Cinemechanix: Resources

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 15 March 2019 Written by Steve

Let’s talk about resources, which at least for this post include things like money and equipment, connections and allies, locations (like crime caves or secret hideouts), social capital (rank, status, fame, etc.), and anything else that’s beneficial to the character but not a personal trait of the character. In QAGS, we called (more or less) these things “trappings” and assumed that your character had whatever trappings were appropriate for your job: A knight has a horse, armor and shield, several weapons, a liege, and a lady to champion; A private detective has a trench coat and fedora, a gun, some informants, and hip flask; A super-hero has a goofy costume, a rogues’ gallery, and a secret identity. If there was any question about a specific trapping--Does the knight have a squire? Does the P.I. have a car? Does the super-hero have a crime cave?--you could either make a Job roll or spend Yum Yums to decide. This works great right up until you get into a situation where resources are important to the character or genre: a game of court intrigue were social capital and connections define where the character fits into the game; a con artist game where money is both the goal and a vital resource to set up the next job; or a cyberpunk game where the line between “character trait” and “equipment” is fuzzy at best.

A very slightly less abstract option is to treat resources as a separate stat (either an attribute-style stat that players roll against or a bonus), so you might have a ratings for Money, Gear, Contacts, Reputation, or whatever. These kind of stats require that a lot of ground rules be set: Is the scale absolute or relative to the character concept? Is there a modifier for resources that are/aren’t appropriate to the specific character? What about when the character is away from his usual area of operation? How to you calculate reputation for Robin Hood type who some people hate and others love? Even once the rules are worked out, the only real advantage this kind of system has is a slightly clearer breakdown on the type of resources the character has the most of and a less direct tie between resources and Job stat (which may or may not be desirable). It’s still all abstract enough that it doesn’t help much when resources really matter. 

The next level of abstraction is the Advantage/Disadvantage kind of set-up, where some resources are hand-waved, but some resources (mostly those with obvious game uses) have to be bought with character points. Since the resource traits tend to be more specific than abstract stats, this provides a bit more detail, but there’s always some gray space between “your character would have this” and “you need to spend points for this” that can cause a problem similar to the Thief skills problem I mentioned last week: if you’re listing stuff, most players are going to err toward listing more stuff than they really need too. It also introduces the question of whether and under what circumstances players have to go into character point debt to pay for resources they’ve earned during play, which can lead to tedious character point math. 

The least abstract option is the “track your iron rations and ammo” option where all resources are tracked, but this only works if the PCs are murderhobos and the players don’t mind the tedium of tracking their food supply. As soon as the players find a place to live or buy a van, the amount of stuff you need to list for a complete inventory becomes excessive. It also inevitably results in a situation where the player forgot to list something that the characters would definitely have. To avoid stretching suspension of disbelief, the GM is right back to hand-waving, die rolls, or other abstract resource tracking. 

Even ignoring things like cyberpunk where resources are central to the genre, specifically defining resources to some extent is really useful, especially when you start introducing things like contacts and player-linked locations. Knowing that the characters celebrate their successful missions at an Elvis-themed Mexican restaurant, have a team dog named Bob Barker, or live next door to a hippie commune ties the characters into the world around them and gives them something to fight for. Even equipment can add flavor to the game if the players have fun with it. For example, probably half of the M-Force games I’ve played or run has had a weird or super-cool team vehicle that had its own personality and in some cases came close to that Serenity “10th Character” territory. Having the characters drive around in an ice cream truck, an old van that’s been modified into a war wagon, or a short bus named “George W. Bus” can definitely add something to the game, even if it’s just a running gag or a little quirk. 

My gut instinct (and probably yours, if you’re a regular reader) is that all this kind of thing can be handled with story and you really just need a simple rule (like the “roll Job” mechanic in QAGS) for when there’s a question or disagreement. For pure flavor, that works. The problem is in that murky area between “flavor” and “resource.” The ideal situation is for players to introduce all kinds of flavor and then let it naturally find its role in the story if appropriate, but that doesn’t happen. Some players won’t bother with the flavor because it’s not “useful.” Others are very good at introducing resources disguised as flavor in such a way that the GM will be hard-pressed to justify not allowing the PCs to exploit it later in the game. If others catch on and start emulating the “stealth resources” strategy, you end up with a setting that feels like a video game where every notable minor character or piece of background scenery is something that either gives the PCs and advantage or triggers a side quest once you figure out how to unlock it. Making resources too abstract or hand-waved also makes it hard to play characters whose “Gimmick” is resource-based (Billionaire Playboy, a character with contacts and allies everywhere, the gadgeteer, and even some characters who don’t have one of Batman’s shticks). Either the gimmick seems watered down because everyone has some version of it by default or the character seems unbalanced because you can buy “Filthy Stinking Rich 3” for the same number of points as “Knives 3.” 

Taking all that together, I think I’m starting to see my “want list” for dealing with resources:

  • Resources should not require extensive inventory management. The character has some source income, owns things, and knows people appropriate to his role, skills, and other traits. A cop has a badge and a gun, access to crime lab nerds, and a superior who angrily yells “This time you’ve gone too far!”; A gamer has funny dice and expensive rulebooks and knows people who quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the drop of a hat; A politician has expensive suits, corporate donors, and a closet full of skeletons. 
  • The potential that something can become a resource should not interfere with player-introduced GMCs or world elements. Players should never have to spend points to establish that something exists in the world and their character has a connection to it, though the GM may require a roll or outright veto anything that’s out of character, unbelievable, or transparently self-serving. (“No, Bob, your character didn’t date Charlize Theron in high school, and she’s not coming to his birthday party.”) 
  • There should be some kind of abstract mechanic to answer the question “Is this available?,” but there should also be a clear game advantage to defining specific resources.
  • When players want to obtain or take advantage of a resource, they can work for it through role-playing and die rolls (haggling over hard-to-find gear, persuading a GMC to help you, etc.), but there should also be some mechanic for just bringing the resource without the “working for it” scene (which happened off-screen, wasn’t necessary, or whatever). This could help making a “Resource Guy” kind of character more clearly useful, since he can just make a phone call and save a lot of time and trouble. 

I’m thinking that the best bet may be a QAGS-type set-up (like the existing Resource Roll in the most recent draft of the Cinemechanix rules) for establishing the existence or availability of questionable resources, but with one or more (probably at least “Stuff” and “People”) Resource stats that you use in the roll. For actually bringing resources into play (without working for it), I’m thinking maybe the Resource stat also works as a pool that the players have to spend to “activate” a resource without doing the legwork. To encourage players to define specific resource, the stat could also allow the player to establish a certain number of specific resources that are always available and can be called upon without spending resource points or by spending resource points at a discounted rate. 

I’ve tried variations on this kind of thing before and the main problem I’ve run into is that they always get way crunchier than I intended. I think the best way to try to develop resource rules is to make it clear that they’re optional (if hand-waving or a simple roll works, use that) and to make the pieces as modular as possible so the players can use the parts that matter for their game and player group without having to keep track of the stuff that isn’t important to them. In fact, that’s probably a good goal for every section of the rules, especially since I have a tendency to design rules far more crunchy than I actually want to use during play. 

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Cinemechanix: Resources.
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