Character-Specific Drama Points
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #428
Character-Specific Drama Points
From Hannah L.
Many systems these days have drama points or plot points of some sort that let PCs do awesome things. The action points in D&D partly fill this niche, but don’t give players quite the narrative control that drama points do.
If drama points aren’t purely mechanical, how do you know when to award them? You could give them out for particularly good roleplaying or for finishing quests, but that’s what experience points are for.
Why not have drama points function in such a way that the act of earning them impacts the plot at least as much as the act of spending them?
In my recent 4th edition campaign, I’ve been using drama points in just this way. Each player receives and spends them in a way specifically tailored to his character. My examples are from D&D, but the mechanic can work in any system.
Divine Favor Points
My party includes a Cleric of the Raven Queen and a Paladin of Torog. I decided early on that my campaign’s setting would feature divine interference on a daily basis, and Divine Favor Points are a manifestation of that.
Whenever the cleric or paladin does something above and beyond the call of duty in the service of their god, they gain a Divine Favor Point. They can spend these points to enhance their Channel Divinity powers, which are the spells and abilities they specifically derive from their gods. They can also ask for a minor miracle or anything else thematically related to their god’s domain.
The players are allowed to go into negative point values, spending points they have not yet earned. The catch is that refusing their god’s request now subtracts an additional point, rather than merely being met with disappointment. Once they get down to -3 points, they start losing divine powers as the gods react to the abuse of their favor.
Divine Favor Points can only be earned by extraordinary actions. Slaying zombies and wraiths pleases the Raven Queen, but she won’t give the cleric points for it. It’s something he would have done anyway.
Our cleric has one Divine Favor Point at the moment. The party had been searching for a runaway boy, and they found him badly injured and near death. Their first thought was to heal him and bring him to safety, but the Raven Queen told the cleric that it was the boy’s time to die. She ordered him not to heal the boy.
The cleric shared his queen’s wishes with the party, who were less than thrilled. This led to the party ranger sneaking off in the dead of night with the boy, fearing the cleric would seek to hasten the child’s death. The cleric had no such intentions, and the entire party was nearly wiped out as they battled dangerous creatures of the night, the cleric and warlord pursuing the fleeing ranger and paladin.
Things were further complicated when the paladin asked Torog to send goblins to slow the pursuers down. This neither earned nor cost him a point, as both he and Torog benefited. Had it been a more dramatic effect, it might have cost him, but the goblins were in the area and Torog was happy to provide.
The cleric’s action in the service of his queen earned him a Divine Favor Point because it ran contrary to his natural inclinations and the party’s goals. It also caused some great drama that I, as the DM, could not have planned on my own.
I didn’t care one way or another whether the cleric healed the boy. I introduced the choice to add dramatic tension, not to railroad the cleric. The choices brought on by the points should be about improving the story, not helping the DM.
Divine Favor Points also fit characters who worship less specific forces, like nature or ancestral spirits. As long as the source of the character’s power has needs that sometimes diverge from the party’s, and can communicate those needs, Divine Favor Points work.
In the world of my campaign, dragonborn are just appearing as a race. They face prejudice from the villagers, who believe them to be monsters, and kill them when they find them. The exception is our party’s warlord, who was found as a child by the ranger’s parents. They convinced the villagers to spare his life, and now he fights to prove his worth as a person.
He wants to be strong, able to fight to protect those in his charge, but also diplomatic, with the eloquence to heal the rifts between the scattered survivors. He tries to be as noble and honorable as he can, to prove to the humans that he is no monster. In short, his character is all about being the best archetypal dragonborn that he can be.
Because dragonborn are so new as a race, I decided that each dragonborn’s share of their species collective unconscious was bigger than that of humans. This dragonborn aspect is also more malleable, able to control and be controlled by the first few dragonborn. The dragonborn warlord’s player wants his character to be acknowledged as one of the founders of the dragonborn race, so his character’s points are all about being dragonborn.
He gains Archetype Points by doing extremely dragonborn things. In one battle, he was stunned for several rounds. The fight was going badly by the time he finally saved against the stun. He spent an action point to take an attack on that turn, and killed the enemy. He described his character as leaping to his feet, sword in hand as he ripped the ghoul’s claws out of his body and dove at the vile creature, destroying it with a mighty blow. The party was saved.
This seemed to me like a very dragonborn thing to do, and it was certainly out of the ordinary. He earned his first Archetype Point, which he spent not long after. He was cut off from the rest of the party as they battled a small tribe of rogue dragonborn. The tribe’s leader himself was confronting the warlord, keeping him from joining his friends.
The warlord spent his point to overcome the tribal leader with a surge of eloquence, and together they raced back toward the melee, bursting in with a roar and halting the battle just in time to prevent members of both sides from dying. The warlord used his Inspiring Word power to heal not just one or two allies, but every person on the battlefield. Impressed by this display, the tribe of dragonborn agreed that talk was perhaps better than slaughter.
As you can see, Archetype Points have a powerful effect. This is because earning them is so difficult, and because all the drama points of this flavor are so rare. In three sessions, only two characters have earned points, and only one has spent them. If points were given out more frequently, they would have to be less powerful.
Archetype Points can work for any character seeking to live up to some kind of ideal. The arcanist who searches for new and more powerful spells, or the martial character who strives for physical perfection both fit. These characters would earn points for powerful and creative displays of spellcrafting, or flashy and deadly attacks, respectively.
Other varieties of drama points can’t go into negatives like Divine Favor Points, but they also don’t come with the same restrictions. Anything a character would do to earn an Archetype Point is something they would have done anyway, just more awesome. This makes Archetype Points a little less flexible and powerful, but also less likely to cause party conflict. I feel this is a fine balance, but player attitudes will probably vary. Use whatever version of each works best with your group.
The party’s ranger was feeling left out. Everyone else was getting passed secret notes, either orders and advice from their god or urges from their dragonborn unconscious. The problem was, our ranger isn’t especially devoted to anything. She’s an elf, yeah, and she likes stabbing things, but neither of those is an ideal she strives toward. She respects Melora, but doesn’t worship her. So how could I include the ranger in the drama point and note-passing fun?
Inspiration struck me around the same time the ranger’s third critical fumble that session struck the warlord in the back with an arrow. Our ranger criticals a lot, but this is more than balanced out by how often she fumbles. She’s also a perceptive character who tends to notice things other don’t. The pieces suddenly fit together.
Now, whenever our ranger rolls a 1 on a d20, and doesn’t re- roll it with her Elven Accuracy power, she receives a Karma Point. She can cash these points in to gain insights –that is, to ask the DM to pass her a note about the subject of her choice.
She can try to tune in on other characters’ secret notes, or seek to get a sense of what lies beyond that ridge or if there’s a safer place to camp in the area. Our party has no rogue, so it’s good to have someone who can get a hunch about whether there are traps nearby, or how best to disable that lock.
Karma Points are the least powerful of all the points mentioned so far, but they’re also the most plentiful. We’re hoping to find something a little better for the ranger eventually, but for now, Karma Points are enough to get her in on the drama point action without forcing her character in a new direction.
This sort of system works great for characters and players who roll play as much as they roleplay, but don’t want to be left out of the shiny new mechanic. Not everyone is going to be as unlucky as our ranger, so you’ll have to adapt it for each player.
Some players might also abuse the mechanic, and try to find excuses to roll d20s extra times in the hope of getting more 1s in less dangerous situations. In that case, it’s probably a better idea to limit Karma Points to fumbles in combat and skill challenges.
Insight might not be what everyone wants, so other minor boons are perfectly appropriate. Possibilities include a chance to re-roll some other d20 roll, or a temporary bonus to a skill or stat.
These are closely related to Archetype Points – at least the way our warlord uses his – but they’re not quite the same. Destiny Points are for that character in your campaign that has one specific quest they focus on above all else, be it freeing the kingdom from evil, reclaiming their rightful throne, or destroying a particular enemy. This can also work for a character who has a destiny that remains as yet hidden, though that is a little bit more difficult.
Destiny Points are earned whenever the character does something extraordinary in pursuit of his or her destiny. Take care not to confuse these with experience points – they are not a reward for passing plot milestones. Rather, they celebrate effort that is above and beyond.
A character seeking to dethrone an evil king should not get a Destiny Point just for slaying some of that king’s elite guards. However, if in the battle with the guards’ captain he tells his allies to stand back, makes a brief dramatic speech, then charges forward with a righteous yell as he plunges his ancestral sword into the captain’s heart, that would be worth a Destiny Point.
Destiny Points not only reward excellent roleplaying and fantastic maneuvers – they can also create tension. Perhaps the party had been laying low in a tavern, trying to avoid attracting interest when the guards walked in. Slaying the guards, dramatically or not, would go against the interests of the party, but help advance the character’s destiny. In that case, a Destiny Point might also be appropriate.
This is a little trickier to manage than Divine Favor Points in terms of not upsetting the party overmuch. The DM controls what extraordinary requests the gods make, whereas the player can take it into his own head that a certain disruptive action would advance his destiny. If you think your destiny-touched player would abuse the mechanic to sow discord, then stick with rewarding Destiny Points for dramatics only.
Destiny Points, like most of the other drama point varieties, should be traded in for thematically relevant rewards. The most appealing of these is probably added narrative control in scenes where the character’s destiny is at stake. The player described above could immediately turn in his new Destiny Point to announce that the few remaining guards are shaken by what they just saw, and two flee while the third falls to one knee and pledges his loyalty to the party.
Other rewards could include bonuses and re-rolls in key fights. Rather than saying that the guards are shaken, the player spends his point to gain temporary bonuses to Strength and Dexterity and spend a freebie healing surge as he finishes the battle.
Another option is the addition of previously unmentioned back story elements that help out the character. The players want to hide the bodies of the slain guards, but don’t know where to turn. No problem – it seems the destiny-touched character’s father knew a master thief who lives nearby, and who would have no problem doing a favor for his dear friend’s son. The thief also knows a couple of back ways into the palace, and has a few extra sets of masterwork thieves’ tools lying around.
There are already legendary items that confer benefits to wielders they like and hinder those they don’t. But these items only stick around for a few levels, and most communicate only vaguely. If you want an artifact that has a little more narrative punch, or have a player who likes shiny things and doesn’t fit any of the other drama point varieties, Artifact Points could be right for you.
Artifact Points most often work like Divine Favor Points. The artifact wants the character to take an action that is out of their way, and communicates its desire. The character either ignores the request or acts upon it. If she chooses the latter, the artifact expresses its favor by releasing spectacular powers at a time of the character’s choosing.
Some characters might have a close and personal relationship with their artifact, much like our paladin has with Torog. The two chat happily away, exchanging notes on inconsequential, and do each other minor favors simply because they are friends.
Or, they could have a more reserved relationship, like that of our cleric and the Raven Queen. They converse fairly often, but always in formal tones, and seldom request anything of the other that they are not willing to pay for in kind.
Artifacts are allowed to be quirkier than gods generally are, so they could have jealousies, forbidding the character to ever touch a sword besides itself. This sort of minor directive would not have an effect on Artifact Points, much like minor actions do not win the gods’ favor.
The artifact’s demands should have some kind of thematic unity. If the sword was forged by a pious Templar, it might beg the character to spare the life of a fallen enemy, even knowing the villain could rise again, more dangerous than before. If the character did so, it might reward her by healing her compatriots at a time of need.
Artifacts can also have more specific goals. Perhaps the shield belonged to a fallen knight, and seeks to avenge its former wielder’s death. In that case, the points would act similarly to Destiny Points.
The artifact could also be a weapon that constantly craves battle, in which case it would be excited by displays of martial prowess, or even suicidal foolhardiness. Such an artifact would be similar to a martial character using Archetype Points.
An artifact could even mimic the effects of Karma Points. The weapon feels apologetic for its embarrassing failure to land a blow, and gifts its wielder with a minor bonus of some kind.
Artifacts can act like any of the other drama point systems, or they can have personalities and demands of their own. A single artifact, such as a flying carpet, might even belong to a whole group, and as such have point tallies for each character.
Artifact Points can also be used to represent a magical companion of some sort. A genie in a bottle might not have a limit of three wishes, but he will expect favors before he does any in return. A witch’s familiar might be a warlock trapped in raven form, who will repay her help in seeking to regain his lost shape with occasional displays of his former powers.
While I haven’t yet playtested Artifact and Destiny Points, I can vouch that the other three types are working fantastically. The gods are constantly active in the lives of their adherents, the dragonborn warlord can call upon the strength of his dawning people, and the ranger doesn’t swear quite so much when she fumbles.
In addition, I’m constantly passing notes back and forth with each player. Each gets information and motivations the others don’t have, leading to increased dramatic tension and roleplaying. Sometimes they act on the notes, sometimes they don’t, but either way, the plot thickens.
Finally, when the players do cash in their points, they get to do something that’s flat-out awesome. And isn’t that why we play this game to begin with?
A Brief Word From Johnn
Roleplaying Tips Holiday Break
The e-zine is taking a break over the holidays. Next issue will be in early 2009. Happy holidays!
Would You Game at a Cafe?
This article caught my eye about a cafe and bookstore that hosts a weekly chess day and a weekly D&D day. If you are having trouble finding a place to play, maybe this option is for you:
Do You Read Post Apocalyptic Fiction?
Lately, I’ve been chewing through end-of-the-world books. It started with The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Then I read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon. So, now I’m looking for more. Got any suggestions?
For Your Game: Holidays
Holiday: Dance of Ghalad
From Andreas Rönnqvist
This one-week long celebration of the prophet Ghalad takes the form of a nation-wide dancing contest. This was Ghalad’s favorite pastime, so what better way to honour his memory?
Every little village or city becomes a watering hole for bards and musicians. Stories are told (of Ghalad and others), music and song reverberates throughout the streets, and no one is allowed to go hungry. Every participant shares their food with whomever needs it, usually while cheering on the neighborhood dancing contest.
Holiday encounter ideas:
- The players are invited to a dance contest, but a jealous rival doesn’t take well to being challenged. He could poison their wine, or taunt them in public.
- The players are asked to judge a dancing contest in a larger city. Since the winners gain so much prestige, they are offered bribes. Whether they accept or deny the bribes, they will make new enemies who will want to settle matters.
- The players are asked to share stories of their adventures during a village feast. The tales of the hordes they’ve raided lures a thief to try to steal from them. The thief is an amateur and will most likely get caught, but it turns out he is also the winner of the dance contest.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Quick ‘n Dirty World Building
You have a collection of published scenarios and resources. The problem: everyone owns them (or has played them or knows them) as well. The solution: build your own world! But doesn’t that require massive amounts of time and effort? Not necessarily.
Start local and expand from there. Sure, you have to keep in mind the overall picture, but these can take the form of just a few notes on how the larger world functions and interacts.
So, you’ve decided to start with the fire swamp, or the gnarly forest, or the thunder mountains. Now, take a look at those RPGs you paid good money for (or not) and which are now in storage, having been used already.
Take interesting parts from them, rename them, and place them in the area. Even if you don’t plan to use them, they can provide town maps, local rumors, and background color. What works well in this way are resources from different game systems. You don’t need to convert everything; just note the general encounter types and then create stats with your preferred system.
You can take this idea a step further: add in elements from your favorite novel, story, magazine, movie or TV show. Even National Geographic can be useful. That lost tribe or new evidence of a lost culture or species might be a perfect fit for your campaign.
Stagger Weapon and Monster Upgrades
From Hannah L.
After playing a lot of video games, I’ve made the following observations:
- If your weapons get better slightly faster than the monsters get stronger, you feel like an awesome, unstoppable hero.
- If the monsters get stronger slightly faster than your weapons get better, you feel like you’re just barely hanging on, struggling against impossible odds.
- If your weapons and the monsters advance at exactly the same rate, you feel like nothing ever changes, even if the numbers keep going up.
I think that’s a good lesson for us DMs. We get to hand out the loot, and determine the challenge level of the monsters, so both weapon and monster strength are under our control. The only question is; what tone are we going for?
If the players are super heroes, hand out the big guns, then bring in the big bad. If the players are gritty mercenaries in a world of darkness and betrayal, scare them with the next dire monster before you let them get their hands on the legendary artifacts.
Highlight PC Abilities
One way to tailor adventures to the PCs is to do a character generation session a few weeks before you plan to start the game or campaign. Get the players to include background details when they roll up their characters; things like family contacts, unusual childhood events, and even just other family members.
As the GM, you can incorporate some of these elements or expand on them to make the game more personal to the PCs. Childhood legends could have a grain of truth in them that leads to an adventure, an old family friend could come to a PC’s aid, and so on.
Take a look at PC skills and abilities; maybe create a chart or table of them for reference. Add puzzles, problems, and challenges that require PCs to use their skills and abilities to succeed.
You can add in house rules that highlight skill use. Some games, like TORG, have regular and dramatic scenes. TORG has a game mechanic called Dramatic Skill Resolution: initiative is determined through the use of a card deck, and in a dramatic or climatic scene you have to complete actions in segments. For this, you have to have an initiative card that allows you to perform part 1 of the action, then part 2, and part 3, etc., until the task is finished, making skill rolls each round.
Some games have little or no skills. In such cases, you can either add some in, or look for other elements of character design you can incorporate into game sessions to help highlight each PC at different times.