October 5, 2016 by dlnsctt
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading roleplaying game manuals. I know this will come as a shock to most of you, but that’s actually how I spend a lot of my spare time. Lately though, I’ve been focusing in on two systems: Edge of the Empire and the Dresden Files RPG. Both systems have a mechanic that stuck out to me: they each have a meta-resource that the player can call on to change or add onto the narrative of the game. In both systems, they’re fittingly called “points”: surely our most debased term for player currency. What’s more abstract than a “point”? Mario doesn’t even get points, he gets coins. It’s a word that’s very common in RPGs for a meta-currency, I suppose because if it was less abstract it could be confused for an in-game resource. No one wants to hear a poor, confused player say “How many destiny coins can my character hold in their wallet?” or “Alright, my character eats a big handful of fate chips and levels up … two times.”
Wait, what’s a “meta-resource”?
A meta-resource is any resource that the player knows about and has access to, but that the character being played is not aware of. They’re “meta” because they’re a resource that exists outside of the world of the game, but that still can have effects on that world. I talked about this a little bit in my post on picking your spells, but the punchline is this: the decision to use these points is in the hands of the player, not the character.
But back to your point.
Thank you. The thing that strikes me about these point systems is the way that the points are spent and earned. In EotE and FATE System (which Dresden Files RPG is based on), you spend points to introduce scene elements that would be good for your character or to active certain powers your character has; you earn points when the you or the GM introduces scene elements that would hinder your character, or to activate powers that the bad guys have. On its face, this seems reasonable: the player wants their character to succeed, but it helps the story when the character fails, so offering the player a point that they can later spend to do something cool or helpful incentivizes them to let their character fail. In FATE System, it explicitly encourages players to let their characters fail in a way that reinforces their character traits to earn fate points. This is all well and good, but it assumes that you’re playing with a certain type of player.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “YOU PEOPLE“??
Wow, um, I didn’t even say that. I don’t mean this in a value judgement kind of way – there is no wrong way to play a roleplaying game as long as you’re being respectful to your GM and fellow players. It’s just that having these incentives in place assumes your players always want their characters to succeed personally. This isn’t always the case: what if you decided to model your character off of a tragic hero from a Greek play? Maybe you go in wanting your character to fail. Should you then get points when your character … succeeds? Seems weird, guy. Seems weird.
It doesn’t even have to be as extreme as that: maybe you just think your character should fail based on who they are and the decisions they’ve made. The game rewards you for that, which is awesome. The game should reward you for playing your character. But check it: the game doesn’t reward you for playing your character in a situation where they should succeed. An example: my character, a former US Navy sniper struggling with PTSD, has a scene where he can’t relate to his young niece because her world is so alien to his. That’s a great scene, and because I played my character, I get a fate point for that. In the next scene, I’ve been hired by a scary Mafia don to kill a guy who wronged him, and I’ve tracked the target to his compound in the desert and set up with my rifle on a bluff overlooking it. I’m about to take the shot and my GM asks if I want to spend a fate point to get a bonus to the roll. What’s the deal with that?? I should be able to GET a fate point for playing my character well. He’s a sniper; he’s sniping.
You’re quite the little power gamer, aren’t you?
That’s exactly what I’m trying to get at! The game is assuming that I’m (at least a little bit) a power gamer who wants their character to succeed all the time, so it throws some rewards in my path for letting my character fail. As it happens, I’m NOT a power-gamer, I’m a pure perfect roleplaying flowerbud who has never wanted to win RPGs in his whole life.
No it’s not!
UGH, okay, I guess that’s not strictly true. But it’s not true of you either! No one is purely focused on roleplaying, which is why these point systems work. Roleplaying games come out of war gaming – we can directly trace our hobby back to basically a very complicated board game, with the focus simply on victory. There will always be that tension in RPGs, between roleplaying and strategy, and that’s a good thing. In a way, having some focus on strategy in your games can encourage players to roleplay more: the character wants to succeed too, after all, and identifying with your character and understanding their desires encourages good roleplaying. Point systems, like in FATE System and Edge of the Empire, allow for strategy to enhance roleplaying, rather than occasionally taking away from it. Fate points and destiny points are excellent game mechanics in excellent systems, both of which you should try playing with.