Metacurrency
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Basic Information

A metacurrency is a feature within a set of game rules (in our case probably those of an RPG) that allows for limited bending of the rules when spent but is generally accumulated for staying within the letter and spirit of those rules at other times, for good roleplaying, team playing or otherwise advancing plot or character.

At the basic level, these metacurrencies often consist of things like "luck" or "willpower" that players can burn for re-rolls, whilst the higher end - sometimes called "fate points" - serve to undo major plot events such as character deaths. Typically earning such things will require effort and roleplaying proportionate to their utility - less effective currencies have been known to refill at the end of a session, or at specific plot milestones, others might require specific acts or goals to be achieved whilst massive acts of self-sacrifice may be needed to regenerate the most powerful type.

The most controversial approach introduces a degree of GM/player conflict … which is not always a good thing, but can at least be moderated by a metacurrency: in this the players effectively build up "karma" - good or bad - which is the metacurrency. Good karma can be burned for their benefit, bad karma gives the GM fair excuse to persecute them, burning it as he goes. More generally, especially where PCs have flaws or disadvantages, the GM may award metacurrency in return for forcing the character to act according to the flaw … or the players may burn metacurrency to overcome a persistent flaw for a while.

This is, undoubtedly, a gamist approach, but also fits well into the narrativist model where it is configured towards plot movement.

Sources

Bibliography
1. Call of Cthulhu uses Luck and Willpower as metacurrency, with auto-refilling buffers.
2. The New World of Darkness uses Willpower, with a vice/virtue system for refilling.
3. Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of uses an adversarial system with Momentum and Doom serving for and against the players respectively.
4. The Fate system uses, appropriately enough Fate, in a semi-adversarial manner.
5. Fourth Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay uses Willpower and Luck, based on buffer limiting attributes called Resolve and Fate, which can themselves be burned as a higher tier metacurrency. The lower tier auto-refills, the upper … not so much.
6. Savage Worlds uses Bennies that be spent to reroll dice or soak wounds
7. Deadlands uses something similar to Bennies, but they come in different tiered values, and you draw them blindly from a bag so the power-level varies from session to session
8. The first edition of 7th Sea used Drama Dice, which could turn into XP if you didn't spend them, and had optional rules for a few other types of Drama Dice that were used for rewarding or punishing specific behaviors
9. D6 Star Wars used Force Points, making them something almost tangible in-character as well as out, but it also made them difficult to restock if spent frivolously
10. You could argue that the various Gumshoe System games like Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, etc, base their entire mechanics on metacurrency pools.

Game and Story Use

  • The usual alternative is either for "good roleplaying" to "be it's own reward" … which can be unreliable, or to pay it off with extra experience points (which in a way, are themselves a less flexible metacurrency).
  • The flip side is mechanical enforcement of character traits … which can be "fun".
  • One pitfall to be wary of can present itself in systems where the metacurrency is awarded by GM fiat for things the GM thinks are "cool", "evocative", "in-genre", etc. There's a very good chance these will be awarded most often to the players who share the sensibilities and tastes as the GM. The problem is that the players who share the GM's sensibilities and tastes are already rewarded in all sorts of other very pervasive ways.
    • They'll likely find the setting and plotline generally more enjoyable than a (hypothetical) player whose tastes and instincts are slightly out-of-sync the GMs.
    • Their instincts will push them to interact with plotlines in ways that score lots of GM attention.
    • Their jokes are more likely to land and crack the GM up, instead of falling flat or disrupting the scene.
    • When a player comes up with a crazy harebrained scheme that's as ridiculous as it is audacious (as nearly all players do, given a long enough campaign), the in-sync-with-the-GM player is more likely to make it just crazy enough that the GM decides to let it work. The out-of-sync player is more likely to stumble or falter because the GM just isn't buying their version of crazy today.
    • In other words, if you're in-tune with the GM, you're already winning. To add mechanical success, plot coupons, and/or resource rewards in the form of metacurrency can exacerbate this discrepancy and leave one player feeling unfairly disadvantaged.
      • If you're not in-tune with the GM, then you're likely to feel "I have to work twice as hard to get half as many drama dice!"
      • Or maybe you are tuned to the GM, but shyness or social anxiety or some other social dynamic of the group keeps you from getting the spotlight. That can be pretty frustrating too.
    • That's not to say that metacurrency can't be applied fairly, or that it can't enhance play. They can and often do. The GM should probably keep an eye out for players who are struggling to match the GMs tone and style, and if someone is having a hard time "getting in tune" or getting a fair share of the spotlight, you might consider at least sometimes giving them awards for the effort rather than for the quality or results of that effort.
    • Another possible solution is to empower your players with the authority to award each-other or even themselves with metacurrency for activity they feel is cool and game-enhancing. If everyone's on the prize jury, it's less likely someone will be continuously neglected.
      • Some of the "cherry" abilities in certain versions of Gumshoe take this self-rewarding to a new level. For example, a Parkour Artist character may get a free Athletics refresh the first time each session that they describe a really cool maneuver they do, and the only judge of whether or not a move is cool enough to be rewarded is the person who described it.
  • Another thing that can sometimes become a problem is if you combine rules that let you spend metacurrency for tangible lasting rewards (equipment, contacts, narrative rights, xp, etc) with rules that refresh your metacurrency pool at the start or end of every session. Players may convert points into accumulating boosts that are unrelated to the plot in the last 5 minutes of every session, and throw the economies of the game out of whack. Luckily, it's generally pretty easy to prevent, as long as the GM is paying attention, and isn't afraid to set some ground rules before things get out of hand.
  • The Conan momentum/doom model noted above is particularly interesting as it allows characters to burn actions in combat (and in certain other circumstances) to build momentum, thus allowing a non-combat character to participate in combat without actually wielding a weapon: they build momentum and the combat characters burn it to fuel their attacks - everyone gets to participate. Conversely less sociable characters may be able to boost "the Face" in a social situation or non-magical ones assist the wizard in a ritual (and a PC wizard will need a lot of help in genre).
  • Where metacurrency buffers don't auto-refresh, this may be where the PCs go carousing - or whatever - to indulge their vices and flaws and perform a buffer refill.
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