Friday, April 25, 2014

Bolt-on GMI's and why I prefer them to Bennies

One of the things I like about Other Dust and Old School RPG's in general is the explicit call to mess around with the rules.  To borrow the best line from a terrible movie, they're really more of a guideline.  There is no comprehensive list of combat modifiers; rather, Kevin Crawford just tells us that a -2 penalty will suffice for most situations.  There is a mechanic called Conditions through which conditions like hunger, thirst or broken ribs impose cumulative -2 penalties to hit rolls and -1 to saves and skill rolls.  There is no comprehensive list of Conditions either.  Some are specified in the rules, but there is no table 2.1: Conditions.

This open-endedness is a little scary, but it's also freeing.  In the essay Rule 68A, which is written for Traveller but pertains to OD and Stars Without Number, the author suggests that the GM can invent mechanics on the fly without worrying too much about hosing the players unintentionally. Basically, in Old School games, whatever you make up will be fair enough for the situation at at hand.

The line you walk as a GM in those situations is essentially the difference between "something terrible happens to you and there is nothing you can do about it" and "something terrible happens to you; what are you going to do about it?" Resolution mechanics are fine, but sometimes you want to introduce a complication that isn't covered by the rules but doesn't quite feel right to spring on the players without any kind of warning.

Enter the Game Master Intrusion (GMI).

GMI's are an essential component of Monte Cook's Cypher System that is the engine behind Numenera.  GMI's are transactional: the GM pays the player in a currency called XP and then does awful stuff to his or her character.  Suggestions in the Numenera book include breaking bow strings, dropping weapons, ruined rations, torn pack straps, NPC recovery, more damage to the character, floors or stairways that short, mayhem and fuck-with-ery.

In Cypher, the GM always pays the player two XP for the privilege of torturing their characters.  The player must then give one of the XP to another player.  I think this is brilliant because it creates bonds at the table and players are less likely to be neglected by the XP fairy just because the GM does not remember to mess with them.  It also can be a way for players to self-regulate.  A player who contributes and displays good table etiquette is more likely to be rewarded by his fellow players than one who is selfish or passive.  It also absolves the GM of having to reward players with XP; GMI's are proactive, as are many of the effects of XP.

I prefer this system to the Benny system of Savage Worlds, which is almost entirely reactive.  Bennies are usually given to reward player behavior (good jokes, evocative role-playing, effective planning, deck shuffling, pizza-bringing, and anything else that makes the total experience more pleasant for the GM.)  This is a great way to shape player behavior, but it does not really relate to the emerging story that the game is creating; in fact, it can pull against it.  GMI's, on the other hand, are always story-driven; they are about something happening to the characters rather than a reward for good player behavior.

Bennies are also used reactively for re-rolls, recoveries, and if your GM allows it, for moments of story control ("A baseball?  Like the one I happen to have in my saddle bag?")  XP can be used a bit more proactively by players to give their characters situational bonuses ("I am now really good at tracking abhumans so I am skilled whenever I am tracking them" or "I have spent enough time in these ruins that I am skilled in perception skills while I'm here").  Players can also use XP to advance their characters, and to eschew GMI's by paying one XP to the GM.  Not everyone wants to discover whatever put that evil gleam in the GM's eye, I suppose.

For Other Dust, I'm going to use GMI's and XP (which I'm going to call Bennies just because my players are used to Savage Worlds and because XP sounds like experience points, which are used differently in OD.)  The Bennies will be metal washers, which I think are a good fit for Other Dust.  GMI's in OD will be the usual things like broken bow strings, dud grenades and spoiled rations or dirty water.  To be more fair --and interesting--GMI's will most often provoke saves: a tech save to avoid a jammed weapon, a physical save to avoid a Condition like Ruptured Spleen or Third Degree Burns, a mental save to avoid the psychological stress of a particularly horrific encounter.  I can also use the GMI's to subtly give the characters more screen time to be awesome.  A character with a good Dex score might make an Dex/Athletics check to avoid falling rubble, while one with a good Luck save might make that instead.  In fact, it could be a chance to let a player show off their character's optimal abilities by letting them choose how they deal with the calamity.  If a character can find a narrative way out or around without rolling dice, that is just as well.

These Bennies will be used to re-roll damage and saves (not missed skill or to-hit rolls, because these are class features in OD), to eschew GMI's, to throw off Conditions (which may require a save or roll of some sort, depending on the nature of the Condition), to provide situational bonuses (+1 for skills, and they must be very specific) to cheat death and to provide players the opportunity to occasionally intrude on the narrative to their advantage.  I hope these GMI bennies will enhance the emerging story without smothering the risky thrill that is the game's true heart.

Tokens like Bennies and XP add a layer of strategy and drama that my players and I enjoy.  Pathetic Aesthetic aside, I think they are essential for a game as lethal as OD.  Even with a table heavy with washers, there should be plenty of carnage, mayhem and death to go around.

(For a more concise version of this entry, see the next entry.)