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Chop Shop

The Second Atrocity: Hero Points

by Eric Brennan
Oct 29,2002


The Second Atrocity: Hero Points

Chop Shop is about grave-robbing, stealing a gem here or a ring there - and while some games have been gone from the mainstream a long time when we start stealing bits of them, other bodies are still very warm.

This leads us to The Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, by Eden Studios, a marvel of source emulation and game design. One of the side perquisites of this column is that I get to plug good games, and you could do far worse than lay down some cash on this beauty. It's 256 pages of CJ Carella goodness, and if you like the Buffy TV show, or supernatural-tinted action of any stripe, you really should check it out.

What fascinates me about the Buffy RPG is the Drama Point system. It is, as I am wont to say, a marvel. It takes the now-familiar "Luck" or "Karma" point system to the next level, in a very full-function, geared-specifically-to-the-source material way. It does so by finding five things that people do on the show, but that are out of the range of the traditional rules structure, and then welds them to the Drama Points. In the past, Karma point setups have varied in utility from being lifesavers to head-scratchers that make me ask, "Why the hell did they even put this here?" In Buffy, they're integral to the way the game works.

To use an example from the Buffy television show, the heroes routinely take a beating and look like they're about to expire messily. At the last minute, wounded and on the edge of death, the kids find the inner-strength to finish off the bad-guy. This kind of scene is traditionally difficult to emulate in RPG rule sets. I mean, when looking at a damage-track a la Shadowrun and Storyteller System, one doesn't expect for the penalties to pile up and then just disappear right before the PC dies (although that's a swell idea - make a note of it, Miss Jones.) That kind of scene is just not capable of being reflected in most rule sets I know of -- I can think of only one that will handle it, really -- but you see it all of the time in heroic fiction, cinema and television. Therefore, this week's Chop Shop is all about working a Drama Point setup into your game.

First up, let's not call them Drama Points, since I suspect Eden has better lawyers than I do, and getting you people to buy their game through gratuitous plugging will only take me so far in their good graces. We'll call our version Courage points...no, no, Decipher uses that. We'll call them Karma poi... No, once again, the name's been taken. Okay, we'll call them Hero Points, which should be generic enough to avoid litigation, and dovetails nicely with the example genre I'm going to use below, that of the comic-book superhero. I have always bemoaned the lack of a superhero RPG that captures the soap-opera-and-heroism aspects of most comic books, and I think this Hero Points concept might just get us where we want to be for most of the existing systems we might use.

What Do Hero Points Do For the PC?

So here's the meat of it - what do you want these Hero Points to do for you? Come up with a list and description of five things that you feel PCs should be able to accomplish in your game, no matter the game. If you're looking for Conan-esque sword & sorcery and you're playing D&D, one of the five might be "Escape Impending Death," and would entail players spending a Hero Point to stabilize their PC if they reach below 0 Hit Points. If you're playing a game of Cthulhu-esque horror, you might want a Hero Point to be used for the very Lovecraftian "Blessed Unconsciousness," resulting in a PC blacking out when a fearsome critter attacks. Sure, he misses the rest of the scene, but he's spared from a gruesome fate, since the monster assumes him dead.

Now, these can be as heavily codified or lightly described as you want. If I was running D&D or Champions, I'd want very strict guidelines for how all of these Hero Point uses work. If I was using them in Silver Age Sentinels or Feng Shui, I might want to leave a lot of leeway for player creativity. Whichever way you go, it's a design decision on your part, and will greatly affect your game.

For our superhero game, I think five good uses for Hero Point are:

  • The Undiscovered Well of Strength:
    The PC can tap some as-yet-unheard-of well of inner power to fuel his flagging strength. Calling on that strange essence that makes a hero a hero, the PC recovers power points or Endurance, refreshes his hand of cards, or whatever. Alternatively, the player can heal half of his wounds with this action. (And like in the Buffy RPG, he can do this each turn, slowly recovering enough to allow himself to beat his enemy down!)

  • Get a Clue:
    I've seen whole campaigns derailed over a period of weeks because players just don't pick up the right clues and reach the right conclusions, a situation which shouldn't happen as often as it does -- comic books are rife with strange coincidences and leaps of logic on the part of Dark Knight Detectives, after all. A Hero Point spent in this manner results in a lucky break in a problem, expressed in-game as either a new clue, or a hint from the GM.

  • Power Stunt:
    Comic books are full of characters that think of new and ingenious uses for their powers, but the uses themselves aren't worth buying a whole new power for - I'm specifically reminded of a time where Spider-Man used his web-shooters to create a waterproof canoe for himself, of all things. It was a cunning use of Spider-Man's web-gadgets and any GM would be happy that his players were thinking like that, but in a points- or power-based system, how often is "Canoe" going to come up, really? By spending 1-3 Hero Points (based on how powerful the power stunt is,) our PC gets to use her power in a new and creative way once. If she wants to use it frequently, increase the cost of the Hero Point expenditure until she actually buys the power. This shouldn't be a cheat, after all.

  • Dramatic Editing:
    (I'm stealing this wholesale and dumbed-down from Adventure!, another game you should rush out and grab.) Similar to the Power Stunt, above, this action results in a lucky coincidence when the game has been completely derailed, or the players are about to die, all for low, low price of 1-3 Hero Points. The cost is based on how egregious (or hackneyed) the editing is. If Dr. Doom happens to teleport the PCs into medieval France, one of the PCs might be able to, through the use of Dramatic Editing piece the language together based on a heretofore-unmentioned flunked semester of French. If the PCs can't think of a way to get out of a plane before it explodes, they find some parachutes.

  • Because You Demanded It! The Return Of...
    Heroes die all of the time in comics, but nobody stays dead. In addition, lots of these "deaths" are an excuse to come back with new powers, new costumes, and new plot-hooks. So -- For an expenditure of 3-9 points, the PC comes back from the dead! For 3 Points, the PC comes back in the next story-arc. For 6 points he comes back sometime in the next couple of adventures in the story-arc. For 3 Points, he comes back at the end of the evening, shrouded in darkness, awaiting the exposition at the beginning of next adventure which will explain why the hell he isn't dead...

How Do They Work?

This is the part we like - the rules. You'll need to establish how your Hero Points refresh, whether or not NPCs get to use them (which may or may not be in-genre, depending,) and how many Hero Points a PC gets each night, and how many they should have on hand, ideally.

Is there a cap on banked Hero Points? Will you start designing adventures around the idea that PCs will be using them? Will your players cautious about spending these points, or will they be spending them left and right? These are all questions you need to ask yourself. Hero Points should refresh differently in a Conan game than in Spider-Man, and whether or not NPCs get to use something like Hero Points depends very much on the genre you're planning on playing in. Also, keep in mind that the note, above, about whether you want hard guidelines or GM-fiat/Player creativity-based rules, because this is another place where that decision is important.

For our generic superhero game, my answers to the questions above are:

  • Refreshing Hero Points:
    Every time the PC does something heroic and "comic book" dramatic - rescues a child instead of catching the bad guy, for instance - he gets a Hero Point. Every time he lets one of his subplots show up and affect him, like his Aunt May coming into town and rummaging through his stuff, he gets a Hero Point. Every time he does something "cool," he gets a point. At the end of the evening's game, his Hero Points refresh.

    Also, PCs sometime have to "take one for the team" - the villain captures them in a deathtrap, the hero's girlfriend is thrown off of a building to her death, the hero's cool new costume turns out to be an alien, metamorphic parasite... Whenever something happens that the PC could stop with Hero Points or his powers, but goal along with for the sake of the plot, the PC should get handed 1-3 Hero Points, depending on how heinous the GM's actions are. Reward the player for being a good sport in the name of a better, more comic-book story

  • NPCs and Hero Points:
    All but the greatest of villains will forego the use of Hero Points. So - Dr. Doom gets Hero Points, but not Thug Man. If I'm ambitious, I can come up with Villain Points later, which do different things for villains.

  • How Many Hero Points Should PCs Have:
    I'm thinking adventures should be geared to use up about 3 or so Points, per game, and PCs should only get new ones that take them above 6 or 9 in extraordinary circumstances.

One Last Wrinkle

Before we close up the column, let's hit one last wrinkle. Drama Points in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG get used to differentiate between White Hats (normal schmoes) and Heroes (super-powered heroes like Buffy and Angel.) White Hats have far more Drama Points than Heroes, to "pay off" the player willing to take a lower-powered character who might be more instrumental to the plot.

With this in mind, I might try to use Hero Points in my generic supers game discussed above to differentiate between low-powered but heroic PCs, and those high-powered heroes who can depend on their powers for everything. This would go even further into making my superhero game feel more like the comic books, by making the pairing of a Batman and Superman (or a Captain America and a Thor) more realistic. Superman and Thor can depend on their powers to get through most scrapes, but Batman and Captain America will have access to more "lucky breaks," clues, dramatic editing, etc. If I were to do this, I'd allow PCs to be built on differing points levels - say, 150 and 250 points - but the lower powered heroes start out with more Hero Points and have a higher cap on how many they can hold at any one time.

So that's that - feel free to email me to let me know what you think of the column, or comment in the forums below. If you know of a cool, Chop-Shop worthy mechanic, let me know. Next time we'll look at Lifepaths and maybe that d20 conversion column I've been working on. See you in 30.

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