Luck Be a Lady Tonight

I've been thinking about the roll of luck in tabletop RPGs like D&D. I definitely like the element of chance in the game, and it's not something I'd want to remove. At the same time having a run of bad luck end a character or entire game is something that's anti-climactic, and can spoil some people's fun.

One of the guys in our game group has rather bad luck - so much so that it's noteworthy when he manages to roll anything resembling a good result. We actually took a photo when he managed to roll a 20 the other night. His frequent bad luck with dice has led him to choose strategies and even games that minimize the effects of the dice.

During our B/X D&D game we had one of the player's character die when they made a single bad choice - entering a room filled with cobwebs. As it turned out the room also had a very large and poisonous spider in it. A string of bad luck followed with a surprise attack, a high roll for damage, and a failed roll to save against death. Bad luck turned a single bad choice into a game ending situation.

My first 4e character met his untimely end with a similar bad choice to stand too close to the edge of the water. A surprise appearance by a Giant Frog, a lucky attack by the beast and it's "swallow whole" attack, and a series of unlucky saving throw rolls finished off that character as well. Again bad luck turned a single bad choice into a game ender. (Not that I minded really, but it's a good example ;-) )

Today I read that Jeff Rients' Cinder campaign wrapped up when the party encountered a Dragon, and made the bad choice to not run in abject terror from the encounter. The bad luck that followed left the entire party of characters slain, and the players talking about doing something different for the next game night.

While I like the idea of a strong element of danger in an RPG, and definitely want character fatality to be something that stays in the game, I don't think having a single bad choice turn into a game (or campaign) ending situation is ideal.

You can attempt to minimize the effects of luck by stacking the odds in the players favour, or increasing the number of dice rolls. This approach still leaves things in the hands of the dice though, and as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover each new flip of a coin has the same probability for success as the last.

What I've decided to do then is add Luck Points to the game. A player starts with a small number of Luck Points, and gain additional points during the course of their adventures.
A Luck Points can be spent to:

  • reroll any dice in the game (either the player's own or the GM's)

  • take the maximum result on a dice (if the Luck Point is spent before rolling)

  • safely remove a character from the game upon reaching 0 hit points *

* This last point is something specific to a certain style of game, and might not be appropriate for all groups, or even all games run by the same group. It allows a player to have their character "die" in an ambiguous manner, such as falling off a high cliff, disappearing in a cave-in, appearing to be disintegrated, or some other mysterious ending. The character is out of play as if they had been killed - but the possibility of them returning at a later date is kept open, which may help avoid characters who are central to the story-arcs in a campaign permanently disappearing and the game grinding to a halt.

In the Lord of the Rings there are multiple examples where the characters believe one of their comrades had been killed - only to later have them return to continue their part in the story. These would all be good examples of where a Luck Point could be spent in an RPG and how that characters death / disappearance could be handled.

It's worth noting that if a player chooses to spend that last Luck Point on a re-roll instead of removing their character from the game, then they're working without a net and being reduced to 0 hit points means a final end for that character.

If a player chooses not to use their Luck Point(s) to save a character, they may instead use those points during the creation of their next character. This is an option some players may prefer, so not every character in the campaign will be meeting a mysterious ending.