Friday, May 10, 2013

Zero-Sum Action Points

I love action points. (And their Pathfinder equivalent, hero points.)

But I hate the action point rules.

To my mind, action points work best when they’re elementally simple: spend an action point to get an extra standard action. When a player spends an action point, it almost always makes the game more fun for everyone involved. The action point enables great, dramatic moments.

But all the other rules just complicate the action point’s essential elegance, and they’re begging to be forgotten in actual play.

• “+2 attack if you spend an action point while prone.”
• “+2 to Will defense if you spend an action point when adjacent to an undead creature.”

(Those are probably fictitious examples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned out to be real. I shudder at the crazy, corner-case rules in racial feats and paragon paths.)

The eight (!) different ways you can spend a hero point in Pathfinder? Same problem. That hero point can generate a luck bonus: sometimes it’s +8, sometimes +4, and sometimes +2. 

Keep it simple, DMs—regardless of what edition you’re playing. Just say no complicated action points.

Side note: Adding action-granting points to 3.x games is super-easy; my 3.5 campaign did it for years. Older editions aren’t much harder—you just have to do a little more work to define a “standard action” category.

Watch Me Contradict Myself
In my Thursday night 3.x campaign, I handed out poker chips to represent action points, and I loved the dramatic moment when a player picked up the chip, contemplated it briefly, then slid it across the table to me.

(Players of the FATE RPG get these dramatic moments all the time by using chips as props for Fate Points. It’s a good bit of physical theater.)

For my upcoming campaign, I’m going to make action points more complicated. I'm bringing back the poker chips, and I’m going to try something new: zero-sum action points. 

The idea is simple: When the player gives that poker chip to the DM for an extra action, the player is really giving the poker chip to the DM. The DM can spend that chip later. (Insert evil laughter here.)

This makes the action point system more complicated, but if the “DM spending” moment can be as elegant as player spending, then it might be even better.

What Does the Poker Chip Do?
First, let’s deal with the obvious way a DM could spend a chip: to give a monster an extra action, or more broadly to help out the monster.

It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it nicely mirrors how players are using their chips. But I don’t think it’s very satisfying.

First, 4e and Pathfinder already have ways for monsters to get action points/hero points. (It’s a lot more prevalent in 4e, where they come standard on elites and solos.) At the tables I frequent, it doesn’t feel like an awesome moment when the DM has the dragon spend an action point, though. It feels like the DM is cheating—but within the rules.

Second, when I’m a DM, I don’t need my monsters to be tougher or more effective. I’ve got monsters at literally every level of effectiveness, and I’m never going to run out of monsters. In mid-fight, I don’t need more monster actions. I don’t need some kind of pervasive stat buff either.

Instead, I want to spend my DM poker chip to increase the amount of mayhem in a fight, or to ratchet up the tension somehow. Mayhem and tension…those are the products I want to buy with my poker chips.

(Mayhem and tension are probably neutral for encounter balance, but the players won’t see it that way. I don’t want players to hoard their action points because they’re worried about me, but I do want a little frisson of danger when they slide that chip across the table.)

At this point, I have about half-dozen ideas for tension and mayhem. Some of them are what I’ll charitably call “inelegant.” I don’t know which is best…but that’s what playtesting is for. In the coming weeks, I’ll be spending my DM poker chips in the following ways:

Property destruction. You spend the chip to make the roof collapse or the room start filling with water--really, anything big that makes the encounter a “whole new ballgame.” You’d probably have to design a specific “destruction upgrade” for each encounter, which is both a strength and a weakness. Good thing I like making encounters!

Reinforcements. New bad guys—or better yet, a third faction that mixes it up with everybody—show up. Again, you’d design the “reinforcement upgrade” for each encounter.

Messing with criticals. All crit ranges increase, all crits deal even more damage, or all crits have an extra rider effect. Something like that. It’s gonna be a big swing, though—you don’t want it to go unnoticed.

Riskier debuffs. For the rest of the encounter, if you miss with an attack that would have imposed a condition if it hit, you get hit with that condition yourself. (Probably too crazy, but that’s why we test.)

• Successful hits impose a vulnerability condition to future hits of that type, probably with “save ends” or 1 rd./level timing.

Save DCs start moving around—every time you make a save, it gets harder to make the next one.

Debuffs on misses. If you miss with an attack, you grant combat advantage for a round.

Of these ideas, I think the ones that mess with criticals and saving throws hold the most promise. Those are naturally high-drama moments, and cranking up the tension even further with a poker chip might pay off in spades.

But like I said, I’m gonna test a bunch of these. It’s a meritocracy of tension and mayhem. A mayhemocracy, if you will.

Getting the Chips Back to the Players
Ideally, there’d be a full-fledged poker-chip economy, where the DM is sliding the chips back to individual players. (This is what FATE does to great effect.) But I usually want mayhem and tension to be tablewide, so it’s hard to know which player gets the chip. I’ll probably just put the spent DM chips into “limbo” until the players earn action points the normal way (depending on whether we’re playing 4e or Pathfinder). At least at first…



  1. I hate action points. One of the things I hate about them is they come from nowhere. They represent nothing. What is the hero doing when he spends the action point? Making extra effort? Why can he only make that extra effort three times? I know, I'm nitpicky. I can't help what is in my head.

    But then, I look at this and think, this could make me like action points. Because they wouldn't be action points. I could make them, for example, represent karma. If I build a theme of karmic balance into my game and use this mechanic to support it, I could be happy. Or fate. Call it fate. When a person uses a point, they are defying their fate. But fate always balances the books. So, something bad is on the horizon. If the whole party defies their fate in a dangerous situation, the players know something big is coming because the DM has a lot of fate points to pay back. And the characters (because they live in a world where they know that fate is a thing) know they got away with something big and they are now on borrowed time.

    Sorry to babble in your comment feed, sir, but nice idea. I like this.

  2. There's a fair amount of babbling in the original post ;)

    And your point about APs being divorced from anything in the game world is well taken. I'd run with your "call it fate" idea. Heck, maybe the goddess of Fate is involved somehow...

  3. the transactional chip approach sounds a lot like the mechanism in Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies. It's an incredibly collaborative RPG--almost an un-RPG. Players are encouraged to DO COOL THINGS which earn them chips. In that sense, it's a lot like you're earning the attention of Fate, which wants to see you do more.

    Really neat system. I'd love to run a 1-2 shot for you to show it off.