[NGDM] Bonus points, die ranges, and other musings

We’ve got this mechanic wedged into the middle of the rest of what’s been developed thus far but which hasn’t been defined yet, either as a discrete entity or in terms of the interaction with the rest of the system. To use a bit of game design slang, these “bennies” are the spare points left over if a character buys dice and doesn’t have enough left over for any more – by definition, a character will almost certainly have 3 or fewer of these points, since 4 would net you an additional d4 in one of the roles. We might even want to set a hard cap for these points, although someone saving up to buy a die could theoretically be stymied by that if the bar is too low. (We’ll deal with experience and advancement in more detail later, though the most intuitive immediate frame that presents itself is simply being able to buy/upgrade dice: experience points would be functionally equivalent to the character points received during generation.)

Conceptually, these bonus points provide one-shot bursts of enhanced performance as opposed to the reliable long-term capability represented by dice. They should be commensurately awesome, but not so much that characters hobble themselves by skipping over buying dice to hoard their points. That leads us into some interesting mental territory: to measure how much is enough when it comes to spending a bonus point, we have to back up and think about how often dice are going to be used and what they can accomplish. We stated earlier that putting a die into an action without opposition means automatic success, regardless of the denomination of the die, so we’re already empowering the characters fairly nicely. Our axioms also put a d4 at the lowest level of skill (which is another way of saying that a difficulty of 4 is the best a character with basic training should be able to accomplish under duress) and d20 at the highest (so 20 is the best anyone can do with focus and excellent training, without bringing in cross-disciplinary techniques). Our d20 is also probably not going to be rolled to maximum effect very often, since even one point of stress degrades it to a d12, among other things.

We’re not designing a Nobilis- or Exalted-style game where characters can regularly perform impossible feats, but we are aiming for a cinematic feel, where characters can once or twice in the span of a story perform implausible feats to show off their exceptionality (I’m coining that word, spell-checker, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me), so let’s use the placeholder rule “difficulty 20 equals world record performance” for now; obviously, a character with a few of the fatter dice to throw can jump that bar without too much problem, but it’s an anchor around which to plan things, especially with regard to our bennies.

In general, we always have to keep in mind the “Cosmic Encounter” principle, which is that it’s cool to be able to break the rules if the rule-breaking is properly defined. We have a few mechanical restrictions in play already, so let’s look at the application of bennies to circumvent those restrictions. We have:

1) Initiative, which determines which characters get to involve themselves in scene-changing actions first and thus have some direct impact on the later actors;
2) Wounds, which penalize the result of a die;
3) Stress, which degrades the denomination of a die, but improves initiative.

Thus, wounds are just straight-up bad, while stress is bad but has an upside. Initiative is neutral: you can want to act earlier or later for different tactical reasons. It seems like it might make sense to have bennies apply to wounds, then, to even them out the way stress is mitigated by what I think of as the adrenaline effect, but just letting people spend a bennie to get a +1 to a die roll (the most obvious application) just doesn’t seem awesome enough to justify them. Re-rolls are slightly larger in potential impact, but run the risk of a lower re-roll in many cases, and I want bonus points to give the user something unreservedly good. Using them to bump initiative is an attractive idea: you can spend one to jump a spot up or down in the initiative sequence.

Still, we ought to have a way for wounds to be ameliorated, even temporarily. Brainstorm: spend a bennie, and suffer no wound penalty to a roll. That’s pretty potent, so here’s a drawback: after you do that, you strain yourself further and take an extra wound. It makes the use appropriate for those last-moment “Hail Mary” actions at the climax of a major scene – let’s hold onto that idea and consider it further.

Another idea is brewing for an auxiliary system that bennies might apply toward, so we’ll table the discussion and come back to it. This game has to have some narrative mechanics as well as concrete mathematical systems, or it’s just not one of my games! 🙂