Karma Points, or Payback is a Botch

There’s a discussion over at Robertson Games about using Luck points or the like to reduce the impact of a series of bad rolls resulting in character death.  I’m not a big fan of them, preferring explicit script immunity if the game isn’t going to just let the dice fall where they may.  I totally get why not every game needs to challenge the players and have character death or significant defeat be a live option, or at least give the players veto power to avoid stupid or anticlimactic deaths, but I think that Luck Points in the sense of a small finite resource than can be spent to reroll or force a roll to a certain outcome aren’t an adequate response.  On the one hand, they’re too little: they don’t actually guarantee that unacceptable outcomes never occur.  Eventually the party runs out of do-overs, and then they’re stuck even if another unacceptable outcome occurs.   On the other hand, they do too much, since the players will almost certainly come to consider their presence (or absence if they’re running low) when evaluating their options.  If you don’t want a TPK when the party foolishly attacks a sleeping dragon they happen across while on some unrelated quest, giving them Luck Points may actually encourage them to attack it; in effect Luck Points subsidize them making game-mechanically foolish choices.

Generally I prefer that the GM and players either agree in advance that they have script immunity, or they take up situations where a run of bad luck has derailed the game or killed a character on a case-by-case basis, deciding whether to live with the outcome or retcon it as an extraordinary measure.   I’ve long felt it to be a mistake to roll for something if you’re not willing to abide by the roll; if I really don’t want characters to die as a result of bad rolls in combat, I take the option off the table, for instance by making less than 0 HP mean incapacitated, fate to be determined.   It occurs to me, though, that it might be possible to craft a mechanic that answers my objections.

Suppose instead of a pre-figured supply of Luck Points which could be used to overrule or reroll a bad situation, you had an unlimited supply…but each time you invoked the rule you gained one Karma Point.  The GM could then spend one Karma Point to overrule or force a reroll some time down the line, negating some good result you had rolled.  That clearly solves the problem of a finite supply just kicking the can of reckoning down the road, giving the players a form of script immunity when it was just notably bad luck that screwed them over.  It might also address the problem of the players counting on their immunity to let them try dumb things, since they would know it would cause them potentially serious trouble down the line.  Yes, they could know in advance that whatever happens they can survive the dragon’s first breath attack…but at the risk of turning an otherwise easy situation later on into a fiasco.  It wouldn’t anwer for players who really need script immunity so their fun isn’t all bashed out of shape by random die rolls, but it might do for players who were generally interested/willing to subject their character’s fate to the dice but wanted some measure of veto power over extremely inopportune rolls.

12 thoughts on “Karma Points, or Payback is a Botch

  1. Zzarchov says:

    My logic on this matter is that re-rolls do not fundementally change the game.

    The whole concept of hitpoints are do-overs. Because you are a BDH (Big damn hero) you get a do-over if you charge over the hill and the goblins arrow sinks into your neck.

    A finite resource that lets you take otherwise dangerous risks.

    I see re-rolls as following the same tune. As you have superhuman luck for avoiding an axe to the head (so as not to die ingloriously) that should carry over to avoiding being bitten by the spider.

    After all a spiders venom may be so deadly it can kill an elephant with one bite, but so too is a house sized axe wielded by a giant able to cut a whole row of elephants in half instantly, even if it barely dings your character to 2/3rds hitpoints.

    That is just my view though, its not script immunity anymore than hitpoints (or their equivalent) are script immunity, just another way to say you are supernaturally lucky (though the luck can still run out)
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..Adventuring Party! Updated =-.

  2. Joshua says:

    That seems like a truly bizarre way of looking at it, with everything hanging around in a provisional state until players decide whether to spend their Luck points…and it still seems a poor substitute for actually giving the characters super-human luck by making them hard to hit/hurt in the first place. If the character has script immunity for being the Big Damn Hero, why go through the rigmarole of rolling to see if the goblin arrow hits and how much damage it does in the first place? I see no advantage whatsoever, in mechanics or narrative. You’ve rolled the dice and interrupted the flow for no reason other than to see if the character has further depleted his supply of Big Damn Heroness. Complete waste of time, if you ask me.

  3. justaguy says:

    Being able to tweak the script is different than script immunity, and for me that is desirable. Like you said, if I want the players to be immune I make them immune, or if someone needs to find the secret door someone finds it dice rolls be damned. But luck/karma/beanies/whatever just offer the players a way to smooth out the rough edges of a story. It’s still a choice they need to make. And sometimes the dice will be the bitch goddess they are and roll that 1 twice in a row.

  4. vanphil says:

    @Joshua: I don’t completely agree with your point of view. I’m not a great fan of luck points too, but I don’t want to have my players killed or stuck in frustration just out of bad rolls.

    Players can get a limited amount of rerolls in my games (they are usually dependant on a scarcely used skill or stat), and they can use them whenever they want.
    Rerolls have a huge advantage over roll forcing: they are extremely more effective on easy tasks than challenging ones.

    Players will never feel like attacking a dragon counting on rerolls, if they know that only a natural 19 or 20 can do the work. Their chances would be extremely low anyway.

    Seeing an elven ranger fall down the tree he tried to climb can be funny, but it is not when it is anticlimatic or causes the party a clear disadvantage.
    Rolling a 3 on a d20 when 4 or more is needed, this is absolute bad luck. For these cases, reroll works fine.

  5. Joshua says:

    From my point of view, rerolls are probably the least bad type of Luck/Fate points, and I do (somewhat grudgingly) accept them in the form of Bennies in Savage Worlds…but I do wonder why if all that’s needed is a 3 and it would be disruptive if the Elven Ranger failed the GM calls for a roll in the first place. My guiding principle is still “Don’t roll unless you’re willing to accept the result of the roll.” Sometimes it is quicker/better to do a roll and eliminate absurd outcomes after the fact, such as when a random encounter table coughs up something inappropriate for the time and place…but if that’s the case eliminating the stupid outcomes shouldn’t be a resource that the players need to track and potentially run out of.

    That’s why Karma that has to be paid back, or the Savage Worlds variant rules where player have infinite Bennies, but Bennies spent go into the GM’s pot, appeal to me more.

  6. Stuart says:

    It all comes down to the type of game you want to run. DungeonQuest is full of characters dying on a single dice roll or drawn card. Other games have total script immunity for the characters.

    I also see Luck Points / Karma / Bennies as a good way of letting players who *personally* have bad luck (or just a run of it that night) play a character who is supposed to have good luck. 🙂
    .-= Stuart´s last blog ..Luck Be a Lady Tonight =-.

  7. Joshua says:

    That’s an interesting point. For some reason I’ve never particularly objected to games which represented characters who were extraordinarily lucky by giving them a certain number of re-rolls. Perhaps it’s because the re-rolls emphasize what would have happened if the character hadn’t been born Lucky in a way that something like an extra +1 on every roll doesn’t, even though the latter would make much more difference over the course of the character’s career.

  8. Zzarchov says:

    Re-rolls I should point out don’t just allow for ignoring the natural 1 when climbing a tree.

    They also allow for the players to pull off cool stunts, without making it so they can ALWAYS pull off cool stunts (and thus lessening the awesomeness). Requiring four agility checks to bounce off a wall, swing to a chandelier and kick over a flaming brazier onto the villain may put most people off over the more effective “move and attack”, but with re-rolls it becomes doable, especially if you only get more re-rolls for pulling stunts like that.
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..Adventuring Party! Updated =-.

  9. wickedmurph says:

    I think that “Luck” re-rolls are more effective in games that have things like a “save or die” mechanic. If characters can be summarily killed via a fairly non-avoidable mechanic, then having something in place that gives them another shot at the roll is a helpful way of keeping things rolling.

    It’s not something I advocate in all games, though. Generally speaking, I want characters to die if they screw up, work poorly as a team or take on things they can’t handle.

    Failing a save vs poison roll in a random encounter is not, IMO, any kind of way for a PC to die. A re-roll mechanic takes a bit of the sting out of those mechanics.
    .-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..Incorporating High Level NPC’s =-.

  10. PrecociousApprentice says:

    Out of curiosity Joshua, what is your opinion of Fate points in Spirit of the Century/FATE 3.0? It is basically sorta like what you are talking about for a Karma point system. What it does do is elevate the mechanic to a level of resource management and the ability to raise the stakes by both the GM and the players. I really like it as a mechanic, and has to tie in somehow with the scene or the inherent unique “Awesomeness” of the character. Does the job right fine for me.

  11. Joshua says:

    @PrecociousApprentice – As a player I hate that kind of thing with a passion; adding a resource that has to be thought about and managed OOC robs me of the chief pleasure I get in roleplaying. SotC seems especially bad that way, since you can’t even equate spending a Fate point with how much the character wants to succeed: you have to constantly be evaluating whether it’s even applicable in terms of the current situation matching some aspect, which might not even be your own. If I were a player I’d probably never spend a Fate point until I was incapacitated and freed up to think about the game as a whole.

    As a GM, I can live with that sort of thing if the players enjoy it–but I totally don’t get why it’s an improvement to make it an exercise in resource management. Forcing re-rolls I already covered, but as far as the other things that Fate points can do: if the aspect is applicable, why not make a bonus automatic, the same way in most games you get a bonus if you have an applicable skill? Why not just let the players have minor narrative control over such things as whether they’re carrying lighters? Why ration it out? As far as I can see making an explicit mechanic out of it doesn’t serve any real purpose: the GM still has veto power, so it’s not even like they’re trusting it as a check on abusive players.

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