2010-03-01 : Reliable vs Unreliable Currency

Here's a resource->effectiveness rule:
Spend a point of Tactical Mastery and say what feature of your character's immediate circumstances helps your character out. You get +2 to your attack roll.

Here's a circumstance->effectiveness rule:
If your character has the higher position, you get +2 to your attack roll.

Here's your character:

Which rule is better for your character? Which rule do you hope is in play?

Over the course of the battle, how many +2s to your attack rolls will the first rule be worth? How many will the second rule be worth?

(Ans: 1. as many as you buy; 2. who knows?)

Here's your character instead:

Now which rule is better for your character? How many +2s will each be worth?

With the first rule, you always know how much tactical advantage you've got: it appears on your character sheet, for you to spend away at a rate of 1 per +2. It's reliable currency, you get what you pay for.

With the second rule, your tactical advantage depends upon details of your character's immediate circumstances. You may know what it is right now, but you can't be sure what it'll be over the course of the fight. It's unreliable currency, an uncertain investment.

The second rule also depends upon that crucial moment of judgment, which is one of the key contributors to a visceral experience of play.

Reliable currency (you get what you pay for or you get what you win), being fair and equalizing, and allowing oversight, has dominated rpg designs after the Forge fashion. Indie rpg designers, especially Story Now designers, tend to eschew unreliable currency. I propose that:

1. A rule that relies upon that moment of judgment to go forward, instead of commodotization, creates unreliable currency. Maybe inherently and inescapably, but maybe just overwhelmingly, I don't know. Anyway, you pays your money and you takes your chances.


2. Designing rules that treat fictional causes seriously means, at a pretty significant level, abandoning fairness and equalization, and thus embracing both mechanical risk and social-aesthetic risk. Your character can get unfairly hosed, through no misstep of yours, and your friends can make systemically-binding judgment calls that you don't like.

Designing a game that cares about characters' immediate circumstances means bringing the gamble back into your design. Not just at the level of characters' effectiveness, but all the way down into your game's underlying structure.

1. On 2010-03-01, Ry said:

Does it follow that games that are shot through with unreliable currency are also going to be more prone to losing the tight narrative structure, since those currencies will-or-won't reinforce genre conventions, depending on the group?


2. On 2010-03-01, Sydney Freedberg said:

Here's my struggle with unreliable currency: If you want to harness people's competitive nature—not just a "gamist" thing, necessarily, but potentially as the "turbo-charger" for narratist/story-now/dramatic play—then who do you make the arbiter of the unreliable currency when everyone has a stake? (That is, there is no equivalent to the "person #3" in your "Moment of Judgment" essay at


3. On 2010-03-01, Roger said:

I'll point out how incredibly common it is, at least in my experience, to drift #1 over to include some sort of moment of judgment by someone.

What I thought this was going to be about, and maybe it is, is rules like "If your character has the high ground, then 50% of the time, you get a +2 to your attack roll."

Also there's a tie-in to "flags" here which is probably obvious but maybe not.  I mean, when a player decides that his character will get, say, +2 versus werewolves, that tells everyone that he's probably wanting to fight some werewolves.  So there are (sometimes) feedback mechanisms in place related to fairness and such.


4. On 2010-03-01, Vincent said:

Ry: Excellent question!

My gut says no. In either case, reliable or un-, you can (and should) design your currency to embody the range of genre conventions you're after.

Take Rock of Tahamaat, for instance. Its currency is about as unreliable and judgment-based as they come - how does your character's effective action now get translated up into situation next turn? By passing from hand to hand in an intentionally perverse, comical and reliability-breaking process. But compared to rpgs across the board, its narrative structure is quite tight.


5. On 2010-03-01, Vincent said:

Sydney: Then you commodotize! It's not terrible, it's just a trade-off.

There's a certain amount of faddish idolization of competition in our design community. Is full-on competition, not mostly-competition but full-on, really the best way to drive or turbo-charge your game?

Mmmmmaybe it is. I wouldn't default to it though.

You could also commodotize only the genuinely contentious points, as an exception in a design based more generally upon judgment.


6. On 2010-03-01, marknau said:


1) It seems like the currency in RoT is only unreliable at the effects stage. How well I am able to initiate or carry through is reliable. I have a nascent thought that this difference matters. That many players will be more likely to have an uneasy feeling about an arbitrary decision influencing how OFTEN "I win" versus what the OUTCOME is when "I win" versus "you win."

2) When I'm GMing a bunch of player 1s and I'm trying to be player 3, I think I rely on a sort of fuzzy commoditization as one of my tools. Taking the "higher position" rule as an example, player A may go to absurd lengths to make sure he always holds high ground, in a way that is making the SIS unsound. In part, I will react by tamping down the effectiveness of such attempts. And when player B pulls out her once-a-session imaginative use of the higher-ground advantage, I'll enhance it. Yes, the rules should reward things you want the characters doing anyhow. But I think it's always going to be good to have some mechanism that effectively says "hey, you've been doing

more often than is good for the game."


7. On 2010-03-01, Vincent said:

Marknau: 1. Ah, sure, I meant the effectiveness->positioning currency. You stab the concubine-taker and kill him effectively; how does this affect your character's position in the Kaliste? We can't possibly predict. First it passes through the GM's hands, as Rock of Tahamaat's advisors. Will they tell him that Family Niten is murdering his concubine-takers, or that psychics are, or that the Cult of Amma is? Then it's in Rock of Tahamaat's players hands: what will Rock of Tahamaat intend for those people? Then to the dice and back to the GM: how thorougly and correctly will his intention come true in the Kaliste, and will it or won't it happen to land upon you personally? Only THEN can we know how killing the concubine-taker affects your position.

Compare, like, an arbitrary fantasy rpg, where killing a concubine-taker is worth some XP in the long, predictable climb up from thug-for-hire to criminal underlord.

2. is interesting. I have something I'm grasping at along those lines. I need to design a game to look at it. I have the game in mind, but I'm too busy right now to go off designing games just to look at a thing.


8. On 2010-03-01, Jay Loomis said:

A while ago (perhaps a long while ago) you said something to the effect that the only purpose of RPG rules is to make your friends say cool stuff. It has stuck with me. And I think it touches on this issue.

In my experience, reliable currency leads to players saying cool stuff only if a.) the GM (or group if no GM) is being a hard-ass and really challenges weak in-fiction justification of currency expenditure or b.) they wanted to say something cool anyway.

On the other hand, depending on how it's implemented, unreliable currency leads to players saying cool stuff when a.) the GM is conscious about properly setting the scene or b.) the player feels invested in helping to set the scene. But I can also see how unreliable currency is able to give color assitance to prime the creativity pump if the rules are well designed.


9. On 2010-03-01, Guy Srinivasan said:

Thinking aloud...

What does the combination look like? You have 5 Tactical Mastery points, and have purchased 2 Styles: +2 if you have the higher position, +4 if you have the highest position and are fighting multiple peeps. +2 if it's too dark to see well, +4 if it's basically impossible to see and you're fighting a grunt. Spend a point to apply a style.

Now you can only get 5 advantages, but it's certainly unreliable.

Still it seems to me that this rule will feel more like "you get 5 advantages, put yourself in situations where you can use your points somehow or you have played badly and should feel bad" than "clearly the laws of physics are such that all-other-things-being-equal you should gain the high ground, but it's all right if you don't". That's how I feel playing Spirit of the Century any time I'm also feeling competitive anyway.

Regarding competition: IMO non-superhumans cannot have full-on Playing To Win competition that naively relies on interested parties' moments of judgements. It is at least possible to do in theory by e.g. hiding each player's objective and secretly voting on the moment of judgment with appropriately scaled rewards for judging as everyone else judged.


10. On 2010-03-01, Ben Lehman said:

@Vincent, Sydney: I think that commoditization and competition are not actually related to each other. Perfectly feasible to have a competitive—genuinely competitive—game without commoditization. The missing ingredient is a sense of honor, sportsmanship, and dignity.



11. On 2010-03-01, marknau said:

@Vincent7: Let's say I'm playing Wikked Age, an almost-familiar game from a closely parallel dimension.

In scene 1, players Amy and Bob oppose each other, and Bob's character winds up winning big-time. Amy got completely blown away and didn't even make it onto the "We are indebted to" list. As the GM, I am inspired by some detail of that scene and frame Scene 2. The framing is really unfriendly to Bob's character, and places him in a socially uncomfortable position.

In scene 4, players Amy and Bob against oppose each other. Just before they roll, I invoke an explicit rule of "Wikked Age", and judge that a detail of the SIS is sufficient to grant Amy a bonus d10 to roll against Bob.

So, what I'm saying is this:

I would expect that the likelihood of Bob squealing or quibbling or feeling uneasy or put upon is manifold greater for my judgment in Scene 4 than in my framing of Scene 2.


12. On 2010-03-01, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

The missing ingredient is a sense of honor, sportsmanship, and dignity.

Yep. This happens every day on basketball courts across the nation. (Well, when it's warm, that is.)


13. On 2010-03-01, Tim C Koppang said:

The problem with "unreliable" currency is that it's not only unreliable but also dependent on the GM deciding that a particular modifier applies in a particular situation—at least in many traditional implementations.  You can place the authority for deciding whether a modifier applies into the hands of the player, but it's still a decision based on that person's understanding of the SIS, or, less fairly, on his competitive motivations and willingness to fudge the SIS.

All of this can quickly devolve into the realm of, not unreliable currency, but arbitrary currency.  That sneaking sense of arbitrariness is what turns many people off.  I also think it is one of the reasons that Story Now designers favor reliable currency, because it forces players to focus not on character effectiveness, but on thematic contributions.


14. On 2010-03-02, Ben Lehman said:

Tim: Why is it necessarily a "GM" who decides the application of unreliable currency?

Consider Themes in Polaris, and how the Moons in/validate their use. You could make an argument that the Moons are GMs, but it's a pretty weak argument.

The problem with shunting the question of advantage and applicability entirely into the currency space is in two parts.

First, spending resources gives players a sense of entitlement to the bonus. If all you have to do is "describe a tactical advantage" than a player who is, fictionally, at a huge tactical disadvantage can nonetheless, through use of their currency, gain "tactical advantage."

Thus, the fiction is less and less important, and gradually leaks out of play. Remember the thing with the right pointing arrows? What Vincent was trying to say there, long-windedly, was: Fiction does matter.



15. On 2010-03-02, Ben Lehman said:

Seth: Word.

Here's a ramble.

I think that the reason I'm much more likely to trust people to "call their own fouls" (or some version thereof) than I am to trust them to link currency and fiction even when it's not necessary (as described in my post above) has to do with social messaging.

We all basically understand sportsmanship, even if we don't practice it.

However, our cultural messages about currency are all tied up in entitlement. "The customer is always right," "I paid for it, so it's mine," etc. Hence, the decision to spend currency in a game necessarily comes along with an entitlement to a certain effect.



16. On 2010-03-02, John Harper said:

Ben: That is smart. The one word I might use to describe my worst gaming experiences is "entitlement."


17. On 2010-03-02, jaywalt said:

This is one of my most favorite Anyway posts in a while.

I'm not sure unreliable currency is inherently dangerous or always unreliable. I mean, it's always present in X situation, right? So, if you're Eric (where "Eric" is code for a player that aspires to maintain every possible advantage), you just try to retain the high ground, all other things being equal.

The unreliable part of unreliable currency seems to be the degree to which it is negotiated and emergent, resulting from an SIS that any one player does not have total control over, rather than the relatively independent method of spending reliable currency and (barring some sort of OOC opposition) gaining an advantage.

And—this may be the dangerous part, I guess—if you're playing with Eric, you've just given him a mechanical incentive to bully the group into having an SIS that gives his character significant advantages. Whether he chooses to be an ass or not is another matter, but you've made fictional maneuvering a thing now, right? Which means that if your group doesn't have a shared understanding of how to negotiate the SIS (what Ben's calling "sportsmanship") then you may end up fucking yourself over.

I really doubt that there's a universal standard for sportsmanship. Just like how you can punch people in the face in hockey but not in soccer.

However, and Vincent really didn't get into this here, but if there are explicit methods (guidelines, procedures, etc.) for manipulating the SIS—such as the "moves" in AW—then I imagine that you can avoid some of the potential risk involved in incentivizing fictional maneuvering.  Like, when Eric declares he's going to acquire a machine gun, if there's a explicit way he has to do that, people can decide to react to it or not. If that's "just narration" until he marks the machine gun down on his sheet, I think we have a tendency to treat it as it's not "real," not worthy of focusing on as a point of interest in the game.


18. On 2010-03-02, Brand Robins said:

John, Jonathan,

Not so long ago I snarked at John about the difference between design/theory to "avoid damage" and that to "embrace potential."

I tried to explain to John what I meant, and had a really hard time of it. Which is too bad, because I think its a really important element in this conversation.

When you're in avoiding damage mode ("that sneaking sense of unfairness") going the resource mode may make sense, as it does seem on first blush to be able to avoid a lot of the "damage" that many of us experienced in unfulfilling games in the past. When you're in "embracing potential" mode, otoh, you may be willing to go more with the circumstance mode, as you're looking to do this cool thing, rather than avoid that big problem.

Of course, none of this is to say that a little of both isn't needed, nor that even in embrace potential mode you will always want to go with one or the other, or should do so without building proper supporting structures. But it does get to a core problem I've often had with Forge-diaspora designs—they're often busy using resources to avoid damage in places where I wanted to be judging circumstances with the other people I'm playing with.


19. On 2010-03-02, Ben Lehman said:

Jonathan: Sportsmanship standard don't need to be absolutely universal or portable from game to game. They're not. But sportsmanship itself is.



20. On 2010-03-02, Ry said:

+1 Advantageous Range / Higher Ground / Cover
+1 Numbers Advantage
+1 Hierarchy / Emotional advantage
+1 Surprise

(Apply to highest die, if there is a dispute, GM decides)

Can I take this to my next IAWA game?


21. On 2010-03-02, Vincent said:

Ry: Only if they count when you're calculating who goes on the owe list too. That is, if I'm rolling d12 d8, and you're rolling d12 d8 +1 for outnumbering me, you're rolling bigger dice than I am. Come back and tell us how it went!


22. On 2010-03-02, Ry said:

There's the rub though - that +1 isn't necessarily going to stick around for the whole conflict, right?  Won't it flip around depending on narration?

(That said, I'm not sure I actually care whether it flips around; as long as the Owe List works well 90% of the time I'm happy).


23. On 2010-03-02, Roger said:

Vincent even refers to fiction-that-doesn't-get-relied-upon as "dropping out of currency" in the dim past of nine months ago.


24. On 2010-03-02, Tim C Koppang said:

Ben #14:

I didn't say it was only the GM who decides whether a modifier applies—although he might, depending on the game.  What I was really driving at is that in many traditional "unreliable currency" implementations, play can collapse when the players spend more time discussing what the SIS is (and therefore whether a modifier applies) then about the meat of the story.  Hence the reaction against such implementations by Story Now designers.

One driving force behind early Story Now designs was to get control back into the hands of the players.  Reliable currency was one very effective way to accomplish this goal.

That said, tour point about arbitrary spending in "reliable currency" games is well taken.  Such a situation equally devalues the fiction.


25. On 2010-03-02, Josh W said:

I've got a twist to unreliable currency; money back guarantee:

If you can't spend that point, you get it back and get to make a different choice.

In my game (which only partially implements this idea)difficulty classes are defined by SIS judgment, and "taking advantage of high ground" is a tactical action with a difficulty based on circumstance. If the difficulty classes take your dice pool to zero, then you get to choose a different action. So action spent->maybe bonus becomes maybe action spent-> maybe bonus. Actions must be spent to get the bonus, so it stays within the same "balance" system, but at the same time it's based on circumstance.

Some people will still argue with this obviously, but hopefully tactical actions come early enough in the chain that we can talk about them before they foul things up. A more important problem is that it still doesn't deal with when someone takes the pool to half in a tight situation.


26. On 2010-03-02, Sydney Freedberg said:

Ben: I'm much more likely to trust people to "call their own fouls" (or some version thereof) than I am to trust them to link currency and fiction...

That's a damned good point. Thank you.


27. On 2010-03-02, Simon C said:

People in general are, I believe, poor at compartmentalising.  I think that people find it pretty hard to make a decision based on a strict set of criteria, without considering other factors.  People will even rationalise after the fact to justify their decision, and not be aware that they're doing it.

So if you're deciding whether Bob has the higher ground or not, and it's an edge case, you're going to be influenced by how the decision will affect Bob's chances of success, how much you want Bob to succeed, whether Bob's player has been pissing you off recently, and all kind of other things.  Also, this influence will be largely subconscious.

For this reason, I think it's wise in design to do two things:

Make judgements categorical, rather than quantitative.  You get fewer edge cases if you're deciding if a situation fits into one of two categories, rather than where it fits in a range of 1 to 10.

Make the benefits obscure, intangible, or delayed.  If success or failure is riding on your judgement of the situation, you're going to be more influenced by that than anything else.  If the impact of your decision is hard to judge, or will not be felt immediately, it's easier to make a decision on just the appropriate criteria.


28. On 2010-03-03, Ben Lehman said:

Simon: The other alternative is to embrace a certain degree of metagame play, without making such play explicit. A couple of instances:

1) In Bliss Stage, the judge of an interlude action (interlude actions forming a major currency of the game) decides what result it has: all results are good but, depending on context, some will be more desirable at a given time. The judge will, depending on their opinions of the relationships in the scene, definitely make their judgment in this context. But the game requires certain definite connections to the fiction: judging isn't just "choose anything" it's "what do you see?" Thus, it's harder to take it personally (I've seen it become a personal problem, I think, once.)

2) In Poison'd, fictional circumstances can trigger assorted Cruel Fortunes. As presented, these are entirely based on the logic of the fiction, but in practice the GM has significant control over their introduction. If the players already have too much to deal with, the GM can interpret the conditions more kindly, or not initiate things that they know will lead to many new CFs. If the players are bored, complacent, or on the top of the world, the GM can set traps and interpret conditions more aggressively.



29. On 2010-03-03, Simon C said:


Good point.

I'm not sure if I entirely get you about the "without making such play explicit" thing.  Isn't it a good idea to be explicit? Like being explicit about if the GM's job (or whoever is doing the judging) is to make things hard for the characters, to push for a certain outcome, to make things easy for the characters, or whatever.


30. On 2010-03-03, Ben Lehman said:

I may be down a wrong path of the explicitness issue. The point, to me, is this:

In practice, say, a poison'd GM can arrange to have nearly any cruel fortune enter play all on his own actions. But the rules don't say "GM, put in play any cruel fortune you want," they rather give quite specific fictional instances in which they must be played. This makes many, many things better.



31. On 2010-03-03, Simon C said:

Cool.  I'm with you.


32. On 2010-03-03, Tim C Koppang said:

I've been thinking about this.  Don't you think that a lot of the worries that many of us are expressing are really a product of dysfunctional play more than currency?

On the one hand, I'm worried that if unreliable currency is used, the GM or players will manipulate the SIS to their advantage.  And on the other hand, Ben has expressed a worry that if reliable currency is in use, then the players have an incentive to introduce arbitrary narrative elements simply because they want a bonus.

But if everyone is invested in, for example, a Story Now CA, then shouldn't these worries really take care of themselves?


33. On 2010-03-03, Ben Lehman said:

Tim: The whole point of "system does matter" is that the game system should support, not undermine, the group's play. Further, the issue isn't really Narrativist vs. whateverist. A high reward for disengaging with the fiction doesn't really support *any* creative agenda.



34. On 2010-03-03, Tim C Koppang said:


Yes, I certainly get all that.  But I also think there is a reason that so many Story Now designs embrace reliable currency, and it has to do with how a player engages with the fiction under that particular CA.  Whether a player disengages *absolutely* has to do with the way that the game mechanics (currency included) interact with the intended CA.

Let me go at this another way that gets back to Vincent's original post—this idea that unreliable currency "brings the gamble back" to a game.

Under Story Now play, reliable currency allows the player to concentrate less on how effective a character is and more on how to communicate something about premise through character.  If I want my character to lose, I can withhold currency to try to do that.  And I may really want to do that based on how I envision my character in terms of theme and premise.

Combining reliable currency with fortune in the middle mechanics allows the players to reconcile certain currency choices with the SIS.  This is important because otherwise you may run into situations where, realistically, it makes more sense for the character to win, but because of the way bonuses are dolled out, he loses.  The group needs a way to explain why the character should lose despite the apparent circumstances.

Using unreliable currency, on the other hand, means that if a player wants a certain outcome, he has to start thinking about how to achieve it long before "the moment of judgment," as Vincent puts it.  This puts a certain emphasis on character effectiveness (and the other environmental, etc., factors that affect an outcome), and which can be be distracting when a game is ultimately about addressing premise.  (No, I'm not saying that reliable currency is always better for Story Now designs.  I'm just using this as an example of some of the potential advantages.)

You and I are both worried about players using currency arbitrarily, which can cause players to disengage from the fiction.  And I think that both types of currency can be used arbitrarily—as you pointed out to me.  So the issue isn't about what type of currency is better.  It's about what type of currency is appropriate for a certain game, a certain CA, or whatever.  And I think it's also about what choices a designer has to make when choosing reliable currency over unreliable, or vice versa.

- Tim


35. On 2010-03-04, Paul T. said:

Ryan wrote:


+1 Advantageous Range / Higher Ground / Cover
+1 Numbers Advantage
+1 Hierarchy / Emotional advantage
+1 Surprise

(Apply to highest die, if there is a dispute, GM decides)

Can I take this to my next IAWA game?


Oh, man, maybe I've been brainwashed/damaged by Forge games, but this seems like it could ruin the game in so many ways.

For starters, these modifiers may need to change from roll to roll, as you point. But they may also need to change depending on who is Challenging and who is Answering, within one "round". If they change from roll to roll, why wouldn't you roll different forms from round to round or Answer-to-Answer, as well? Etc.

It also means that now players have grounds to object to dramatically-interesting scene framing. (The Owe List mitigates this somewhat, but not if you're actually trying to win a particular conflict.)

Does this mean I'm agreeing with the folks up above saying that such "unreliable currency" is potentially destructive to good Story Now play?


36. On 2010-03-04, ThoughtBubble said:

I had one of those blinks that lasted eternity. And it's very hard to sum it up well but...

I read this as saying that we should design games that not only "take into account" player's tastes, that we should design to thrive on them.

It's like, "system matters" doesn't invalidate "it works with the right group". Because obviously the people we're playing with are important. Aren't they the most important part of all?

And then, why play a game that doesn't let us put in our unique perspectives and abilities in a fun and fulfilling way?

Like, say that I, as a player, don't care about the fact that Vincent, as a player, is contributing to this game and what he thinks of it. Then of course I'm going to run roughshod over his fun.

And if I, as a player, can't be counted on to be considerate to Vincent, as a player, why would Vincent want to play with me? Because it's a role-playing game and I'm entitled to be inconsiderate?

Shouldn't the starting point be "Play the right games with the right people"? And from there we can build rules that assume that people will be playing in good faith? We can account for the fact that fouls happen, but not have the whole game be caught up in "what if this gets misused?"

I think half my personal damage is from people who ended up misusing whatever was available, and thinking it was just "that game" or "those rules".

Is it really that far out there for me to play a game I enjoy with people who I'll enjoy playing it with?

And if I'm going to enjoy playing with these people, then shouldn't I pick a game that'll let us maximize the amount of fun we get from our particular set of people by using us as an integral component of the game?



37. On 2010-03-05, Ben Lehman said:

Hey, Tim.

I think we're talking around each other. At least, I feel like I'm paraphrasing the same thing over and over, which is a good sign that we're not communicating well. Do you want to try some communication exercises or call it off until later?


38. On 2010-03-05, Ry said:

Hey Paul, what if instead we just brought a few free-floating particular strengths to the table?

Advantageous Range: d8 (with Violence)
Numbers advantage: d8 (Directly)
Hierarchy advantage: d6 Broad (for others or directly)
Surprise: d10 (with Violence)

Per my understanding of the base rules, giving them up requires negotiation and narration must respect that they're NOT given up mid-conflict unless they're negotiated for.

The GM adds "fairly determine who has what particular strengths based on the internal logic of the world" to their list of responsibilities... which I think is there already.


39. On 2010-03-05, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

Ryan, I'm not Paul, but I do have an opinion.

What Vincent is talking about doesn't really work for IAWA. I'd rather just play IAWA as written and, if you're looking for these effects, play something else. You know, like Apocalypse World or something. ;-)


40. On 2010-03-06, Paul T. said:


That's definitely better. But, like Seth, I feel like the IaWA framework is a very poor fit for any kind of "realistic modeling".

This second version is something that's baked enough for a try, however!


41. On 2010-03-06, Ry said:

Paul, Seth, the thing is that on reflection, I agree with you.  IAWA's rules are pretty well entirely rules for how a kind of fiction should operate, which is why I think it can take on such a Shakespearean feel.

i.e. Tybalt kills Mercutio because it's Act III, not because he's got the surprise advantage.

This goes back to my first point about reinforcing genre. i.e. if you emulate most kinds of fiction then you've got rules where the circumstances result from the structure.  IAWA follows this model, and I know I like IAWA as it is.


42. On 2010-03-08, nikodemus said:

Just to be clear, is tagging a scene aspect in SoTC reliable or unreliable in this dichotomy?

It seems to me to have features of both.

You can't tag an aspect unless it's there—but you are going to have some aspects in every scene so there are always advantages to be had, and you can also introduce new aspects to established scenes.


43. On 2010-03-08, Vincent said:

I don't know SoTC so I can't say first-hand. I understand that it's a pretty thoroughly commodotized system, though, a true child of Universalis. You pay a point to introduce an aspect, then pay a point each time you want it to apply? And the only way for "there's rain pounding down, everything's wet and slippery" to have any mechanical effect is for somebody to pay for it?


44. On 2010-03-08, Matt Wilson said:

Vx: Yeah, I'd call SotC reliable. I think the part that might sound gray-area-ish to people is in relying on the GM to provide you with scenery and description that you can mess with. If you provide high ground in a scene in SotC, I can roll to climb up a ladder and say that the roll gives me the aspect "high ground," and then it gives me +2 on my roll to jump down on your face.


45. On 2010-03-08, Matt Wilson said:

More to the point, I think SotC serves some of the purpose you've been talking about here because you have to provide fictional cause to gain aspects. If I want you to be unbalanced, I have to be like, "I yank the rug out from under you!" Then the result of that roll is a +2.

I could be mistaken, but I think it's not unlike how you had things work in STWT. If I want to get the high ground in that game, I have to get to it, yeah?, and the GM can say, "then roll your skill or whatever to climb the wall."


46. On 2010-03-08, Roger said:

SotC/FATE3 Aspects, and particularly Scene Aspects, are an interesting sort of case.

Here's what SotC says about personal aspects:

When you have an aspect that's applicable to a situation, it can be invoked to grant a bonus. After you have rolled the dice, you may pick one of your aspects and describe how it applies to this situation. If the GM agrees that it's appropriate, you may spend a fate point and do one of the following...

and in regards to non-personal aspects:

As a rule of thumb, tagging someone or something else's aspects requires a little more justification than invoking one of your own aspects. For scene aspects, it should be some way to really bring in the visual or theme that the aspect suggests.

How this actually ends up working around the game table is something I suspect varies significantly from group to group.  In my experience, Fate Points are almost perfectly reliable—if you've got them to spend, you'll find some way of spending them.  It's as easy to get a +2 from having the high ground as it is to get +2 because your opponent has the high ground and is therefore an easier target.

Diaspora fixes this up a bit by adding a one-tag-per-category restriction, so you can only get one +2 from Equipment, for example.

All that being said, I've also found that SotC gives me a "the fiction matters and also mechanically" feeling, so it hasn't really struck me as a "post-hoc justification say whatever you want because it makes no difference" system either.


47. On 2010-03-09, Michael S. Miller said:

Just calling this "unreliable currency" has me thinking about pigeons in Skinner boxes. If the button produces the food reliably, the pigeon will only peck it when it's hungy, then stop. If the button produces food unreliably, the pigeon will keep pecking and pecking, because it doesn't know when the food pellet will actually drop.

Does this set up a parallel situation? Do games with unreliable currencies truly provoke more player creativity in the SIS? Do people imagine the SIS and communicate about it in greater richness because they don't know which detail will give them a bonus? Or do they just focus on socially appealing to the GM so that the moment of judgment will favor their side?


48. On 2010-03-09, Paul T. said:


We're on the same page there, totally. Having "Advantage of numbers" as a particular strength in IaWA would, I would imagine, pretty reliably give you game play where characters try to amass groups of followers instead of acting on their own. Whereas, as written, not having any advantage to gain by doing otherwise, characters are more likely to act as individuals, and pursue their passions without "leverage". I can imagine that would kind of get old after a while.

However, I do see two potentially interesting applications of what you're suggesting:

1. Chapter-specific particular strengths that apply "when it makes sense", as you suggest—right-pointing arrows in the fiction.

So, you might say, "This is the chapter where having a group to back you up mattered... it's a d8 particular strength tonight." You could use that to give different chapters a different feel or focus.

(Heck, since this is IaWA, I could see drawing those from a deck at the beginning of every session!)

As I understand Vincent's terms, that would be the introduction of a form of unreliable currency to IaWA, in contrast to:

2. Add a procedure to IaWA where a player can follow some steps to create a temporary particular strength.

In this case, you might, say, cross an instance of your character's name off the Owe List, or maybe spend one Foo point, or make some kind of roll to establish something in the fiction as a particular strength.

For instance, I win a roll against the NPC General, and instead of hurting his dice, I create a new particular strength: "The General's cavalry", which is now on my side, and I can take it forward to use as a bonus in a future action sequence.

That would be reliable currency, if I'm understanding Vincent's distinction correctly.


49. On 2010-03-11, Ry said:

Paul, I think it's only unreliable if there's an element of judgment as to whether it applies.  But yeah.


50. On 2010-03-12, Paul T. said:

Right, good point, Ry.

I'm thinking having some "free-floating" particular strengths applied to chapters, and from a deck, might be a lot of fun, in the meantime. We should give it a shot!


51. On 2010-03-12, Vincent said:

I've always been in favor of free-floating particular strengths, especially zero-significance ones.


52. On 2010-03-15, valamir said:

I think the key difference between reliable and unreliable currency is the different feel of play they support (the "fairness" aspect is I think merely a superficial one given unwarranted importance due to the dysfunctional history many of us have).

The problem once can find in either method, then, IMO stems from them being used in the wrong (often opposite) cases.

Unreliable currency I think is best used in a simulationist environment where the players around the table can be relied upon to be more true to the source material than any mere rules set could be.  This is why so many old table top minis rule sets (i.e. pre-warhammer and its emphasis on tournament wins)were essentially free form resolution.  And why Memoir '44 with its unreliable command and control is one of the best simulations of the soft factors of warfare you can find despite its complete lack of attempt to model hard factors.

Reliable currency I think is better suited to games where telling a particular story in a particular way is the goal.  After all no one has more reliable currency at their disposal than a novelist for whom even coincidence is a perfectly reliable tool.

I would finally conclude that the effective use of unreliable currency in a competitive game is restricted (at least in the main) to games where the stakes are fairly low.  As the stakes get higher, players' willingness to have the outcome ride on unreliable currencies will, of necessity, decrease, for whatever value of high vs. low the players attribute to those stakes.


53. On 2010-03-15, Vincent said:

That all makes sense to me.

I hope your use of "simulationist" doesn't throw everyone off! Good luck to us all.


54. On 2010-03-15, valamir said:

good point.

Simulation in the above refers to the actual act of modeling a thing accurately and not to be confused with the Big Model's use of the term (which I disavow).


55. On 2010-03-15, Simon C said:

You summed up something I've been trying to say about competitive play for a long time.  I'd go further, and say that as the stakes get higher, players' investment in the fiction of the game gets lower, for the reasons you describe.

This new understanding of simulation as seperate from Right to Dream is so useful.  I'm very excited about it.  What I'm particularly interested in is how simulation can contribute to theme - how your simulation makes a thematic statement.

I think a lot rests on the use of the word "accurately" in the above post.  Accurately according to whom? There's huge scope for a designer to make a statement about their source material, or about human nature, through how they choose to design their simulation.


56. On 2010-04-26, Callan S. said:

"If your character has the higher position, you get +2 to your attack roll."

"With the second rule, your tactical advantage depends upon details of your character's immediate circumstances."

No it doesn't. This is another version of what that rule is saying.

"If Harvey, the invisible six foot rabbit next to the GM, gives it the nod, you get +2 to your attack roll."

Both Harvey and the characters positioning exist as much as each other. They each exist enough to determine the +2, as each other.

Yet while you'll balk at Harvey determining it, I'm staggered how you all still talking about how apparently "no way, the character totally is in a certain position and that totally determines the +2!"


57. On 2010-04-26, Jeff Russell said:


I think your core point about the state of the character is no more real than Harvey is a good point, in that they're both imaginary. Obviously the character is not physically anywhere, there's no parallel universe we're tapping into with our minds.

That being said, a collaborative imagined situation is a little different from an individual one. If I imagine my character is on a higher position by myself, I can change that whenever I want. If, however, I've described what my character's doing to some other people, and they're digging on it and imagining it too, if I suddenly edit it, with no regard for what they're imagining, we'll get some issues. And maybe it'll shake down to Harvey telling the GM yes or no on my character being where I say he is.

But I think the point of the rule here (correct me if I'm wrong) is not to reward an imaginary character for "really" taking advantage of high ground. The point is to encourage players to a) pay attention to what their character is doing, and b) describe it well enough that the other players buy into it. If you take the time and care to make it absolutely clear to everyone that your character has taken the high position, no one's gonna blink about the +2, and if the GM tries to say "no you don't" everyone will be like "What are you talking about? He totally convinced us, it makes sense".

And I think it's that B) up there that is really important, and what ends up differentiating this rule from Harvey giving the nod. Sure, if the players don't take this rule seriously, it's Harveytown. But if all the players treat that as a real, valid rule, they'll be encouraged to address their character's imaginary actions and interactions with the surroundings in a meaningful way. They have a concrete incentive to grab everybody's buy in, and even to accept their input ("Hey, weren't you at the top of the stairs?" "Oh yeah, that's right, can I get a +2 for that?").

And that's why I think this rule is better than, say "The GM can give a +2 for good roleplaying" or something vague like that. Cos that's where Harvey lives for real.


58. On 2010-10-10, Jeremy said:

Sorry to revive a dead thread, but I'm re-reading this as I think about applying some AW-style moves to my ongoing D&D4e game.

Here's the interesting thing I noticed: D&D4e uses reliable currency almost exclusively.  Instead of "you get +2 to hit if you have the higher ground," it uses the battle map to say "if you occupy one of these squares and attack someone who doesn't, you get +2 to hit."

Instead of "you get +2 to hit a surprised foe," it gives you (rather unambiguous) rules for determining awareness and stealth. If you're opponent is unaware of you (as per the stealth/awareness rules), you get Combat Advantage. If you have Combat Advantage, you get +2 to hit and possibly some other benefits that trigger on that tag.

So it's not just Forge-diaspora, Story-Now games that have embraced reliable currency. The king of Step On Up does it as well, almost exclusively.

Embracing reliable currency has done a number of good things for 4e: I find the players act with much more sense of agency, and they really, really engage with the tactical environment. Positioning is everything in 4e fights.

But I've seen some negatives of the reliable-currency-dependence:
- Folks stop paying attention to the fiction, a lot. As a rule, there are no descriptions of how someone is making the attack, or what it's outcome looks like/sounds like/feels like.  Because there's no point, and we already have enough stuff to say & keep track of.
- Sometimes there's disonance between the fiction and the currency.  First example. A fighter is grabbed by a giant 2 squares away (because of it's long reach). The fighter only has a reach of 1 square. So he can't attack the giant, even though in the fiction the giant's *arm* is clearly within reach.  Second example. A wraith is insubstantial, but there's nothing in the rules preventing me from using my non-magical whip to grab the wraith. Sure, both of these could be fixed by houserules or individual rulings, but you're then tinkering with a complex set of interactions and potentially overvaluing or devaluing certain traits. The opposite (ignore the dissonance) has left at least one of my players feeling cold about the whole thing.

Here's the other thing: 4e embraces reliable currency in resolving violent conflict (and to a lesser extent, when modelling physical challenges like jumping a ravine or picking a lock).  But for other sorts of challenges & conflicts (skill rolls and skill challenges), it's extremely unreliable currency.  To the point of being basically undefined, with very limited tools or guidance on how to make the rules for (say) Diplomacy or Intimidate or Insight apply to an actual social encounter. The DM and the players are left to sort of make it up.

This has become more of rant against the game I'm currently playing than I planned when I started it, but here are the takeaways:

* Heavily Step-on-Up games can and do embrace reliable currency, not just Story Now games.
* This approach can make for a robust set of mechanics, but can also very much disengage the players from the fiction.
* The intense focus on reliable currency in one area of D&D4e's conflict resolution (combat) serves to accentuate the weakness of the other mechanics, which happen to rely on unreliable currency (mostly because they aren't clearly defined, not because of an intentional design decision).

So here's my goal in hacking the system: use AW-like moves (for both players & the DM) to make the non-combat mechanics of the game robust and interesting—but still using primarily unreliable currency.

I'm not 100% sure it's possible. Or at least, without it becoming a different game.


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