The Problem with Story Points

...and a possible house rule solution.

In many of my latest role-playing endeavors, the games have used some kind of Story Points mechanic (I even imposed optional Cinematic Points to a high-octane, John Woo-ish GURPS series). I think they work very well, especially when you're trying to emulate a cinematic genre (something I went into in the above linked post). However, I did hit a snag in my use of Story Points in the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (DWAITAS for intimates), one I'd like to fix before attempting a second series (which I really, really want to do).Here's the problem:
DWAITAS characters just have too many of them! Time Lords have 8 and Companions have 12. That's 20 in a 70s Doctor Who set-up, but groups are usually larger. In my own group, we eventually had some 52 Story Points (not counting Gadgets) floating in each game session, from the start! DWAITAS also allows you to score Story Points from the GM by allowing bad things to happen to you. It's just like the show. In traditional RPGs, characters seldom get captured, except maybe by the dreaded GameMaster's fiat. Most players prefer to stand and fight. In more cinematic games (or perhaps, in narrativist ones), players might be more willing to get caught so they can get some quality time with a gloating, secret-spilling villain. Doctor Who is very much that kind of story, and characters on the show often get captured, taken over or separated from each other just so the plot can happen.

But here's the thing. Though DWAITAS encourages tactics that allow you to score Story Points mid-game, there's really very little call for them. I'm quite happy with the powers it gives player characters - they lead to some epic moments of triumph, crazy improvised gadgets and lucky shots worthy of the program - but the players have so many Story Points, they never need to accumulate more. And so we're back to narrativist impulses that don't require the game's encouragement. DWAITAS provides the "powers" seen on the show, but not the "sacrifices" characters have to make in the course of the plot. In spirit, yes. In execution, I've had trouble making it work.

Even before the end of my first series, I tried various things, but I think I went in the opposite direction of what was required. Basically, I denied the players the start of game "refill" by claiming certain adventures were actually continuances from the previous week. They still started out with lots of Story Points and just didn't spend as many in the opening chapters. No incentive to score more. I've rethought my position.
My solution:
I propose to start each session with NO or FEW banked Story Points. As the story progresses, the players are encouraged to let bad things happen to them (even suggest those things) so they can score the Story Points they know they'll need to get out of the climax and other moments of jeopardy. I further propose the GM should negotiate certain Story Point awards with players who have just succeeded at something to turn that success into a failure, in particular when such a success would derail the adventure. For example, say the plot hinged on a recurring NPC being taken over by Cybermen. Using Story Points, or with a lucky roll, a player might break the Cyber-hold, stopping the plot cold. The GM might then offer X amount of Story Points in exchange for a reversal (clever GMs won't erase what happened, but will throw a twist that really means the players have failed, cue end sting on the episode). The player spent points to get his success, so he wants to recoup them all, PLUS a bonus. Does the GM care enough to sweeten the pot? This technique might eventually turn into a poker game where players and GMs bluff their way into more or less Story Points, but how is that different from a meeting with the Black and White Guardians? Because I believe Story Points are the edge Companions have over the Time Lord, they would probably start with a few points to the Time Lord's zero, and possibly score them at a faster rate.

I strikes me that I had the solution right under my nose, because the aforementioned GURPS game's cinematic points had more or less this set-up (none or few to start, though no negotiated reversals). In that game, you scored points for doing badass things that fit the genre/mood we wanted to achieve. In DWAITAS, the conditions would be different to emulate THAT genre and mood. And so it goes for whatever genre/mood you wanted to achieve. If I were to run a Torchwood game with DWAITAS, for example, absent any official rule set for this rather different corner of the Whoniverse, the major house rule I would implement is that Story Point scoring would depend on things integral to THAT show. Making bad moral decisions, for example.

Anyway, those are my role-playing musings for the week. I hope they're useful to someone. Or perhaps have you never had this problem or else handled it some other way?


delenore said...

In general, I've always found it hard to reach a balance in regards to a Story Points-type system - Too Many points results in a story with no risk and too little can cause a total party kill inadvertently. I've found it best to start with few or no points and slowly ratchet up the number as needed... although this has backfired as well. The first session of Savage Worlds I ran ended quickly and quite messily (I wasn't expecting a pulpy game to be quite so deadly).

Siskoid said...

Savage Worlds can be treacherous. You don't get hit, you don't get hit, you don't get hit, and then you do, and it means massive damage! I've had that too. Good thing for bennies and sapping, but even that has its limitations.

Craig Oxbrow said...

I haven't had as much trouble because my players are pretty sparing with the Story Points while still happy to have bad things happen to them. This has been blind luck on my part, of course.

One consideration from the size of groups - there's a group total, and it varies with size. "High SP" characters like gadget-less unpowered Companions still get more, of course.

Siskoid said...

You're sending me to the rule book on that one (once I get home). It passed me by entirely. It's certainly an easy way to handle it... perhaps even a fixed pool of starting SPs, to be divided among the number of players (say 20, with the Time Lord always getting 2/3 the number the others get).

Craig Oxbrow said...

That was a consideration by me, not an in-the-book one. My bad.

Another alternative, every SP you spend, the GM gets one. This will, however, better model cliffhangers than single episodes...

Siskoid said...

Made me look!

I was about to ask for a page number ;)

Curufea said...

I think that the amount of story points is suitable for a crunchier set of rules (ie stricter, more granular rules). But being a rules-lite system, DWAITAS already has enough leeway in how the rules get applied that there is often little reason to use story points.

Possibly the story points could be weakened so that more of them would need to be spent for the same effect? e.g. 1 storypoint = +1 to a die roll instead of a category change in conflict resolution, but expending 3 storypoints would be a category change (what 1 storypoint did traditionally).


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