Luck of the Dice vs. The Art of the Story


In the old days, when you rolled a critical failure, that was it. If you failed enough saving throws or didn’t make it through the barrier of fire, your character died.

Now, things are a lot different. We have a tendency to praise systems now that have “Action Points” and “Hero Points” and other things that make the game more “fun” at the expense of making everything seem easy. I actually don’t like these systems except when simulating a specific campaign tone and/or feel.

In uncertain order, here are my reasons.

1) It takes the creativity out of the game. Who cares how many times I screw up or how many stupid things I do when a little forethought and planning will easily substitute for my heroic action point, action point, or luck point?

2) There’s no reward for not using them. That means that the desperation of their use either needs to be hardwired into the system, which they don’t seem to be in any of the systems in which they are used, or there needs to be some reward system for surviving the required amount of time without using them.

3) It takes away as many cool stories as it produces. A good friend of mine (Who now runs the Gamers Gambit) once rolled six natural twenties in a row. The odds of this happening are slightly less than the Mayflower traveling to the moon and the pilgrims settling there. Now, stories like this one are far more common, because heroic action systems like this have thrown the balance of results a little off kilter. Truly incredible things, more common? That takes the incredible out of the incredible.

4) In the old days of gaming, when we rolled badly and/or died, we were sad. But we never complained about it. Now, we’ve all become slaves to our action points, hero points, and luck points and thinking “If only I had more.” Instead of thinking situations through, we now trust in our action points to help us overcome situations that we previously would take the time to think through.

I know that people want to have fun gaming. But for me, the teaching experience and learning experience were always a part of the gaming experience. Don’t be afraid to think things through. You’ll spend less action/hero/luck points. And then when you really need them, and you’re rolling dice like a hard-luck Harry, they’ll be there.

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4 Comments

  1. I had some thoughts about this very issue just the other day.

    One of the problems with some games is that critical failures are *too* penalizing. I remember systems where rolling such a failure meant you could lop off your own head, for example, or otherwise screw up majorly. In a “flat” system (like a d20 system, for instance) you have the same 5% chance of screwing up due to your own actions as you do of being awesomely heroic.

    Truly competent people–like we suppose heroes to be–don’t screw things up majorly 1 in 20 times they try them. Competence means more than just the chance of extraordinary success, it also means that you’re trained enough to minimize the effects of failure.

    I favor systems that have proportional degrees of failure and success built into them. Dark Heresy, for example, has a system whereby you have a 3% chance (it’s a 1d100 system) of your gun jamming if you shoot (a non-competence-related critical failure). When you’re firing into melee combat, you get a penalty–BUT you only hit your fellow man if you miss within the range of the penalty, not if you miss entirely (and not if you critically miss–then your gun jams)…so for example, if you have a 40% chance of hitting, and you take a 20% penalty, you hit on a 1-20, hit your friend on a 21-40, miss on a 41-97, and gun james on a 98-100. This to me reflects a proportional “critical miss” chance.

    4th Edition D&D neglects the critical miss penalty in its rules system, but its critical successes are less than inspiring (“you do max damage”)…not 2x, 3x, etc. but max damage. There are ways to bump this up–feats and the like–but they’re rarely worth taking.

    In my home game, a critical miss in 4E D&D means that you grant a bonus to the enemy you were targeting when you critically miss them (grant them combat advantage). This reflects not a critical failure per se, but rather, that you’ve left an opening that leaves you more vulnerable to the enemy’s actions.

    I don’t have a problem with “luck points” (I don’t like using “action points” because that’s not how they work in the system that normally uses that phrase, 4E D&D, cuz you can’t eliminate critical failures with ’em) /per se/. I think they represent the aspect of heroic “difference” in systems where they can be used to accentuate the character’s heroic nature to accomplish feats beyond the normal person’s.

    I do, however, have issues with systems (there are a few out there…Shadowrun used to allow you to do this, and there are other systems, like the RPGA cards that are, while not part of the core 4E system, part of their organized play program) that allow you to use a mechanic that allows you to *wholly ignore* critical misses by rerolling them. There should always be a *chance* that you screw up majorly. I don’t have as MUCH of a problem with systems that let you spend points to turn a critical failure into a normal failure…but I agree with Mike in that this removes the potential for good STORIES.

    The ability to do so cheapens the value of the ‘heroic risk’. Doing something incredibly dangerous or heroic should be possible. Using ‘luck points’ to increase your chances of success fits in with the idea of characters as heroes…Scion has a system that rewards people for taking such risks. But with such incredibly dangerous acts, for them to *mean* something as opposed to becoming commonplace, they should carry with them a penalty for critical failure.

    If we are playing a system incorporating random chance, it kinda makes it meaningless if you can negate critical failure easily.

  2. I’ll see you your action points and luck points and hero points and raise you the original system that kept adventurers alive despite the odds: hit points.

    This distinction became clear to me when comparing my experience in a long-running World of Warcraft RPG campaign. We started out using the 3.0-inspired published rules, then switched to GURPS 4th edition. And what a difference.

    In the d20 game, combat types had buckets of hit points and could routinely take one or two hits from a maxed-out fireball. Wizards were weak, rogues were weak but could evade magic, and our elvish sentinel didn’t do much damage with her bow.

    In GURPS, our sentinel is a 350-point cinematic archer, the way her original character concept was meant to be. She routinely fires two arrows per attack (thanks Martial Arts) and usually aims for the legs of fleeing enemies whom our messianic undead diplomat (thanks GURPS) has failed to sway to the side of peace. One shot is good enough for non-named NPCs. If she wants to kill someone, head shots from a hundred yards away are feasible.

    GURPS is simulationist and it shows. A head shot is a head shot; 4d6 of fire damage is 4d6 of fire damage no matter how many years of adventurers are under your belt. It has hit points, but these don’t continually ramp up as the party gains power and prestige. If characters are to survive longer, they have to take specific steps – improving their defenses, gaining magical items, and the like.

    D&D hit points have been with us since the beginning, and they are definitely as much of an abstract butt-saving luck factor as anything newer games have introduced. What we’ve introduced is merely the conscious choice of whether to use them or not.

  3. As much as anything else, “action points” and “luck points” are as much a symptom of lazy GMing (and its companion, lazy challenge creation) as lazy playing. One cause of player demand for luck points is GMs who regularly allow a character’s future to *repeatedly* turn on a single throw of the dice.

    If you’re running Paranoia, or a “1d6 investigators per round”-style Call of Cthulhu game, where low player longevity is built into the game, that’s fine. In most games, however, players expect their character’s career to last an entire campaign as long as they don’t make truly stupid mistakes.

    Occasionally, it’s acceptable for a character’s survival to depend on a single roll; either they *did* screw up really badly and they must make this one roll or suffer the consequences of their actions, or they’re facing an epic do-or-die challenge. If it’s happening *all the time*, the GM is being unfair to the players.

    Right now, I’m in a CthuhluTech-setting game run by Bill (above) and using GURPS mechanics. The players were specifically instructed to take the Luck advantage, precisely because CthulhuTech is an extremely dangerous setting and chances to die are extremely frequent.

    • I must admit, that this is kind of an interesting response. On the one hand, it emphasizes preparedness. On the other hand, it deemphasizes this key phrase, which ScottGambit has oft repeated on many a Saturday or Monday night. That phrase is this:

      No plan survives contact with the players.

      A good GM thinks on his feet as much as possible, and doesn’t overprepare. In my experience, some of the best GM’s I’ve ever seen run with almost nothing in front of them at all.

      Tonight, during the Pretty Hate Machines playtest, the players collectively worked out a great idea. They planned ahead, had a great set of contingencies, and after reviewing the situation, decided on a completely different set of tactics than what I thought was going to happen. They thought ahead and planned. And, as a result, they didn’t need help to deal with the situation because they took that time. I don’t use those sorts of points in my games. But it was nice to see them get together and come up with a really brilliant way of avoiding one of the worst fights I’ve ever designed.

      My concern is more of the fact that people don’t think ahead when action points are available, Mike. They tend to overlook simple, easy things.


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