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Treasury of Games: Plot Coupons

If you play RPGs, you are probably familiar with the standard model of play in these games: the GM narrates most of the world, the players choose the actions of their characters, and the GM interprets the results of a random number then narrates the resulting situation, and so on. There are five major components to telling the story of the game in this model:

  • World state control (usually in the hands of a single GM)
  • Protagonist control (usually in the hands of a group of players, each having one protagonist)
  • Supporting character control (usually in the hands of a single GM)
  • Outcome control (usually given over to random number generation, often using dice)
  • Outcome interpretation (usually in the hands of a single GM)

Obviously, the GM holds a lot of cards here, especially looking at it this way. Really, the roles of the players collectively and the GM individually are about equal, because of the inherently pivotal role the players have in the story of the game, simply because the PCs are the focus characters. However, sometimes it can be fun to change up the roles a little. Some games do this with a meta-game currency which goes by many names: hero points, action points, action dice, fate points, etc. For this essay, we’ll call them “plot coupons.” They are an ephemeral credit a player can trade in or a GM can award to change who or what has control in a narrative situation. If plot coupons are used, they play as follows:

GMs:

  • The GM may offer a player a plot coupon once per game session to dictate what choice the PC makes in a situation if the PC accepts. (Example: GM asks, “will you accept a plot coupon to choose to help the man instead of ignoring him?” Player says, “OK, despite his inclinations, Sir Varec will agree to help.” Player gains a plot coupon.)
  • The GM may award players plot coupons for any reason or no reason at all, depending on how much the GM trusts the players with their use and what kind of storytelling is desired. For example, the GM may decide that each player gets a free plot coupon each game session, which might or might not be stockpiled, or might award a plot coupon for any action which really impresses the group and gets a good reaction, or for success in a character’s story goals, or for failure at critical junctures.
  • Speaking of failure, the GM may offer the player a plot coupon in exchange for automatically failing any one roll. This CAN be a roll which would kill the character on failure, but the player must know that if so. Also inherent in the agreement is that the player will have continuing participation in the story, even if this character dies. If the player refuses, then the roll is made as normal.

Players:

  • A player may spend a plot coupon to automatically succeed on one roll. This may be done once per game session.
  • A player may add something not already described to the world state by spending a plot coupon. This must be in-genre and must not contradict the GM’s already stated description. (Example: “But there happens to be an old friend of mine in town, who wouldn’t mind sheltering us in his cellar while we wait out the guards’ search.”)
  • A player may expend a plot coupon to force a roll on something narrated by the GM which wasn’t already going to be rolled for. If the roll goes in favor of the player, the player narrates a version of the event instead of the GM. The new narration must be in-genre, and may only contradict events which were not separately rolled for. If the roll goes in favor of the GM, then the original narration stays. The roll is a 50/50 chance. (Example: GM narrates, “the dam breaks, and the waters flood down the valley, smashing the village to flinders…” Player interrupts, “I would like to change that. Plot coupon and roll off.” Roll goes in player’s favor, so Player narrates, “Warning reached the village in time, and many villagers were able to evacuate to higher ground. Though their homes are smashed, we don’t have the deaths of the whole village on our conscience, and can still go to them for aid.”
  • A player may spend a plot coupon to narrate an interpretation of success or failure for an action his/her character took. The group must agree that the description is consistent with success or failure as appropriate to the dice results; if the player is just trying to cheat the dice results with a weasel-worded description, the plot coupon is refunded and the GM describes the results as per normal.
  • A player may spend a plot coupon to dictate an NPC’s action in a situation; the GM may refuse this the action seems too out-of-character for the NPC.

This system can be used with any game to shift some of the narrative opportunities to the players. Players don’t often get to exercise the kind of storyline creativity required of the GM, so tapping that energy from the players’ minds can be a great asset. However, this is not a system for game groups where a high degree of trust does not exist between the players and the GM. The GM and players have to be on the same page about creating a certain kind of story – serious or silly, for example, and what genre conventions are important. If that trust does exist then opening up control to the players adds to the pool of creative ideas, and the energy that can be brought to bear on them.

In a game which already uses a similar mechanic (and there are many: 7th Sea with drama dice, FATE and fate points, Willpower in World of Darkness, and so on), consider how you will integrate this mechanic with it. You may want to avoid duplicating uses; for example, if you added these to a World of Darkness game, since Willpower already allows increasing the chance of success in desperate situations, you might not want to allow plot coupons to buy success. You may want to replace existing mechanic. Whatever you choose, make sure you tell your players explicitly before starting to play, and keep a reference for how any house rules you are using work so everybody is on the same page.

Ian Price is the creator of Kitsune: of Foxes and Fools and Bad Decisions, and has contributed to the Ghouls, Carthians, and Chronicler’s Guide books for Vampire: The Requiem.