Gamified character progression: introducing beats to your game



Source:, art by Felix Miall

Presentation of a “problem”

The problem I will talk about here and my solution to it is again very personal. I GM ICRPG for five people. We played Pathfinder 2E beforehand and switched because I was sick of Pathfinder’s game loop of “dungeoncrawl by any other name” (seriously this game is a wargame simulator and every place is only a potential dungeon to be crawled through). My preferred way of playing is mostly TOTM with battle maps for very important battles. I like to focus on roleplay and narrative before hitting things with cool weapons (which is also part of the game but not front and center) and I like if players are motivated and self-initiate story by consciously shaping the narrative and the shared game world.
Here’s the problem though: my players are either new to the game, have played wargames before and describe themselves as “min-maxers” or cannot help themselves to always play the same flat characters.
So far, so good, I thought and created opportunity for them to take control of the narrative. I let them describe things, asked them questions about how their surroundings looked etc.
My aim was to get them engaged in the world, take part and be a part of it. Now after some six sessions I feel that this is more difficult than I anticipated and that for some of my players this “didactic” approach of giving them narrative autonomy doesn’t work that well.
So I turn to other games to see how to solve the problem. And again, my call is answered by (the) HEART.

Callings and Beats

HEART does not have character levels, but another form of character progession through choosing a calling and related beats. A calling is something like an overarching motivation, the reason why the character ventures deeper into the HEART, the cthonian and horrible megadungeon beneath the City of Spire. Each calling has associated beats that are divided into minor, major and zenith beats.
A working definition of “beat” is the following: the smallest unit of action in play. Character beats are events, actions or choices made by the character to add to their character arc, their overall character development.
Character advancement in HEART happens, when characters hit their beats. For hitting a minor beat, they get a minor ability. For hitting a major beat, the get a major ability and for hitting a zenith beat, they get a zenith ability. In a way, this is akin to milestone moments in ICME p. 75, but more fleshed out.
The goal here is to incentivize role- and character play by rewarding players to do certain predetermined things with their characters. This also helps session prep, because ideally your characters tell you what they want to accomplish, that is: what beat they want to hit and you as the GM can prep accordingly.

Examples of character beats

One of my players character is an aristocratic vampire. Her brother was killed by the main antagonist a vampire pirate sailing the world and committing diablerie (if you excuse the VtM-lingo). She wants to take revenge and kill the vampire. Applying the new concepts this would be a major beat. Since most of her abilites use blood as a ressource and she uses them quite frequently, making sure to always have enough blood is also important. A few sessions ago she got her blood by drinking from drunk sailors, but one of them has now turned into a vampire by the antagonist and two other people have been killed, because she fell into a blood rage. Getting a reliable supply of blood without alarming the authorities therefore is key but also a short-term goal. So this could be a minor beat. Apart fomr these very character-specific beats, there can also be some general beats that apply to more than one character.
Those beats spread responsibility on GM and playersa like: it’s the GMs responsibility to prep things that make it possible for characters to hit their beats, while characters have to actively pursue their beats.
HEART puts it like that:

GM: feel free to be blunt with establishing these details. There’s no need to be coy about it –
the players have explicitly told you what they want to happen, and the world of Heart means that they’re descending into a parasite reality that can respond to their deepest desires.
Players: feel free to ask questions and estab lish facts. For example, if one of your beats requires you to meet an NPC who hates you, and the GM introduces an NPC, you’re completely within your rights to ask: “Is this the guy that hates me?” It makes telling stories easier for the GM and ties the narrative together.
You can only have two beats “active” at any one time. You cannot hit more than a single beat in any given situation (if both apply, pick the one that’s most relevant.) As you cannot activate more beats before the start of the next session, you can only achieve two beats per session (HEART, p. 10)

Taking all this into account writing down those beats is the best part. It could look something like this:

Minor Beat
get a reliable and (mostly) legal supply of blood
do something characteristic of your social standing
refuse to pay the bills although you have enough money to do it
let the beast take over when reaching blood rage

Major Beat
help someone without having ulterior motives
protect someone from harm
gain the trust of one of your allies
sacrifice something (knowledge, loot etc.) for the greater good

Zenith Beat
avenge your dead brother by killing his murderer

For every beat a character hits, they get something. Loot, an ability, a mastery, a hero coin etc. I am not sure about that yet. I feel this more gamified approach might do the trick in encouraging some of my players to be more engaged and get a clearer picture of what their characters want to do.


My players have to be motivated to do roleplaying and simply giving them narrative control doesn’t work.
So I want to introduce character beats that reward them by coming up with things their characters want to do and accomplishing those task therefore taking control of the narrative.

Let’s see how that works. But as always: what’s your take? Do you already use beats? Is this something that would or wouldn’t work at your table? Let me know and take care y’all. :slight_smile:


I think this sounds like a fun idea, though a pretty decent amount of work to come up with a stream of minor beats that make sense and motivate the players. Assuming the players will usually trend towards minor beats that are easier/more frequently achieved.

My players (young kids and wife) would like this because it would give them ideas to progress their characters rather than them having to come up with it. I think some people get “locked in” on what/who their character is once their sheet is filled out.

I think this story beats idea could help break that mentality some. Graduate from “What would my character do?” based on the character sheet, towards a “What does my character do, what do they want?”

Any thought to using opposing story beats? So if a certain beat is chosen/achieved it makes others unobtainable?

Cool idea! I’m going to try it out too!


I think most of the beats can be worked out between players and GM and don’t need to be written by the GM.
What needs to be determined and communicated by the GM is that only hitting minor beats is of course possible but the rewards are accordingly. So people who try to hit major or zenith beats get cooler stuff than characters who just hit minor beats.

I think opposing story beats probably happen naturally as part of progressing the story together. They don’t necessarily need to be codified though. If the vampire player shows mercy to their brother’s killer by not murdering them that goes against the beat of avenging their dead brother by killing his murderer. Ideally the player playing the vampire character has a very strong understanding of their own character’s arc and can maybe telegraph this “quasi-redemption arc” beforehand.

And that’s where there needs to be a change in how to approach the game. Players who see the GM as the service provider for adventure will have to re-learn that they are not only able to but also encouraged to influence the collaborative story that is the shared game by having a grasp on what their character wants to do in the shared world.