Request for Comment: Hero Points

Or whatever you want to call them  – Action Points, Fate Points, Karma Points, Plot Points, et cetera.  For reference here’s a good but somewhat dated summary of a bunch of hero point mechanics by John H. Kim.

Here’s the deal.  I want to use something like this for my new Pathfinder campaign.  We’ve been pretty constantly using the Eberron “Action Point” mechanic (Eberron Campaign Setting, p.45) in all our group’s campaigns since we saw it.  You get 5 + 1/2 character levels of them, and they let you add 1d6 (or best of multiple d6 at high levels) to a roll before you know whether it’s successful or not.  They work pretty well.  But I’ve begun to be dissatisfied with them.

I noticed it some in Rise of the Runelords and even more in Curse of the Crimson Throne that we’d end a level with a lot of action points left over.  There were a couple reasons.

1.  You would hoard them “just in case.”  This was somewhat mitigated by them refreshing every level, but you didn’t know when you were going to level.

2.  They didn’t do all that much – you wouldn’t use them unless you were ultra desperate or thought you were within 3 points of the DC you needed.  As levels get higher and numbers range more widely, a lot of the time you knew there was no point in using the action point on a given miss.

3.  Because of the inconsistency of the core D&D mechanic in terms of what is a d20 roll you are making and what isn’t, you could use them to make a save but not to not get hit in combat, so their utility in saving your bacon was reduced.  Though you can use an action point to stabilize when at negative hit points, again as levels get high it’s rarer a shot lands you in that magic 10 point range; it’s more likely to overkill you by like 30 points when it comes.  D&D 3.5e number scaling past level 10 is a cruel mistress.

4.  The APs tried to give hero points of their own, like Crimson Throne had Harrow Points that gave bonuses to a different stat with each chapter.  This was frustrating in and of itself when the stat was a poor match – as a priest, fighter, and ranger was the party most of the time, I was the only one to use the Wis and Cha boosts.  But it also created a “too many different boost points” problem and they got totally forgotten most of the time.

5.  It was a buzzkill when you used one and still didn’t make the roll.

We’re also playing Alternity, which has Last Resort Points.  These points are better in some ways.  They’re worse in that you get from 0-2 of them and they don’t regenerate with level, you have to buy more with XP, which means they’re too scarce.  They’re much better in that they just flat turn a failure into a success (or boost a success to a higher level of success).

Also, some systems (like PDQ Sharp’s Style Dice) let you use such points to make actual narrative plot changes with points.  “A Chelish warship appears on the horizon!”  “Our old ally Vincenz shows up!”  “The dungeon passage collapses!”

So there’s a couple different axes that a hero point mechanic can work on.

  • How do you get them/how do they regenerate?  (Buy with XP, when you roll a crit, when you roll a fumble, when you do something cool, when you act according to some character trait, when you level, every game session, per adventure)
  • What can they do?  (Reroll, small fixed bonus to roll, small variable bonus to roll, large fixed or variable bonus, automatic success level upgrade, change plot/world, activate powerz, make a save/get missed/soak damage, get init or an extra action)
  • When can you use them?  (Before you roll, after you roll but before you determine the result, after you determine the result)
  • How many does someone get and how often can they use them (anytime, once per scene, once per session, something else)

Here’s what I’m thinking about doing.

First, I want the points to “do more” – ideally fully turn a miss into a hit or whatnot, not add on a small bonus.  Seems to me that the mechanic’s not worth having unless it does this much; otherwise it’s a lot of fiddliness (and worse, a breaking out of immersion) without enough punch to justify it.  So one option is that the points are fairly rare, but can:

  • Turn a miss into a hit
  • Turn a hit into a crit
  • Turn a hit into a miss (usually, if you’re the one getting hit)
  • Turn a crit into a hit (same)
  • Make a save
  • Make a target fail their save (maybe…  but maybe not.  With save-or-dies seems too powerful.  Maybe make a target reroll their save.)
  • Bypass SR
  • Override a bad condition (possessed, feared, paralyzed, etc.) for a round
  • Otherwise “save your damn life” somehow

However, one of our group has an interesting alternate proposal – that the points go up in efficacy as you use them.  First point you use is a +1 (or -1 on an opponent’s roll).  Second point, +2.  And so on.  This is a clever way to both ramp up effectiveness over time (I’m neutral there) and to discourage hoarding (I’m very on board with that).  It does mean that eventually the points become worth +20 or more, at worst that reduces to auto fail/success but in higher level 3.5e play it may still not be enough sometimes. It is a little more fiddly though, they have to be strongly paced at about two per level.

I’d also like them to be usable to make narrative changes, with DM oversight.  Any kind of hero point is already stepping outside the simulation for an explicitly narrative concern, so in for a penny, in for a pound, I figure.

In general you should give them for behavior you want to promote.  I don’t really like giving them for crits or whatnot, that seems too random and also generates undesirable interactions with crit feats.  I’m doing slow advancement in this campaign, so there’ll probably be a couple adventures per level.  I plan to call them “Infamy Points” to match the pirate theme.  Perhaps give one per level and one per adventure, to semi-reflect the character becoming more bad ass and feared and… infamous.  Maybe bonus points whenever anyone does something spectacular that could rightfully be said to raise their infamy level.

I’m also considering having the Infamy Point total be used as a bonus to certain Intimidate/Bluff/Diplomacy rolls as a kind of raw fame and deadliness bonus, though the problem is that if you get 2-3 per level that bonus gets out of control.  Maybe a bonus equal to unused Infamy Points?

What do all of you think?  Do you use any kind of hero point mechanic?  Do you like lots of them with wimpy bonuses, or fewer with more guaranteed results?  Have any clever ideas for me?


33 responses to “Request for Comment: Hero Points

  1. I use them extensively. Given for pulling awesome stunts and adhering to trope. Rather than repeating everything, if you want to know the specifics its here:

    What this tends to cause:

    Hoarding followed by mass expenditures.. Players will tend to alternate between 7 or more and 1 or less. Ie, they stockpile them until they feel sufficiently ballsy to tackle something way out of their league, then they go to town in massive escapades (not always fights, stealth missions and social combat too).

    This requires player driven gameplay though, where a player can choose to do something stupidly dangerous, and save up re-rolls to pull it off.

  2. Ok to be honest, I’m not a big fan of the concept. I feel that mechanics like Action Points are a solution in search of a problem. I’ve been playing for 30+ years now, and I didn’t notice a need for them, and now that they’re here I still don’t. What problem do Actions Points solve again? I’m at a loss. They seem like a mechanic that was created by someone who said “I need to create a new ‘different’ mechanic… ok Action Points!!” Maybe if someone could explain the Why of Action Points I’d get it. So far, though, not getting it.

    • It’s pretty simple – let the players not always be totally at the mercy of the dice. Have a scarce resource people can use to be heroic – to survive or succeed when fate doesn’t want them to.

    • They facilitate heroic, larger than life characters. And if you use the variety that allow player plot modifications it is a mechanical way to encourage shy players to join in the story creation.

      The problem they “solve” is that many people want to use D&D (and other systems that are very game, risk/reward based) for something closer to interactive fiction.

      It’s making “fudging the dice” an official rule.

  3. I don’t make the players lose them if they still miss. What I do is have the player “bid” a specific amount of points–the maximum they’re willing to spend to make the roll successful. If their bid falls in the range needed to make the roll successful, they spend the necessary points and keep the rest.

  4. For what it’s worth, Trailblazer from Bad Axe Games has quite a bit to say on the subject of Action Points.

    It expands on what Action Points are capable of doing, and ties them into some other changes it makes (e.g. when using the rest mechanic, Action Points must be spent to recover certain spells). It also allows characters to take “enhancements” (which are sort of like class features) that expand on what their Action Points can do.

  5. I use them a lot in my game. Basically, they have big effects, it takes a lot to get them, and they’re unique to each player. I like points that are related to the plot a lot better than strictly mechanical action points.

    If you don’t mind, I’ll link you the article I wrote on them rather than repeating myself:

  6. I agree that the X/level AP systems can result in some very erratic use of points. That convention seems to arise from the 3.5 math of 13 and change encounters per level, such that players are expected to be able to predict fairly accurately when they’ll level. In a game that awards levels based on story points or that just uses an unpredictable CR spread, it’s less effective. I greatly prefer tracking them per session or per adventure, rather than per level.

    I almost always use some kind of AP mechanic in my games. As a player and as a GM, I like the freedom to override dice luck on actions that are very important to character concept or the story moment.

    In one of my recent games, I used a simplified version of Fate points from Spirit of the Century. Each PC had three Aspects and three fate points per session. Spending a point on an appropriate Aspect allowed either a reroll or a +2 after a roll was determined to be a failure (or after an opponent’s roll was determined to be a success), as long as it was thematically appropriate to the Aspect. If more than one Aspect was appropriate to the roll, each could be used by spending additional points. Extra points could be gained by suffering the negative effects of Aspects, as usual for the system. It resulted in some very colorful roleplaying, and allowed the players to design their characters to excel in situations based on Aspect choice.

    Currently, I’m using a decks of card instead of d20s (face cards removed, blacks are +10, essentially two sets of 1-20 in each deck plus two jokers). I allow the players to “bank” a certain number of cards face-down at the beginning of the session, and to replace a failed “roll” with one of the cards in the bank. When the Joker is drawn, it gives a +2 that can be saved and allows the player to add another card to the bank. This creates an economy of adding back in APs during nights that require a lot of rolls without linking it directly to a crit mechanic.

    I just started experimenting with also using the variant AP rules from Trailblazer, as mentioned above. The expanded system allows characters to gain special AP abilities that give them extra bang for their AP buck in character-appropriate situations. They’re also designed with the idea of being an ablative mechanic for pass/fail attacks, with the idea that a save-or-die spell is more likely to use up a character’s APs than to kill him outright.

  7. Ooo, thanks for the links folks, I’ll read them and report back…

  8. I like infamy points better than hero points 😉

    I think they should effect only the player’s character. Not allow “Make a target fail their save”

    Fewer points and them being “I win” buttons is the way to go. Otherwise they’re kind of just annoying fiddly bits that do the same thing every feat/spell/item does, +x to chance to success. BORING!

    • To Norman Harman’s point… that’s my impression as well. I’m curious about how Infamy Points would work. Could you elaborate on that, please? Thanks!

  9. We used “hero points” a long while ago, with a variety of differnt possible uses. However, one of the uses was “keep you alive when you would otherwise die”, everyone just saved them and they became almost like “lives” in a computer game. If you give them lots of uses, the different uses need to be roughly equivalent in power else they just won’t get spent.

    I think a reasonable use would be to spend them 1 for 1 to add/subtract to any dice rolls *after* you know the result – this feels like the character pulling out all the stops. Every time a character rolls close to what they need they will have to decide whether the roll is important enough to spend points on.

    • I agree with the relationship between offensive and defensive uses. Our experience with Savage Worlds bennies was a lot like that. Random potential offense bonus vs. “extra life”? Always saved for extra lives.

      I think this could be mitigated somewhat by:

      1. Making the offensive use really good – autohit with crit threat, etc.

      2. Drawbacks to the defensive use. Especially with Infamy Points in a pirate campaign I would be very tempted to say one use of a point is “save your life – you will probably be KOed and get some kind of permanent disability as a result, however.” (How else will I get characters with eyepatches and peglegs?!?)

  10. I like the abilities you offer but you should keep the mechanic as simple as possible. Give them one point to use per session and don’t let them save it up.

    If you are worried about it being too powerful you could make one every other session, depending on how much you get done is a session.

    Keeping it simple like this will help it be something that is a handy addition to play instead of just another thing for players to keep track of.

    • Hmm, I guess I’m worried about a couple things with the per-session model.

      One, some sessions are a lot more action packed than others – with session bennies in a slow session you are looking for an excuse to blow them.

      Two, it can lead to metagaming – “let’s stretch this session out; we don’t want to come up on the boss with all our points spent!”

      If the players have a little bit of banking, you avoid those. Also, if you do it by session you aren’t awarding them explicitly, which means you aren’t able to reward specific behavior or achievement with them, which is part of their utility.

  11. My group uses a Hero Point system for our 3. game, which I implemented as a way to reward players for good play without giving out extra XP awards and making a character whose player is impressing me with their roleplaying somehow better than a character whose player is not (if that makes sense). The system also relieves a bit of the “my dice are sucking tonight’ syndrome we all seem to experience from time to time.

    Points are accumulated per session: each player at a session gets 2 points to allocate to anyone besides themselves for any reason they choose (this also encourages attendance, since you can neither gain nor award points if you miss a session). The GM also has the ability to award points per session as they see fit. GM Points are usually awarded for excellence in play or as an extra ward for completing a story arc or something similar. There is a menu of uses for accumulated Hero Points that we adapted from another source, and have added to since. Check it out here:

  12. Let’s see. So far the things I’ve heard that I like are:

    Use an Infamy Point no more than once an encounter to:
    1. Take a natural 20 on a roll
    2. Act out of initiative order
    3. Get a free standard action
    4. Cast a spell you don’t have memorized (but know)
    5. Declare “you missed me neener neener” to a weapon or spell attack
    6. Use a feat you don’t have or a class ability from one of your classes you don’t have yet
    7. Pull off a cool stunt automatically
    8. Other game effect on request – bypass SR, whatever you need man
    9. Limited narrative rewrite – introduce a story element, have someone show up at an opportune moment, have just the right piece of equipment around

    You can also use an infamy point anytime to avoid death, though there will likely be permanent impact of some kind (scarring/disability, equipment loss, other). You can use multiple infamy points in collaboration with the DM to add/change larger story elements.

  13. As a GM I never used Action Points. I’ve never really like either the mechanic or the underlying philosophy. I only used them as a player once. And all I did was horde them ‘just in case’. the problem being I never knew when that ‘case’ arose. I can’t predict the future and spending a scarce resource at poorly chosen moment and finding out I needed them later would reduce my enjoyment of the game. I would just rather throw the dice and take my chances. I don’t want regret to be part of my gaming experience. I should point out, I’m not a gambler.

  14. My favourite version is Jeff Rients’ Big d30 Rule, but that’s not quite the same thing as an action point. I’d tend towards the simple. Have a strict limit, maybe one per session with the potential for another for good gaming, and then have it just allow/force a reroll.

  15. The problem with a hoarding mechanism is that unless you are in a game that allows death by dice luck, the “just in case” never arises most times.

    If you do have dice by death luck, then hoarding both occurs, and for good reason (as sooner or later that 1 on an agility check occurs and they thank the heavens for a re-roll).

    I think the level of fatality in a game probably has a big impact on the desired need for fate points (or hero points or what have you).

    If a bad roll bouncing from rooftop to rooftop can spell your doom, you want re-rolls.

    If you only fight in balanced need for them.

    • Don’t most games have death by dice luck? There’s three options:

      1. Death by dice luck
      2. Death by DM fiat, which doesn’t sound good
      3. Death by player fiat (suicide)
      4. No death

      I know each have their supporters but I’m gonna have to go with #1.

  16. I’m also for simplicity in my rules systems, so the best I think I can manage is a very simple rule: You get two rerolls per game session. Period. Use them wisely.

    The thing I don’t particularly care for about the assignment of Hero Points for “good role playing” is that it is an artificial method for encouraging players to get in there and role play. But some players really do just enjoy going along for the ride. I think that’s they’re right, and I’m not going to penalize them for not role playing according to my expectations (by giving win-enhancing points to those who do). Usually in every group I’ve played with some Players are more enthused about Role Playing their characters than others, and I guess I’ve never felt that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. If the Players *wants* to get in there and Role Play their character, but feels too shy, I can usually sense that, and I just open up some space for them by telling the other players to pipe down for a minute while I listen to that Player. I try to be encouraging, without being overbearing about it. It’s a game. Play how you like, and enjoy yourself. That’s my rule. Now, that said, the *other* thing that makes me hesitate on this concept is that it leaves way too much discretion in the hands of the GM to decide what makes for “good” Role Playing, and that can lead to some awkward political situations (ie – the GM just doesn’t like so-n-so so much, or whatever, and so that Players doesn’t seem to ever Role Play well enough). By leaving the mechanic (a rule) up to the discretion of the GM it leaves an open space for arbitrary and possibly unfair practices. I’m not too sure it ever happens, but if the rules let it happen then I’m going to guess it does.

    Back to my simple rule: No bias allowed. You get two rerolls. Use them wisely.

    I could live with that.

    • I don’t like pure reroll mechanics because often you spend the reroll and it didn’t help. (Also, rerolls can only save you from things requiring saves; it doesn’t prevent good old damage)

      I do agree with the roleplaying… In the past I have given bennies or XP for “good roleplaying.” It is subjective and some players aren’t there for that. (Although I try to play with groups where the people ARE there for that, to be frank.)

      In this case, Infamy Points will be given not really for roleplaying per se, but for becoming more badass and renowned. The strong silent types can handle that too.

      Maybe start with three, get one per level automatically (you’re more badass the higher level you are!) and then one per truly badass thing you do. These will often be group rewards – like very soon when they limp into port with most everyone on their ship dead except for them, and they had to blow up a ghost ship to escape – get a point. Kill a dozen giants in full view of the townspeople? Get a point. Total number of Infamy points gained can then be used as an indicator in situations like “Your pirate ship rolls up on an armed merchantman and you raise your group’s pirate flag.” 1-5 Infamy points – their captain says “whatever; first mate – grease these punks” and load the cannons. 6-10 Infamy points – they take the threat seriously, arm all the sailors, prepare tactics. 11-15 Infamy points – they probably surrender immediately. 16+ Infamy points, they crap themselves and start making their peace with the gods…

  17. Well, if you roll damage (and most games do) then the reroll could be used for that.

    Your Infamy Points system in the most recent comment sounds good though.

  18. Okay, here’s how they’re shaping up. I’m considering whether to just do these or also do Action Points.

    Infamy Point Effects

    Use an Infamy Point no more than once an encounter to:

    1. Choose the result of any single roll
    Attack, ability check, skill check, saving throw, caster level check, crit confirm…
    2. Act out of initiative order
    Move your usual turn up to “now”
    3. Get an additional standard action
    Usable whenever during your turn
    4. Cast a bonus spell
    Swap: You know but don’t have memorized today – uses a spell slot
    Fork: You have already cast today – doesn’t use a spell slot
    5. Declare that a weapon or spell attack missed you
    Anything that requires a hit roll
    6. Throw off a condition (possessed, feared, paralyzed, charmed…)
    For the rest of the encounter if it’s a long term/perm thing
    7. Use a feat or a class ability from one of your classes you don’t have
    Have to qualify for the feat
    For one round or one use, whichever comes last
    8. Pull off a cool stunt automatically
    But this isn’t superheroes – limit it to what a human could arguably achieve
    9. Other game effect on request
    10. Limited narrative rewrite – introduce a story element, have someone show up at an opportune moment, have just the right piece of equipment around

    You can also use an infamy point anytime to plain old avoid certain death, though there will likely be permanent impact of some kind (scarring/disability, equipment loss, other). You can use multiple infamy points in collaboration with the DM to add/change larger story elements, though the DM is usually up for interesting suggestions without spending points…

    Gaining Infamy Points

    Every character starts with two. You get one each time you level up and are awarded ones by the DM whenever you do something significantly badass which would add to your fearsome reputation. This does not have to be evil, it could as well be good, but should be impressive enough to get the commoners talking… “Did you see that guy slaughter everyone on the deck of that Chelish naval ship on his own?” “Did you hear those guys are the only survivors of an attack by a ghost ship full of unkillable skeletons; they blew up the ship to escape?”

    • Ok seems like a good set of options for the concept of Hero/Action Points, but I lost contact with the Infamy aspect. Why are these Infamy Points? Nothing Infamous seems to be associated with them.

      My thought, when Infamy Points were first mentioned, was that they’d be like the opposite of Hero Points in some way. I thought that sounded like it had potential. Points that you get that you can throw at making things Worse for the characters – hence, Infamy. Who would use them? Only people who thought it was fun to get a scar on the forehead. “How’d you get that scar?” “Hah! I was fighting an ogre and (I spent an Infamy Point) and he gashed me clean across the head. I got the last laugh though. He’s dead. ”

      Dunno. But that sounded interesting to me.

      • That’s not the correct definition of infamy. You want “masochist points.” These are Infamy Points because the PCs get them for becoming infamous, in other words notorious for being criminal, brutal, and otherwise miscreants.

        Now some games do let you do something to invoke complications for your character in order to gain points like this… So if you let yourself get gashed, you’d get a point you could use to kick ass. I’m afraid spending points just to get wounded is probably not going to be popular (though Bruce would like it).

        • Your comment that “This does not have to be evil, it could as well be good, but should be impressive enough to get the commoners talking” seemed to indicate that they are not necessarily for being criminal, brutal or otherwise miscreants, which was the basis of my objection.

          As for my half-jest, I meant Infamy in several senses, and in the first case in the sense that the Points themselves would be Infamous. Thus, Infamy Points.

          As for their usefulness, frankly, the way I’m thinking of them I suspect the Players would actually use them now and then. It’s fun to have a special scar from The Big Battle, and they can use the points to give themselves one. Kind of like deliberately letting the opponent gash them because they’re *that* tough. Or something. Anyway, no need to take my suggestion as something I think any other GM would want to do. But I do think I’ll throw the idea at my players and see if anyone take to it. I bet at least one of them does. 🙂

  19. How about borrowing an idea from the old card-based Marvel superheroes rpg: any hero points spent are given to the GM, who can then use them for his own (named/important) NPCs. Now, that might encourage hoarding, so you may need to make the effects of point spending more impressive.

    • Actually I’ve learned one thing from Mutants & Masterminds and Savage Worlds – nothing sucks more than the bad guys having hero points. “I pulled off a cool move and killed him” – “No you didn’t.” In this case what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. Villains using points is the biggest buzzkill; I’ve seen it make groups unhappy many times.

  20. Ha, fair enough! I’ve never actually played a system where “villain points” were used, so I have no experience of how they work; I just thought I’d throw it in as a suggestion.

  21. Coming into this a bit late but:

    I’ve used two ‘hero point’ systems I’ve liked. The first, Torg, allows for open-ended rolls, and the points (Possibility Points) can be used to ‘force’ an open ended roll. They are also used as experience points, and a kind of spiritual hit point value, so there’s a lot of baggage associated with them that probably won’t fit into a typical 3.x game.

    In my own 3.x game, I created a homebrew variant of the ‘hero point’ concept: a Drama Deck. This was a set of about 15-20 different cards I created that allowed for very specific modifications of the rules. After each major piece of a story arc was complete, I collected all the cards, reshuffled, and re-dealt four to each player. There were rules that allowed for limited trading of cards, and it was possible to convert extraordinary successes into a card draw.

    The card effects were extremely variable in power, ranging from ‘Play to receive a +3 bonus to any d20 roll’ to ‘Play to inflict maximum damage on a physical attack’ and ‘Play to automatically bypass a target’s Spell Resistance.’

    These were a lot of work, but very, very popular with my players.

  22. Had our first Infamy Point used today, to succeed on a stunt of a monk running across the heads and shoulders of a crowd in a casino to get to some robbers. Worked great!

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