Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In praise of the Token System




Ok, small post. I just would like to share this little gem. During the height of d20 madness, one of my favorite pieces of game design was Iron Heroes, from Malhavoc Press. This was a variant d20 fantasy designed by Mike Mearls where (practically) all the classes were just different styles of Fighter (or Barbarians). Although you got an Arcanist class, it was very wonky; and while the Thief class was your classical S&S thief, the Executioner was more a ninja than the traditional Assassin of AD&D 1st. Other classes included the Hunter, Man-at-arms, Harrier, Armiger, Berserker, Archer and Weaponmaster (besides other classes from a Companion released a few years later).

Iron Heroes’ proposal was interesting but it was not its major feature for me. The real brilliance was the Token System. The entire game was absurdly obsessed with tactical cinematic-like combat – a feature that seems to eventually become the sole point of D&D 4th – which was really a shame since the Token System was a lot more versatile than that. In fact, I find it to be as original as other famous subsystems, like 7th Sea’s Advantage/Disadvantage system and FATE’s Aspects. But, as usual, I digress.

What where Tokens? Basically, they’re a small bonus designed to encourage specific actions. In a game dedicated to fighting styles, they’re awesome, though they could be expanded to cover entire different actions – like social, economic or even magic actions (in fact, some of the social feats that used Tokens were pure genius).

For example, if you’re a Berserker in Iron Heroes (and this is just an example, as I don’t remember the details) you would gain 1 Token every time you’re hit in combat. You could then spend this Token to fuel various Rage-like effects or feats, like increasing an attack’s damage or providing you with more actions.

I remember that at the time Iron Heroes came out (around 2005) I was running an Iron Kingdoms’ D&D 3.5 campaign. Remember my last post about how Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization sucks? Well, I hated those feats even them. I started to incorporate the Token System design ideas on my D&D, but only for Fighters (a way to make the class more unique… one of my obsessions, as you know, if you’re an old reader of this blog). In other words, if a Cleric bought the Weapon Focus feat, nothing changed. If the party’s Fighter bought Weapon Focus, then he’d gain Tokens.

I was playtesting the stuff and unfortunately the campaign didn’t last too long. I proposed that the Fighter would gain 1 Token every time he hit a foe with his chosen weapon (Weapon Focus). He could spend Tokens on 1-1 basis to gain an attack bonus to his d20 roll. I also remember that we created an Armor Focus feat that granted 1 Token each time our armored Fighter was hit (if using his chosen type of armor). He could spend 1 Token to soak part of a hit as non-lethal damage (usually an amount equal to his armor bonus); or he could spend 3 Tokens to use his armor bonus as DR against one hit.

It was a simple but very fun resource-based system, with lots of potential. Yes, it could get cumbersome. Some Iron Heroes classes were amazingly broken, while, in other situations, tracking all your Tokens (granted by different class abilities and feats) could be a problem.