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What’s up storytellers?

I’m Clark Rowenson, the magic engineer, and it’s time to talk about magic. I went to 20BooksVegas last November and one of the presentations I gave was an introduction to building magic systems for LitRPG.

Part of building a great magic system is understanding power arcs and progression curves (or power curves and progression arcs, depending on how you want to look at things). I also recently covered this topic in a live stream.

Regardless of how we look at it, there’s power and there’s character progression regarding both the magic system and the character’s stats and strengths in general.

A cloaked LitRPG fantasy character with glowing hands casts a magical fire spell to demonstrate his power.


What is a Power Arc?

A group of adventurers similar to those in D&D venturing across a fantasy landscape on a quest.

Now, there are no real solid definitions here, but working through how to present and talk about the topic, this is what I settled on.

The power arc is the path of strength.

  • Where do characters start?
  • Where do they end?
  • Are there milestones and important spots along the way?

For example, when jumping into a new LitRPG system is the character like a newborn who then progresses to God level? Or is it more like Dungeons & Dragons where the character starts above average?

In D&D you start as an already exceptional person and then progress to demigod level by the time you get to level 20. Then, you have a group of demigods taking on gods and dragons and demons.

In both of those examples, you’re looking at the power arc that the characters go on.  We’ll look at some specific case studies regarding power arcs later on.

What is a Progression Curve?

The progression curve, or progression arc, is more about time and how quickly the characters progress.

  • Does the method of progression change?
  • How long do they stay in the different stages?
  • How fast does the progression happen between power arc milestones?

Now, with that general understanding of power arcs and progression curves in LitRPG, the next step is understanding how to plan them. The goal is to set them up so they work the way you want them to.

A LitRPG character looks up a stone staircase symbolizing the progression through levels during his fantasy quest.

Setting Up Power Arcs and Progression Curves

The biggest thing when it comes to setting up these power arcs and progression curves is determining the start and end points. Again, with D&D, characters start above average. They’re already adventurers and capable of being heroes – right from the beginning. Other systems may start characters as a normal person. Some may even start as a demigod.

For example, the people who did World of Darkness and the New World of Darkness, White Wolf Publishing and Onyx Path Publishing, had a system called Scion. It was entirely built around playing characters that are the Scions of Gods. The power curve is interesting there because you’re already a human with demigod powers. As characters get stronger, they get new capabilities, but they’re still just in the realm of demigods. In that case, they become more powerful, but the difference in the start and end points is not as drastic as the difference in the start and end points in D&D.

When you look at something like World of Darkness or Call of Cthulhu, the power arc is pretty small. There is some progression and some development, but the characters don’t become significantly stronger. Understanding these start and end points gives better insight into how characters move through the story or sequence.

This all circles around to understanding your endgame. When you’re dealing with LitRPG, it’s important to understand where you want things to end up.

The Shape of Power and Progression

When it comes to progression and power, look at the different ways you can shape those curves.

  • Do you want exponential growth?
  • Do you want each step to provide a significant boost in power?
  • Is it linear or is there an S-curve?
  • Do you want plateaus?

When we get into the case studies, we’ll cover specific examples of these different curves and arcs.

Remember that power and progression are distinct. The power arc might be linear. Every step or every level can be an even boost in power from level one all the way up to level one thousand. Whereas the progression curve might have exponential decay. We see a lot of this in video games. Starting at level one, levels come pretty fast and easy.

As the character continues on to levels 10, 20, and 30, the progression starts to slow down. Then, moving from level 100 to level 101, takes a thousand times more experience than it did to move from level one to level two.

A fantasy LitRPG character runs through a medieval city as magic swirls around him while he levels up to the next level of power during his journey of progress.

Strength and Experience

Another good way to think of it is to think of the power arc as being the strength of your character. Your character gets progressively stronger. While the progression curve deals more with experience and how experience is managed.

Once you have the power arc and progression curve figured out, you have the bones of the setup ready for any game. Whether you’re doing LitRPG, standard fantasy, standard sci-fi, or anything else with really powerful characters. It’s most apparent in game design and LitRPG.

A LitRPG magic user in a yellow robe with a magical staff progresses on her journey to master the next level on her quest.

The Four Keys to Power and Progression Arcs

A magical woman from a LitRPG story showcases her glowing magic as her power grows on her adventure.

These four things will get you most of what you need to get set up while avoiding a lot of the common mistakes that happen when things aren’t planned out.

  • Know where your character starts.
  • Know where you want things to end.
  • Know the shape of the power arc.
  • Know how quickly the character will move through the different steps and stages.

Just looking at those four things, coming up with ideas, and deciding on something will put you miles ahead. It will also help you avoid a lot of common problems, like what I refer to as the DBZ effect.

Avoiding Power and Progression Curve Mistakes

Not planning these things out can lead to situations of continual expansion and growth of power levels over and over. Then, with every conflict, people are reaching for the next power level, even though they are thought to be at the top. And that’s frustrating.

A lack of planning can also lead to weird situations where the growth is so rapid that it doesn’t feel earned. I’ve seen that in a couple of books. That can coincide with numbers getting so big that they don’t really mean anything anymore.

I had one series I was reading and, by the end of book one, the main character had several stats over 1000. And this wasn’t a huge book. The progression was so fast that it lost a lot of meaning for me. I didn’t really understand where it was going to go and where it was going to end.

A big part of avoiding the DBZ effect and other mistakes is planning these things out in advance. Another part is foreshadowing. Make sure you’re alluding to these higher tiers before your character gets there. Or, if you are going to have a new, unseen level unlock, make it more expansive. When you hit this new level, it should be a new tier of play.


These are just some ways to deal with some of the common problems creators face with this type of storytelling. I hope I’ve been able to give you a better understanding of power arcs, progression curves, and how they can work together to make a great story. Keep writing and stay awesome.

If you have any questions that you’d like me to address in any of my live Q&As or if you have topics you’d like me to cover, fill out the forms and I may select your topic for a future livestream or video recording.

A LitRPG hero maxes out power and level as he reaches the end of his progression and gold magic swirls around him once his quest is complete.