Well actually, that rule doesn’t apply because of the sidebar on the top of page 42…Rules Lawyered…
Our courageous Captain Hero is battling the invincible Dr. Nemesis on the roof of a tower. He is battered and winded from the fight. He looks to his left to check on his ward who is tied up next to a bomb. Dr. Nemesis takes advantage of this momentary distraction to deliver a devastating blow that sends our hero over the balcony. Incredibly, Captain Hero manages to catch the ledge and now finds himself dangling high over the city, looking up at Dr. Nemesis and his certain doom with only seconds left to save his ward before the bomb goes off. Our hero needs more than skill to get out of this one, our hero could use a little luck!
Many games employ some type of luck mechanic that gives players the option to spend a limited resource that improves their odds of success, changes some aspect of the narrative, or any number of other special effects. But is this mechanic robbing us of the thrill of rolling that badly needed critical success in situations similar to Captain Hero’s? Is it a crutch used to protect ourselves from occasional bad decisions or bad rolls? Is it really better to be lucky than good?
Having luck in our games seems like a no brainer; how often do we see our protagonist fail when it really counts? On the other hand they do fail, the first two acts usually set up the threat and depict our hero defeated by the bad guy. But then in the final act, when the hero is at their lowest, they overcome the odds and save the day- cue the music, kiss the girl, roll credits. But our dice wouldn’t know good storytelling even if we tried to explain it to them (not that I have). If you’re anything like me, you get the best successes on a perception check to see if the soup is too hot and embarrassingly low rolls in combat.
In the above scenario, if you’re playing a game with some type of luck resource, you could use it to successfully hit the bright red “off” switch on the bomb, or you could have avoided the attack that plunged you over the edge in the first place. Some systems even allow you to change details about the scene, perform stunts you don’t already know, or get a second wind during the final round of the fight! Now that’s the kind of exciting stuff we pay the price of admission to see. But if scenes like this are just a “Luck Point” away, do they become less thrilling over time?
Now let’s go back to the same scenario when we’re looking up at Dr. Nemesis who’s cackling away, going on and on about how our defeat was inevitable and how “evil will always win because good is dumb” (you know- the standard bad guy speech). All hope seems lost and in this game, we have no “Luck Points”! We pick up the dice knowing that nothing short of a perfect success will save the day and despite the odds, we get one! The table erupts in cheers and that scene becomes a story to tell for years to come! It’s exhilarating, but it’s very rare to get that perfect roll at the perfect moment.
Luck has its place, of course. In more adventure style setting, we need to have it to facilitate those thrilling moments at the climax of the story. In more grounded games, it’s need to give us just a little bit of an edge, but still leave us wanting more; and although it may seem to be a little contrived, the best games strike a nice balance between making luck count and not watering down the characters natural abilities.
Fortunately, for Captain Hero, he’s playing a game with a luck mechanic. He just needs to spend it and he’ll be able to save his ward, stop Dr. Nemesis, and yes even kiss the girl. But do you think any such mechanic will save our hero from having to deal with Dr. Nemesis after his inevitable escape or spare him from listening to yet another villainous monologue? Yeah… no such luck!