Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Role of Spending

There are a few games out there (FUDGE was one of them) where game currency (fate points, bennies, actions points, drama dice, whatever) are also experience points. I do not like this model at _all_ because it presents players with a decision that has such a profound opportunity cost as to be no fun at all. If you spend the point on a roll, you've "wasted" it, but if you don't use it on the roll, you might get hosed. This sort of model seems to have its roots in the days when a character could die from a single bad roll, so the calculation was more "If I don't spend this now, I may never get to spend it at all." I don't play games like that anymore, and I'm happy to not have to think that way.

The biggest culprit in this for me was 7th Sea, a game I have a profound love-hate relationship with. Stylistically, it was exactly the sort of game where you would expect the currency (drama dice) to be spent hand over fist in feats of derring-do, but the incentive was to hoard them as aggressively as possible. I ended up inverting the system and saying that *spent* drama dice turned into XP, and that got the spigots flowing again.

As I was thinking about TSOY's keys, I realized this model could work very nicely for Fate as well, if you were to run an XP heavy game. You can treat Fate points as XP by keeping a bowl in the middle of the table. Every time a player spends a FP, it goes into the bowl. The GM might also randomly toss into the bowl when he wants to reward general awesomeness. At night's end, the points in the bowl are converted to XP and divided among the players.[1]

This is a bit of sleight of hand, but it speaks to the kinds of behaviors one wants to encourage in a game. If the currency of the game is something you want to see used, then set up the rules to encourage it. If you worry that currency will be unfunny or game breaking there's an instinct to impose artificial limitations. Don't. Instead, ask if it's what you really want.

4e's action points raise this question quite effectively. They're very limited because their function (allowing an extra action) is crazily unbalancing if it's allowed to stack. Because of that limitation, the flow of a potential non-XP reward is strongly curtailed. In contrasts, consider AP's as presented in Eberron (3e) , simply granting one or more D6's of bonus to a roll. It's useful, and can even help land some big hits, but stockpiling and multiples are much easier to handle.With these, DMs could hand them out for good roleplaying or bringing snacks or for engaging aspect or belief type mechanics.

While I'm specifically talking about XP, currency and rewards what I'm really asking is whether a mechanic is going to get used in a way that makes the game more fun, or if it creates an unnecessary barrier to play.

1 - Give any extra to whoever the table considers the night's spotlight player, or just let it ride til next time.


  1. I love the ideas of turning *spent* currency into XP, because it encourages use instead of hoarding. Hoarding in 7th Sea and related games really annoys me as a GM.

  2. I agree that an Action/Fate/Fudge point mechanic should add to the fun of the game. Your example of 4e APs hits home with me; my group has played 4e six times, and used APs each session. The problem is that the extra actions were all failed rolls, other than once. Kind of boring, if you ask me. I much prefer the 3.5 Eberron use, where you can choose to use the d6 modifier after the roll. But, yes, any mechanic should add more to the game than it takes away.

  3. I've often thought that, if you want to add this sort of currency to 4e, healing surges make a better candidate than action points. It might be interesting to try a mechanic that allows the expenditure of, for instance, one healing surge for a re-roll, or two healing surges for a 1d6 per tier, take the highest, bonus to a roll.

  4. I've come across games where the meta gaming element of spending something that turned into XP was a problem but I never found it an issue in 7th Sea. First it encouraged players only to spend them when it was a critical situation. Second if they use them in a critical situation in a dramatic way it was likely I was going to give them one or more back.

    The biggest problem my players had was penalty dice for constantly quoting Monty Python during one session.

  5. @aldren My one fear with using healing surges as "Heroic Surges" (as I have sometimes considered) is that it really encourages the 5 minute day syndrome, where the players finish one fight then retreat to take a long rest before moving on. 4e Really moved away from that (though not completely) and I wouldn't want to move back.

    Not that it's insurmountable, but it's tricky. If, for example, you make surge recovery easier, then players will probably be more able to fully recover during short rests, which has some interesting implications when melded with power recharge. Like I said, tricky. But I may float an idea or two for how to deal with it down the line.

  6. The delicate nature of spending and the risk of setting up perverse incentives is why I am always leary of adding new currencies into game.
    A games economy is often a delicate ecosystem, one that has been honed to do what it does with many hours of playtesting. Adding new currencies and in essence a new "market" can muck with things severely.

    It's always better IMO to use existing economies or fix them (like you did with 7th Sea) than add more.

    Good stuff as always.

  7. Couple of ideas/thoughts that were to long for twitter.

    I have mixed feelings on this one, I'll be straight up.

    I love the idea of using spent drama die as XP in 7th sea and other systems. I think it is a powerful motivator to use the drama die/FP/whatever. A couple of little hiccups though. What happens to unspent? Do you just lose them? Do the roll over? It is all well and good to encourage people to spend them on rolls, but say you have a wicked heavy RP session where you are handing out DD for awesomeness but the players never touch the dice? Sure there are other things to do DD/FP but I sorta feel like its sending a mixed messege of Rollplaying vs Roleplaying for XP.

    Also, I get a nervous feeling about the disproportion of XP. Looking at 7th sea, or DF, players receive different numbers of the special effect Dice/points. To say Spent Points=more XP means they have a bigger pool to draw from and in turn get more XP. This is mitigated slightly by the “all in the bowl and separate at the end” idea, but then its forced balance. If one players blows 10 and one player blows 1, that’s odd for me. Not a deal breaker, since this can modified by XP rewards from the ST, but those sometimes look like your are picking favorites and that’s a different can of worms.

    For me it’s a system by system thing. 7th Sea? I say Its spent to XP, they roll over to a max of say double their highest trait, or 10 or whatever.

    This is an extra interesting discussion for me as I play Deadlands, with its Fate Chips as Dice Modifiers, Damage Absorbers and Bonus XP. It’s always been off putting that the characters who throw down or takes the big risks and needs a little nudge from fate gets Less XP then the person who stays out of the line of fire and quietly avoids conflict.

    That said, I am not sure of a good solution that won’t have repercussions on the power level of the game. If I make spent chips XP, am I going to give out less chips? Will the power level grow to fast?

    Just some thoughts!

  8. @Rob
    Good points. My thinking was that there would also be a way to regain healing surges, perhaps stealing aspects and compels from FATE, or a that's-cool-have-a-cookie mechanic.

    They can get back the "be awesome" resource, but usually only by putting themselves in positions where they'll need them.

    And there's always the less subtle but still effective no-more-than-x-times-per-combat, or the you-guys don't-have-time-for-an-extended-rest yet, which my group had to face recently.

  9. Oh, I should comment on the 4e economy specifically. I've seen a lot of takes on the 4e economy, and have run experiments myself. 4e has a pretty extensive, pretty deep economy -- powers are one, healing surges another, APs yet one more -- and what I've found works better than trying to add more spending choices is to let what there is act as stand-ins depending on context.

    Fate Points don't fit in 4e well because it's just another currency in a sea of such, but aspects work very well. Why? Because your powers can easily take that role with only slight logistical work. You can even use them in the way that powers are normally spent --at-will/encounter/daily --with according rewards.

    Too much more and I'm on a blog post myself, but basically, in 4e I like to expand/re-contextualize the spending I'm already doing, rather than finding new ways to spend.

  10. @johnoghue For 7th Sea in specific, I think it's almost impossible to have too much XP. Only a really generous XP model will let players do things like actually get good at Sorcery or learn other fencing schools or more generally get as good as the NPCs in the books. So in that specific case, while some sort of limit might be appropriate (for ex: the "special use" drama dice some styles grant wouldn't go into the bowl), I wouldn't worry too much. It's hard to go wrong, and it's a LONG road to get to be the finest swordsman in Theah.

  11. @gamefiend I hope you do put those mods to 4e in a blog post or similar. My group is trying to port aspects into 4e, and I'd love to hear how you've implemented it.

  12. It would be interesting to explore the idea of:

    * Spent currency turns into XP
    * Unspent currency turns into something else

    Where "something else" is a valid and perhaps equally useful thing, but one that represents not personal growth but (say) setting growth.

  13. How do you feel about Modifie pending to xp? As in, If you Use a FP to absorb damage, no XP. You use to to enhance a roll or maybe to effect external? XP.

    I don't know that I like it, but I am pondering.

  14. The idea of spent points going to XP may fix my Amber game. I'm using consumable Good Stuff but the players are hoarding. Thanks so much!

  15. @Cam Something Else is always the interesting question.

    @Johnoghue I would say the answer to that depends on genre. Heck, in some games I would say that you should only get XP if you _get_ damaged (or otherwise gain consequences). But unless the genre you want to support explicitly calls for it, I'd be leery of saying "Spending to protect yourself doesn't count". There are better ways to discourage that behavior if you feel it's necessary.

  16. Not a lot of feedback on the post -- it matches my own opinion. We hated hoarding in our games. :)

    With regard to healing surges (and the 5 minute day), I think there's an interesting and somewhat precarious balancing act for the GM.

    1.Make clear to the players what the consequences of taking an extended rest are.

    2. Design scenarios so that the players can actually succeed without taking an extended rest.

    3. Design fights that are actually fun even when the characters are not being overwhelmed by the avalanche of damage.

    In my game, the characters are about to enter a big war, complete with lots of war skill challenges. On the battlefield, healing surges are used as action points to get extra skill checks. Am I worried? Not really. If one or more of the players have to retreat and rest, the war isn't going to stop and wait for them. ;)

    If the evil cult is about to finish its ritual (and you've explicitly told the players that resting means the cult finishes the spell), then either the scenario must be able to be finished without the players resting or the consequences of the players failing to win cannot be campaign ending (unless you want to run a new post-cult campaign). Even if the players can lose, I suspect player psychology is going to factor in, and they'll try to win the battle anyway. A TPK is more acceptable than allowing the cult to win.

    In one scenario I ran with a time component, the players were chasing their enemy into a tomb. Every time the players rested, the enemy had more time to prepare. In the end, by choosing to automatically take short rests without thinking about it, their enemy had both time to alter the battlefield magically and open a magical portal escape route.

    Anyway, my first point is the one that's most interesting to me. I've still got the bad habit of keeping too much information secret, when I really want to make situations more explicit. "If you rest, the cult is going to finish the ritual" "You have to succeed at a good Mysteries check or suffer the curse of the tomb". There's less surprise, but for systems where players are spending resources, being explicit allows them to know that spending resources may be worthwhile. Letting players explicitly know that the end of the world isn't going to happen if they fail can help, I think.

    My Dresden Files tie in: I want my Dresden campaign to have emotional tie-ins and relationships. It can be hard to add those and make them work when the end of the world is always at stake. It doesn't matter if the cult leader is actually my ex-girlfriend that I still have feelings for; if she's about to bring down the apocalypse, I'm going to shoot first and break down emotionally later. ;)

  17. @Codrus While I also favor sharing enough information for clear decisions, it's not always apt. In those situations, I've found a useful trick is to use some sort of visible counter, like black poker chips. Whenever the players do something like, say, take a rest, I visibly add to my stack without explaining what exactly it means. When they get to endgame, the exact purpose of the chips (which is pretty variable, but usually they buy advantages for the enemy)is revealed.

    I find that coupling a small amount of certainty (what they can see) with uncertainty (what it means) tends to increase urgency, which is very useful in certain style games.

  18. I've been meaning to try the Healing Surges as old school Eberron Action Dice in a 4E game, I just don't have the time for another game slot. To resolve the 5 minute workday issue, I was going to restore 1 Healing Surge with every milestone hit, same as standard Action Points. I think this should help lessen the sting from burning Healing Surges.

  19. I've always felt that XP and XP-like systems were not rewards, but pacing. In the Bowl-o-Fate example, this works because all it does is track the spendiness, which is reasonably attached to the intensity, if not the progress of the story or characters. But if you have to choose between advancing and doing other stuff, it creates uneven advancement. In most games, this isn't exciting because it can push some people into the background.

    That's ultimately why the motivation in 4e is to give out bonuses of sorts instead of XP, because everybody needs to level together.

    If player advancement is not naturally tied to pacing, then I think it should be its own mechanic that everybody has a crack at instead of an either/or proposition. Some power now or more power later is the same thing that made wizards in old D&D so distracting and weird.

    I'm currently working on an idea for which extra success on a roll may be turned into temporary abilities, which you can later turn permanent. If it were applied to Fate, it would be like getting a temporary aspect any time you generate spin. And then being able to spend a big wad of Fate to make that aspect permanent. In that case, it feels okay because you're spending _other stuff_ on an advancement opportunity that pops up, instead of spending XP you already had in order to do _other stuff_.

    I think the direction of the flow is crucial to how satisfying spending like that can be.

  20. I like that. :) I may have to use something like that at the table this weekend.

    I should say that I also agree that it should never be an absolute. To use my example, the cult may get the spell off, but the exact form things take afterwards is going to be a surprise.

    The other thing I'm doing this weekend is trying to give them more problems than they can reasonable solve. The things they decide to solve (and not to solve) end up being more interesting to me anyway. This is moving away from a single axis (win-lose) and more towards "how do you win?", "how do you lose?", "who survives the war?" and so on.

  21. @Paul I agree that viewing them as a pacing mechanism is an incredibly useful lens.

    @Codrus Hmm. I may have to put a pin in this, since it speaks to some other elements in conversation too. Coming up with threats which are undesirable rather than unacceptable is a tricky, but subtly important thing if you are going to leave the door open to failure and choice.

  22. Hoarding (in the form of Fate chips) was rampant when I ran Deadlands frequently. Fate chips got spent to avoid damage or to improve skills. The other uses were ignored. My solution at the time was to break Fate-chips-as-hero-points and Fate-chips-as-XP into two different pools; you got some of each. It wasn't perfect as I had cautious players who still hoarded to avoid damage. But it did help.

    Spent-points-become-XP is an awesome idea, and one I'll keep in my bag of hacks for a variety of games.

    Interestingly, the "5-minute day" and hoarding combine to form a new problem in 4e: hoarding of dailies. You want to save your dailies for The Right Moment. If you discover you burned them too early, you have a lot of incentive to call for an extended rest. (Understandably. Climatic fights are much, much harder if the party is short dailies.) If you don't spend them by the next, you're frustrated that they were wasted.

  23. @Alan I've never really felt that way about hoarding dailies in 4e. I think a lot of people feel that way when they first begin playing because they can't gauge direness and they always imagine something worse is going to happen. But after a handful of session, at least after your first campaign or module, you can usually tell when you need to use your daily.

    If you didn't use it and you succeed, you didn't waste it because you didn't need it. Using it would only have sped things up a tiny bit. If you didn't use it and you failed, then you need to focus on getting better at understanding when you're in need. However, I find that even a lot of dailies are not the difference between complete failure and success.

    Still, I understand what you're talking about. That's a minor reason that I love the Warden, just as an example, because your dailies are forms that you pop at the beginning of an encounter and they never feel wasted.

  24. Yeah, I've been giving it a lot of thought lately, and it is pretty tricky. You need to know the characters and players really well. The plots need to be personal. There need to be consequences when players go for the brutal killshot.

    Just to throw thoughts out:

    * Some villains need to be redeemable or at least be someone that PCs are willing to talk to. Marcone is the devil you know. Taking him out makes things worse.

    * Introduce threatening NPCs but don't make them the focus of the adventure. They may be an obstacle but are not the chief antagonist.

    * Connect the villain to NPCs associated with the player characters (e.g. the villain is a PC's true love's brother; killing him changes the relationship).

    * Design adventures assuming the players will fail: what happens next?

    * Judicious use of compels to establish relationships between a PC and the villain (e.g. the goal the villain is working towards is something the player might sympathize with).

    * The villain starts out as a good guy, but over the course of campaigns makes mistakes. The villain starts out as a *PC*....

    * The villain genuinely wants to help one or more of the PCs.

    Most of these are about connecting the villain to the world and players. If the players tug on a string, or cut a string, those relationships show how changes ripple through the campaign.

    Hat tip to Smallville here. There's great stuff to be mined from relationships and beliefs. Approaching my next campaign as relationship building rather than purely plot building is stretching things in some good ways for me.

    TV is a good inspiration, particularly for shows that takes a villain and turns him into a hero/NPC over the course of seasons. Spike on Buffy is a good example; it took many episodes over a season or two to move him into the good guy camp. Vampire Diaries works the supernatural soap opera angles very well also -- what do you do when your best friend in the world becomes what you hate the most? There's a mix of jolts to the character relationships and gradually changing the relationships over many episodes; both are useful tools.

  25. This was one of the big problems with earlier versions of Runequest. Who is the better follower of their god, the initiate who casts (and loses) his rune magic, or the initiate who hoards it until they become a priest and can use it reuseably. So it doesn't just apply to bennies.

    I'm also a fan that it is failure which teaches us lessons that we take to heart, not success, so spending bennies to make an action successful should contribute to XP.

    I'm also not a great fan of those game systems that intentionally limit the amount of bennies, but this is a matter of taste. I'd rather give people a ready supply of bennies for doing interesting things. They are less likely to hoard if they know they can replace their bennies by doing cool stuff. This unfortunately breaks a lot of systems which rely on either a limited pool of bennies or a limited recharge rate.

    I do like Cam's idea that unspent bennies become something else, although in practice I think it would be hard to do, as it would require good judgement of the passage of time and the flow of the game to avoid sticking players with unwanted bennies just before the cut-off point of the game.

    Although experience with hungry players and edible tokens does lead to wanting to do an interesting experiment with ephemeral bennies, that have a time limit before they "expire." This would probably have be done via electronic means, rather than physically, although the idea of using ice disks or photo-sensitive chemical reactions does have a certain appeal. Especially for a scenario with the appropriate theme.

  26. Spent currency becoming XP is brilliant.

    How does this work in Dresden Files? I'm a bit fuzzy right now, but as I recall, there's no XP per se, just Milestones.

  27. Good stuff at our table (Brad Murray et al.), one experiment fielded during the testing of Soft Horizon was this: gain an "advance" after you have carried through a session with a Severe Consequence.

    That regulated the pace, and specifically rewarded those who were sticking their necks out. The concept is adrift right now but we'll be using it somewhere eventually I don't doubt.

  28. (Oops. That should have been "Good stuff. At our table . . .")

  29. Old School Hack does exactly this -- you don't level up until everyone has spent 10 Awesome Points.


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