Luck point economies: the lesson from money

I like games that use hero/fate/plot/benny/luck points. These points work differently in different games, of course, but they generally tend towards giving the players small amounts of narrative control as a reward for doing cool things. In some game sessions, though, hardly any players get or use luck points (I’ll generically call them luck points from here). Why does that happen?

There’s a very useful parallel with economics here. Luck points act like money in a game where they’re exchanged between players and GM. Money is ideally supposed to accrue to people who do things that society deems beneficial to society as a whole. And, much like luck points, money can distort the system and malfunction in a number of ways.

Photo of coins sitting in and next to a metal cupThere’s currently about US$829 billion in circulation. What if, though, the government reduced the currency supply to 829 single-dollar bills? What would happen? The bills would skyrocket in value — it’d be foolhardy to use one in a vending machine, for example — and people would quickly shift to other currencies for most exchanges. Maybe we’d all be doing our daily commerce using bottlecaps, for example, or barter. And if the money all accumulates in one place (banks, or people’s mattresses, or wherever) and doesn’t flow easily through the economy, then the money isn’t really doing much good. If everyone acts like the money is too precious to actually use, then it’s not doing what it should. So, first point: currency needs to be in large enough supply for it to be of any use.

Second point: the value of the currency needs to map ‘correctly’ to the items it describes. When the government pays its workers 100,000 lupins a year, but a cup of coffee costs 1 million lupins, then the currency isn’t very useful and again people will probably turn to some other means of exchange.

What lessons are there here for luck point economies? First, there have to be enough luck points in circulation. If an entire game session only includes (say) one opportunity to use a luck point, or one opportunity to get a luck point, then players won’t use them. Luck points will have failed in their mission of encouraging certain kinds of behavior, because no one feels encouraged to do anything by a currency that doesn’t get used.

Second, luck points need to map accurately to what they do. If, for example, getting a luck point requires rolling a perfect `100′ in a D100-based game, or requires making everyone at the table fall out of their chairs laughing, but the only benefit it gives you is a +1 on the D100, then no one’s going to bother.

How do we encourage more active exchange and accurate mapping of luck points? I’ll explore that more in a later post.

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