Thursday, October 17, 2013

We Need a Montage: Points and Failures (Part Two)

Point-based systems tend to be more open than level-based ones. I suspect that’s a factor of their use in many generic systems: GURPS, Champions, even Savage Worlds to an extent. These systems have a pitch: you can make whatever character you want. Some do offer archetypes to help players steer through the wealth of options. But that universality's the big hook. My question is: what happens in point-based games once the campaign gets rolling?

GMs can offer concrete and spendable rewards in these systems. You give points and players spend them. Instead of waiting for XP to accumulate they can make minor advances. Of course level-based games can do the same thing through items or resources. But point advancement allows for a faster reward cycle and it feels intrinsic to the character. It also allows the GM an opportunity to get players to spend their points. I keep track of missing skills or striking failures during sessions and then needle the PCs with those during the bookkeeping phase. That’s especially true if they’re saving up to buy something big and powerful. I can usually draw that process out a session or two, more if they’re especially forgetful.

Points have at least two dark sides for the GM: balance and benchmarks. For me points often feel more abstract than XP. Character points (or experience, power, whatever they're called) represent general success rather than specific events. Most XP systems OOH connect with specific actions (money gained, monsters killed). Yet offering different build points to different players always feels questionable to me. I’ve played in games where the GM handed out points secretly and those where you could gain bonus points at session end (for rp or other actions). Both approaches bothered me- and demonstrated a huge failing on my part. It shouldn’t matter and yet keeping up with the other PCs remains important to me. That’s why I’ve generally fallen back to giving everyone at my sessions the same points. How many points leads to the second problem. I’m terrible at figuring this out. If you give too few points, then players feel like they’re making little progress. On the other hand, if you give too many points the power level may ramp too quickly. Dialing back those points can be tricky later on- if you offer fewer points the players may feel they’re being punished. Plus players always grumble. 

Some point systems work to offset power ramp up . GURPS and many others (Ars Magica for example) have escalating costs. Hero System’s actually notable for keeping those increases flat. GURPS adds other limits. For example stat raises cost double after character creation. Some games make certain choices unavailable after the character creation process. In some cases that’s based on common sense and in others there’s a hard and fixed rule. The system tries to impose a logic for the development arc: what can be bought or not and how difficult advancement is. I’m torn about how I feel about that. On the one hand, point-based games offer free choice and restrictions undercut that. I appreciate the rising cost curve for keeping things in check- and pushing players to diversify. On the other hand there’s a simplicity to a flat cost game. FATE offers an interesting alternative to these limits- with the ladder of skills and restrictions. In theory it creates a focus, in practice my players disliked it intensely.

Of course not all point-based systems work the same way. I consider Champions/HERO the king of point-based games because nearly everything can be quantified (if the GM wants to). In the early days we pointed-out every piece of equipment- from flashlights to guns. GURPS takes a less all-encompassing approach; points define characters but no necessarily the world as a whole. Still in both cases you can evaluate characters pretty cleanly- with relative power levels and a sense of where they’re at in the hierarchy of power. Consider, on the other hand, the point-based mechanics of World of Darkness. It begins by having two distinct forms of purchasing- initial points during character creation which work on one scale and then bonus points which work on another. In play players buy up using those bonus points/experience. But there’s a break there- I rarely if ever see WoD characters old or new described as a “150 point character”. The point system’s there to offer structure rather than a mechanism for balance or baseline.

I have a theory, and I’m not sure how well it works. it means some manipulation behind the GM's magic curtain. I’ve tried it with a couple of campaigns. With each I imagine where I want the campaign to end up- how powerful should the party be by the last session. That’s easier to calculate with point or level-based systems. Other games may require a little more playing around (Fate, World of Darkness). Next I figure out how many sessions I picture for the campaign. Then simply divide one by the other. That gives a sense of how many points to offer per session or how sessions it should take to go up a level. Then I divide that number in half. Because my calculations will almost always be off. Games will go longer than I expect. In my experience, usually close to twice as long. That also gives me room to be more generous from time to time, to reward excellent play.

I’ve been flipping between games with different approaches to growth: Mutants & Masterminds, Action Cards, Legend, 13th Age, World of Darkness, FATE, and Hollowpoint. That’s pointed out to me the gap between my expectations as a player and as a GM. In my head I’ve always told myself I run the kinds of games I’d want to play in. But I think there’s a bigger gap between the two than I’ve admitted. When I play, I want the stuff—but when I run I want restraint. To that end I’ve taken a couple of new approaches to advancement.

In particular, I’ve put a harness around some of the cool stuff. In our Last Fleet campaign, players have been able to develop their characters’ track by suggesting new powers, feats, and abilities. I usually translate and write those up. Every couple of sessions players have gotten new abilities they can buy. Originally I’d constructed those with tiered tracks, but that didn’t add anything. What’s handled differently is that players can’t buy those cool powers unless they have a learning experience. That’s loosely defined as a significant failure or setback during the course of a session and a player can only have one such event marked on their sheet. That has a couple of effects. First, players can only ever buy a single new cool power per session. Second, it encourages players to take actions and get into the thick of things. Third, it allows players to accept and embrace losses. The mechanic’s inspired by Mouse Guard and I hope reflects the classic trope of characters failing and then steeling themselves for another try by bringing a new trick to bear.

In a related way, I’ve put emphasis on the Seasonal Events in our Legend of the Five Rings campaign. Following the lead of The Great Pendragon Campaign and Blood & Honor, the campaign’s broken into short arcs with a transition between them. The players control and develop both their characters and their family’s province. During the sessions I stress how a backwards their area is and the problems that causes (lack of good roads, vulnerability to assault, little in the way of artistic gifts. During the play arc the PCs may take actions which help them in this regard- for example they worked carefully to recruit an artisan samurai to their cause in this last round. But between arcs everyone gets a special action. At the domain level, they can invest their energies and attention in getting a project done (organizing the building of the fortifications, recruiting a new expert). At the role level they can invest in improving their networks, adding new assistants, or training their staff. Most importantly at the personal level they require a seasonal action to add a new School Rank or other significant ability. I like the weight this has put on those actions, but it also creates some tension within the group. Some would prefer an emphasis on personal growth, while others would like to balance that and development of the province. We’ve only had two such seasons, so we’ll see how that plays out over the long haul.

My thought has been that these mechanisms make those gains feel more important and unique. But they also suggest a dramatic arc for the characters. In the case of the former we mimic the action of anime or wuxia. The protagonist faces their foe and fails. In order to overcome that opponent they must learn something new from that loss. In the case of the latter we show that some talents and traits require a heavy investment of time and training. Undertaking that path means giving up other opportunities.