Points, Pools, and Purchasing Prowess

I have a strange relationship with some mechanics. I’ve gone through, as I’m sure most long-time gamers have, stages in my appreciation for different styles of mechanical design. One of those design bits that I am very conflicted about is “Points.” Whether you call them character points, or Fate points, or hero points, or action points or Bennies I’m just not sure what I think of them.

I remember exactly when this happened to me to. We were starting a new Cybergeneration game and I remember looking at the Luck stat and thinking, I don’t want this. Luck in CyberGen basically works as a pool of points equal to your luck stat that you can draw from to improve rolls on a 1-to-1 basis. And I remember thinking to myself, “this is a crappy way to spend your stat points.” Add to that my dissatisfaction with Star Wars D6 character points and the way they served two functions — roll enhancement and experience points — and this was the beginning of my struggles with these mechanically.

But I also have a problem with rules for “points” on the basis of integrating them into play seamlessly and in such a way that they actually feel like part of the whole gaming experience and not just the “gamey” parts. I’m not big on the “gamey” parts of RPGs. I realize they are a game, but for me they are a game second and something else first. I have found that card-based games do an interesting job of this sometimes… Castle Falkenstein uses cards instead of dice and does an interesting job of making them a part of the play experience, especially with the magic system. Magic in CF is slow. A character has to take time to build power for a casting and the use of cards handles this in a simple way. The old Marvel Saga system also had interesting card mechanics, especially the Edge mechanic which set your hero’s base hand size as a function of experience, resourcefulness, and overall story-based awesomeness.

I think the worst part of these mechanics for me is the way they can interrupt the flow of the table. That’s a big no-no for me. I’m never fond of seeing a player start agonizing over whether to spend their action point in D&D and further interrupting what is already the slowest combat on record… Seriously though, I don’t really like being taken out of the flow of the play to make purely mechanical decisions as a player.

I’ve written many times about how I dislike the use of points as a permission mechanism to let players know they have the “ability” to affect the game in some way. I won’t go into here but it is another strike against these mechanics for me.

But clearly, there is something about them. I used two varieties of “hero point” style things in my first self-written system. I used drama pools in my Mary Sue game. My original game idea was to let characters spend points for improved success (or even auto-success). This was a reaction on my part to my frustration with dice and the way they’d allow for someone to potentially fail, repeatedly, at something their PC was supposed to be good at just because it was a lousy dice night. Not a fan. The problem is, when you design a system bit meant to improve play when things are going poorly for the heroes, that bit can then be overwhelming when it is used when things are already going well for the heroes. So that’s another consideration.

Player control is a powerful lure. It seems like a great idea to allow players to futz with their rolls, their wounds, their… everything with pool of “points” which let them purchase greater prowess on a limited basis. Overall though, for me, the gamey nature of these bits often tends to overshadow their role in improving the ability to impact the emergent story of a game session. I realize that the two things are not mutually exclusive, but that’s the problem. More often than not, I see these pools of points creating situations where the two become more exclusive rather than the opposite.

Right now, it’s a conundrum. I’m still hashing out what I want to do. Since my new system carries several assumptions over from my old system (LoR is a bridge more than a base) I need to decide how to dispense with the “points” mechanics, especially if I decide I want one.

Chime in, tell me what you think, how do you feel about “points?”

Thanks for reading.


9 responses

  1. I used to agree completely, but now I agree conditionally. I find myself feeling a difference between systems that use the mechanic to balance a swingy system (oWoD) or provide a safety net for players (AToW), with those that use it as a representation of effort and adrenalin on the part of the character (Ubiquity). I like it in the latter case.

    When the mechanic of choice is internalized, and can be employed without speaking or a need for the GM to determine conditions, such as cashing in Style Chips, the loss of immersion is about as minimal as you can get. When it goes the other way and involves scene editing, and discussion of good ways to spend points…not so much.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think your description is the fence I’m on too. I appreciate the value in providing some method to represent extra effort on the part of the character but I don’t want it to become too gamey or, as I realized after the post was up, just another resource to be managed.

  3. Points (or whatever each system calls them) remind me that I’m not the character, but rather a collaborator in charge of a specific aspect of the story through the actions of the character.

    Points are my way of saying ‘I really like this idea, and while everyone will have a chance to contribute, I really want this action to be a milestone for the part of the story I’m responsible for.’

    In this context creating an awesome story is the overall goal, not whether Ala-Kazar jumps the chasm and points help me accomplish that in a way dice can be fickle about.

  4. I love them. My favorite preferred uses are: Adjusting dice post-hoc and giving the player a currency to say “This is true” within the game. Which seems to be the minority so far – but I’m okay with that.

    The only thing I absolute detest is when they are ALSO used for XP or there aren’t clear guidelines on how to generate them – generally because I’ve found that the flow just work right if the players are paranoid about when to spend them. If you are looking for that sort of paranoia, just remove them entirely, in my opinion.

  5. I always thought points just to boost rolls were odd (never played a scene editing version). I rarely remembered I had them and when I did I usually ended up hoarding them just in case something worse came up.

    I do like the ‘extra effort’ version of points. In the system I am working on, I allow charaters to ‘push’ themselves for an extra di worth of effect. They can do it as often as they want, but if they do it too much the fatigue starts effecting their rolls.

  6. I feel it purely depends on who you are making the games for. Making it for full immersion, people who loves stories? Get rid off points. Instead, making it for hardcore gamers, tweakers, people who want to get everything, then simply dump everything on points.

    I have the same issue with “drops”. It is a fun game mechanic, but at the same time, it takes something away. Everyone has made the joke about why the prairie dog was carrying a ruby ring and 312 gil.

  7. Thanks everyone for the comments. I see a range of responses and a range of reactions to how points are expressed in games. Some of these thoughts echo mine and some are quite different.

    I’m happy to see that most of us don’t like seeing points as a resource to be hoarded/obsessed over. That said, the idea of creating a constant flow of points back and forth between GM/Player or some other option is part of what feels odd and gamey to me.

    But it’s a step, and all the responses are great. Thanks again.

    @Taelia Aeril — I actually feel the same way about “drops.” Don’t like ’em. Need them to make more organic sense for me.

    1. 😉 I was running Desolation (Ubiquity, Greymalkin Design Studio) a few months ago with a group I was just getting to know. Their experience was pretty uniformly with D&D; all but one of them focused on 3rd and 4th editions due to their age. One of our little culture shock moments was to do with ‘drops’ and the look of surprise on their faces when the reward for surviving an encounter was not being dead was very amusing for me. It didn’t cause problems, and they quickly figured it out on their own (post-apocalyptic setting where a good piece of treasure is a boot that is almost the same size as your other boot), but that initial… “What.. no loot?” moment was hilarious.

      That same group of players hoarded Style points for the first half of the campaign, but eventually found that they were not a resource in Ubiquity per se, but an aspect of the character’s involvement in the scene. The more they flow, the more they will flow, and the more we see the characters’ true selves coming to the fore.

      1. GM: You kill the orc.
        Players: What did it drop?
        GM: …dead.

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