Luck point economies: Encouraging liquidity, part I

I discussed earlier how much a luck (/fate/hero/plot/benny) point system can resemble a monetary economy. The recent downturn has a valuable lesson for RPG luck point economies: it doesn’t matter how much money is in the economy, if it all just stays put in one sector.

I’ve been in a fair number of games with luck points where the GM seemed to have all the tokens, and the players had few or none. The players end up clutching their luck points through hours of gameplay, trying to decide whether this moment is the game-changing moment that will finally justify use of their incredibly precious luck point. And then they finally use it, and it doesn’t really change anything, and the result of all this tension is just… disappointment. The players learn that either luck points are more precious than anything, and therefore not worth using, or incredibly pointless, and therefore not worth striving for. Luck points end up a zero or negative effect on the game, and everyone is poorer for it.

As the recent downturn has shown us, money only helps everyone prosper if it circulates freely. In RPG terms, that means that luck points need to be exchanged frequently from GM to players and back again. How to achieve that?

GMs, just do “your job”?

The biggest remedy is, of course, for the GM to make an effort to give out luck points. In the real-world economy, the US treasury can’t just print a billion dollars in bills and then plunk them all in a safe, or (equally as bad) give them to banks who in turn just plunk them in a safe. In most games, the GM is the primary source of luck points; thus, it’s the GM’s responsibility to make sure that luck points are flowing freely. So ideally, the GM should be giving luck points out for cool ideas, nifty quips, amazing stunts, great roleplaying and everything else that luck points reward.

This is easier said than done, however. The GM has a lot to keep track of even without having to track who’s done something worthy of a luck point, and it can be very easy in the heat of the moment to forget that someone’s amazing quip or stunt deserves a reward. Adding one more responsibility to the GM’s load (usually heavy in even the lightest games) may even make the GM resent the need to distribute luck points, and thus shrink from it even more.

The Fate system has a particular problem with this, I think. In default Fate, every character has 10 aspects, all of which can give them Fate points when used, and all of which the GM can compel to reward the player with Fate points. It might seem like this is a good idea: more ways to reward points and more ways to use them should make the exchange flow more easily, right?

But in actual play, having 10 aspects means the GM has that many more things to track. Rather than increasing the amount of luck points flowing through the economy, it’s more like having multiple denominations of currency that everyone has to track. “Have you got change for a $π bill?” If there are five players, the GM effectively has to keep track of 50 (!) different possible compels going on to keep the Fate points flowing. All too often, in Fate games I’ve been in, the GM simply forgets most of the aspects and the players become shy about spending their Fate points because they know they may not get them back. And this is true for all the GMs I’ve played Fate with, not any particular one.

Reduce sources of luck points

A lot of games have learned from the Fate experience and kept their luck point sources in the range of 3 to 5. Jeremy Keller’s Chronica Feudalis, for example, gives each character three Aspects to start; the Riddle of Steel starts characters with five Spiritual Attributes. My Blade & Crown keeps the Traits to four per character. All these games work differently, of course, but Aspects, Spiritual Attributes and Traits are where characters’ luck points (or near equivalent) come from in these systems. If the sources of luck points stay within a manageable range, they’re more likely to get used.

Even then, though, it can be tricky for the GM to keep track of everyone’s luck point sources. Cutting the number of luck point sources from 50 to 15~25 makes it easier to remember, but perhaps still not easy. More manageable, yes, but still not perfect.

How else to keep the flow of luck points steady? It can also be good to have a mechanical requirement that they flow — something where the rules directly cause luck points to get exchanged. Heirs to the Lost World does this; when a character tries a Stunt and gets a very good result, they receive Heirs’ equivalent of a luck point. This directly encourages players to try to do outlandish acts of derring-do, because stunts are the primary way of getting luck points. This makes it really clear what the game is about and helps set the mood very well. James Bond 007 does a similar thing, where luck points are awarded for rolling high-level successes on skill checks. Roll a critical success, get a luck point; easy to remember.

Even here there are problems, though. If luck points are awarded when the player rolls really well, as they are in Heirs or James Bond 007, it feels like the award of luck points is out of the player’s hands — like it just amounts to luck. And because luck points help make a character feel, well, luckier, it can feel like a vicious circle: roll poorly, lose luck points, stay unlucky. Heirs to the Lost World alleviates this to a good degree: by allowing players to come up with stunts, it feels less random. But if you have a bad string of rolls, it’s still possible to feel like your entertaining efforts are receiving insufficient reward.

Automatic luck points?

Is it possible to have a strict, non-random, mechanical way of awarding luck points? One example I know: In Fantasy Craft, you receive a set number of Action Dice (the game’s equivalent of luck points) per session. The luck points aren’t really rewarding any particular kind of player behavior — they’re just there, automatically.

How, then, do the luck points reward good contributions? How do players get additional Action Dice in Fantasy Craft for doing cool things? Here’s the game’s advice to GMs:

Everyone starts with a small pool of them but it’s your job to keep them flowing. Any time you’re impressed with a player or PC’s behavior or performance at the table, you can award the player a bonus action die and gain one for yourself.
Fantasy Craft, p. 365

(GMs in Fantasy Craft also get Action Dice.) The game then says that GMs will evolve their own criteria for awarding action dice, but gives some specific ideas.

So, even though there’s an automatic, non-random way of getting luck points in Fantasy Craft, the primary method — and the method that rewards players for doing cool stuff — still seems to comes down to GM fiat. And that still means the GM might forget to award them on a frequent-enough basis; the strong language used by Fantasy Craft (“it’s your job”) implies the importance, but also difficulty, of keeping the luck point economy flowing. Are there other strict, non-random, mechanical ways of getting luck points? Let me know if you’ve seen any!

And what other methods are there of keeping the luck point economy flowing? More in Part II.

Gaming tools: My gaming bag

Image of my gaming bag

Dozens of pounds, hundreds of uses

Whenever I GM, and fairly often when I don’t, I lug this thing with me. It’s a gym bag, Oleg Cassini I think, that I acquired for free somewhere along the line. It’s just about the right size. It usually contains:

  • My big three-ring binder with campaign and adventure notes
  • Three trays of miniatures
  • A plastic bag of pencils, wet-erase markers, combat markers and paperclips
  • Several copies of my game rules
  • A battlemap and other, laminated maps for my campaign
  • An accordion file of miscellaneous papers and cards
  • Occasional inspirational books, images, etc.

I plan to detail each of those items more later on, but this post is focusing on the bag as a whole.

It’s really nice to have all my GMing materials in one place. If combat breaks out and we decide to use a map, it’s good to have all those supplies at the ready. If someone wants to see the town they’re in, I pull out the laminated map; no squinting at tiny type in a book or on a screen. And for cons, it’s great to gradually accumulate materials in the bag — “ah, I need a map of the bandit caves! I’ll add that to the bag next” — and it’s great to have everything in one place, prepped and ready to go.

With all that stuff in it, the bag almost weighs more than I can comfortably carry. Heading to the monthly group (where I exclusively GM), I often have to slip a Subway sandwich under the carrying handles to have any way to carry it. When I bring my netbook and its accessories in addition (as I always do, these days), the load gets pretty cumbersome.

I’ve thought about what I could comfortably remove from the gaming bag. Minis? I don’t use them all that often, but when I need them, I need them. Extra copies of the rules? I could probably take out one copy, and in fact I think I will; the players usually only want one reference copy from me, and one player brings his own copy. But even removing one book wouldn’t lighten the load that much.

The thing that weighs the most is the three-ring binder. It’s got tons of notes, ideas, sketches, lists and references. Most of that stuff is contained in my netbook’s wiki, so I rarely even open the binder up. But again, when I need it, I need it.

Do I use everything in my gaming bag? No. Not every time, certainly. In the weekly group, when I’ve occasionally GMed Og of late, all I need is a copy of the rules and a few index cards. But when I’m GMing Blade & Crown, with all the complexity happening there, the contents of my gaming bag come in handy more often than you might think. The gaming bag’s purpose isn’t to get used every time; it’s more about being prepared for anything.

Spam & comments

Even though this is a very new blog, it’s already gotten quite a bit of spam in the comments. Some have been really clever, to the point where it’s hard to tell if they’re machine-generated or not. For this reason, I’ve put in place anti-spamming software. If you’re having trouble commenting (comments not showing up, etc.), please email me and I’ll look into it.

What’s the ideal session length?

This is a question that I think about perhaps too often: what is the ideal session length?

I’ve played in groups where we met for an entire day, I’ve played in groups where we met for an entire night, and I’m currently in two groups, one where we meet about once a month for about four hours each time, and another where we meet once a week for about two and a half hours.

Long sessions used to appeal to me, a lot. Especially in college, when most of my players were also my housemates, it was easy to start a game whenever and keep playing til whenever. College was a time when gaming was relatively easy to come by. In fact, I still have fond memories of how we’d often start designing cars for Car Wars around midnight, actually start playing around 2am and not get done until dawn. No drinking binges for me, but late-night gaming was free and easy.

After college, it became harder to find gaming. During the brief time I had an RPG group in Taiwan, we tended towards starting late and playing very long, but that only lasted a few months. Since college, sessions have tended to be much shorter. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been in two groups that met for longer than six hours at a stretch, but they both collapsed within a few months, partially because the sessions were too long.

Is it that people I game with are older? People’s priorities certainly change as they get older. House repairs, mowing the lawn, taking care of children, etc. were all things that we didn’t have to worry about so much during college. Schedule conflicts seem much more common now that my gaming friends are older.

But it’s not just about getting older. In addition, I think modern life has just stretched everyone thinner, regardless of age, such that none of us have as much time (or perhaps attention) for any one activity as we used to. I think that’s a big reason why boardgames are so much more popular than RPGs now: people want games that can begin and have closure, all within a few hours. Many boardgamers I know don’t even like long boardgames, which usually seems to mean anything longer than an hour!

So nowadays, gaming sessions tend to be much shorter. My weekly group meets for maybe three hours a week, and the monthly group tends to meet for about four hours each time, and that’s the vast majority of my gaming. There are exceptions, though: I go to at least a couple cons a year where it’s all about jamming as much gaming as possible into a weekend. But even there, it seems like a lot of people are trying to game as long and hard as they can in one weekend because it’s the most they’ll get all year — maybe even the only gaming they’ll get all year.

If I had my druthers, I’d probably still have those long, languid gaming sessions once a month, where we all meet in the afternoon, play until evening, take a break to have dinner, then continue playing until late in the night. I don’t know if my schedule could handle more than that, but it’d be nice.

The gaming I get now is very enjoyable, though. The sessions may take more planning and (perhaps) have less total duration per month than they used to, but the play is also more informed, more intentional and, really, more fun.

That’s all my impression of it — what about you? How often do you game now, vs. when you were younger? (Assuming you gamed when you were younger — perhaps a bad assumption?) Do you find the time is higher in quality now, if not higher in quantity? I’m curious if your experience matches mine.

A small manifesto

Roleplaying is like improv, but better; it’s like a children’s game of make believe, but better; it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but better. There are many things that roleplaying games resemble, but RPGs are different from all of them. When a group plays an RPG, they use a set of rules to guide the story, and to tell them what’s possible and what’s plausible, but the story that emerges belongs solely to the group who weaves it — the story is not determined before the group come together to collaborate, nor is the story determined by the rules. The people in the group describe their characters’ actions, and the game master conjures up the world that they explore. Unlike improv, there is no audience other than the people playing the game; unlike make-believe, there are rules that clarify what works and what doesn’t. And unlike any pre-written novel, computer game or even boardgame, the nuances and possibilities are endless.

RPGs are a unique artform. There really isn’t any other form of art where a group of people get together to spin a story, for their own enjoyment, while they are creating it. Theatrical improv gets close, especially when the audience is invited onstage and given opportunities to make suggestions, but even then, there’s a performer-audience duality going on that isn’t present in RPGs. Novels can offer the complexity of RPGs, but not the unpredictability or interactivity; boardgames give unpredictability without the fine-grained infinities of possibility that RPGs give.

Roleplaying games create art that is meant to be enjoyed while it is being created, by the people creating it. Roleplaying games eliminate the border between author and audience; roleplaying games eliminate the border between creation and appreciation. Roleplaying games are one of the most transgressive forms of art that exist.

These facts have all kinds of implications for how RPGs work, from use of music in gaming, to how genre emulation works and doesn’t work, to how we enjoy or don’t enjoy other people’s gaming stories. As with so many topics, I will explore these more in future posts.

Places: The Sapphire Dome

Image of star sapphire

It glints and sparkles

At some point in their travels, the PCs find a silvery ring with a single hemispherical star sapphire mounted in it. The star seems to dance and shift depending on the angle it’s viewed at. The metal of the ring looks like silver, but it has a higher luster.

Later in the travels, the PCs come upon a domed room with a single statue in the middle. The dome appears to be made of black stone, with very little gloss. It could almost be ancient iron, except that it is perfectly smooth. The statue is of a queen, sitting atop an armored horse, and holding out her hand and pointing at some indistinct part of the dome. A PC who knows their directions (in Blade & Crown terms, a successful skill check against Navigation) will notice that she is pointing exactly at the south pole in the sky.

The PCs might think to look at her pointer finger. It is unadorned, and sculpted in the same dramatic way the rest of the statue was carved. The PCs might also think to put the sapphire ring on her finger. If they put it on in just the right position, the ring will glow slightly and the inner surface of the dome will come alive with a projection of the night sky.

Possibilities:

  1. The projected stars do not match those that the PCs know from the night sky. This is because they are from the other hemisphere of the planet, a region none of the PCs, nor anyone they know, has ever traveled to. Taking careful note of the constellations depicted will be of immense use if they ever travel there.
  2. The projection slowly drifts, faster than the stars drift in the sky. As they do, the circular base of the dome lights up with ancient runes that slowly scroll. In a forgotten language, they give historical commentary; the stars are precessing through the centuries, and the commentary is describing important events that happened when the stars were in their various positions.
  3. When the queen is asked nicely in her native language, she will describe the progress of the stars through the sky, explaining stories of how the stars came to be where they are. She will also make editorial comments: “This shows the sky when that ne’er-do-well, Kharus the Elder, tried to usurp the throne from my grandmother.”
  4. As the array progresses, small scrolls appear here and there amongst the stars, each bearing a few words. In an ancient language, they give astrological commentary: “Ill omen”, “Poor time to give birth”, “Only foolish warriors will be victorious”. The commentaries are eerily accurate.
  5. The stars do not resemble any night sky the PCs know of. As the star slowly circle, they appear to be winking out. The PCs may note a pattern as they do so: they represent a growing threat, encroaching upon towns the PCs hold dear. Each star is a castle or village being wiped out.
  6. An astute observer will note that the stars depicted are similar to the ones the PCs know, but shifted. Someone gifted in astronomy and mathematics will be able to tell that the night sky depicted is that of a world nearby, but not their own. And they will then notice that the queen’s mount is very much like a horse, but slightly different; the scales of its armor are actually its skin, and its teeth are sharp.
  7. When the PCs take the ring off the queen’s finger again, a ghostly, glowing series of symbols glow on the inside of the ring. PCs who know their stars will be able to identify them as the astrological symbols of the stars just shown on the dome. Even more astute PCs will determine that, if they can say the names of the objects in the sky so depicted in the queen’s language, the ring will project a display of stars onto any ceiling, dome or not.
  8. The stars shown in the dome precess as if passing through eons of time, because the PCs and everything within the dome actually are passing through time — the dome is a time machine. If the PCs can figure out how to make the projections go backwards, they can return to their own time. If they go back far enough, to the time of the queen herself, she will arise from her stasis (she was never actually a statue) and try to make sure the PCs haven’t damaged anything.
  9. As the stars slowly circle, the statue becomes translucent, then transparent. The longer the projection goes on, the more insubstantial the statue becomes. Surrounding the statue, the PCs can see motes of light that resemble the stars projected on the dome. There is just enough space for two more people to ride the horse with her…
  10. Every rotation the stars make, the statue will ask one question: “Are you loyal children of Soris?” “Do you bear the stigma of Kharus?” etc. It’s pretty clear how the questions are intended to be answered, but only a historian of the queen’s time will be able to say what the questions are really asking about. If someone answers questions as they’re intended, the stars continue to circle; if not, the statue slowly comes alive, and if the questions are answered wrong twelve times in a row, the queen eventually draws her sword and fights all comers. If they are answered correctly twelve times in a row, a small click will be heard from the dome, and a door will open just where her finger points. What could be inside? And how to get to it?
  11. The stars wink out and come into existence, slowly turning and evolving. The PCs slowly understand that the stars show true stars, but they are also linked to people in the world. If carefully studied, the stars projected may be used to predict how bright a person’s life may become, and how when it will be snuffed out. A lifetime of careful study may even allow prediction of people’s lives by looking at the real stars.
  12. As the PCs study the slowly turning projected stars, a royal astrologer bursts in, surrounded by guards, and demands to know what they are doing in this most secret, most holy of places.

Worldbuilding: blog or not?

A lot of gaming folks seem to be using their blogs as places to display and store their campaign worlds. Blogs have a lot of advantages for this kind of worldbuilding. If your purpose is to have audience interaction, then a blog can allow busy people to focus their attentions on whatever you’re developing right now. The biggest advantage of a blog for worldbuilding, I think, is that it allows your audience to see the work in process. Because a blog is organized chronologically, it can give a great window into how things evolve, how the creator develops them and where the creator’s attentions go. It’s very interesting to see the creator making progress on her world. It can also be illuminating to look back at your own process and see how your worldbuilding has developed. In short, blogs are a really good way of showing the meta-history of a worldbuilding project.

But overall, blogs are a less-than-ideal medium in which to present a gaming world. If you’re actually using a game world in a game, it can be a clunky format to access during a gaming session. If you want to find a specific topic, it can be hard to figure out where that topic is. If you’ve carefully tagged every entry with every possible label it might need, then you might be able to find the topic you want; and of course a search may turn it up. But really, chronological organization by when it’s written is not the best for something that needs easy access by topic. It can be difficult to hone searches in just the right way, and even then, what happens if you’ve written about the same topic in multiple posts? What if you’re in the middle of the session before you realize you’ve contradicted yourself? And what if you’re at the gaming hangout and you don’t have an internet connection?

Really, I think most people who put their worldbuilding on their blogs are either a) just giving a small sample of the world, the majority of which is actually in some format other than a blog, or b) mostly presenting the world as an exercise for their blog readers, not as a world to be used in actual play. Trying to actually run everything from a blog seems impractical, to me (though I’d love to hear examples of how it’s worked for you).

Alternatives

So if blogs are a less-than-ideal way to present a gaming world for actual play, what’s a better format? There are the old standbys of paper notebooks and drawings, of course. Lots of game worlds still work that way, and they work admirably. And many people use printed setting material: books, maps, etc. Those work well, too. But how many hours are lost having to search through a thick sourcebook, or even thick sourcebooks, trying to find just the right passage? We all know how rare indexes are in gaming books. And I’ve certainly experienced plenty of instances where the GM is poring through piles of hand-written papers trying to find the marginalia where they answered the question at hand — frequently in a completely different place than would seem logical. That GM has been me, lots of times.

Front page of my campaign wiki

Paper isn’t ideal, and neither are blogs, so what works better? The best solution I’ve found so far is wikis. Wikipedia is the most famous, but there are lots more out there. With a wiki, you can of course search for any topic, but even better, you’ve got a hierarchical organization that can link topics together, drill down where more detail is needed, and keep all the information about a given topic on one page. It’s easy to make corrections and to add or subtract wherever you feel it necessary.

How do you actually use a wiki for gaming? There are lots of possibilities. The great Obsidian Portal website is a wiki system, complete with a wonderful Google Maps-like ability to locate important locations and zoom in using a graphic interface. I’ve only used it a small amount, but I found it okay to use. It’s nice to be able to share information so easily with other players (though if your writing style is verbose, there’s a good chance no one will ever look at it anyway). I personally dislike that it’s all online; what if I’m gaming somewhere that I don’t have an internet connection? Formatting in the Textile markup seems a little less flexible than other wikis, or maybe that’s just because most people don’t bother. I also don’t like having my personal work stored on someone else’s servers.

What about a wiki that you host on your own computer? Again, there are lots of possibilities. TiddlyWiki, for example, is a really simple wiki that can easily be stored as a file, sent as an email or kept on a USB stick for portability. And there are a lot of other notetaking apps and systems out there.

My favorite, though, is MediaWiki. It’s the engine that runs Wikipedia, so it’s robust, extensible and very capable. It’s also completely free, which is a plus. Installing it on my old desktop was a huge headache, to be honest, and then when I had to install it again (to put it on my netbook), it was a whole different headache. But now that I’ve got it all working, it’s a huge help. No, more than that — it’s a necessary campaign tool. I probably couldn’t GM my monthly game without it. (And I’ve occasionally tried — going back to paper notebooks and maps feels like trying to walk across the ocean when you’ve gotten used to flying.)

I’ll post more later about the process of getting MediaWiki running, and about how my current campaign wiki works. For now, go check out a really brilliant world wiki: the Almeopedia. Mark Rosenfelder originally created Almea as his D&D campaign world, but it’s become far more than that. It’s now one of the best sites around for conlangs, as well as just an amazing example of how deep a wiki for worldbuilding can go. To start, check out the article on Verduria, the focal nation in the world. Or begin exploring the ruins of Erruk.

For the record

Over at the Everwayan, John has been doing occasional updates on our Blade & Crown game. He gave a very nice illustration of Eric Stoltz as his character Red. For the record, here’s Meg Ryan as my character, Sirene:

Meg Ryan as Sirene the crusader

Meg Ryan as Sirene the crusader

Add medieval travelers’ clothes and a warhammer and that’s pretty much what she looks like.

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.