The phenomenon of Player Determinism is a strange one to my mind. I’ve found this post the most difficult to write of the three despite it being the one I’m most passionate about. Perhaps that is the problem after all?
As with previous posts, I want to start with a general defining of my terms so that I’m being clear. What do I mean by player determinism? I mean games that put resources in the players’ hands to either muck about with outcomes (action points, fate points, etc.) or that shift the state of the game such that the DM role is de-emphasized to a significant degree. The first is concrete and easy to discuss. The second is more subjective and thus more difficult (and where I start to get into trouble writing this).
I have a broad and deep knowledge of RPGs but I don’t claim to be an all-knowing sage of games. So the first place that I encountered player-facing points that could be spent to influence game play was the West End Games Star Wars RPG. WEG used a dice pool system where the dice were rolled and the total was added up to beat a difficulty number. This system offered two kinds of unique “points” that players could spend to influence outcomes. Character Points could be spent to add dice to your pool on a one-for-one basis. You could only spend up to 2 points on any given roll (or up to 5 on a resistance roll). The other kind of points were Force Points which doubled your dice pool for whatever action you were taking but were extremely limited in the number that you got.
In the WEG Star Wars D6 system, these points were interesting game mechanics because they created some choices for the player that were very meta-gamey but had significant effect on the life of their character. Character Points were great because they added to rolls and had the potential to explode (get a 6, roll it again) but came with the downside that they were also the same pool of points you used to buy advancements for your character. So maybe you had to spend a few extra character points to just stay alive and that meant you couldn’t afford to raise a skill between adventures. Balancing the desire to succeed in the short term vs. your character’s long term growth was an interesting (and very Star Wars) mechanic. Force Points were similar in that you could get a massive boost – doubling the number of dice you rolled – but each character only had one or two of them and they were only given back if you used them in a heroic, dramatic manner. Otherwise, they were gone when they were spent. Again, very cinematic and very Star Wars.
Both of these choices worked great when players and DMs (GMs) really embraced them (and were on the same page) but fell apart when either of those conditions were not met. If you started to become risk-averse to save your character points then it started to make the game unnecessarily hard, which could lead to hard feelings. It could work the other way too, where you just had terrible dice luck and so you constantly spent CP and so you never got to improve you character much. Both were poor outcomes. Force Points were worse. They were meant to simulate the ability to take that one-in-a-million shot where Luke hits the tiny thermal exhaust port on the side of the Death Star. What they often ended up being was a source of arguments over whether or not you deserved to get one back when you used one. Again, it’s all about the trust relationship between GM and players.
My extended exploration of how it worked in Star Wars relates to later implementations that changed that dynamic by providing these expendable, player-facing resources in an equal and across the board fashion. Every session players start out with X number of points to use up and they always get them back. Sometimes they get them back during a session. Often these resources – as they became more common – were not tied to player behavior and began to allow players to exert more influence than simply changing die rolls. You could spend points to avoid dying, to create events in the narrative of the game, etc. That progression is what creates the true Player Determinism that I’m talking about.
It is my contention – anecdotal and obervation-based – that the wave of player-facing mechanics that gave them more power over the mechanics of the game were a response to the DM determinism phase where so many games were putting all of the power and responsibility in the hands of the DMs – leading to burnout and bad actors.
Game designers and players saw a problem with DM overreach and felt they could legislate away the issue by changing the mechanics to create a more player-empowered game. And I see it, in theory. But it always falls short in practice (in my experience) because the problem is not that characters need more mechanical solutions to their problems, it’s that the power relationship between the players and the DM were out of whack. And I still contend that much of that problem, where you can’t just lay it at the feet of bad actors, comes from early game designers not understanding the tightly knit, limited nature of D&D and how it all went together to form the whole experience vs. just wanting to hare off and make their own version of D&D. And this problem still resonates. A lot of tabletop RPGs are designed around ideas and aspirations for how they should play without providing structures that adequately explain or support the kind of play they are meant to create.
Overall, my personal opinion is that player-facing determinism mechanics usually do more harm than good when inserted into systems and that these mechanics are primarily designed in response to a feeling that players need “more control” in order to feel satisfied with their gaming experience. I submit that this player determinism phase of gaming – which I think we are still firmly in the middle of – has created some fantastic but flawed games – much what I said about original D&D.
I think I’ll probably do one more in this series and try to summarize my thoughts on the whole topic. I feel like simply exploring it has helped me think about issues I’ve only considered in a tangential way before and I want to ruminate on them a little.
As always, thanks for reading.