June 7, 2013

The Pick Two House Rule

Point Buy XP systems in tabletop games tend to be a bookkeeping nightmare.  GMs have no idea what the players are capable of from game to game, and players have to track XP and purchases constantly.  The "traps" of overspecialization; failure to specialize; and wasted points found in all point-buy systems can frustrate players.  For the players that avoid those traps, point-buy systems usually lead to diminishing returns (though this can be a good thing for party balance).  Slow growth is nice, but it can be disappointing, too.

Yet the general concept of the point-buy XP system is one of the best out there, from a GM and a player perspective.  It's realistic, open-ended, and often connects player characters to the campaign setting.

I've used a few modifications to point buy systems over the years.  My favorite so far is what I call the "pick two" reward system.  It doubles down on the advantages of the point-buy system, but basically eliminates it. It requires the GM to pay close attention to the players' characters' personal stories and their stats both individually and relative to one another.  It can be exciting, too.

Here's how it works:

Instead of letting players raise their skills, I gave them a list of options for rewards at the end of each story.  The options range from major stat improvements to story developments, and everything in between.  I create a customized list for each PC containing 4-7 options.  I used general guidelines like this:

  • Improve a powerful ability your character relies heavily on by 1
  • Improve a powerful ability your character doesn’t use much, but which would have been useful in this past adventure (or which you were forced to use a lot in this past adventure) by 1 or 2
  • Improve a weak ability your character relies heavily on by 1 or 2
  • Improve any weak ability of your choice by 1
  • Improve a weak ability your character doesn’t use much, but which would have been useful in this past adventure (or which you were forced to use a lot in this past adventure) by 2 or 3
  • Gain a loyal ally in [NPC or faction from this adventure], who will consider that he owes you minor (or even major – with some persuading) favors from now on
  • Advance a character plot significantly (basically a story hook)
  • Advance one of your character’s personal goals significantly (anotehr story hook)
  • Get a piece of hard to get, rare, cool gear

Originally I used this system in place of the terrible XP system in Cyberpunk 2020.  That game doesn't exactly use point-buy.  It's a system not unlike Call of Cthulhu's system or the Burning Wheel system -- neither of which I like.  Here's an example that I would use for that game:

A cyberpunk “solo” (a combat character) could get this “choose two” list after an adventure where the characters tried to talk their way past some corporate goons, but wound up screwing up and shooting their way out of a tight spot.

  • Raise Reflexes from 6 to 7
  • Raise Charisma from 1 to 3
  • Raise Lie from 0 to 3
  • Raise any other skill of your choice by 1 (including your best skill, Rifle, which you have at 8)
  • Dr. Weaver, who patched you up after the gunfight, comes to believe in your anti-establishment ideals, and will do favors for you and pass information on to you in the future.
  • Learn why your missing brother disappeared
  • The anarchist pirate radio station you've been supporting persuades a local gang to guard them so you don’t have to sleep on their couch “just in case.”  The gang agrees with the radio station’s anti-establishment ideals, and does the work for free.

Naturally this character’s combat ability goes up the most if he chooses to raise Reflexes and Rifle, which as a combat character, he relies on heavily and has invested heavily in.  But I've also tempted him to shore up his poor Charisma and Lie, which would have helped in the last adventure.  As a GM, I have decided that those large increases to weak stats are equivalent to the small increases to powerful stats.

He can also improve his worldly connections, allowing him to be tied more to the setting and gain advantages that are hard to reflect in stats.  Or he can advance his character plots, gaining some spotlight time.

Note that if you put character plots, goals or NPCs/factions on the list, you are entering into a social contract wherein you’re effectively saying:  If you select this option instead of raising your stats, I will reward you with spotlight time, writing plot around it so it comes up in game very soon.

The “plot vs. effectiveness” trade-off is usually an unfair trade.  The reason it’s OK with this particular system is that the GM can carefully modulate intra-party balance.  That is, if one PC is more effective than another, the GM can offer the weaker PC better stat options than the stronger PC, tweaking their relative capabilities until they’re performing about on par with one another.  This also applies to the spotlight time from the plot options:  If one player gets an unfair amount of spotlight time from choosing the plot options more often, the GM can stop giving him those options.

There is no reason that a player can’t pursue his character’s goals during the game regardless of whether he selects the plot rewards or not.  The reward mechanic is designed to be an offer from the GM to the player to write plot for everyone that involves his character’s story, without the player having to take up game time to set it up.  The plot that the GM writes will have the advantage of being connected to the main plot, which is a big deal for players.  Of course, the scene that follows should be fun for all the players, not just the rewarded one, but it should focus on his character’s personal plot.

For example, if the “solo” in the above example chose “learn why your missing brother disappeared,” the GM might start the next adventure off with this premise:

The evidence you got from the Arasaka Energy uranium mine run points to a shady government contract involving prisoners from San Quentin working as unskilled labor.  Of course neither the media, nor the prisoners’ families were informed of this arrangement.  And, given their high mortality rate implied by these documents, the place doesn't conform to OSHA regulations or whatever.  Your brother was released on parole from San Quentin just before he disappeared.  One of the prisoners on the mining detail roster you hacked has the name ‘James Whitehead,’ otherwise known to you as Big Jimmy, your brother’s former cellmate.  Jimmy was transferred to the AE mine the day your brother disappeared, and Big Jimmy’s work release contract shows a signature that looks way too legible for an illiterate gang banger’s scrawl – no doubt forged.  That can’t be a coincidence.  If you could get back in and visit the laborer barracks, maybe you could find out why someone wanted to make Jimmy and your brother disappear.

The FATE system has a point-buy XP system that sort of works like this.  Instead of a currency of points and price list, players get minor and major rewards, allowing them to buy small things (skills, generally) frequently and big things (stats, magic) occasionally.  The “pick two” system works a lot like FATE, but with limited choices, presented only after each story, and with story rewards tied in.

I'm not saying this is the best system in the world, but because of the customization for each character, it can be really exciting for players.  Even though it limits the characters' choices, it doesn't restrict them too badly -- notice how the 7 choices that the solo got include one open-ended option "Raise any other skill of your choice by 1 (including your best skill, Rifle, which you have at 8)" that lets the player choose something to surprise the GM.

A final note:  The GM should listen to what abilities the players want their characters to learn and improve, since it's often hard to predict. It might help to ask the players if there's anything they really want on the pick two list before drawing it up.