Friction Points

In one of the many awesome conversations I had at Gary Con, I mentioned that the kind of classic D&D action I’d hoped 4E would make easily gameable was the scene where you’re going through an area full of enemies, trying to slip by and achieve your objectives without bringing everything down on your head. Whenever I run something like this I feel like I’m winging it; I could really use a simple, robust, and objective system for telling which enemies are in potential detection distance, figuring out the odds that a given PC action will attract unwanted attention, and determining the appropriate response without having to work out and remember a zillion different contingency plans. It seems to me that mini-games like this are one of the things old-school D&D does well, and 4E having failed to deliver it doesn’t stop me from hoping someone else will!

Top Secret S.I. module "Brushfire"

Intelligence reports suggest this may be the Top Secret S.I. module this idea comes from.

The guy I was talking to – and sadly I forget who this was, because source memory is the first to go – told me about a Top Secret S.I. module in which the PCs were airdropped into Central America to spread insurrection. It used a sub-system of friction points to track how much heat the PCs drew down on themselves by their actions. If you didn’t hide your parachute, you got a friction point, while getting into a firefight in town might earn you five. When you hit ten friction points, the police would put up roadblocks on all the main routes out of the area; at 30 they’d start searching for you with a helicopter.

The thing that appealed to me about this system was that points were awarded when the players did something wrong. I’ve played adventures, like the preparations for the siege of Farshore in the Savage Tide adventure path, that give out victory points for doing something right. The problem here is that it’s impossible to account for all the clever things a group of players will come up with. Wanting to reward people for good ideas that weren’t anticipated by the adventure’s designers meant that I gave away many more points than the scoring system was able to account for, since it was necessarily scaled to describe “how many of the things we thought of did your group do?”.

Another problem with the victory points systems I’ve encountered is that they don’t happen at the table until the very end of the sequence of play in which you accumulate the points. This doesn’t give players feedback on their blunders until it’s too late for them to do anything about it, and the fact that during the wrap-up of the scenario you can only see one of the possible consequences of your VP score means that it’s hard to tell “Farshore survived because of our creative planning and heroic efforts” from “Farshore survived because the adventure path requires it.” (Or contrariwise, “it was wiped out because we were too busy doing other things to defend it” from “everyone in town died because the DM hates us.”)

So the awesome thing about friction points is that it’s much easier to think of the finite ways that the enemy could become aware of the PCs’ presence as a result of players doing things wrong. And because you can set up multiple friction point threshholds that will trigger in-game consequences, ┬áthere’s plenty of opportunities to see that your actions do have an effect.

You can still reward players for doing things right by subtracting friction points. The advantage here is that a ceiling is more gameable than a floor – zero friction points means you’re remaining totally undetected, so you don’t have to worry about what negative friction points would mean. Contrariwise, you do feel like you should worry about the difference between 100 and 150 victory points even if your pre-set guidelines say 80 is all you need to pass with flying colors. Also, as things start to go pear-shaped it suggests lots of clever things players can do to avoid the particular source of heat you inflict on them, making the things that they do to subtract friction points more concrete than a victory point’s abstract measurement of progress toward the goal.

Speaking of losing source memory, another great conversation at Gary Con – maybe even with that same dude – concerned starting a retirement home for gamers where we could consummate the match made in heaven between our twilight years and old-school D&D’s terrifically slow rate of level advancement. I know this is something we’ve joked about amongst the Red Boxers, and Mystery Guy was saying there was a thread on Dragonsfoot about it as well. Let’s make it happen!

17 Responses to “Friction Points”

  1. 1 James
    March 24, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Awesome idea.

  2. March 24, 2010 at 2:19 am

    This is a really awesome idea, but I dont know how to incorporate it into the game system. I see how it could be a really great module enhancer, but how would you build it into the core design? You would have to assume that everyone always in every case used a dungeon and that dungeon had some kind of coordinated response possibility. That will not always be true.

    I am actually finishing up the design of my own game system, so if you have an answer to that I would really like to see it.

  3. March 24, 2010 at 2:26 am

    Greg, I think it’s more of a technique than a system. Kind of like wandering monsters – it’s worthwhile to put some sample wandering monster tables and friction point guidelines for each dungeon level in there to show people what they’re good for, even if the results would almost never make any sense to anyone’s actual dungeon and are useless outside the dungeon.

    If you wanted to abandon OD&D’s glorious principles of mystification and incoherence, you could even toss in an indie-style design essay about the principles behind the guidelines and advice on how to construct your own. If you do, feel free to steal liberally from the above without crediting me, since I can’t remember who actually deserves the credit for passing on the already second-hand TS:SI idea!

  4. March 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    “Glorious principles of mystification and incoherence”, rofl.

    I suppose you are right that the best way to use it is as dungeon dressing, essentially.

    Although I have been playing around with using a system called Trust points in my game, whereby the GM can award Trust points as incentives for players to “toe-the-line” and go along with a temporary but annoying story element (such as imprisonment), and in exchange the player can later cash in the Trust point for their own moment of greatness.

    In a way, that is kind of like Friction in that the basic principle is rewarding adhering to certain behavior.

  5. 5 maldoor
    March 24, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    I really like this tool. I want to address Greg’s question about it being a mechanic separate from a specific scenario or dungeon. One way to use it as a broader mechanism would be as a measure of reputation (or fame, “hero points, ” notoriety, word-of-mouth, or whatever you want to call it).

    First level characters start at 0. For various actions they may accumulate points, as individual characters or as a group. Without thinking about it, a rough table might look like this:

    Killing a 4+ HD monster: 1 point
    Starting a ruckus in town (bar fight, killing a town guardsman, robbing a merchant, burning down a building, etc.): 2 points
    Defeating a menace (say the local group of bandits): 3 points
    Clearing a well-known dungeon (Quasqueton or the Caves of Chaos): 10 points
    Gratuitous acts of public weirdness (magic, holy miracles, impressive displays of swordsmanship or robin-hood-ery): 2 points

    A second table then would show the effects of various levels that characters or groups could attain.

    5 points – people in the local village will know you on sight. Reaction rolls adjusted by 1 (NB could be positive or negative adj.)
    15 points – Character/s will be known and likly recognized anywhere within 30 miles.
    30 points – Within 100 miles, and there is a x% chance that any random encounter roll in town or the wilderness will be someone deliberately seeking the character (to duel, for advice, to apply to be a retainer, steal a treasure, etc.) Other consequences of your growing fame could be people buying you free drinks, merchants jacking up prices, local leaders seeking your services (or your taxes), and so on.
    100 points – the character is a well-known hero, known for hundreds of miles. Possible consequences of this – positive and negative – are limited only by what you find fun.

    These are just examples, but as a mechanism it provides a way for players to further shape characters in how they accomplish things, and to the DM in providing hooks and consequences that allow the world to be broader.

    Imagine the hilarity of watching a heroic fighter who wants to hire bards to sing of the party’s defeat of a dragon, versus the party thief who wants to conceal the deed so the local tyrant will not demand a share of the prize…

  6. March 24, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I like this a lot. I’ve been trying figure out a way to represent the “word” of adventurer’s incursions into the dungeon “getting around” and affecting things like random encounter frequency, reaction checks, and the readiness of location-based monsters. This friction point concept is going to be part of whatever I come up with.

  7. March 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Lord Kilgore, glad to see that you too feel the need for a mini-game of dungeon detection and evasion; let us know what you come up with!

    Maldoor, that’s an excellent idea. I especially like that players may want to both raise or lower their score in different circumstances: “hmm, if I boost my reputation a little I can get free flaming oil from merchants seeking endorsements, but I’m already finding it annoying that everyone of my alignment seeks me out with their problems and everyone opposed knows where to find me for pre-emptive strikes…”

    Come to think of it, that’s often true of drawing attention in a dungeon. A good system will handle creating a distraction in one area as well as slipping past unnoticed in another.

  8. March 24, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    This potentially takes the game in an interesting direction, as it mechanizes elements that are currently resolved through group consensus or DM fiat. What effect does this have on play, especially if, as Maldoor proposes, you expand the scope of such mechanization?

  9. March 24, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Eric, I don’t think group consensus can do the whole job – some of the forces I want to move in response to the PC’s actions I want to keep hidden from the players – and I’d like to have more structure to hang my fiat on. There’ll still be lots of room for creative adjucation; the way the guidelines would be drawn up, and how I’d interpret them in play, will have to be very individualized. But since one of the things I want this to do is to penalize the players for making bad choices, I’ll feel much more comfortable if it’s an objective set of rules punishing them instead of me personally. It’s the same with wandering monsters. Having a framework like roll 1d6, look up on this table here makes me feel like I’m just following the rules of the game, rather than being a dramaturge or adversary, even when I exercise latitude in things like deciding to roll more often than once per two turns because the party is acting foolishly or wasting time. It’s particularly because I’m tempted to take time-wasting as a personal annoyance that I like a little more mechanization to make it feel objective.

  10. March 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    FWIW, Carl Sargent’s WOG module WGR6 City of Skulls uses a similar system (Notoriety points) when the characters are trying to rescue someone inside the evil city of Doraaka to see the level of opposition they will eventually be up against. Keep it nice and quiet and you might only have to face token opposition. Make a huge mess and a nasty high level “hit squad” will be scouring the city for the adventurers. It’s a really interesting mechanic that TSR never followed up on in future publications.

  11. March 24, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Mmm, I remember a friend & Greyhawk fan telling me about that. Unlike the TS:SI one I have a copy at home and will have to check it out!

    Didja know that Sargent was an experimental parapsychologist? As a former research neuroscientist I dunno whether I’ve got more hometown pride about that or J. Eric Holmes having been an associate professor of neurology. I went to grad school at UCLA and thus think fondly of Holmes’ USC cause that makes us like rival schools united by fate, which is cool, but I think Sargent gets the nod for sheer weirdness.

  12. March 24, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Shadowrun has a system based on notoriety already. It is a good model to use for duplication if you want that kind of thing.

    However, I dont think notoriety/reputation is the issue here necessarily. Friction points are about being “detected”, thats true. But it is also about triggering a coordinated response. It is about being noticed by the “system”. Thats reputation in a way, but not really.

    In the example from the post, we are talking about whether a government takes notice of the special forces guys. I think the fantasy analogy to that would be a dungeon. Now you could run Undermountain and use a friction system to determine when the party comes to be noticed by Halaster; that would be comparable.

    Now in a gameworld with massive information sharing on the part of authority, then having a notoriety scale is useful because you can be tracked and hunted by the authority (hence my reference to Shadowrun). But if you are talking about essentially Wild West levels of authority, where there is near zero communication or coordination by law enforcement, that kind of thing doesnt make sense. You could have a boolean value of “infamous” or not, triggering a kind of wanted poster going up for the punishment of that individual. But a coordinated response is impossible because in a fantasy world with dangerous wilds, the idea of sending out posses to hunt down people whose infamy reaches point X is just not realistic.

  13. March 26, 2010 at 3:03 am

    Good work, Tavis. Sounds like fun.

  14. August 27, 2011 at 10:12 am

    I’m coming to this late, via a link from here, but maybe someone will read this one day and find it useful!

    The rpg Lacuna Part I builds a similar mechanic into the system. The game takes place in a collective unconscious dream city — long before Inception made it cool — but interacting with this city builds up a force called static, in small increments for routine tasks and with bigger jumps for more dramatic actions, use of special abilities and other ways in which the “rules” of the city are broken. At certain levels of static, weird stuff starts to happen, from all the doors on the street turning blue all the way up to freaky spider-human hybrids chasing after the players. Too much static, and the player-characters get pulled out of the city into the real world.

    It’s a neat mechanic, and I tried to use a similar one for a stealth-based episode in one of my recent Savage Worlds games, but it didn’t work so well, mainly because the players weren’t interested in being stealthy!

  15. 15 Josh W
    August 31, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Wow, that’s so obvious!

    “Lacuna part 1” does this kind of thing with it’s static system, but adds a twist; you also add static when players do certain out of game actions as an auto-randomiser, meaning that players can’t quite tell what it is they are doing that is causing the increases in static.

    This matters in that setting because what is going on is supposed to be obscure, but you could use that in any situation where it’s hard to work out who is disturbed by your actions, what factions are involved etc.

    That is obvious but brilliant!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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