And that’s great. Game designers have tended to a do a prey good job plotting out the kind of advancements and increases that players can look forward to as their characters progress in the game.
That said, I think one of the coolest things a GM can do is to personalize the game by adding additions and advancements to characters in ways that are not in the books and that are tied directly to what has happened in the game as a result of player choices.
There are a few ways that characters change and grow in "power" that aren’t connected to "leveling up": magic items or special equipment being the first thing that comes to mind. Interestingly, a lot of GMs feel free to customize magic items for their campaigns, but they don’t seem to mess with the "by the book" notions of character advancement. The closest I’ve usually seen to that is characters changed by having to roll on mutation tables.
Here are a few examples of ways characters might advance that aren’t connected to the usual "level-ups":
Things That Happen in the Down Time
- A character has been spending time living among the recently discovered Hill Tribes -> the character learns their language and gets a bonus to know things in Hill Folk lore.
- A character has been working in-between adventures as a rat catcher -> the character could get a bonus to saves vs. disease, a knowledge of the sewers, or the ability to charm rats.
Things That Happen Due to Exposure
- Characters who have spent an extended period in Faerie -> their aging process has slowed unnaturally.
- Characters who have delved into the Genesis Pits of Amon Tut -> can now sense mummies and jackal-headed men with supernatural acuity.
Things That Happen Due to Trauma
- A character who just barely survived a vampire attack -> could develop perfect night vision as a result of a minor vampiric taint that has been passed along.
- A character who was turned to stone by a medusa and later polymorphed back -> could get a slight bonus to AC due to their flesh retaining some stone-like resilience.
Things That Happen Due to a Boon
- The characters do a particularly arduous task in the name of the Church -> the priests perform a ritual that gives them a permanent bonus to hit demons.
- The characters rescue the son of the Kung-Fu Queen -> she teaches them the Golden Sparrow Technique.
Customizing your game is cool. Character development and advancement is another place where you can add custom-cool.