for people to tell stories and not writing the stories themselves. Building that into the advancement was a big lightbulb for me.

      I hear you on wanting to be able to be awesome from the very beginning. I think everyone does. Inciting revolution is definitely something I expect to see in Heroes Fall. Right now I’m going to go with the scale as it’s been presented for a few reasons. First, it better emulates the fiction that someone builds up and up into that role. It’s a classic, mythic story arc straight out of Campbell’s hero’s journey hypothesis. I’m betting that the arc will have a lot of significance in the storytelling. Secondly, it starts things off close and personal so that the players are directly focused on the characters and the relationships in the beginning. I’m a bit afraid that the grand scale of national conflict will pull the lens back too far and lose characterization. By growing in scale, I give the players a chance to make those large conflicts still be personal and meaningful. Yes, they can raise armies and march to war but why is more important than the ability to do it.

      Who knows? Maybe my playtests will prove me wrong. That’s why I’m playtesting. Pretty much everything is open to change.

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