The Risky Nature of Character Points
For whatever reason, the Carrion Crown review took on a life of its own. I’m assuming that I’ll be able to wrap up what I want to say about the Adventure Path with another two entries, but rather than run the ragged edge of burning myself out on the subject, I figured to deviate into something that had been picking at my mind the last couple of days.
While researching some other reviews of Torg, I ran into a couple of reviews that talked negatively about the way in which Possibilities were handled in the game. I will admit that this surprised me, not because I think that Torg is perfect in its execution, but because the mechanic wasn’t specifically that unique. In the broad context of the game, Possibilities are simply the local term for the concept of what I’ve generally called character points. There’s a larger in-game reasoning behind why they’re called Possibilities, as well as some strange ‘bending of reality as it happens’ examples in the game’s fiction, but that’s just flavor. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll call them character points, as that was the terminology used in Star Wars, where I first used them. A lot of other games use the same concept, but the terminology and the specific rules that are attached to them are tweaked for whichever system you’re dealing with at the moment.
Briefly put, a character point represents a chance to recover from a bad roll at a critical moment or to guarantee some basic success as necessary. Most modern games have this concept embedded within their rules one way or another, as the tendency is to move a certain amount of control of the game away from just being in the hands of the game master. Most Storyteller games allow a character to expend a Willpower to get a single automatic success. Savage Worlds offers you a couple of starting ‘Bennies’ at the beginning of each session, with more as rewards. CthulhuTech has a pool of ten (or more) that refresh at the beginning of each game session. So on and suchwise.
What makes this mechanic different for Torg and Star Wars (and Deadlands, with its chips) is that these points also serve as your character’s experience points. By guaranteeing your momentary success in a given encounter, you were limiting your character’s ability to advance their skills and abilities over the longer run.
A lot of this philosophy came as a result of being the first mechanic of its sort to give players more control over the game in general. Given the unforgiving nature of the classic era – where games like AD&D and Call of Cthulhu were prone to high character mortality and letting the dice fall where they may – it only made sense to balance the ability to save your character’s ass with some sort of penalty. If the choice comes down to whether advancement is slowed or stopped completely, it’s not a hard decision to make.
More modern games have done away with the risky nature of character points, preferring to simply give a limited amount of control to the players without trying to offer a drawback to offset this ability. Somewhere along the way, it feels like a game designer sat up and said, ‘Losing my experience points to keep from getting killed sucks. Let’s make it so I can save my character from a bad roll, and it doesn’t affect my ability to improve his stats.’ And so it was.
I can sympathize. It did suck to have to weigh how lucky I was feeling with the dice against being able to buy up my character’s gun combat or dodge skills. But it was part of the game. If it came down to it, both games offered ways to get around this expenditure, in the form of Force Points in Star Wars or cards in Torg. Neither of these were ideal, as they could usually be put to better use, but they were a little easier to refresh than your character’s advancement.
But the thing of it is, there isn’t a good method to replace the risk and reward aspects.
Any game that just gives you the character points for free, no strings attached, tends to cheapen the mechanic. My most recent example is CthulhuTech, where the points are simply refreshed at the beginning of each new session. For the early parts of the session, I’ve watched players treat the character points as they might in Star Wars. They keep them and conserve them, weighing their usage against whatever is going on. Is the situation bad enough to merit this expenditure, or can my character survive a little longer without having to burn these points.
Then in the last hour of the game session, the psychology breaks down and the simple economy of time kicks in. My players see that things are winding up to a final confrontation and blow through the points nearly as quickly as they can spend them. After all, they’re not being paid to take them home, so they might as well toss them at whatever seems likely to finish the session that much faster.
An argument could be made that this is the final dramatic moment, the climactic battle that matters. Unless it isn’t. I’ve seen sessions end at a midpoint in a given plot arc, with the players deciding that these points may as well be spent seducing a waitress at their favorite restaurant or trying to evade the police while driving home from the grocery store. It doesn’t really matter, because the overall thought is that they might as well spend them rather than lose them. If there are points left over, they don’t carry to the next session.
I’ve found that, over the years, I’ve tried to compensate my players’ usage of character points with enough of a boost to allow them continued advancement. If it’s a harder than normal session, where they had to dip into the pool of points that were going towards an attribute boost, I’d see fit to make sure that the reward for that session made up for it. It had the net effect of not slowing down the advancement by any significant amount, and the perception of a larger bonus at the end made the sacrifice seem worthwhile.