Build a better mousetrap, the world will build a CR12 mouse.
At least, it feels that way as a GM sometimes. You can spend an afternoon figuring out and statting up the perfect adversary or challenge for your PCs, only have it dusted in seconds right before your eyes. So it’s really no surprise that “please, just let me have this” has become an actual, usable mechanic in some games.
I’m referring in this case to the ‘compel’ mechanic in games like Fate or Numenera in which the GM can barter with players to trade them action points in exchange for taking a disadvantage or wrestling with another challenge on their turn. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t always been met with joy by the players, but we’ll get to that in a second.
There’s an important history in the arms race of determining outcomes in gaming. Players want transparency of system to keep GMs honest, GMs want fluidity to provide players with actual challenges, and so things go back and forth in terms of rigidity system by system. The prevalence of action-point mechanics suggests, and rightly so, that players don’t like leaving crucial moments to the dice alone. Instead of giving the GM the right and choice to fudge in a PC’s favor when it’s the big, climactic fight, the player can choose for themselves when they want to wrestle their cord from Atropos‘ unfeeling fingers and reroll that stupid 1 that tried to betray them in their hour of need.
But action points also took something of the tension out of big moments – a tension many GMs relied upon to make victory feel genuine for the players at the table. While most action point systems have a cap, it isn’t difficult for players to know they can max out their pool and cash them all in during the final fight in a kind of action point alpha strike that virtually assures victory regardless of the circumstances.
And so compel mechanics were born, and made a key part of the economy of getting action points. Compel mechanics, by design, can add tension to less vital moments in a game where there would otherwise be none, encourage earlier spending of action points (rather than hoarding), and make the flaws any character comes with actually show up in tangible ways within the game. Functionally, they put the power in the hands of the players to choose whether they wish to have a greater chance to fail when it doesn’t matter so much in exchange for the power to ensure success when the chips are on the line (pun intended) later on.
And used correctly, that’s exactly what compel mechanics should do.
But the criticisms of compel mechanics tell us, at minimum, that they’ve been improperly used often enough to leave a general sour taste in the mouths of some players. So as useful as compel mechanics can be, let’s talk about the difference between using them to foster actual compelling gaming versus “everything’s a nail.”
The key is player agency. Any time the GM offers a player an action point in exchange for a disadvantage or added challenge with whatever they’re doing, it’s an offer, and the player must have the power to say “no thanks” and roll on like it never happened – no action point, no added challenge. Some players may never take you up on offers of action points, and that’s okay. Content yourself that they also won’t be able to cash in a stack of tokens during the final fight to thor-strike the Big Bad.
The second half of agency is not just whether the player accepts the challenge, but the shape of the challenge itself. That can be done a couple of ways without letting them glance behind the screen: either tie the challenge to the character’s traits or story, or set up the first half of the challenge and let them fill in the finer details.
The former is what Fate uses, and it works fairly well. Players choose at creation the aspects that they can be compelled on, so when something bites them in the butt, they at least know the form of the destructor. If you’re using a system that doesn’t have aspects specifically, you can still tie the challenge to the character: “turns out your getaway vehicle isn’t troll-rated,” “the person you helped back in town remembered you, and told the lawman all about your heroics, not knowing you were a wanted criminal,” “the king’s ex was a dwarf, he hasn’t trusted them ever since,” and so forth. It’s still based on choices the player made, either at creation or during the game itself. Contacts and old NPCs are ripe fodder for ad hoc compels that are still tied to what the players themselves chose to do, which can feel a lot more genuine to your players.
“You don’t notice that the deck is slippery as you leap aboard the clipper” is not as much fun as “the deckhand you fired weeks ago has apparently found new employment in the royal navy – you recognize his handiwork just as you’re about to land on the shiny, sudsy deck of the clipper.”
The other trick with compel mechanics is knowing when to use them. As we covered before, the point is to give players the power to tank earlier tasks so that they can be assured success later. To make that anything more than a zero sum, only compel players when failure is still enjoyable, comical, or not a brick wall for the plot or session. If it creates an embarrassing story (“remember that time you got beat up by a flumph?”) but doesn’t halt the game, you’re doing it right. Later, when it’s critical, when they PCs can’t fail, they’ll have the action points they need to ensure bad dice won’t rob them of their moment, and they’ll have fun stories of all the little struggles they had to endure to get there in the first place. Win-win.