Saturday, January 23, 2021

A History of Hero Points: Fame, Fortune and Fate

"Hero Points" was the name given by James Bond 007 (1983) to a quantified resource players could expend to alter the results of a particular system resolution. It built on an earlier innovation in the pioneering espionage RPG Top Secret (1980), which introduced "Fortune Points" and "Fame Points" in lieu of D&D saving throws. Over time, this idea took manifold forms in RPGs that followed, from Fudge and Fate Points to Artha in Burning Wheel to Inspiration in D&D 5th edition. Today, we'll look at how this system innovation took shape, beginning with Merle Rasmussen's original pitch for Top Secret, shown in this design letter above.

There's a lot to unpack in the page from Rasmussen's letter shown above (the last sentence ends on the next page with the word "known", by the by), but there are three crucial things to take away from it:

  • Rasmussen created his Fame and Fortune Points as a replacement for saving throws. 
  • He presents these Points as something players can expend to avoid negative in-game consequences for a character: for example, "when a lethal bullet should strike the character he can use one 'Fortune' point to deflect it."
  • The difference between them is that Fortune Points are supposed to represent "beginner's luck" that is lost when you're not a beginner any more; whereas Fame Points model the notion that some random assassin will not be the person to kill the legendary James Bond. He also as an aside notes "it may be possible to award these points" to players as well.

For 1978, Fame and Fortune Points were pretty radical ideas. But ideas rarely pop up in only one place: similar mechanisms can be found in games like Commando (1979) with its "Miraculous Escapes" which can be invoked by heroes once per mission, and in the ability of a "Protagonisti"-level character to redo incoming damage rolls "not to his liking" in (the Return of) Once Upon a Time in the West (1979). Both of those, however, still had a chance the hero would take the damages -- unlike Rasmussen's points. Rasmussen allowed a player to use points to simply override a die roll, a power that previously resided only with a referee concealing rolls behind a screen. System evolutions that granted players more control over executing the system are a major thread that The Elusive Shift follows in late 1970s design.

Fame and Fortune Points were essentially reactive, like D&D saving throws: undoing negative effects targeting a character. But by this point, saving throws in some RPG designs had begun to move beyond the merely reactive and into the realm of the proactive. This was a feature of the Tyr role-playing games like Space Quest (1977) and Bushido (1978). Space Quest, for example, describes a saving throw as something that "may be applied positively, to do something (feat of strength, burst of speed), or negatively, to avoid some damage."

The concept of players expending points to either offset a damaging effect or to preemptively improve performance can be found after Top Secret in Pirates & Plunder (1982), which grants players a pool of "Lucky Breaks" which can be expended either reactively or proactively: as a reactive way to fudge an undesired die result, or as "Adrenaline," a proactive way to boost an ability temporarily during a crisis situation. By 1982, when Top Secret had enjoyed some time to sink in to the melting plot of tabletop play, you could also find gaming groups adapting it out of its original context, like this report from Robert Kern:

What is novel in the Hero Points that Kern describes is how they are awarded: GM's gave them out for "heroic deeds," and to his knowledge, you could only have one at a time. Kern neglects to mention that his group was in fact made up of Victory Games staffers who were currently working on James Bond 007 (for which Kern received credits here and there). JB007 has a concept of Fame Points, but they have any entirely different system function than those of Top Secret -- instead, JB007 awards its players Hero Points. 

In JB007, these Hero Points are awarded whenever a player rolls the best outcome on skill checks, or for such actions as "successfully completing a mission or coming up with an ingenious escape from a trap." Some GMs might want to limit players to holding four or five Hero Points, but for exceptional characters, it might make sense to allow reservoirs of up to twenty. Characters expend them to adjust the outcome of rolls "immediately after determining the results," and can spend multiple Hero Points to dramatically shift the result of a system check. So in JB007, Hero Points have a more dynamic economy than Rasmussen envisioned for Top Secret, where a small reserve of Fortune Points are allotted at character creation and Fame Points come only gradually with progression.

Inevitably, once an economy of Hero Points became an element of play, gamemasters would begin to repurpose them as a reward system. In much the same way that some 1970s RPGs fostered role-playing by linking experience rewards to proper in-character behavior (the aforementioned Bushido is one example), by 1984, we can see reports of GMs awarding Hero Points to encourage role playing, as in this description from Martin Wixtead:

That text would be substantially repeated in Wixtead's Year of the Phoenix (1986), though its version goes on to explain that the "Specials" rule is optional in part because "some players feel that using Specials is a way of cheating the game's reality." Hero Points did have their critics, who felt that a meta-game power yanked players out of character, but to those designers who hoped to grant players more "narrative control," Hero Points have proven quite attractive "as a game construct to promote good roleplaying in a definite and controlled fashion." In retrospect, Rasmussen's player-control point system cast a long shadow, sparking one of the most influential design innovations in the history of role-playing games.


  1. This enters in the topic of who the player is. It too remember Top Secret's version of Fortune Points and as Peterson point out the "Hero Points did have their critics, who felt that a meta-game power yanked players out of character, but to those designers who hoped to grant players more 'narrative control,'"

    What was asked is is the player a writer, that is is he (or she, but at the time this was a male dominated activity which has changed) crafting a character or is he the person how has little control over what he gets. This is still present today, as one GM told his player to roll what their power was. E.G. he wanted player of a random character not writers who wanted control.

    This is a larger topic that first appears - a DoD wargame of the USA v CCCP halted because one player on the Soviet-side pointed out that her forces could not run out of infantry so soon. It might be garbage infantry but as long as the had Political Officers then they had the power to fill uniforms.

    Fortune Points is another aspect were "meta" asks the question "Who, exactly, is the player?"

  2. Hi, Jon! I can't think of any earlier use of "Luck" stats that you can spend, but there is one precedent for Luck that is "awarded" by the Referee, in a sense. Tunnels & Trolls, already in the first edition of '75, has saving throws based on the Luck stat (3D6) (and in the first edition, solely on the Luck stat). When player characters advance, they can raise a stat, and that stat can be Luck. Clearly this is not the same as a "Special" or gift for good role-playing, although experience points, which lead to new levels, can be awarded for good play. The T&T system did, however, emulate the idea that fictional heroes grow in good fortune and cannot be killed by simple traps or threats. This seems like a conceptual precedent to the Top Secret system, although it is assuredly not the same thing as a reward system parallel to and separate from experience points.

    For what it's worth, since you're talking about spy games, another early spy game that took the Tunnels & Trolls mechanics (on which it is based) straight over is the underrated Mercenaries, Spies, & Private Eyes by Michael Stackpole, 1983. There is no sign of anything like Hero Points here, but the Luck system is retained in it, along with the possibility of increasing in Luck with each level advancement.

    1. Yeah, it's really the history of these points as a currency held by players I'm tracing here. I do think T&T's choice to make saving throws about the Luck stat is a meaningful one, as you may recall from the book.

  3. One thing that must be remembered about Rasmussen is his love of upsetting the status quo. This is not, in itself, bad but it does mean that he is an agent of controlled chaos as a default. (As opposed to xaos.) That is he want to upset any development towards harmony. This is actually a feature, not a bug. (Segue way to the boardgame "law vs. chaos" which was started in gaming convention in the early '80's.)

  4. Interesting stuff. Is this subject going to be covered in your new book, as well?

    1. It is covered in the Elusive Shift, yes. Well, Wixtead was too late on the timeline to make it in, but, the earlier material is mostly in the "Destiny's Mark" chapter.

  5. I'd forgotten all about the Fame and Fortune Points in Top Secret. Great RPG history write-up. Hero Points are on my mind, as I'm learning Savage Worlds at the moment, and its "Hero Points" are "Bennies".