Since I’ve gotten used to playing QAGS, I feel limited when I play RPGs (at least traditional ones with distinct GM and player roles) that don’t have some kind of mechanic that allows players to bend the rules and take narrative control. At this point, I think every game needs some kind of Yum Yum/Hero Point/Fate Point/Whatever mechanic, and I usually advocate adding them even to systems where they’re not built in. Here’s why:
The Character Sheet Can Never Fully Describe the Character
I wrote about this a while back, but the short version is that there are alway aspects of the character that aren’t represented on the character sheet because trying to account for everything the characters knows how to do, much less everything and everyone he knows and everything he owns mechanically is insane and ultimately doomed to failure. Benny points allow players to fill in the gaps as they become relevant to the story. These additions often work out in favor of the players, but that’s how fiction works. Authors and screenwriters regularly introduce new character knowledge, contacts, and other resources to help move the plot along.
Even Mechanically Defined Traits Have Wiggle Room
The best example here is something like comic book super-powers, where writers frequently come up with new and perfectly logical ways to use a particular power. For example, Flash writers are always coming up with perfectly logical new speed powers (vibrating through walls, reading at super speed, whatever) that most RPG books don’t include as part of the basic "Super Speed" ability. In most cases, the mechanics that allow players to take advantage of these also limit them in some way--if you're out of bennies when you want to vibrate through another wall, either you or the GM just makes up some reason why it doesn't work (the wall's too thick and you might get trapped, the wall's too thin and you might end up with internal splinters, whatever) or even why it worked the last time (the other wall was made out of a more porous material) but won’t work now.
No World Is Fully Described
No matter how much you know about a world, there are always details that haven’t been established. When there’s a question about these unknowns, Bennies provide a currency with which the players can “buy” world details that work in the party’s favor. For example, if the party has a bag full of rubies and wants to impress the Elf King, he can spend a Yum Yum to establish that Elves value rubies above all other gems. As long as that doesn’t contradict anything we already know about elves in the world, it becomes canon. If the party shows up with diamonds later in the campaign, the Elf King is going to be bummed out that they didn’t bring rubies like last time. He might even cry.
The GM Can’t Describe Everything
Until virtual reality is a thing, there's always going to be a sensory gap between the GM's description and what the characters themselves are seeing. The GM probably isn't going to mention the candelabra hanging from the ceiling in the bar when the players walk in (even though it's the kind of thing the swashbuckler would notice immediately). When a fight starts and the swashbuckler inevitably needs something swing on, he introduces the candelabra without wasting time (and breaking immersion) asking about the furniture by spending a Benny.
Sometimes Things Go According To Plan
Dice rolls in an rpg essentially represent all the situational variations that determine success or failure. If a character is trying to knock down a door, we already know the character’s physical strength (from Body or Strength or some other stat) and possibly the stoutness of the door (in the form of a Difficulty Number or Structural Integrity or whatever your system uses). If those were the only things that mattered, we could just compare them and skip the roll. The roll represents whether the character hits the door in just the right spot, whether the hinges are a little weakened by rust, how much the moisture of the dungeon has warped the door (and whether that makes it easier or harder to bust open), etc. When a player spends Bennies, he’s essentially just establishing that some or all of these random factors are working out to to the character’s advantage.
From a story perspective, there’s absolutely no difference between spending Bennies and getting a lucky roll except that in the first case the player has a choice. All the characters know is that everything worked out well. Still, some people seem to have a problem with idea of players using Bennies instead of dice. In my opinion, it’s just another way to model fiction. In books and movies, important actions (the ones players would likely spend Yum Yums for) are typically described or shown in extra detail that reveals how the character is being extra careful about what he’s doing, paying close attention to his surroundings, and otherwise controlling for all the random factors that are represented by die rolls. Spending bennies to skip or enhance a roll is basically the same thing as a character saying “I’ve got to make this one count.”
About a month ago, someone on Reddit asked for tips on using dream logic in games. He or she planned on introducing a trickster villain whose presence twisted reality into a dream-like state. I posted some suggestions and thought “that would make a good blog subject,” then promptly forgot about it. Now I’ve remembered that dreams would make a good blog topic, so you’re going to get an expanded version of the post I just linked.
Last week, I applied Timothy Leary’s definition of a “game” to role-playing and ended with a promise to discuss other passages in his presentation “How To Change Behavior” that, despite having nothing to do with role-playing, are strangely applicable to our hobby. Here’s the first passage I was talking about:
“All behavior involves games. But only that rare Westerner we call ‘mystic’ or who has had a visionary experience of some sort sees clearly the game structure of behavior. Most of the rest of us spend our time struggling with roles and rules and goals and concepts of games which are implicit and confusedly not seen as games, trying to apply the roles and rules and rituals of one game to the other games."
This article, which reprints Timothy Leary’s International Congress of Applied Psychology presentation, “How To Change Behavior,” recently showed up in my newsfeed. What does Timothy Leary have to do with gaming? Well, in the case of “How To Change Behavior,” the whole presentation starts with the idea of looking at behavioral sequences as games:
“The use of the word ‘game’ in this sweeping context is likely to misunderstood. The listener may think I refer to play as opposed to the stern, real-life, serious activities of man. But as you shall see I consider the latter as a ‘game.’”
I feel like I need to start with some disclosures here. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in something like fourth grade and have been a gamer ever since. I’ve also been fascinated by Jack Chick for at least 20 years. I have a binder full of Chick comics I’ve collected over the years; I would like the whole collection, but I can’t bring myself to just order them because giving Chick Publications money (much less my address) seems…icky. I’ve read all the biographical information I’ve been able to find about Mr. Chick (which mostly consists of Daniel Raeburn’s excellent IMP issue about him). I’ve written articles about Jack Chick. I wrote an adventure that used the afterlife as imagined by Jack Chick as a starting point (Waxman’s Warriors). And have you ever thought that “The Death Cookie” was a weird name for a gaming website? That’s because we got it form a Chick tract. Long story, but if you ever catch Leighton and I together and have a Chick tract handy, we might treat you to/punish you with one of our dramatic readings. We’ve even got special voices for recurring characters like Giant Faceless Jesus and the snotty “His name’s not in the book, Lord!” Angel and everything.