A pile of red threat tokens.

I’ve seen some recent discussion online regarding rules that constrain and inform how game moderators modify ongoing narratives in games, and this made me think about why I like GM currencies. In many cases, these narrative changing rules default back to some kind of GM currency, either by providing players with a resource to spend or by limiting the amount of GM modification that can be expected by mapping those modifications to a pool of resources. Most of what we are going to explore in this post involve a more traditional game structure, where the GM frames the setting and the scenes, and the PCs interact with those scenes. This is by no means the only RPG structure in existence, but it is the setup most likely to spawn a debate on the efficacy of GM currencies or constrained scene modifications.

What I would like to explore is how GM currencies can act to reinforce trust in a roleplaying game session. Even a GM that has been playing with a group for a long period of time is still reinforcing or straining the level of trust they have every time they present a scenario that involves conflict. A GM that sits down with a group of new players may have the complete trust of their players, because those players have no reason not to trust their GM to fairly introduce elements into a game, and a GM that has been running for years, may still introduce difficulties and evolving complications in a manner that alienates a group of long term players.

Economics Lesson 

What am I talking about when I refer to GM currencies? For this post, I’m going to be looking at game rules that do one of the following:

  • Provide the GM with a resource they can give to players to entice the players to perform in a specific manner, even if the currency is unlimited on the GM’s side of things
  • Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to introduce new elements into a scene after the scene has already been established
  • Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to increase the established difficulty of a given task
  • Provide the GM a pool they can spend to increase the odds that GM controlled characters can complete a given task
  • Provide the GM a pool of points that allow them to undertake a specific action that should be rare and meaningful in the genre emulated

An example of an unlimited resource that a GM can use to entice behavior might be fate points in Fate, where characters might be compelled to play to their character aspects, bennies in Savage Worlds, when a player suffers the disadvantages of their flaws, or hero points in Mutants and Masterminds when a character’s weaknesses or relationships have a bearing on the narrative. Players do not do what is optimal in the situation, but is logical for their traits, in the short term, to get a benefit they can use later on in the game.

An example of a resource that can be used to introduce elements into a game after a scene has already been established might be threat from Star Trek Adventures, a despair result from Genesys, or the dice in the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. In these cases, a scene has been described and players have interacted with that scene, but now a new challenge or element of the scene can evolve that may not have been set in the narrative from the beginning of the framing sequence.

In many cases, GM currencies might serve dual purposes. Some of the currencies mentioned above that can be used to add a new complication to a scene might also be spent to increase the likelihood of an NPC action succeeding. For example, that same die from the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that may have introduced a countdown of some kind may just add an extra die to the pool of a villain taking an action. The same threat spent in Star Trek Adventures to create a blanket complication situationally affecting actions in a scene may be spent to add an extra die to an NPCs dice pool when they resolve a task.

In some games, some actions are restricted by GM currencies, to emphasize that the action being taken is rare and meaningful. For example, a villain in 7th Sea 2nd Edition has to spend a point from the danger pool to strike a mortal blow on a hero, and in Star Trek Adventures, an NPC that attempts to finish off a wounded player character has to spend threat to do so. This reinforces the idea that death is a consequence in these stories, but not until there is a certain amount of tension established first.

Stacks of blue Fate points.With and Without Spending Limits

To illustrate how GM currencies might reinforce a greater level of trust at a game table, let’s look at a situation that might come up in a game, and how that situation is framed. Our base situation is going to see our heroes fighting hostile forces on a narrow bridge. Implicit in this framing is that opponents might harm the PCs, and that the PCs might be forced off the bridge.

Next, let’s look at a development that we might introduce into the scene. The bridge starts to deteriorate. Even PCs that aren’t near the edge might fall off into the darkness below, so falling becomes a greater threat than it was when it would only be the consequence of not resisting the efforts of an opponent forcing the PC off the bridge.

In a game without GM currency, the GM may have this idea in their head going into the fight, and they may even want to make sure it feels fair for this situation to evolve, so they add into their description of the bridge the cracks and weathered appearance of the bridge, to telegraph the potential for the bridge to fall apart.

After a few rounds of combat, the GM decides to pull the trigger on the crumbling bridge, and a PC falls into the abyss below. That PC is now upset, because while the state of the bridge may not have been pristine, the narrative thrust of the description was more focused on the lack of handrails and the opposing force, not the deteriorating state of the bridge.

Currency and Negotiation

Often, GM currency introduces an element of negotiation into the game. For example, in a Cypher System game, a GM can introduce an Intrusion, and the player has the option of paying off the offered intrusion with their own resource. This is also true in Fate, when a GM offers a fate point to compel an aspect. As long as the PC has a pool of resources themselves, they can negate the spending of GM currency to modify the narrative.

As part of this negotiation, clarification of intent can be practiced.

“If my character falls off the bridge, will they die?”

“No, I don’t want to give too much away, but death isn’t one of the stakes of this situation.”

“Am I going to end up getting injured?”

“No, just taken to another location that we can cut to after this fight.”

“Okay, I’m in, let’s do it.”

Even in games where there isn’t an implicit negotiation process, the GM spending the resource is often taking the time to explain how the narrative is evolving in ways that make the changing dynamic clear.

“I’m spending threat to introduce a Cosmic Storm (3) complication into this scene.”

“What does that mean?”

“Any task involving long-range communication with electronics, the ship’s sensors, or the transporter have their difficulties increased by three.”

Navigating Difficult Areas

There have traditionally been areas where it is difficult for a GM to assert narrative control without also creating the feeling of removing agency from players. For example, when characters are mind controlled or when they might be affected by fear. GM currencies can help in these situations.

In many Powered by the Apocalypse games, some moves generate hold for a GM to spend to introduce negative elements. Having a set amount of hold to spend reinforces that the negative consequences introduced will have a finite number of recurring instances. In Fate, creating an aspect of fear is mainly going to give an NPC another aspect to compel, but it’s now available as a source of fate points for a PC that wants to compel this aspect on themselves, giving them greater agency in how they want to express that fear. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, characters that have a Mind-Controlled complication provide NPCs with extra dice for their action pool, but the player can also roleplay the mind control to generate plot points for their character before they are complicated out of the scene.

In this way, traditionally difficult situations where a player may lose agency can instead be handled by allowing for some minor setback, which the PC can make into a more significant setback when they choose, to access the game’s economy.

Trust Your Feelings

While a lot of the discussion about GM currencies can be framed as building trust between players and the GM, one of my favorite aspects of GM currencies is that it may allow you to build trust in yourself. One of the greatest dilemmas of the GM can be paraphrased in the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcom:

“…your [Game Masters] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to introduce twists or increased difficulty into a game, and having an ever-growing pool of some GM resources can help create a natural trigger for pushing the narrative of the game. Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate.

If you are in pitched combat, but your dice have just not been making your villains seem like the threat they should be, boosting their competency might be a good spend. If a scene is getting predictable or has played out like an earlier scene, introducing a complication may be a good way to spend that pool. If your players have relied on a specific set of gear or circumstances in multiple scenes, spending points from the pool to deny or complicate the PC’s assets may be a logical direction.

It can be very difficult even from the GM side of the game to determine if taking away a piece of equipment, or keeping the PCs from being able to leave a planet is being arbitrary or falls into the dreaded category of “railroading,” but when there is a finite resource being used, the GM can feel more confident that they aren’t being arbitrary. Spending the GM resource is part of the game, and it will only happen when the GM has the resource to spend.

Unlimited Power

Not every game with the traditional GM/Player dynamic has GM currencies, and because so many traditional games have not used this dynamic, this may make the introduction of enumerated constraints seem . . . unnatural.

That said, a lot of discussions about creativity touch on the idea that constrained creativity can produce better results than leaving all possibilities open. Using most of the tropes of a genre makes it more impactful when you deviate from another trope. Making sure everyone knows what the “rules” of the universe are going into a story makes people more comfortable when following the narrative of the present story, rather than devoting effort to understanding complex world-building that is intentionally overflowing traditional bounds.

 Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate. 
None of that is saying that working without a net, so to speak, is bad, just that it is a greater cognitive load, and for purposes of what we are discussing here, it is also a situation that requires more trust to be extended. There are times when the energy that it takes to manage expectations and read the natural level of engagement and frustration might be better invested down narrower storytelling pathways.

Additionally, if you like the idea of the trust engendered with GM currencies, there may be ways to work it into games where it doesn’t already exist. For example, instead of rolling for random encounters, have the group make skill checks to scout a location, and add points to a pool for failures. When exploration gets stale, spend those failed scouting checks as “encounter points” to liven up a natural lull in the game. Instead of waiting for players to actively roleplay their traits, look for situations where that trait would naturally trigger a fun interaction, and bargain some inspiration for the player, contingent on a mutually agreed upon display of a given trait.

One thing that I want to make clear is that I very rarely advocate for a single solution to every situation. There may be games that work fine without GM currencies or specific GM narrative constraints, and there may be groups for which it doesn’t work. All I ask, as I continually ask, is for people to consider why these game designs exist, and to actively, intentionally include or exclude elements from your games.

What was the first game you encountered with GM currencies? What is your favorite GM currency? What GM actions would you prefer to be governed by a limited currency? We want to hear from you below! We’ll keep an eye out for your comments.