I think it may well have been the suave and sophisticated spy RPGs—either James Bond: 007 with its Hero Points or Top Secret with its Fame and Fortune Points—that gave us the modern RPG staple we’ll call the “hero point.” Hero points, which go by many, many different names in different games, serve essentially two functions:
- They help to avoid anticlimax and the general “dramatic deafness” of many rules systems by granting players some control over the randomness of the game’s resolution systems (as most RPG resolution systems include a random element).
- They help to avoid whiny players who pout when their precious snowflake characters actually (gasp!) fail at something.
Both functions help hero points work as a “safety net” encouraging players to make risker (that is, more dramatic and heroic) choices, because they know if the choice results in a metaphorical (or literal) fall for their characters, they’ve got something to “catch” them.
Makes sense that hero points came from the super-spy genre. Those guys are good at everything. They’ve got what S. John Ross defined at the “Truly Badass” advantage. However, it makes for a frightfully dull RPG to simply say “the heroes always win.” So hero points provide a way to do it, but with limits.
(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the dramatic tension with iconic heroes like James Bond and Doc Savage isn’t if they are going to win, but how. It would be interesting to model this in an RPG context. That is, the goal isn’t to make enough good rolls to eventually succeed, it’s to—literally—plot a course from initial challenge to success. But I digress…)
Hero points are all about limits: you only have so many of them, you can only use them for certain things, or at certain times. There may be ways to get more, in which case they as serve as “carrots” to encourage genre-appropriate behavior (Mutants & Masterminds and ICONS both do this).
One interesting element of hero points is they allow players to essentially remove some of the misfortune in the game, negating a certain number of poor die rolls or other random factors on the negative side of things. They typically do so without any counterbalancing. So if I get three hero points to improve my die rolls, I get to ignore three bad rolls as if they never happened. That certainly changes the dynamic of the game in terms of how often my character will encounter dramatic failures, assuming my hero points can save my bacon (and my dignity) most of the time.
What if, instead of a “free ride,” hero points only deferred the “bad stuff” they usually counter? That is, a player could choose to override the results of the dice at any time in a fashion similar to hero points, but at the cost of racking up an equal amount of “karmic debt”?
You see some shades of this concept in systems for earning hero points: compels in FATE, or complications in M&M, for example. But these require the player to choose to accept bad stuff for the character in exchange for the hero point award. I’m talking about the ability to mess with the structure of the game knowing it will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. In some regards, it’s like a plot-device version of Paradox from Mage: the more you mess with things, the more you pay for it in the end. You can even adopt some of Mage’s sliding scale, with “low-impact” changes that blend smoothly into the overall fabric creating less “backlash” than the really outlandish and poorly explained ones (the equivalent of the kind of bad plotting in real world media sure to provoke angry fan screeds).
You could leave the application of the “bad karma” up to the Gamemaster, in the hands of the player(s), or some combination thereof. It would be interesting if players were responsible for their own characters’ bad karma and it was their job to think up ways to cause them problems in a dramatically appropriate way as much as planning out their dramatic successes. For a truly fiendish option, we could go with what I’ll call the “shadow” approach (in honor of Wraith): another player gets to decide when and how your bad karma comes into play! Because there’s nobody as capable of thinking up bad things to happen to your character as your fellow players…