As I brought up in a previous article, to play around with the mechanics is to create the rules by which the game world is governed. Role-playing games are an attempt to simulate reality, but not actually the reality we live in. (What is there to simulate? Double-stuff Oreos already exist!!)
Role-playing games simulate the logic of the fictional worlds we see in books, movies, TV shows, and other media.
One rule that applies in many of these fictional worlds is that when things get really tough, characters have a resource that they can tap so that they can succeed at their task. It may be called luck, fate, edge, hutzpah, moxie, karma, the goodwill of the audience, the matrix of leadership, or any variety of things; the character applies this resource at just the right time so that everyone can live happily ever after… if that’s your genre. There are a variety of ways that this is simulated in role-playing games. The great John Kim wrote an article to give a quick history of the origins of these mechanics. They are called something different in almost every game that uses them, but for simplicity’s sake I will be calling them luck resources.
Luck resources vary between games, but generally they allow players somewhat greater agency by allowing them to reroll, modify dice rolls, and add or change story details. Some luck resources can only be used by the players, some by both the players and the gamemaster. They may sometimes be used before making a roll, afterward, or both. In spite of all these differences, however, I’ve identified the best luck resources as 1) simple to use, 2) providing effective agency (in quantity and quality), and 3) balanced so that they don’t break the game. Let’s start with the ugly:
1) Bad Karma: Marvel Superheroes (Ugly)
I hate to beat on TSR’s Marvel Superheroes so much, because I’ve spent many a happy session playing Beast and any number of homebrewed superheroes; but the luck resource used in this game is broken. It is called Karma: characters earn Karma by doing good deeds, saving the day, and otherwise behaving heroically. Karma can then be spent on character advancement or to succeed on rolls. Spending Karma to succeed is where this becomes a luck resource. The difficulty, however is that you need to use the same resource pool for both advancement and luck. The mechanic is simple to use, but it fails to allow effective agency. I agree with John Kim in his above mentioned article; this mechanic generally leads players to either hoard their Karma to make their characters stronger, or to spend it all the time and leave their character weak. This creates a disparity between characters and bad feeling around the table about Karma spending, making for an ugly mechanic.
2) The Hand of Fate: Fate Core and Fate Accelerated Edition (Good)
Can I write an article without talking about Fate? I admit my bias, this is my favourite game.That being said, this luck resource leaves just enough to be desired. It is based on Fate Points, which are integral to the game. Players begin each session with a certain number of Fate Points (usually 3), and they earn extra points when bad things inevitably happen to their character. Fate Points can be used to modify rolls before or after they are made, to re-roll, or to create story details, but with a catch; they can only be used to invoke different story elements, called aspects. Without going into great detail, what that means is that your character design will flavour the way ‘luck’ works in gameplay, which adds great storytelling value.The limitation I mentioned is in the value assigned by the mechanic. According to the basic rules (there are variations), a Fate Point is worth +2, no matter how perfectly or poorly it applies in a given situation. This makes the mechanic very simple to use, but at the cost of the quality of player agency.
3) The Bleeding Edge: Shadowrun (Hella Fun!)
Say what you want about Shadowrun; in an entirely-subjective-not-measurable way, this is my favourite luck resource. Shadowrun uses a dice pool mechanic to resolve tests. Edge, a kind of luck mechanic, is treated like a character attribute - that means players can choose whether or not they want to have it during character creation. Very early on, I realized what it was and pretty much always bought it up as high as functionally possible. In a single session, you could call on Edge a number of times equal to your Edge attribute. You could call on it before or after your roll, with different effects. After the roll, you could re-roll or roll a few extra dice. If you use it before the roll, however, it would allow you to add a number of dice equal to your Edge score to your pool. Also, if invoked before the roll, sixes got re-rolled in a sweet exploding dice mechanic. All that just to say that five times a session, I was shaking a mitt-full of dice that meant the odds were most definitely in my favour!
4) Where Have All the Heroes Gone: Mutants & Masterminds (Bad)
Now, to clarify, Hero Points is not actually a bad mechanic. It’s quite good. It does everything that you want a good luck resource to do. In writing this article, I just noticed that there’s only one luck resource I marked as bad, so I’m going to pick on the one flaw in this one. In Mutants and Masterminds, players get Hero Points that allow them to re-roll, modify a roll, and add or change story details, much like Fate. Players receive them for doing heroic things, like Marvel Superheroes, or for accepting complications built into your character concept, again like Fate. What’s the drawback? The problem is that even if you’ve earned points, the amount you have resets to just one at the beginning of every session. This weakens an otherwise powerful mechanic by limiting the quantity of times players can take agency. Just make a house rule to fix this one - it shouldn’t break the game.
5) A Muse of Fire: Dungeons and Dragons, Fifth Edition (Good)
So simple, and so fun, the Inspiration mechanic from D&D 5E is the first luck resource for the WoC franchise that applies to all characters regardless of race or class. It is somewhat different from the others mentioned above. Instead of allowing players to reroll or modify a roll, it permits the player to invoke the ‘Advantage’ mechanic. This increases the odds of success (including critical success) by allowing the player to roll a second 20-sided die and choose the highest result. Like the Shadowrun mechanic, this improves the odds while still allowing for titanic failure when the dice gods demand it. Players may only have one point of inspiration at a time, which is somewhat limited… but borrowing the Advantage mechanic and allowing the resource to only affect dice rolls keeps the balance and just adds a layer of fun to the classic game.
There are many other luck resources that I’ve heard of and read about: Savage Worlds’ ‘Bennies,’ Open d6 ‘Fate Points’ (not to be confused with Fate ‘Fate Points’ - stay with me), and many others. I’ve written about the ones that I’ve actually played; but from what I’ve read, the luck resources covered above represent most of them in functionality. All of them are intended to give a larger-than-life movie feeling to your game, and will hopefully help you to take your games to the next level!!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Tags: Dungeons and Dragons, d20, Marvel Superheroes, Fate Core, Fate Accelerated Edition, Shadowrun, Game Design
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.