Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Action Points

At HelgaCon last weekend, probably everyone got sick (or at least bemused) by my grousing about "Action Points" (a.ka. Fate, Fortune, Hero, or Benefit points, et. al.) by the end of the weekend. The first time I saw a mechanic like this was in the 1980's with TSR's Top Secret game (in the form of "Luck Points"); I knew calamity was near when they slid into 3E D&D's Unearthed Arcana product.

One problem with Action Points is that they're a purely abstract game mechanic, disconnected from any specific in-game activity, and that always rubs me the wrong way. When a player says "I spend an Action Point", it's an intrinsically out-of-character statement (again, there's no specific, concrete reality that the PC is manipulating with that choice). When you tell the story afterwards, what can you say about the use of an Action Point? There's simply no in-game reality attached to it. They are an attempt (see below) at a narrative story-telling device, not really a game-playing device (and longer than these games have existed, I've been in the philosophical camp that stories and games are opposite activities). Paradoxically, the story-telling device becomes invisible in the story that you try to tell later on.

Related to this is that Action Points always have a sizable list of effects that you can trigger with them. Partly because they are purely abstract, the list is hard to remember, and completely opaque to a new player. It causes a lot of book-referencing to recall what abstract effects Action Points can have. This abstraction requires players to memorize complicated, legalistic formulae to make use of them. For example, you can't just say "I attack twice" in d20; you have to say "I use Extra Effort; Category Surge: Extra Standard Action; and use an Action Point to offset the resulting Fatigue". (Ick.) Similarly, we had a game this weekend where, despite everyone's best attempts, we simply couldn't track down the correct ruling for death-avoiding point-usage until days after the game.

But more important than any of that is that Action Points don't meet the goal that they're intended to. The sales-pitch for Action Points is always "Action Points provide extra effort to allow truly heroic, breathtaking derring-do in the climax to a story". Well, first of all, as a player, I can never tell exactly where the climax is while I'm playing (again, that's a story-thing, not a game-thing; it's only recognizable afterwards, once the game is finished). Secondly, that's not how I ever witness action points being used -- rather, they're always used as a defensive risk-limitation device. They don't turn average results into great ones; they're really used to turn dramatic failures into regular-plain-average-results, either in the form of (a) avoiding a killing shot by a villain, or (b) avoiding an embarassing failed skill roll for something that should be simple. In actual play, a huge failure is more painful than any great result is helpful, and therefore, Action Points become a normalizing device that irons out dramatic moments into more plain-average moments. There's actually fewer points of intense interest to tell about a game with Action Points than without them (primarily, fewer dramatic setbacks for the players, and fewer amazing feats by the villains).

Let me say this: I'm pretty fond of the 1980's Marvel Super Heroes game by TSR, and it had a vaguely similar mechanic called "Karma Points" that never bothered me so much. Let's see if I can explain why: First, you had a pool of dozens or hundreds of points. Second, use of Karma for an action had to be declared before any dice were rolled for the action (unlike modern games). Third, the use of Karma made for an automatic success; you just had to spend as many points as required to make up the difference for success (subject to running out of points). Fourth, the mechanic for using them defensively was so massively sub-optimal that you'd never see it in play (again, unlike modern games). So the end result is that they would in fact get used proactively for big stunts that you really did have to succeed at in advance. (And they didn't requre temporal retconning a la you miss/now you hit, nor could you spend a point and still fail anyway). That said, I still wouldn't want the mechanic in my pulpy fantasy adventures.

There's some other problems with Action Points, that observant friends pointed out this weekend, that I wouldn't have identified. One would be using Action Points as a cushioning device for otherwise lazy, unbalanced game mechanics. A second would be the ridiculous back-and-forth when players can spend Action Points, and villains can cancel them with their own Action Points, to absolutely no consequence on the game itself (but plenty of out-of-character mechanical thrashing along the way). Those are all good points. But Action Points are most decidely not.


  1. Yes. My group’s playing MSH currently. I have been a fan of Karma since I first played the game. (Which wasn’t until early this decade.)

    Personally, I don’t care for the declare-burning-Karma-before-rolling bit. I’m not convinced all that much is gained by making me bet 10 Karma up-front. Let me decide after the roll, and I’m still going to be just as stingy with my Karma.

    Mostly, though, I think it simply comes down to the fact that I’m too trained to just roll without ever thinking about Karma. Most games I play don’t have such a mechanic and none of those I played when my gaming habits were being formed. Especially in an intense moment when the adrenaline is pumping, I just never think about it until the dice leave my hand.

  2. I think your comments would have more merit overall if they were focused on a specific implementation of Action/Drama/Karma Points. Making a blanket dismissal of spendable fortune resources in general doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Sure, some games implement them as kludgy add-ons. Other games fill them with awesome. It varies.

    I also don't see an issue with such mechanics having no in-game rationale. I mean, D&D hit points have no in-game rationale; they are very much a narrative conceit (Big Damn Heroes should last longer in a fight than Joe Cannon-Fodder). In other RPGs, they make sense because of *in-genre* rationales; the Buffy RPG and FATE are good examples.

  3. Makes perfect sense to me. Delta hasn’t liked any implementation he’s encountered except MSH Karma. So, it’s the exception that gets the specific mention and generalization for the rest.

  4. I mean, D&D hit points have no in-game rationale; they are very much a narrative conceit...

    Among the things that we totally disagree on, this is one of them. I would go so far as to say that this claim amounts to revisionist history. In classic D&D, lost hit points were always literally a "hit" of some sort on the body, and would be described as such.

    DMG p. 82: "Each hit scored upon the character does only a small amount of actual physical harm... having sustained 40 or 50 hit points of damage, our lordly fighter will be covered with a number of nicks, scratches, cuts and bruises."

  5. Personally, I don’t care for the declare-burning-Karma-before-rolling bit. I’m not convinced all that much is gained by making me bet 10 Karma up-front.

    To me, the issue is not the 10 minimum (in fact, I didn't even recall that part), it's item #9 in the list above, when a DM announces "you miss!" and then has to retcon it later to "you hit!" if use of points is allowed after adjudication.

  6. Oh, I don’t really begrudge the 10 points. It’s the inevitable, “Why didn’t I remember to burn Karma?” as the dice leave my hand on those rolls when I should’ve burnt Karma.

    If I had my way, it would go like this: 1. Roll. 2. Decide to burn Karma. 3. Tell the GM the total/color result. 4. GM announces results.

    Just a swap of steps 1 and 2 from the written way. Thus, no retcon.

  7. I see a further detriment to game systems that use Hero Points as an advancement mechanic.

    If you have the choice to spend your Hero Points to improve a skill, will you? Knowing that you may need to burn them up later to survive?

    In a game where resurrection is possible you always want to have a few Hero Points laying around. But if you had bought a higher skill with them you might not need to use them for survival results!

    In the end your total income of Hero Points minus your outgoing Hero Point expenses in survival equal your total power (and survivability). By entering into dangerous situations where you might have to use Hero Points to survive you restrict your future skill gains and overall survivability.

    Imagine one player spending all his Hero Points on skills and another saves them all for rescues. The character with higher skills might use a couple Hero Points here and there for a rescue, but the very weak character with all the saved Hero Points will burn through them constantly for rescues.

    Foolhardy play is effectively discouraged by reduced future skill gains. But the character is then less survivable and needs to burn Hero Points more frequently. Eventually he's out of his league with the other characters and is always burning Hero Points just to stay alive, gaining no skills and becoming relatively pointless. This survivability spiral works a lot like the death spiral in games that give penalties to rolls when you're injured.

    This is the sort of "kick the player when he's down" game mechanic that just doesn't make for a fun game.

    But all this just has to do with systems that marry the advancement mechanic with the save-your-butt mechanic.

  8. I think you make very good points, Tacoma.

    This doesn’t seem to be a problem in MSH because the Karma costs for advancement are so high. (At least, the way we play it. I’m not always clear on what’s by-the-book and house-rules with MSH.) Which I think fits well with the “most characters don’t tend to substantially advance over time” scheme that I expect from that game, yet it still leaves the possibility open.

    (And truthfully, I’m more of a fan of the “almost no advancement” Traveller style than the “regular advancement” D&D style.)