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!
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, there’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!