On 'Points' in Play

Why, oh why is the story point so terrible?

We're going to talk about story points. You can call these whatever you want.

The idea is, the players get a resource that allows them as a player to change the state of the game world. The player (not the character) can spend a point and literally change something about the game world. It is a meta-tool. It isn't something that occurs inside the game - it is something that allows the player to affect the game world as the player.

I find these universally bad in OSR type games.

'Jim' can spend one of these points to alter the game environment.

Within the context of D&D, this reduces both risk and immersion.
It reduces risk (because like in the demotivational above) there is no actual real threat to the player until these points are exhausted. This means a risk-free (read: boring) game until the points are depleted.
It reduces immersion because Jim the player is looking for a solution to the problem, not Jim the player thinking about what Jim the character can do.

In some of the examples (and indeed in 4e) these points aren't used so much to affect the interplay between the characters but as literal tools in combat. In this situation, these points are bad, because they are the awesomely platonic idea of a disassociated mechanic. Character resources and powers that are suddenly available that do not tie into the fictional positioning within the game does not sound like a thing that would improve my game. For no reason at all, other then the fact that I spend this point, I get bonus powers.

This is assuming a traditional game (D&D) with traditional consequences.

Many times, the things you can do with these points ("I want it to be dark!") can be done within the fictional positioning of the game ("I have my character wait until nightfall").

Some of the things that people use story points for are ensuring that the activities they engage in while gaming (trapfinding, roleplaying, whatever) are the ones that occur. This strikes me as particularly bad, because what's the consequence when you run out of points?

"I'm sorry Jim. You don't have the points for it, I guess you don't get to do what you want."

44 comments:

  1. I agree. I played in a 4e campaign where we were awarded 'beads' (fate points) for good RPing or as story awards. They certainly allowed us to alter play way too much.

    With that said, it also likely made things easier for the DM. Often the beads allowed us to get a critical hit in battle to move the battle along quickly or to improve our skill rolls to move the scene along quickly and in a manner that "made sense" for the PC. In other words, we PCs got our way and the DM could travel the path of least resistance (i.e. didn't need to think of new situations on the fly).

    Would there be any 'story award' that you would give, such as extra experience or gold that may make sense in the campaign world?

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  2. Are these just Hero/Action points, or are they different?

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  3. I think it depends on what style of game you are playing, or rather the game you want to play. If you want to foster higher PC durability and reduce character death (I know, that's a big cardinal no-no in the OSR) in order to create a game that has a higher probability of character continuity, then fate / luck / hero / whatever points are useful. I use them in my current C&C campaign and it hasn't been much of an issue with regard to abuse. But that's because I have a great bunch of players who use the points sparingly.

    But, I'm planning on running a Labyrinth Lord game after my current game, and there will be no such points available, because I want to try out a different style of play (i.e. a more traditional and "deadly" type of D&D game).

    Ultimately, I definitely agree that these sorts of points should be used sparingly. I have to say that there have been many sessions in my current game that players have used none of their points, favoring their own problem solving abilities and creativity to get them out of (or totally avoid) deadly situations. But again, I have a good group that understands the old school way ;-)

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  4. @Drance: You can use a point system to stack the odds in favour of the players without running into the problems -C describes. Just have the points be used to manipulate probability rather than change the state of the game world. Jeff's d30 rule is a good example.

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  5. In some of the examples (and indeed in 4e) these points aren't used so much to affect the interplay between the characters but as literal tools in combat. In this situation, these points are bad, because they are the awesomely platonic idea of a disassociated mechanic. Character resources and powers that are suddenly available that do not tie into the fictional positioning within the game does not sound like a thing that would improve my game.

    The popular d30 optional rule fits all those characteristics as well. It is even more dissociated than the action points of 4E, because it is per session rather than being tied to something in the game.

    I am not a fan of action points for other reasons, but it seems like some metagame rules can be introduced without affecting the main dynamics of old school play.

    I'm with you on the general idea that story points are bad if they can guarantee success (rather than just increase probabilities or grant a second chance) because of the loss of real danger.

    I absolutely 100% agree with this:

    It reduces risk (because like in the demotivational above) there is no actual real threat to the player until these points are exhausted. This means a risk-free (read: boring) game until the points are depleted.

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  6. @John: if you go to the following post on my blog, you'll see where I go into detail on what fate points can do for you in my game.

    http://unto-the-breach.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-castles-crusades-house-rules.html

    They do, for the most part, perform the function you mention: manipulate probability in the form of rerolls. Mind you, these are not my creation, but rather a set of optional rules in the Castles & Crusades Castle Keeper's Guide. Before I used these published rules to codify my point system, I was using a more free-form points style. But again, this wasn't a problem due to my players' creativity and willingness to think critically rather than look at their character sheets for an easy mechanical solution.

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  7. @Drance: I think it depends on the number of points they have. That list of rules does seem to prevent the characters in a traditional game (one structured like D&D, not FATE or other 'story' games) from experiencing risk until the points are depleted.

    If it is, as you claim, to "increase survivability". Then this is technically true, but. . .

    In my experience, survivability has to do with the quality and skill of play. (but what about bad rolls? The skill comes from avoiding having your survival being dependent on poor rolls).

    So the way I'm looking at it - the points not only remove risk leading to a boring game, they directly reward poor play.

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  8. So the way I'm looking at it - the points not only remove risk leading to a boring game, they directly reward poor play.

    Isn't the same thing true for any HP above 1, any AC below 9, etc? Those are all elements that stand between a PC and instant death.

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  9. @Brendan: "The popular d30 optional rule fits all those characteristics as well. It is even more dissociated than the action points of 4E, because it is per session rather than being tied to something in the game."

    It may be more meta, by being per session. But you can only invoke it the d30 when you're already being asked to roll. Aren't action points invoked whenever a player wants? That seems more dissociated to me.

    Also, John's mention of probability is a big difference between the d30 rule and a Hero/Fate point type point; more often than not my players take their one d30 roll and still fail.

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  10. @Telecanter

    "Once per encounter, you can spend an action point to take an extra action."

    This extra action can fail, and often does.

    Some 4E powers also allow re-roll attempts for bad rolls (usually as per-encounter abilities or something like that). Failure is still possible in this case as well.

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  11. Example of a luck-oriented power:

    Second Chance (Halfling Racial Encounter Power)

    "When an attack hits you, force an enemy to roll the attack again. The enemy uses the second roll, even if it’s lower."

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    1. I'm actually considering something similar to this for my upcoming Labyrinth Lord campaign that I want to run! I was going to call it Fey Luck or something like that. Usable once per encounter for Halflings, and yes, the reroll could actually be worse for the halfling!

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  12. World-changing points aren't something I'm a huge proponent of (though I've found their use in other games moderately satisfying). But I can get behind points that represent internal strength or other resources that can be to expended to influence probability and create specific effects.

    Case in point: D&D hit points always stuck in my craw. Weapons do definite ranges of damage based on their type, wielder's strength, etc. So the obvious leap in my mind is to assume that hit points represent bodily health chipped away by the damage. As such they should stay pretty nearly the same except for some slight increase in overall health or endurance.

    But they instead represent sort of accumulated luck and stamina-enabled reflexes needed to turn aside the worst of blows. Essentially plot protection against traditional damage.

    To the nostrils of my imagination this has the slight reek of dissociation. Though that's not necessarily the worst thing in the world.

    Accumulated luck I could take. Physical reserves worn down I can understand. But if either of those are the case why can't this luck and reserves help you in other regards such as reacting to effects that don't cause direct damage?

    I'm not opposed to a vaguely defined *something* that PCs can expend to add a little extra oomph to their desperate attempts. I just prefer it applied a little more broadly. My own solution was nebulous "Reserves", used not only to avoid physical damage, but also to represent other forms of inner strength and effort expended.

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  13. As you told, the story points are "wish coupons" and I agrre that it are nonsense. I allow players to change the world with some mechanics, like a "Synchronicity" class mechanic that allow luck god's priest to "rewrite" the setup of some encounters in some possible, reasonable way. But it is limited to one use for session, and it can only be use to give more options to the encounter, not to avoid a challenge.
    Or, high level bards PJs can "guess" a secret from important NPC. Those secrets can't contradict any previous statement about the characters. They are used as a blackmail resource.
    Also, I allow to players to invent the legendary story of the magic items they found.

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  14. What if priests had miracle points, given to them for dramatic actions furthering their ethos/god, and then they could use them to periodically alter the state of the world via miracles?

    That sounds kinda fun to me, and I normally dislike fate points type stuff. Just trying to figure out if this is a window dressing issue!

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  15. allow me to play Devil's Advocate here for a moment though: wouldn't you agree that spells in D&D are "story points"? a first-level wizard has a couple story-points-per-day in the form of reality-altering spells. what makes these different?

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    1. Very interesting way of looking at spells! I like it.

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  16. @-C: I totally agree that there's boredom to be had with abuse of such points. Indeed, if my players were abusing/overusing/depending on them too heavily, I wouldn't hesitate to phase them out (i.e. once you guys hit X level the Fate points go away, because the gods recognize you no longer need them or whatever...I'm the GM, I don't have to explain myself! Here's the revised house rules!)

    I also see Fate Points in my game as an alternative dice fudging, if that makes any sense. The point system is a player-controlled "fudging" system in and of itself, IMHO, but a very limited one for all that.

    Again, I do agree with you on much of what you have written here, and I really want to do some roleplaying where the players do not have these points, as in my current campaign.

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  17. I disagree, and agree.

    First. What kind of fate/action points are we talking about? What can they be used for? There a literally dozens of different kind of rules for these kind of mechanics.

    Second. If you have some way of adding to the game world, it can help you as a player to connect to the world. It does not have to disassociate you from the character, it can in fact instead make you the player have a connection to things in the game world, not only your character.

    Third. Yes, if you can manipulate probabilities, sure it will affect the deadliness of a game. Will it take out that sword of Damocles that character death is? Not necessarily. It depends on what kind of mechanics you are using. See the first point of mine. If it can be used after the fact, yes it will make the threat of PC death less imminent. Until you are out of points. Make them spend them often and it will not be a problem.

    This is beginning to turn into a blog post of its own...

    I ramble on in more detail, here.

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  18. What you call a "disassociated mechanic", I call something that can be defined as needed. In 4e I have no problem seeing this as an adrenaline surge, lucky break, favor of the gods, trick learned from a master, or whatever they need to be. Sometimes it helps when something is not explicitly defined because you can bring your own explanation. I agree that player empowerment mechanics are not appropriate for all styles of play, but I prefer styles of play that involve them. And I disagree with you that the game is risk-free until they are exhausted, at least in most interpretations I've seen. In most of the games I play they have certain effects and that's it. You can flub your reroll just as easily as you flubbed your original roll. They do reduce risk, but if I want to play a game with high mortality I play a wargame and not a role-playing game.
    @Drance "I'm the GM, I don't have to explain myself!" You do with the people I play with. Or you will be GM'ing to the crickets. The game is supposed to be fun for everybody at the table. Now I'm not saying the players need to rule the roost, but the "GM as dictator" concept is responsible for a lot of the animosity people have for OSR games. When more of the rulings are in the hands of the GM, then having somebody with that sort of ego is a bad idea. I'm not saying that changing the rules is a bad thing, but changing them without talking with the players is bad. Who knows, somebody might have an idea that will control the problems without removing the mechanic entirely.

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    1. I was trying to be funny when I wrote the whole "I'm the GM..." thing. I wasn't being serious. Just wanted to clarify.

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  19. As someone who uses what you may call "Story points" quite heavily in an old school fantasy RPG..

    I gotta ask with pure honesty: How many games have you ever played that were Old School and used "Story Points" of some sort?

    Cause for me its been near a decade of my home game and my weekly G+ game, and I have never seen any of the pitfalls you describe.

    Note that doesn't mean it won't happen, it just means it isn't happening for me. So if it is happening for you, but not me, I am extremely curious as to what we do differently (because what you are describing sounds like it sucks, and I don't want my game to start sucking)

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  20. The original article and the responses here are very much from an OSR perspective, missing some key points.

    I have two questions.

    1) If in OSR you assume that a person playing, is playing themselves in a game with specific trappings (what would I do if *I* was an elf in this dungeon facing this room) what immersion are you exactly breaking by adding another option or power?

    and the most simple and critical...

    2) What do you do to earn these points? In most 'Story Points' games you usually gain points by increasing risk or taking on bad outcomes, so the points on-demand balance out. It seems like everyone here assumes they magically appear every game or every session. There's a cost for being awesome, I'm not sure why the assumption is that it's free (or for something meta like 'making people laugh' or the ephemeral 'good roleplaying').

    Also @Zzarchov congratulations on not needing 'story points' training wheels :)

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  21. Summation: story points no worky for you and players? No use them. You and players have many fun game times despite inclusion of story points? Okie doke! ; )

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  22. In my 4e game, story points & XP are the same thing - instead of XP budgeting, each significant combat nets 1 XP, as do feats of awesomeness, with 10 points per level. If a character wants to effect the game world in their favor, they do so at penalty to their progress toward the next level.
    Bam. Elegant, Intuitive, High stakes.

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  23. @Zzarchov: Hackmaster. And, it had the pitfalls I describe. I mean 'the first roll' wasn't anything important. It was the mulligan roll that was critical.

    @Tenebrius: Answers.
    1) You are giving them a tool they use as a player instead of a tool their character can use.

    2) In Hackmaster? You earn them by "being in great Honor" which is nebulously defined. 4e gives them out per session? Level? I don't recall every not having one.

    In my experience, they are free. And you do sort of get them for just showing up. When you don't get them, from either side of the screen, the general attitude was one of entitlement.

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    1. 4e gives them out once every 2 encounters (or 1 if the encounter is big). They are automatically gained and a lot of the balance of 4e is centered around assumptions of their use (effectively as a replacement for daily powers later in a given day).

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    2. Having played 4e I don't recall this in the base rules. Part of your problem may be that 'entitlement'. Never had that issue with my players/games, and it may explain why you're having problems as opposed to say @zzarchov. Or most story games.

      I think this is a case of someone seeing points in story games, going 'hey that's a neat idea I hear it's cool and increases player buyin' and putting a square peg into a round hole without actually measuring and trimming correctly first.

      This also explains your reaction of distaste. You have to add the support scaffolding otherwise it is just 'free cookies with no consequence'.

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    3. HP recharges given time.

      Action points recharge given time (artificially measured time, granted, as "two encounters" is very meta, but it's still functionally a time-based recharge).

      And action points only give you extra actions. They are not general get out of jail free "story points" as people seem to be discussing here.

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  24. Lots of responses, to my mind, are missing the point. I see a couple problems with "story points".

    The first is that fate points which allow the player to cheat death, like the ones Drance linked to, remove risk until they've been expended. Hit points are a tension builder: as your HP goes down, your chance of sudden death goes up (and they never provide complete protection). The C&C fate points eliminate the chance of death entirely until they've been spent, which wrecks all that. Even if you wanted to play a low-risk game, wouldn't it make more sense to rework the HP system than to bypass it?

    The second problem is that story points which let the player change the state of the gameworld are, like nearly all disassociated mechanics, backwards. Normally a player would think up a course of action based on observation and creativity, the effects of which would then be adjudicated accordingly. With disassociated mechanics, the effect comes first and the explanation is thought up afterwards to match. That's not conducive to clever and creative gameplay.

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    1. This is a fallacy.

      HP is a resource. If you think that these points lower risk why not just reduce HP to 1? Or by 10/20/30? This is no different, and pretending that this changes the equation in a significant way is assuming adding the possibility of death-avoidance to current system in a vacuum. Without adding consequence for point acquisition, or re-balancing your statement is correct, in concept though it makes too many assumptions.

      And secondly just to be clear: Solving a puzzle using given elements is clever and creative. Adding inventive new elements and solving a puzzle at a different level is disassociated and not clever or creative?

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    2. I agree that hit points are a resource. As they are removed, they increase the tension.

      As long as story points are in play, (since they are also a resource) this tension is negated.

      The reason the story points negate tension and hit points increase tension is that the player is in charge of spending the points. Hit points are reduced due to factors exclusively outside of player choice, and are reduced randomly.

      Solving a puzzle using in-game elements is clever. Adding new elements is also creative. Adding elements and tools that the player uses instead of elements that the character uses to solve problems is disassociated.

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    3. Can I ask you a question, -C? Do you allow wish spells on your game?

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    4. Come now -C! Should I point you at your own article on risk management and player choice? Hit point loss is part of that choice.

      As danger ramps up and story points are used, the player (true) is spending them, much like by choosing to engage in combat they are choosing to risk/lose hit-points. The tension is the same.

      Example: In your latest article you point out that a number of systems use different hit point methods (ex: the 1 hit per level). In essence that there is 1 story point per level used to negate death. The two are essentially, the same.

      As to the latter: So story point usage to solve problems (which has in-game meta-rules + ingenuity) can be clever and creative. And in game usage of your tools (skill rolls, spells, hit-points + ingenuity) can be clever and creative. This was my point.

      The major complaint then is what? Disassociation?

      What this smacks of is cognitive dissonance. "They are cheating!" "I did it inside the game, where it was harder, going outside the CURRENT ruleset which doesn't account for story points makes it easier/simpler/less-worthy." It's similar to the 'in-my-day' or 'uphill-both-ways' arguments.

      This makes it seem the problem in your mind is less about the effect on game, and more about the effect on 'fairness'.

      I challenge you to instead think about how you would balance this application in-game.

      It's a different way of doing it. Not necessarily better or worse.

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    5. @tenebrius: As your hit points are depleted, your chance of death increases. As your fate points are depleted, your chance of death remains constant at zero until they are all expended.

      You appreciate the difference? When you have a lot of hit points, your chance of sudden death is low (but never zero). As your hit points decrease, that chance increases, which is what builds tension. But if you have a fate point, that chance is zero, and it stays zero until that point is spent.

      To your second paragraph: Achieving a given objective through manipulation of your existing circumstances and resources is clever, and usually creative. Achieving that objective by spending a fate point to declare it fortuitously solved is neither per se (at least, not the kind of creativity that is useful to a player in the absence of fate points). Example: concocting a clever plan to lure the baron to you, vs. spending a fate point to declare that the baron frequents your favourite pub. In either case the larger situation can proceed with the new element in play (you can ransom him to the king or whatever), but I'm talking about the specific effect of the disassociated mechanic, in this case the fate point.

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    6. @John: It's an interesting distinction on HPs, but a false one.

      As your hit points deplete, your chance of being dead is zero until they are all gone. If you have 50 hp, and the monster hits for 1d10, you chance of death is zero above 10 hit points. Zero. As in there's no reason to be afraid of death, or feel tension. At 10 or less you're playing probability on a per-swing basis.

      Similarly if you're using a stack of points to negate hits, the stack is decreasing, it's a similar progress bar from 100% safety to none. The only differential is in the lowest region of hit points vs the single story point (which is indivisible, much like a single hit point is).

      Then we hit a problem in the example. We now need specifics. Are we using fate points? What are the rules on these specific points? Because say in fate you can force someone to reroll (non-zero death chance) or add +or-2 (still non-zero). Again, you are mitigating percentages and laying odds. It might extend your death range to 8hp as opposed to 10, but is it a complete death cheat? In which case, consider it +X hit points where X is equal to the monster's swing and you have an identical example to HP again.

      I'll provide a clearer example. Deadlands (yes the non-d20 version). Insanely lethal game. You got poker chips. These were used as XP or to save your life and fuel special abilities in-game. Pretty much unless you got really lucky, to not die you had to spend chips. What was hillarious was to watch people's hands shake, and their brows sweat as they bid chips to try and make sure they survived while still advancing their character. Namely, the threat and the tension was there, but the 'life saving chip' existed and kept people alive.

      The point of the story is that risk management and resource management are both elements of games. Seeing what is essentially a filled bar deplete (HP) fills me with about as much dread as seeing a stack of chips deplete (story points). What makes them interesting is what you do instead with them. For example: If you can expend X hit points (or story points) to cast a spell, do you risk doing so and killing the monster, or do you save it for the hit you might take if you fail?

      In terms of bar vs stack the example is the same though. The difference is one of proportion. Where you might start with 80 hp, or 8 chips, the HP is variable to incoming damage which you mitigate by choosing to fight or not fight, and the point is equal in HP to a single swing of the monster which you mitigate by choosing to use or not use.

      The difference is actually in pre-expenditure. If you provide players with opportunity to spend their points before-hand they will more often than not.


      As to the second paragraph: You are confusing me again. Please explain to me how 'spend a fate point to declare this is the baron's favorite pub' and 'ask the gm and pay some gold to find out that this is the baron's favorite pub' are different? How is one clever and the other neither? I mean ultimately the point of the story is to capture the baron, so unless the GM is limiting agency and trying to stop you both are just an expenditure of mechanic.

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    7. As your hit points deplete, your chance of being dead is zero until they are all gone. If you have 50 hp, and the monster hits for 1d10, you chance of death is zero above 10 hit points. Zero. As in there's no reason to be afraid of death, or feel tension. At 10 or less you're playing probability on a per-swing basis.

      This is blatantly incorrect, especially the bolded part. Firstly, in D&D, your chance of death is never zero. Even if you have 50 hp, you are still at risk from spells, poison, long falls, megadamage such as dragon breath, and other instakills. Your risk of death is very low, but it's non-zero (and high-level characters with that kind of hit points are more likely to be facing those kinds of threats).
      As your hit points decrease, your risk of death goes up. At 11 HP, the chance that d10 damage will kill you is zero, but the chance of death from 2d8 damage is 1 in 3. Average it out over all likely sources of death in a dungeon, and you'll probably be looking at an exponential curve.
      Fate points do not produce any sort of curve at all. Your chance of death stays at zero until your last fate point is expended. And the point at which hit points are indivisible, at 1 hp, is the point of highest risk, whereas at 1 fate point the risk is still zero. You must see the difference.

      Then we hit a problem in the example. We now need specifics. Are we using fate points? What are the rules on these specific points?

      As I said in my original comment, the example I'm using is the one I was given: the optional fate point system from Castles & Crusades, which lets you avoid death at negative HP, automatically make a saving throw, declare an attack that would normally hit you to have missed, or buy a "plot break" subject to DM approval. My argument applies to any fate points that allow you to similarly cheat death. If you want to talk about a different kind of fate point, that's a different conversation.

      I've never played Deadlands. I can't comment as to the effectiveness of its mechanics. I'm talking about D&D and its clones, which already have a tension-building mechanic in place - hit points - that the fate point system undermines.


      Re: your last paragraph, is that the example I gave? No, it isn't.

      I'll restate the problem: in order to achieve their in-game goals, a player would normally use skill in planning and creativity in coming up with a course of action that will get them what they want. Sometimes, their goal might be simple or easily achieved, in which case no great effort is required. Sometimes it might be difficult and require devilish cunning or out-of-box thinking. In any case, the outcome, including the degree of success or failure, are dictated by the player's actions as they unfold, which can lead to all sorts of complications and unexpected results. (I call this "adventuring".)

      In a game which uses fate points as "plot coupons", a player can use skill and creativity to achieve their in-game goals, or they can use fate points. Sometimes, their goal might be simple or easily achieved, in which case no great effort is required. Sometimes it might be difficult, in which case they can use a fate point. If the player uses a fate point, they get to dictate the outcome (subject to DM approval, of course). No skill or creativity is needed to use a fate point. The degree of success or failure is dictated by the DM. There is no emergent story in using a fate point. There are no complications, other than ones the DM sticks in on purpose. There can never be any unexpected results (where 'unexpected' means to both players and DM).


      P.S. I mean ultimately the point of the story is to capture the baron
      Are you sure? How can you be, until the story is over?

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  25. I am unfamiliar with Hackmaster,

    Did you have an unlimited supply of "Mulligan"'s?

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    1. One per session. Everything was roses until that first mulligan was gone.

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    2. Ah, well if its a free resource I can see the problem.

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  26. 1st edition WFRP handled fate-points quite well, or at least, how my group used them: Only if you suffer a mortal injury you get to spend a fate point if you have one, which results in the GM coming up with a probable reason for your survival based on affected hit-location and critical effect... PC's still lost limbs and other body parts due to non-mortal injury effects.
    also, Fate Points were rewarded by the GM if he thought such a reward fitting with the conclusion of his campaign-arc, it was not at all a standard reward, and they did in fact run out, as only a few adventures were 'worthy' of being rewarded with a fate point. i.e. if your PC's are only doing small things (petty theft, brigandage, orc hunting, rat catching-sans Skaven schemes- etc.), they eventually run out of fate points and die at the next unlucky roll on the -3 injury table ;)

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