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.

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18 Comments:

At 1:31 AM, Blogger hannanibal said...

Sorry dude but when I fire my arrow to deflect off the chandelier, ricochet off the floor and hit the goblin warlord in the crotch I like to know I have a storyteller gamesmaster. ;)

 
At 1:39 AM, Blogger hannanibal said...

Oh, one more thing.
Terry Pratchett wrote a praody of "heroics" in the book "Guards, Guards" in which the more unbelievably impossible a task would be to complete the more likely it is to succeed. Hence the main charachter trying to hit a target with an arrow whilst hopping on one leg, facing the wrong direction and wearing a bag on his head.
Seems like you two are on the same wavelength when it comes to this sort of thing.

 
At 12:26 PM, Blogger phill said...

I think it might be fun to have an RPG to bases itself on not making sense. It could be open to Monty Python levels of gaming comedy. What systems on the market could create this funny walking abomination of fun?

 
At 5:08 AM, Blogger Emeal said...

Nice thoughts, I think you are right.
I do like the of players earning the stuff rather than it becoming automatic, true that with many games have you become a great Hero you dont deserve to be.

Like *cough* WoW, the mmo world is filled with undeserving brats.
I rather like elements like in Minecraft where whatever you do (when you play on normal) is well deserved.

Best regards BitterBurst
http://www.youtube.com/user/BitterBurst

 
At 5:33 PM, Blogger Danny said...

...and here is where I run afoul of my players!

I too am a simulationist, and of the school of thought that the threat of character-death and failure is exactly what generates true drama in the game.

Taking low-probability chances in a tough spot creates a genuine tension. If the roll succeeds, there is a palpable sense of relief and joy in the team, while if the roll fails, and the character dies (for example), then the players genuinely grieve for their fallen comrade.

Conversely, if a high probability-of-success roll fails at the right moment, it can be a source of humour and fun for all.

This is why game mechanics are important! If you don't want to follow the simulationist point of view, just roll random dice and have the GM arbitrarily decide on success/failure!

 
At 7:34 PM, Blogger ChillWill93 said...

Jeff Dee I love you! Come speak at ETSU :DD

 
At 11:41 AM, Blogger D Crowe said...

But how do you feel about "Paragon Points?" :D

 
At 8:23 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

ChillWill93 wrote, "Come speak at ETSU"

East Tennessee State University? I'd be happy to, if some group wants to foot the bill for getting me out there :)

 
At 8:28 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

hannibal wrote: "when I fire my arrow to deflect off the chandelier, ricochet off the floor and hit the goblin warlord in the crotch..."

Fine, but that's not 'heroism'.

"Terry Pratchett wrote a parody of "heroics""

Yeah. Note the term PARODY.

 
At 12:33 PM, Blogger hannanibal said...

If an arrow deflected off a chandelier and hit a goblin warlord in the crotch that would be pretty damn heroic in my book. If a few hero points here and there keep the game going, stop the characters being mundane and generally make your hero a hero then who gives a crap?

 
At 4:11 PM, Blogger Eye Poker said...

The problem is that in general the game session is already tailored to the group playing.

This module is for characters level 5-7...

 
At 6:19 AM, Blogger bill4747 said...

Thank you Jeff for verbalizing my instinctive dislike for 'Hero Points' in a more eloquent manner than I have managed.

Somehow I have managed to run games for over twenty years that allow players to perform 'Heroic' deeds without using hero points.

"No you can't leap that 100 foot chasm....you are a human being...."

"But you can try to leap that twenty foot chasm and grapple an archer to the ground if you roll well on Athletics...."

Anyway, I was happy to realize Jeff from Athiest Experience was the same Jeff from DND mythology!

 
At 6:20 AM, Blogger bill4747 said...

Thank you Jeff for verbalizing my instinctive dislike for 'Hero Points' in a more eloquent manner than I have managed.

Somehow I have managed to run games for over twenty years that allow players to perform 'Heroic' deeds without using hero points.

"No you can't leap that 100 foot chasm....you are a human being...."

"But you can try to leap that twenty foot chasm and grapple an archer to the ground if you roll well on Athletics...."

Anyway, I was happy to realize Jeff from Athiest Experience was the same Jeff from DND mythology!

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

hannanibal said...
"If an arrow deflected off a chandelier and hit a goblin warlord in the crotch that would be pretty damn heroic in my book."

You are confusing "impressive" with "heroic". You know what's heroic? Jumping in front of an arrow that some *villain* deflected off a chandelier, taking the hit yourself in order to save the NPC who the villain was trying to assassinate.

Impressive acts of skill don't make you a hero. Impressive acts of *heroism* make you a hero.

"If a few hero points here and there keep the game going, stop the characters being mundane and generally make your hero a hero then who gives a crap?"

If you're playing a system that's balanced against the players so badly that the game can't 'keep going' without a meta-mechanic like hero points, then I submit that the problem lies in your choice of game system. And again, your definition of what makes a character a 'hero' is deeply, fundamentally incorrect.

 
At 9:29 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

hannanibal said...
"If an arrow deflected off a chandelier and hit a goblin warlord in the crotch that would be pretty damn heroic in my book."

You are confusing "impressive" with "heroic". You know what's heroic? Jumping in front of an arrow that some *villain* deflected off a chandelier, taking the hit yourself in order to save the NPC who the villain was trying to assassinate.

Impressive acts of skill don't make you a hero. Impressive acts of *heroism* make you a hero.

"If a few hero points here and there keep the game going, stop the characters being mundane and generally make your hero a hero then who gives a crap?"

If you're playing a system that's balanced against the players so badly that the game can't 'keep going' without a meta-mechanic like hero points, then I submit that the problem lies in your choice of game system. And again, your definition of what makes a character a 'hero' is deeply, fundamentally incorrect.

 
At 4:10 PM, Blogger Nadine Liamson said...

Speaking as a "storyteller" I agree with you completely. There's no fun in any game that's not a challenge. How heroic can my character be if there's almost no chance for failure?
And don't get me started on healing surges!

 
At 6:20 AM, Blogger SkeleTony said...

As you probably know (This is 'IndieComicsFan' from the MH Games forums) I am also a "simulationist" but I never had much concern over 'Hero points' -type mechanics, depending on the specific way they were done in a game system. The "Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play" game system ()which I hated with a passion) had it's "Fate points" which ended up being bad but I would argue that that whole RPG system was terrible. (Advanced) Marvel Superheroes was broken in some major ways but I liked a lot of what that system tried to do and it had "Karma" which essentially functioned as a sort of 'Hero Points' and it worked well for that game.

I may be wrong here but almost every single argument for 'Storyteller' -type systems seems to be a thinly veiled excuse for laziness. Their whole shtick seems to be to remove game mechanics whenever they can and replace with something 'fast'. Why keep track of quantified 'Strength' attributes when trying to lift something when uyou can just roll 1d6 and call 'odds or evens'? Infuriates me to no end.

 

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