Monday, November 14, 2011

Thoughts On Hero Points

Hero points, alternatively known as action points, have been a part of tabletop role playing games since days of yore. They're a quirky and polarizing concept, often lurking around the edge of a game system's rules. A hero point mechanic for any given game is either a very commonly used house rule, or it's an optional rule presented in an officially published supplement. There are those games which use them as standard rules (D&D 4th Edition comes to mind), but in my experience those games are in the minority.

For those who are unfamiliar, a game which employs such a mechanic allows characters to gain hero points through [insert method here]. Once acquired, one of these points can be spent to bend the game's rules. A missed attack can be re-rolled, a difficult task can be simplified, or a player who has exhausted a special ability can sneak in an additional use. Pathfinder's "Advanced Player's Guide" offers such a system as an optional rule, with points being gained any number of ways. From leveling up, to completing a plot arc, to performing a heroic act.

My biggest problem with hero point systems is that they are, by definition, a meta-game mechanic. The core of role playing games is establishing characters which act within an internally consistent world. It seems odd, then, that we would intentionally break the wall between the game world and the real world by introducing a mechanic which muddles the internal consistency of a world. After all, only player characters get hero points in most systems. Ergo, once hero points are an option, the PCs are no longer simple characters within the game world. They are, rather, avatars of otherworldly beings (the players) which grants them special abilities. Pathfinder is particularly bad in this area, and goes so far as to provide feats, spells, and magic items which interact with hero points. So not only do you gain access to a completely unique ability merely on the basis of being a player character, you can even build your character around this uniqueness which separates you from rest of the world.

Another reason which I don't like hero points is the way in which they mitigate danger. By allowing players to re-roll when the result is poor, we give them a much higher probability of avoiding pivotal failures. While this may not sound like the worst thing ever, it creates three undesirable situations. First and foremost in my mind is that avoiding pivotal failures often means avoiding interesting failures. In a standard game, the cleric fails his jump over the pit of spikes. He falls 40 feet, takes his damage, but survives. However, his legs have been impaled by the spikes, and the other players must find a way to rescue him from bleeding to death at the bottom of a pit. Or, the wizard uses an action point and the game continues on without incident. Which story will the players be talking about after the adventure is over?

Second, avoiding pivotal failures makes the whole world around the character much less dangerous. Part of the thrill of stealing from a dragon's horde is knowing that the dragon could wake up at any moment. If you know you've got a hero point in the wings ready to save you from a bad stealth roll, then the adventure's edge is dulled. And that leads right into problem three: compensation. Any time players become more powerful, the GM gives them greater challenges. I've used that argument to defend giving PCs more power on numerous occasions, but with hero points I think the argument works in reverse. Giving a character a powerful magic weapon is fun for that character, and enhances gameplay. It's worth beefing up the adventure for that. But given all of the ways in which hero points detract from gameplay, why give them to players when the end result is just a game which requires player's to use Hero Points to survive?

Bearing all of that in mind, there is at least one thing about hero points which I find appealing. Hero points have the potential to be used as a kind of "Last ditch, adrenalin pumping, now-or-never" means by which players can attempt to pull a win out of an almost certainly deadly situation. I had such a situation in a game not too long ago. My players weren't quite up to defeating the Corpse Sewn Hekatonkheires which ambushed them. The sorcerer was dead at -15 hp, and the Dawnblade (homebrew fighter/cleric class) was desperately attempting to hold the beast at bay while looking for a means to escape. After some arbitration between us, I allowed him to use his healing wand & make a standard attack (albeit at a -8 penalty)on the same turn, which would normally not be allowed. The attempt failed, and the Dawnblade was felled by the beast, but I decided then that I wanted my players to have some kind of option to better facilitate that kind of cornered-animal effort.

Hero points were the obvious choice, but I've always been turned off by them for aforementioned reasons. It wasn't until last night when I was looking at the Star Wars Roleplaying Game rulebook that I struck upon an idea. West End Games' Star Wars is one of the few games I've encountered where hero points are a central mechanic. It's also the only system I've ever encountered where hero points actually make complete sense, and avoid being a meta game mechanic. But that's a different post.

In the Star Wars RPG, 'character points' are primarily used as action points. Characters acquire a handful of them at the end of an adventure based on how awesome they were. A character might only receive 1 if all they did was make it through the adventure, but could receive 5 if they made it through the adventure by wrestling a shark into submission then throwing the shark at a stormtrooper. Aside from simply being used to add an extra die to a roll, though, character points can be used for character improvement. Since the game has no classes or levels, improving the skills by spending large amounts of character points is the only way for a character to permanently become more formidable. Essentially, Star Wars' version of hero points also functions as that system's experience points.

So what if I just switched it around?

Since I use the Pathfinder Simple XP System (and loving it, by the way), I'm already dealing with small, manageable numbers. All I need do is allow players to spend 1 experience point to gain the benefits of spending an action point. Here's what that rule might look like:

Pathfinder House Rule: Using Simple XP as Hero Points

By pushing themselves the the limit, characters can sometimes perform feats beyond the normal scope of their abilities. At will, as a free action, a character may sacrifice 1 experience point (so long as this does not reduce the character's level) to perform any one of the following actions:

Act Out of Turn: An experience point can be spent to take your turn immediately, permanently moving your place in the initiative order to whenever this action was taken.

Bonus: Prior to making any roll, an experience point can be spent to grant a +8 bonus to that roll. This ability cannot be used at all after the roll is made. Multiple experience points can be spent, and their effects stack.

Extra Action: During your turn, an experience point may be spent to grant you an additional standard action. This can only be done once per turn.

Recall: An experience point may be spent to use an ability which you have access to, but which has already been used up for the day, or was not prepared. This includes casting spells after the daily spell allotment is cast, using special abilities after their daily limits are used up, or casting a spell from a spellbook which was not memorized for that day. Bear in mind that if a wizard wishes to cast a spell he or she has not memorized, and they are out of spell slots for the appropriate level, two experience points must be spent.

Special: You can petition your GM to allow you to spend an experience point to perform a number of abilities. GMs should use the options presented here as a guide for how to balance this ability. Also, bear in mind, that an experience point can never be spent to re-roll a die.

On paper, this system looks like it fixes a lot of problems. It's still something of a meta-game mechanic, as the connection between performing a spectacular action and losing experience is tenuous. But NPCs can also use the system, which removes the problem of the player characters being a class apart from the rest of the world. In theory, it also obliterates the danger problem. Hero points exist for the sole purpose of being used to perform great deeds, so that's what players will use them for. XP, though, is far more precious. Players will not spend it lightly, because doing so will prevent them from leveling. Any player which did overuse this system would quickly be left in the dust as the rest of the party leveled higher and higher whilst the problem character remained low level.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this variation on hero points is the simplicity. By integrating it with the XP system, players won't need to find a place for yet another number on their already cluttered character sheets. The GM won't need to keep track of when to award hero points, because he or she is already keeping track of when to award XP. Aside from the "no re-rolls" stipulation, there's not even any additional rules to memorize. The players regulate the system themselves, because they don't want to lose experience.

I'll be implementing this in my games for now. I hope it's as effective as it looks!

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