What do you enjoy in a progression/magic system?

So, I've been going through the first few chapters of some of my favorite stories, both on RR and off, and I've come to notice that a lot of them introduce at least a hint at their progression/magic system in the first chapter, if not in the second or third. Now, to me this is clearly both to establish the kind of world the story takes place in, as well as a unique plot hook to, well, hook any potential reader because of the promises and possibilities it dangles before our collective noses. They aren't everything, but I can say for sure that uniqueness in this aspect is a good building block for any story looking to make power progression a central theme.

But what part exactly makes you think 'oh, I want to see how this system pans out'? I'll roughly sketch out three uniquely different systems I found interesting in particular and why here in this thread. If you want to add any system that you particularly enjoyed and why, just pop 'em down below.

Spoilers for: Vigor Mortis, All The Skills - A Deckbuilding LitRPG, and Dungeon Devotee

Firstly, Vigor Mortis. Its system is quite simple, because it has both a soft and hard magic system. One is the magic you can learn, access to which is pretty much open to anyone with the time and social standing to learn it. It's more of a literal skill that has to be learned and practiced through repetition rather than awarded arbitrarily through XP, level-up points or somesuch. But what really spices things up is that many people are born with a Talent, which break these hard-set rules as they can be anything from 'peels bananas correctly' to 'never runs out of stamina' or 'can explode you on eye contact'.
The interplay of rules and things that break the rules here are what catches and keeps my interest, because even if I know that fireballs are a lot easier to cast than teleports, I can still be caught off guard when suddenly someone shows up who can teleport seemingly at will or cast fireballs the size of a city block with ease. The question then becomes: Are they insanely skilled? Or is it a talent and if so, what exactly does it do?

Secondly, All The Skills - A Deckbuilding LitRPG. This system promises not a Yu-gi-oh-type world of third-rate duelists with forth-rate decks, but a system that allows anyone to store magical skills in the form of cards within and without their heart and use them as well. Furthermore, since this system is card-themed, the magical skill-cards have different categories they belong to, special activate-able conditions and can in some form be linked to form pairs or entire decks that strengthen the whole.
As there isn't much out there on this topic yet due to plot reasons, I can only say that so far, thinking of the magic part of this world as a cardgame with active, reactive, passive etc. skills that can be swapped on the dime (if you're rich enough to have backup sets) makes for a dynamic and intriguing back-and-forth potential within the system. That these cards can both be looted from the dead as well as pieced together from shards gained by hunting the local big bad corrupting influence and threat to humankind further solidifies them as objects to be possessed, gifted, bartered and stolen. Just like my favorite rainbow fish card at recess in 3rd grade. Don't judge me, it had too many shiny colors for lil' ol' me to resist.

Lastly, Dungeon Devotee. In Dungeon Devotee, the progression system is based upon 27 base aspects ranging from Strength, Agility and Intelligence to Madness, Infernal and Eldritch. When you clear a level in the dungeon, you are awarded a point which you can put into any of these aspects to gain a magical talent/skill/spell/property, the strength of which is dependent on how strongly it resonates with what makes you, you. The interesting thing here is that you can then combine two aspects you already have to make a confluence aspect of the two, which in turn can be combined with any further aspect you put any points in to make yet another confluence aspect.
This is insofar interesting as a build is effectively a pyramid, combining and recombining base and confluence aspects for an infinite amount of possible further confluences, all of which can be stronger or weaker depending on how well you vibe with them. Magical gear plays a role in progression as well, though unlike aspects, most of these degrade rather swiftly due to continued use. The key aspect to progressing your aspects then remains: How well do you know yourself and how willing are you to give up potential power now in favor of building a base for potential greater power in the future?

So yeah. Magic/progression systems.

Re: What do you enjoy in a progression/magic system?

I think that a more interesting progression system is one where the requirements to progress are important to the plot rather than just training montages or killing random monsters which otherwise don't matter to the story.

One system I found interesting despite being relatively simple was a setting where, in order to get past a certain level, you have to kill a sufficiently strong monster. But, those monsters are too strong for weapons made out of ordinary materials, so you need to save up to buy some super expensive materials/weapons. But, you can't just save as you please because people will notice that you're sitting on a bunch of money and start targeting you.

It also had the MC find out that humans can only level up by killing monsters and vice versa, which someone comments is probably for the best since otherwise humans would probably be killing each other even more often in order to get levels. This was news to the MC because he got a trait that made things basically work backwards for him.

Re: What do you enjoy in a progression/magic system?

Quote:I think that a more interesting progression system is one where the requirements to progress are important to the plot rather than just training montages or killing random monsters which otherwise don't matter to the story.

That is an exceedingly good point. Let's see if we can apply that to the three examples above:

Once again, Spoilers for: Vigor Mortis, All The Skills - A Deckbuilding LitRPG, and Dungeon Devotee

In Vigor Mortis, the protagonist uses their power by manipulating the souls of others, consuming them to increase their power or putting them into bodies to make undead minions. Since this is very, very against the local religion's worldview, there's a constant tension between being found out and actually needing to become stronger to simply just survive and feed her family.

In All The Skills - A Deckbuilding LitRPG, the protagonist gains an insanely rare card (belonging to a noble) in the beginning, which is the inciting incident for him to leave his village and discover the wider world, keeping it away from those that suspect he has it. Of course, continuing to hide it serves as a constant undercurrent in the plot as well.

In Dungeon Devotee, the protagonist gains levels and gear upon completing a dungeon floor. Getting to the end of it is the entire plot, the entire motivation and any powerup gotten is necessary (and earned) to that end, as the protagonist has to take out all the stops against a foe impossibly greater than them.

Works for all three. Good point.

Re: What do you enjoy in a progression/magic system?

There are several types of progression systems that I love.  Directly earning stats by doing relevant exercises and activities is one, with the trope originator probably being The Gamer manhua.  A similar system is where characters directly earn skill points instead of stat points.  Magic-smithing and Soul of the Warrior are two such examples here on RR.  Delve is another great RR story with progression via using skills, but (IMHO) suffers from the fact that people keep getting stuck at the level cap of the highest level elite they've participated in killing.

Eating stuff to gain their affinities is abilities as well as raw bioenergy for self-evolutiion is another.  The trope originator is probably Re: Monster, but the concept dates all the way back to the 90s SNES game EVO: The Search For Eden.  There are many both human and non-human protag litRPGs with an eating mechanic now.  Also there seem to be several settings where slimes evolve according to what they eat, even though other monsters do not.  Chrysalis might be the most famous RR story with an eating mechanic.

Xianxia progression systems are interesting, though I've seen some I hate as well as some I love.  Cultivation stories are probably difficult to do well because they need to strike a balance between ancient and clan techniques which the MC must learn from a person/book/totem/something representing tradition, meditation-based energy gathering that symbolizes persistent work, and instinct or spiritual epiphany that symbolizes the MC becoming more magical/divine/enlightened.  Even spirit beasts (i.e. magical monsters) in these settings usually need all these 3 sources of progression.  This template even applies beyond Xianxia to other culture's traditional magic (I've seen Native American and African Examples) and could be used for aliens with magic or original historical fantasy cultures.

Then there's "Factorio" progression model, in magical, science fiction, and dungeon core varieties.  Experiments often make up the low level plot of these kind of stories, along with testing against opponents or scenarios.  The high-level plot of the science fiction type is literally automation of resource gathering and crafting, and building conveyer belts, so that’s probably self-explanatory.   The magical type is one I'd love to see more examples of, because Street Cultivation (previously RR now KU) is one of a very small number of examples I've seen.  In Street Cultivation spiritual energy can be bound into discrete masses within someone (I forget whether it's a soul, dantian, or what in that particular story).  These masses can be given to others as inheritances or loans, or they can be shaped into a wide variety of... magical machinery which can do different things from generating more energy as interest, to channeling energy into a technique like lightning or fireballs.  One of the few other examples I've seen was a setting where a person's magical ability was similar to a tree, and branches of the tree were trained into permanent shapes to create the mage's signature high-speed abilities.  Sort or like an internal runic program or a spell weave memorized in a more physical way than Western magic usually goes for.  Or an internal version of spell tattoos.

Dungeon cores deserve to be their own topic because they can have several types of unique progression.  Physical expansion both in terms of floor size (for holding monsters and traps) and floor depth (usually increasing mana density), and if there is a dungeon core gemstone it may get bigger, usually increasing the mana pool and maybe also subspace storage of materials and patterns.  New monster types and material types may be unlocked, existing monsters may have evolutions unlocked or hybrids created, different environment types may be unlocked, etc.  The dungeon is of course itself the magical machinery and conveyor belt, or it's even more accurate to compare to a tower defense game.

Hmm... yep, I think that covers all my favorite progression types.  Though there are good things to be said about tiered class progepression (RR stories The Runesmith and Soul of The Warrior, which are coincidentally both reincarnation/transmigration stories.  Actually I think Blessed Time (now KU) is too?  That one's a time looper instead.)

Paths, eh, I'm not really a fan due to the main fact that you can't see what the results of the paths are going to be so the MC can't do much strategizing about their build.  (Randidly Ghosthound seems to be the original paths story, but there are more around like The Way Ahead.)

Re: What do you enjoy in a progression/magic system?

My favorite magic system is the chakra system from Naruto (pre-power creep, obviously). It does a few things that come together to make it stand above the pack for me:
  1. It sets a baseline that everyone has access to (enhanced movement and strength, walking on walls, etc.). This way, despite how much variety there might be in its distinct uses, the reader can expect most characters to be reasonably competent at enough of the things characters need to be competent at to make for good battles.
  2. It fuels a variety of techniques, all of which take practice and skill to perform. This makes it so that characters would realistically stick to those aspects of the magic system which most suits their interests and talents, leading to personalized ability sets. It also means that character progression in this area is satisfying, with each new technique or set of techniques coming only with effort and becoming a tangible addition in their overall skillset.
  3. Many of the techniques characters perform have a rock-paper-scissors aspect to them. Because characters need time and dedication to practice their techniques, and those techniques can usually be defeated by other techniques, this makes it nearly impossible for characters to realistically find some optimal set of abilities that can singularly bring them victory in every situation. They are forced to make up for their weaknesses with creativity and teamwork. Those few characters who can find a certain level of optimal variety—the very high-level characters—are therefore satisfyingly impressive in comparison to the more inexperienced main characters, making for good progression markers early on to exemplify where the main characters will end up in the long run.
  4. It doesn't hard lock characters into specific types of abilities. What natural restrictions there are—the elemental natures—only speak to a natural inclination, not a strict limit, so while characters might have a harder time learning techniques that don't ascribe to their element, they are not entirely prevented from doing so.
  5. The method of activation for these various techniques—hand signs—is just straight up cool from a visual standpoint.
I could go on, but ultimately what makes this system succeed for me is that it's broad enough in its potential that it could theoretically do just about anything, but specific enough in its application and rule-set that you have to figure out how you're gonna get it to do that in an internally consistent way. Better yet, it does this while also being just complex enough, without a lot of the bloat that I think you can find in some of its contemporaries. This is the sort of thing that lets readers spend hours thinking through what aspects of the magic they would like to use and how they would do it if given the chance. Honestly, when it comes to magic systems, I think having your readers spend a lot of time imagining and fantasizing about the possibilities of yours is as successful as it gets.