Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

11 thoughts to “Leverage: Points of drama”

  1. If that’s what the drama points were being used for I think you were underusing them. I love Leverage as a show and a system. Its a great buddy setting where everyone gets a defined role and co-operation is needed.

    I don’t know if you’ve watched Leverage but the flashback reveal of how the crew were always ahead of the crooks. When I’ve run it I’ve always rewarded players for being damn smart. Pulling a gun is a narrative fix and I agree a player just could of been packing. If the player had gotten the thief to pick the pocket of the thug who pulled the gun on the grifter and replaced it with blanks. That’s a proper use of a Leverage drama point.

    1. Good point, Dave. I know that the examples I gave aren’t the only uses in Leverage. The flashbacks system is a particularly nifty idea – and not a typical use of Drama Point type mechanics compared to other games. And of course they can be used to activate talents as well. But the workaday uses referred to above are legit for Leverage and common to other games too – and I remain sceptical that these uses add much to the game.

  2. I like them in systems, most of my favourite games include them. I feel their strength is player buy in to the story. From even the most simple of systems (Star Wars D6 Force points for instance) allowing characters to achieve that amazing feat when it counts or drama and fate point systems where the players can buy into and direct story where players may have thought of great twists for their character or the story I may not have. I love collaborative storytelling as a GM it keeps me on my toes and gives characters a great tool to get their tuppence in.

    1. Well, I’m a big fan of fate points in the style of WFRP and the like, giving you rerolls and allowing you to survive death. These serve an important function – reducing the risk that you fluff the single most important roll of the story so far, and allowing the players to be brave and the GM to throw more dangerous adversaries in without fear of TPK.

      I like player involvement in story creation – in fact, in the last year or so I’ve been playing a lot of games where the roles of GM and players are systematically broken down and/or don’t exist at all. I’m just not sure what the point is of the drama point exchange mechanic for these purposes. I guess the bottom line is that I see two relatively distinct kinds of game: the game where the GM is the final authority on the game world and the players use their characters, via the mechanics of the game, to interact with that world, and games where the players get to have authority over the world too. Drama points used in the way described above seem like an odd halfway house to me.

  3. The halfway house is its strength. There are some great games out there of a GM less collaborative story telling approach but they don’t suit all groups. I prefer GMing but I actually find many people lack confidence (and often ability) to lead a game. Allowing players a creative buy in whilst retaining primary control of a story is the best of bost worlds for me and often encourages a story based roleplaying that you can’t achieve in other approaches.

    1. Interesting. After the game we speculated that drama points might be intended for inexperienced players – which is not a million miles from what you’re saying about players who lack confidence. My experience may have been at least partly down to the fact of running with some very confident people, for whom the halfway house may have felt more like half measures.

  4. I think you may have been spoiled by a stable circle of players who fit into the styles you’ve noted. In the last two years I’ve been finding and deal with new gamers who often play in a very different way to my old group. Many of them have never played narrative before and I’ve held away from FATE like games so far.

    Even with experienced players I’ve found the conceit of the destiny points (and that’s all the different approaches we have been discussing) are better than more open structures. My two favourite systems are Gumshoe and Cortex plus because of the way they introduce the concite of player buy in but with limits. If you have say 3 destiny points to spend in a session they become a precious currency allowing players to get their characters to achieve superhuman feats or achieve game changing story.

    With the restricted currency players have to choose carefully when they can achieve the impossible and when their characters are truly exceptional.

  5. “I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs.”

    Hmm, I pretty much am, I think. In a traditional GM-led game, the narrative power of the GM should be unlimited, and the narrative power of the players should be whatever the GM judges appropriate. It seems a kind of unnecessary and bound-to-be-awkward fudge to introduce a system that compromises both.

    Conversely in a collaborative game, you either trust each other not to wreck the story, or you don’t. If players are going to wreck the story by abusing narrative powers, they’ll find a way to do so no matter what system is notionaly imposed upon it.

  6. I’m assuming Leverage is intended to do for heist games what Gumshoe does for detective games. I must admit I really like Drama Points myself. The thing that puts me off those games is the amount of preparation they appear to need–that’s my assumption, since I don’t own either.

    DPs sound like an opportunity for the GM to be really unfair to the players. Whilst I can usually manage that without DPs it sounds like a nice system to “legitimise” punishing the PCs.

    Cinematic Unisystem has DPs, but the Plot Twist is only 1 way of spending them (the others are to buff rolls, avoid damage or come back from the dead). Plot twists aren’t used as often as the others, I assume because they require opportunity and for the player to be comfortable with making up the twist. But since the system caters to plot-twisters and skill-buffers alike, no-one loses out by being unable to think of a plot twist.

    The thing about DPs in CU is how you’re reminded that it’s all about the PCs, and everyone has their opportunity to shine–some by a plot twist, others by a really great roll that nails the big bad. The implementation in Leverage sounds like it could work that way, but it sounds a bit marmite to me.

    1. Mo: You’re pretty much saying what I’m saying, so I’ll simply note that great minds think alike and move on.

      Smiorgan: Interesting you say they’re high-prep. I think in the case of Leverage at least the intention is the opposite. One of the game’s big virtues (in theory at least – I had some issues here too) is that you can stat a character (or location, etc) up by just writing down a few interesting properties and assigning dice to them. It’s designed to be prep-light because the players are on offence – the GM can’t easily know in advance exactly what they’ll do. Indeed, this is the point of DPs; they enable the GM to insert dramatic events in an unplanned way, and regulate the flow of these events. However as the OP makes clear, I don’t find them all that helpful in the creation of dramatic events – I guess arguably the regulation of flow is a useful property.

      I think it’s fair to say that Leverage also splits DPs (actually they call them Plot Points, but I’ll keep to DPs for discussion) between mechanical “buffing” and dramatic interventions. You can use them to power talents to activate special effects in play (dice bonuses etc), and even creating an object as described in the OP comes with a dice bonus, albeit a fairly small one. But the game is pretty explicit that the complications and opportunities are the main deal.

      I’m not sure I’d agree that they’re an opportunity for player punishment, though. In practice if they do anything in this regard it’s to inhibit the GM from throwing in arbitrary complications when the system hasn’t said to do so. And when the GM does throw in a complication the players get a DP as a reward.

      Point taken about DPs allowing players to shine in their different ways. That’s very true. I’m particularly struck that DP-triggered flashback scenes (which are a thing in Leverage) have the potential to give players spotlight time and allow creative improvisation. It just didn’t seem to work that well for my group.

      Maybe it is just marmite. Though I love marmite.

  7. 1. I didn’t say they were high prep, I said it was my assumption based on my take of the Gumshoe system. Leverage may well be quick to start, I wouldn’t know.

    2. The player punishment thing is precisely this: preventing the GM from making arbitrary challenges. Most GMs (myself included) will favour the PCs and will not drop unexpected challenges their way. If the GM has DPs or PPs or whatever, that’s a mechanism to allow the GM to be occasionally “unfair” whilst not being entirely arbitrary–especially if the GM has a limited supply of PPs on the table. Don’t Rest Your Head does this sort of thing–although that’s not such a good example since it’s a less-than-zero sum game.

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