One Shot at Glory

In a previous blog, I talked about the mechanism of hero points in RPGs, how they’re used (and sometimes abused) and alternative thoughts on handling them.

One that that occurred to me recently, when someone brought up the use of ICONS Determination in conjunction with my “Superheroes & Lateral Wins” blog, was the prevalence of hero points, a kind of heroic inflation that leads to the devaluation of their “currency” in game terms.

I first noticed the contrast in these terms with two RPGs, both of them from West End Games. The first was Torg, with its fairly prevalent “possibility” points. Characters earned and spent them almost constantly, and in my own play experiences, I found Torg players willing to spend a possibility to fix virtually any die roll they didn’t like. There was no assurance of success, just a re-roll bonus, which might change a failure into a success, but it was the tendency to “band-aid” most, if not all, bad rolls of the die that I remember.

Compare this with WEG’s Star Wars RPG, wherein heroes have precious few “Force Points”. Most can expect to have only one or two, in fact. On the other hand, Force Points provide a pretty massive bonus (doubling all of the character’s capabilities for a game turn). The other interesting thing about them was their use was governed by both the selflessness and dramatic potential of the act: If you spent your Force Point selflessly and heroically, you got it back at the end of the adventure. On the other hand, if you spent it selfishly, you lost it for good (and maybe even earned yourself a Dark Side Point). If you spent it heroically and at the dramatically appropriate moment, you not only got it back, but earned another one!

The interesting effect of this “one shot at glory” was players tended to husband their Force Point(s) carefully, looking for the ideal moment, their characters’ chance to shine and really make a difference, rather than applying them to plaster over every bad die roll or reversal of fortune. Force Points served a potential “save your bacon” function, but it was deliberately sub-optimal, again helping to ensure it was truly a last-ditch defense, rather than “I just don’t feel like having my hero lose here”.

I think the very existence of a hero point mechanic versus “the die is cast” (that is, the dice determine everything) is a division between “modern” and “old school” RPG design. The frequency players can call upon this resource affects the amount of tension inherent in the game: if they’re able to call upon hero points often, then it tends to become not a question of if the heroes can succeed, but how they’ll do it. If hero points have to be carefully “targeted” then there’s greater tension in looking for that prime opportunity.

I suspect fewer hero points leads to a bit more “spotlight” time for individual characters as well. If spending your hero point is, by definition, your “dramatic moment” in the game’s story, then there’s a better chance of your hero getting a dramatic moment than with lots of hero points that lead to lots of “better than average” moments.

Sometimes one shot at glory is worth the risk of some bad breaks along the way.