Luck Points & the Core
on April 22, 2013, 10:01 a.m.
I've been giving some thought recent to luck points as they existed in first generation Saga Machine games, how they influence the feel of the game and whether they're a good thing to include in a genre-agnostic game's core.
Luck points, more than most other Saga Machine mechanics exist as a meta-game tool. Sure, they can be explained away in-game as luck or fate or karma or something like that, but more than anything they speak to a certain play style (as a side note, the karma points of Against the Dark Yogi are tied directly to a game-world notion). In many ways luck points in play tend to be "save-your-ass" points. And having this sort of "save-your-ass" safety net supports a style of play where daring, risk-taking is made more viable, because those points exist as a fallback. It also supports a style of character development where it is less pressing to take rarely-used-but-occasionally-important skills because when those skills do come up, the lack of a positive modifier can be made up for with retools.
Now, this style of play or character development is fine for many genres. But building this sort of thing into the core is also limiting for others. Consider the example of a survival horror game. In this sort of genre consequence-free risk taking really is anathema to the tone of the game--survival horror being all about trying to minimize risk in a scenario where that is difficult.
One possible fix for a survival horror type game is to simply say "no luck points" in this campaign. And that's doable, but I find that unsatisfactory. For one, from a game design perspective, if something's an option that can be toggled on and off, it shouldn't be part of the core, it should be part of some optional module. Additionally, many traits rely on luck points as a resource--the entire core system of weaknesses being one--so removing luck points indirectly ripples through much of the system. And that can lead to many complications.
Of course, removing luck points from the core game has some similar problems. Luck points are used as a long term resource that many traits key off of. They're also used as the resource generated by weakness traits. Removing luck points from the core means that these traits need another mechanic to interact with. On the other hand, though, removing luck from the core game means that this can be solved at the time of game design rather than at the time of play or at the time of campaign planning. And that means a solution has more time for thought to be given to it and much more time for testing. Something that is significantly preferable.
On the other hand, it might be preferable to keep something resembling luck points in the core, but to change the mechanics such they they aren't as limiting to the aforementioned genres. Consider this: Luck points are limiting because they can become a safety net in genres where a safety net undermines the mood or themes of the game. Perhaps then there is a way to alter the core luck points so that they aren't by default a safety net.
In my opinion, one of the reasons that luck points become a safety net is their "use after" nature, and their ability to stack. Essentially this means that I can make an action, see that the result is going to suck, and then luck points become my reaction to save the result from being bad. Then, as long as I have luck points, I can keep spending them as I fish for a good result.
Imagine a game where luck points worked like this: You can spend a luck point before an action is made for some bonus to the roll. Only one luck point can be spent per action this way. But once the roll's been made it's made. The results stand. Now the question is: Is this enough of a change to make luck points less of a safety net and not damaging to games that rely on that? Certainly this system changes luck points from a mechanic that's often used as a reaction to a bad roll to one where a player has to decide if a roll is important enough for a luck point before it is made. It also limits the possible effect of luck points on a single roll.
But is it good enough? I'm not sure, but it's something I am considering.