Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Quirky Laboratory: Action Points

I remember when I first ran into Action Points in Unearthed Arcana 3.5. They went directly into my game- do not talk to players, do not Pass Go, just go straight into the game. Here was a great way for players to have control over their fate, being able to decide when that truly heroic effort needed to be put forward and not just let the dice decide the game. It took the adventure from B movie status to high action blockbuster.

4E came along and among all rules from 3E making the cut, the action point was now a standard rule. Actually, it was a standard action- a little boost once every few fights. The action point went from blockbuster movie to a 2 am Saturday morning TV series. I want my old action point back. I want to go back to the movies. So I’m taking Action Points to my mad science laboratory to see what I can create.

Action Point Evolution

In Unearthed Arcana, you got 5 + ½ level Action points every level. They were use them or lose them over the entire level and you could only use one per round. These were your options with an Action Point:
-       Increase a die roll by 1d6 (or best of 2d6 or 3d6 at higher levels)
-       Get an extra use of a class ability
-       Enhance your total defense action
-       Get an extra attack on a full attack
-       Emulate a feat that you don’t have
-       Enhance a spell by 2 levels
-       Cast a spell without erasing it from memory or using up a spell slot
-       Stabilize yourself when dying
-       Enhance a feat in specific ways, depending on the feat

Eberron and Iron Kingdoms came out with feats specific to Action Points to expand their use even further.

In 4e, things changed. You get reset to 1 Action Point after every extended rest, and you get 1 Action Point for every milestone hit. You are allowed to use 1 Action Point per encounter. With your Action Point, you can do the following:
-       Take a standard action

To be fair to the 4E version of Action Points, players are now much more in control of their dice rolls than ever before. With the use of powers and magic items to allow rerolls, add bonuses to failed rolls or provide temporary boosts, players have a much heavier hand in the destiny of their character. Action Points were simplified because the need for them diminished greatly.

Because of their limited usage, Action Points have become a first turn Nova- blast the villains with two of your more powerful attacks off the start and take them out before they can start fighting back. This means the only meaningful decision becomes “Do I try to Nova this encounter, or next encounter?” And when you use your encounter and daily powers in the first turn, this makes your decisions in the rest of the combat more limited as you have now removed some of your more powerful and interesting options.

Finally, because standard actions rarely have any meaning outside of combat, Action Points are purely a combat focused feature.

Add a Twist of Fate

Then we have Fate Points. Fate Points have been introduced in the FATE RPG system as a way for controlling your character’s destiny. Here’s what you can do with a Fate Point:
-       +2 to your dice roll
-       Reroll a dice roll
-       Cause an effect

Furthermore, you can only do one of these actions if it is part of an Aspect. (Aspects are a list of predefined narrative hooks that defines your character) Using a Fate Point has to be directly tied to either the scenario or your character’s theme. You don’t just pile on extra attacks for the heck of it.

There are a few advantages Fate Points have over Action Points. First, fate points can be used for anything and are not tied strictly to combat. This lets players have a more direct hand in skill challenges, puzzles and social encounters that would not normally occur.

In the Strands of Fate RPG, fate points are given out at the beginning of a play session to be used that night – use ‘em or lose ‘em. There are no restrictions on when to use them with a few restrictions on the number of Fate Points you can use in one turn.

This second point puts us squarely back into the action movie realm for one reason- the exciting parts (where you use Fate Points) occur depending on your real life schedule, not a schedule decided by the game. Imagine that- the amount of cool stuff you can do during a game is based on how long you spend at the table, not by how many short rests or extended rests you can squeeze into your session.

And if you are like the majority of gamers, combat difficulty is often tied to combat length. Easy combat, short fight. Hard combat, long fight. Being stuck in a 3 hour boss fight will encourage you to use just as many of your Fate Points as skimming through a handful of easy minion runs.

Using Fate Points this way, there is a push-pull relationship to use or conserve Fate Points: a push to use them because they disappear at the end of the session and a pull because you still want to save your best moments for the right time. By tying Fate Points to Aspects, the best moment to use them is the one that lets your character do something cool in the area they’re best at. And that’s where we get back to the movie feel in our game.

The Experiment

Here’s my Quirky Laboratory experiment. I’m going to dig up the original, primitive form of Action Points from Unearthed Arcana. Then I’m going to inject a healthy dose of the smart Fate Points system into it. It’s like I’m taking an ape and giving it a serum for hyper-intelligence. There’s nothing that can go wrong there, right? Right?
-       Can only use when invoking an Aspect.
-       Each aspect can be used only once per turn.
-       At heroic levels, only 1 Action Point can be spent per turn. This increases to 2 at Paragon and 3 at Epic.
-       I will give out (1 Action Point/hour of intended play time for the session) - 1.
-       Extra effects gained from class features, items, etc. (such as Paragon Paths and the Warlord) remain the same.
-       Action Points can be used to do the following:
o   Add +2 to a roll you just made.
o   Reroll any roll that is not an attack roll. (skill check, damage, saving throw, death save, etc.)
o   Perform a standard action. If this is an attack, you can only use an at-will attack.
o   An encounter power (or magic item use) can be used as an at-will power for one use.
o   A daily power (or magic item use) may be used as an encounter power for one use.
o   Gain use of an at-will power in your class for one round.
o   Gain use of a feat for which you qualify for one round.
o   Cause an effect.

The emphasis is to give more variety with Action Points while limiting the use of Action Point Novas in the first turn of combat. Action Points may be more powerful than before, but as long as there’s some variety in the way they are used, I’m willing to accept that. Plus the use for them ties directly into your character theme. And if everything goes completely out of control, well that’s why it’s only an experiment. I can scream “Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty Action Points” and start over.

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