Monday, April 11, 2011

Role-Playing Game Design Rant: 'Hero Points'

I very strongly dislike ‘hero point’ mechanics, in almost all their incarnations. The only exceptions are things like a Star Wars RPG, where ‘the force’ is an undeniably inherent part of that specific setting. Otherwise, no. Here’s why.

First there’s my argument from game design philosophy. There are two broad, largely opposed schools of thought about RPG design. I’m what they call a ‘simulationist’, as opposed to a ‘storyteller’. Since ‘storyteller’ sounds nice and fluffy, while ‘simulationist’ sounds cold and cruel, I’m pretty sure those terms were coined by ‘storytellers’. But anyway, as a ‘simulationist’, I believe that the job of a set of RPG rules is to serve as the physics of the game world. Period. The rules should make actions that the setting defines as ‘easy’ easy, and actions that the setting defines as ‘hard’ HARD. ‘Storytellers’, on the other hand, believe that the paramount concern is the ‘story’, which for some reason they believe translates into making sure that the players – the ‘heroes’ of the story – are absolutely guaranteed some minimum number of ‘heroic successes’ every episode – physics, ‘realism’, and common sense be damned.

Second there’s my objection from role-playing philosophy. I think the idea that ‘the players, being the heroes, should be guaranteed some minimum number of heroic successes every episode’ is completely backward. If the players are there to take on the role of heroes, then their heroism should come from them, not from a safety net provided by the rules. It’s the players’ job, as role-players of (supposedly) heroic characters, to fight ‘heroically’. Which brings me to…

…My argument from philosophy philosophy. In ancient times, ‘hero’ pretty much meant ‘someone who succeeds at big things’. Hercules is a great example. He accomplished many mighty deeds… but he was also pretty much an ass, and many of his ‘heroic deeds’ were really self-serving. A more modern, and I think deeper, understanding of ‘heroism’ is that it is the choice to take on important challenges in spite of personal risk. This is why we refer to those firefighters who died on 9/11 as ‘heroes’, and not ‘schmucks who ran out of hero points’.

Anyone really concerned for ‘the needs of the story’ would, I think, recognize moments of dramatic failure for what they are. Not just ‘failure’, but DRAMA. Failing to succeed at what appears to be a crucially important task does not mean that whoever tried it wasn’t a hero. What a hero does, after dramatically failing, is dust himself off, pick himself up, and keep fighting. The story goes on just fine, thank you very much - no special bonus points required.

Labels: , , ,