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.