The Adversarial DM

This is another of my messageboard posts, this time to ENworld. No miniature stuff here, just RPG-related material.

Once upon a time, when role-playing was new to me, there was a role-playing game put out by Victory Games that allowed you to participate in adventures set in the world of James Bond.

(That’s a long-winded way of saying: There once was a James Bond RPG).

The James Bond RPG introduced me to the idea of Action Points. Oh, they were called “Hero Points” back then, but the idea was the same as “Action Points” or “Action Dice” or whatever you wanted to call them. Each hero had a supply of Hero Points that they could use to change the results of various checks: either to make something they did succeed, or to make something their opponent did fail.

Fairly standard so far.

What was interesting was that the DM’s characters also had Hero Points, of a sort: they had Survival Points. And they weren’t used in the same manner as Hero Points.

Where the heroes would be using their Hero Points to disarm bombs, shoot the villains and avoid being shot themselves, the villains could only use Survival Points to protect themselves from harm.

If your hero shot at a villain and hit, the villain could use a number of Survival points to make you miss. (You could also use Hero Points to counteract that, of course).

However, if the villain shot at a hero and missed, the villain could not use their Survival points to turn a miss into a hit. They could only be used defensively. It was an extremely good mechanic.

When you come down to it, D&D, James Bond and most RPGs are co-operative games. If the DM designs a 10 room dungeon, then if the PCs die in room 1, they will never see the other 9 rooms – the DM’s work is wasted.

Of course, once the PCs reach room 10, the bets are off.

Still, if there’s no chance of failure in rooms 1-9, then there’s a lessening of the tension in the game – and possibly a loss of interest as well. So, there has to be some chance of failure – just not high enough to seriously threaten the players if they work well.

Action Points for PCs are great because they give the players more chances to survive tougher encounters, and to do risky (and fun!) things. When the DM has Action Points as well, then a problem arises.

You see, the DM really holds all the cards in a RPG. He knows everything about what the PCs will face, and indeed can alter the details of the challenges to make them harder!

To preserve a feeling of impartiality on the part of the DM, we use dice. No, I’m serious: because a DM has to roll to hit like everyone else, it allows the players to know that the game isn’t entirely being decided on a DM’s whim.

Of course, in very serious games, the DM doesn’t deviate from his planned encounters, either. I mean that in the sense of the “game” aspect of the RPG – rather than the role-playing and/or story-telling aspects.

When a DM has Action Points that can be used actively against the PCs – especially if they improve the chances of the PCs being killed – then the impartiality of the DM is threatened. Your character died because the DM chose to use an Action Point. I find that extremely dangerous thing to have in a RPG. It threatens the trust between the player and the DM.

Of course, a DM can design a dungeon so deadly that the PCs won’t survive no matter what they do. (heh!) I prefer to have a dangerous place, and to let the PCs die if the dice and their decisions say so, rather than actively work against the PCs.

So, why did I choose to write about this topic today? Well, it’s because of the Stargate RPG. It’s based on the Spycraft game, which is based on the d20 System. I assume that the Action Dice features of Stargate are also those of Spycraft, but I’m not certain – however, if you know Spycraft and not Stargate, and the action dice system I describe seems similar, then you know it’s the same.

James Bond uses an asymmetrical Hero Point/Survival Point structure. Stargate, on the other hand, allows both DM and players to use action dice for the same purposes.

In fact, Stargate goes even further than you might initially think. In D&D, to get a critical hit, one must roll a successful hit after you roll a threat. In Stargate, after you roll a threat you must spend one of your action dice to get the critical.

Now, when you realise that the DM can do that against the PCs, you may begin to realise the problem I have with the system. The adversarial relationship is suddenly to the fore. “You killed my PC” is the result. Alternatively, if the DM does not use the dice in that way, it is obvious that the DM is pulling punches.

The matter of activating “Critical Failures” as well just adds to the misgivings I have about the system.

I think I may have similar misgivings about Eberron, if it gives Action Points to enemy NPCs without warnings about their use.

How would I house rule this in my games? I’d go to the James Bond “Survival Point” paradigm. NPC action points may only be used defensively: to increase saving throws, defense scores and the like, not to attack the PCs.

The James Bond 007 RPG came out in 1983. I’d like to think that some of the concepts used in its design are remembered.

(Discussion on this topic can be found on ENworld).

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