Token Effort

Now that you know what the setting is like (basically “like every space opera game, only with 73% less dignity”) you can build a character and learn the mechanics. The rules engine for …in Spaaace! is called the Token Effort system. The name does not reflect how much work I did.

The rules that follow refer to the ‘GM,’ the ‘PCs’ and the ‘GMCs’. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a gamer and know those stand for ‘Game Master,’ ‘Player Characters’ and ‘Game Master’s Characters.’

If you don’t know what those are – hi, Mom! The GM is the guy running the game and setting the base assumptions of setting and plot. The PCs are the main characters in the story, controlled (more or less) by their players. GMCs are secondary characters and extras that the GM uses to push his agenda.

Rule Zero

Whenever someone playing the game makes you laugh out loud, you owe that person – player or game-master – one token. If you’ve got no tokens, obviously you can’t pay, but otherwise you ought to cough it up. You don’t owe it if it was an out-of-game comment, action, or bodily function that prompted the laughter, but anything in-game is paid for. You ignore Rule Zero, you’re not playing Token Effort.

Core Concept

The Token Effort system spreads event control and resolution among the GM and the players. No matter what happens, it happens because someone wanted it that way.

In Token Effort, everyone playing has tokens (typically pennies or buttons or those little glass beads that TCG players like so much). When a conflict arises, the player (or players) and GM secretly allocate a number of tokens to the event. Whoever invests the most tokens has demonstrated a greater commitment to their version of events and therefore wins the right to narrate how things play out. However, there’s a price to pay for control. The controller’s store of tokens diminishes with each win and rises with each loss – meaning that the guy who has everything go his way early in the game is probably going to be pretty helpless at the end, while the fellow who gets boned at the start (like most heroes in most action movies, hint hint) usually has lots of tokens to throw around when the chips are down. Specifically, when the GM’s chips are down.

It is important – I’ll say crucial – to make sure everyone is clear on the stakes before bidding begins. If you don’t clearly communicate what the prize is, someone is going to feel robbed. In the heat of play, it’s not impossible that the GM thinks the question is “Do the characters get past this door and these guards?” while the players think it’s “Do we get past all the guards and gain access to the Supreme Command Thingabobule?” Naturally the GM bets low if it’s just one piece of the puzzle and the players bet high if it’s the whole thing. Then the players feel ripped off when the GM throws more hurdles at them, and the GM feels they’re trying to rip her off by having everything go easy peasy. If they both have the same expectation, either that the GM wants them to draw this segment out or that the players want to hurry up to Supreme Command, they can place their tokens accordingly.

Generally, a level of detail arises through consensus. Some groups are betting over every plot twist or potential problem, causing a lot of token exchanges and jockeying. Others bet big on very large scenes. A battle which could take a half-dozen exchanges for a detail-oriented group can be settled by one bet with an impressionistic approach. Both work. Trying to do both at the same time does not work.

Tokens

Tokens measure power in the game. While Traits (see page 11.) increase your bid for free, they’re limited because they have to be relevant. With tokens, you can do just about anything you want. If you want it bad enough.

All characters have Traits, which give price breaks when they apply to the task at hand. Traits are explained in detail below. Sometimes situations have Challenge ratings, which work like Traits.

Editing the Plot

Plausibility Level Ante Cost

Likely 0 “After I insult her, she throws her drink on me.”
Plausible 1 “Searching the workshop, I find the tool I need.”
Odd 2 “Searching the workshop, I find a keg of beer hidden inside a hollowed-out workbench.”
Unlikely 3 “It turns out the duke was in my college fraternity!”
Bizarre 4 “It turns out the duke is my long-lost clone!”
One in a bazillion 5 “The phrase ‘Oh please! Don’t kill me! Kill Vinnie instead, he’s useless!’ turns out to mean ‘Kneel before the Chosen Doom-Bringer of your god!’ in their language.”

You can use tokens to edit the plot. “Oh, I happen to find an abandoned ship filled with food, weapons and survival gear.” (Don’t laugh, it worked for Robinson Crusoe.) “Just before he chops off her head, he realizes that his shoe’s untied and puts down the ceremo­nial decapitation laser in order to tie it.” “My character used to play a video game whose controls were modeled exactly on the XB-55 Starfighter, so it’s as if she knows how to fly it.” “I find a pack of gum in my pocket.” Small effects and large, they can all be created through the use of tokens.

The great thing about editing is that you can give your character any freakish lucky break you like. (Or you can stick your fellow PCs, or GMCs, with any humiliating trial you can imagine.) The drawback is that Traits just don’t apply, so editing is freakin’ expensive.

There are two parts to editing, and both involve tokens. Tokens are part of an ante and part of a wager.

When you want to edit events with tokens, you tell the GM what you want to have happen and the GM calculates just how implausible it is. Here’s the chart for figuring that out. [It’s up in the corner. —ed.]

If you want to cram a plot development like that into the GM’s story­line, describe the event you want. The GM decides the ante, from 1-5. If the event comes to pass, you pay the ante to the GM.

It may not happen, however. The GM can (if she wishes) bid tokens from her own cache to counteract the plot intrusion. This is a wager. You can bid from your own store of tokens to help press in your event. Like all bids in the game, this is blind – neither of you knows how many tokens the other is risking until you reveal.

The person who wants it more – as expressed through tokens risked in the wager – gets his way. However, the person who risked fewer tokens, takes one token that the winner risked. If the GM bids higher, the event does not occur, the ante is not paid and the player gets one token from the GM. If the player bids higher, the event occurs, the ante is paid, and the player pays one additional token to the GM.

It gets really interesting when the GM ties the player’s bid. When that happens, the player’s intrusion happens… but the GM gets all the tokens that were wagered.

Example: The GM has described the stately procession of Princess Vidalia and her court, when one of the players says, “Vinnie suddenly realizes that she’s the passionate one-night-stand he had on Rigel Seven – the one who left him forlorn and smelling of onions!” The GM rolls her eyes, but decides this is a four token Ante. Vinnie’s player stacks them up. The GM also doesn’t want Princess Vidalia to be quite so trampy, so she secretly bids three tokens in the wager. The player only bids two, so the GM overrules the plot insertion. But the player doesn’t have to pay the ante and gets one of the GM’s tokens.

Example: The same player later tries this: “Drunk at the recep­tion, Vinnie needs a place to blow some chunks. Unable to decipher the bathroom signs, he chooses wildly and winds up in the Princess’ private reception chamber.” The GM decides this is a two Ante insertion and sets up her hidden bid in the wager – zero tokens. The player reveals that he bet four in the wager. Thus, Vinnie success­fully bumbles into a restricted area, but it costs the player three tokens – two for the ante, and one from his successful wager. The GM can now create a Challenge 2 situation in the reception chamber.

Example: As the princess’ guards chase Vinnie around the onion dome, another player suggests that Vinnie stumbles across an assassin who was trying to kill the Princess. The GM calls this a two token ante and she wagers two tokens to block it. When the player reveals his wager, it’s two tokens also. Amidst the groans of the players, the GM rakes in the two token ante and the full wager risked. She now has two points to put in the assassin’s Traits, from the ante, and two more tokens in her pile.

Once an event has been inserted, the token or tokens from the wager go to the GM as usual. The ante tokens, however, are cashed in and become Plot Points, which the GM uses to stat up the Challenge rating of the event or the Traits of any new characters introduced. Once that’s done, those tokens are removed from play.

Responding to the Plot

Rather than blow through tokens like a caffeinated slot-jockey editing the plot willy-nilly, more cautious players can use them to augment skills they possess (or lack, for that matter) in a more organic reaction to events as they proceed.

This works just like plot insertion, with two differences. First, there’s no ante. Second, you can use Traits, if they’re relevant.

Example: As the space pirates storm their ship, a player says, “My character resists them with his badass, tricked-out, dope, phat, funky-fly Pimp Fu.” Since he bought the Trait BADASS, TRICKED-OUT, DOPE, PHAT, FUNKY-FLY PIMP FU 2 at character creation, he can fight the pirates with a free wager at level two. Deciding he wants to seriously go upside some heads, he adds five tokens to his secret wager. This means that the GM needs the equivalent of eight tokens to wrest victory from the pimp-monk’s grasp. The Pirates have SCURVY SPACE REAVERS 1 and she adds four tokens, but it’s not enough. In a frenzy of playa-hate, the pirates are driven back. However, the player pays the losing GM a token for his victory.

Example: Desperate to keep the smart bomb from detonating, a character tries to convince it to repudiate the suicidal depression program that drives it to self- (and other-) destruction. With the Trait GRADUATE PROGRAM ADMISSIONS COUNSELOR 1, the player bids four tokens against the melancholy weapon’s SMART BOMB 3. It turns out, however, that the GM has wagered two tokens. It’s a 5-5 tie (Counselor 1+4 tokens, Bomb 3+2 tokens). The Smart Bomb decides that, yeah, maybe it would be happier if it retrained for electricity production, it could make a fresh start as a power station on the frontier or maybe even a starliner auxiliary generator, if it had the grades… The PCs survive, but at a terrible cost – four tokens in the GM’s greedy mitts…

Sometimes PCs are up against characters with Traits. Sometimes they’re up against inanimate problems, the difficulty of which is judged by something called a Challenge score. It works just like a Trait, only with a different name to make the system more compli­cated. (It weeds out the dummies.)

Some times, more than one player is wagering to take control of the narrative. When the GM wins a wager against multiple players, she does not have to pay each competitor. She just has to pay one token, to the loser with the single lowest store of tokens.

Gear And Other Advantages

It’s quite possible, in the course of navigating the plot, that your character acquires some device, circumstance, ally or other thing that makes things easier. These work like Traits, only they can be traded around and lost. If you hit a vending machine to buy a Freedom Flenser brand laser weapon (it’s the one shaped like the Statue of Liberty), you can write “Freedom Flenser 1” on your character sheet under “Temporary Traits” and get a free virtual token any time you try to carve fat off someone with your laser gun. (“Flensing” liter­ally means “to strip away skin or blubber”.) Similarly, if you rescue a Thadangan Diplomat from the clutches of the FOESL, you can write “Thadangan Diplomat 2” as a Temporary Trait.

Be warned! Your GM and the other players can invoke your temporary Traits against you sometimes. That diplomat may start applying diplo­macy to the PC party in an attempt to entangle them in a baroque game of interstellar brinksmanship (or maybe just trying to get a loan until payday). Even that Freedom Flenser might backfire in the right circumstances – if there are kids around, or aliens with sticky fingers (literal or figurative, take your pick).

Applying Multiple Traits

You can’t do this. Sure, it’d be great if you could combine your SNEAKY SLYBOOTS 2 Trait with SAVAGE BEATDOWN 2 and have four free tokens every time you pound on someone after sneaking up on them, but then you just get players constantly arguing about how combining the WINE SOMMELIER Trait and the PYROKINESIS Trait is justified while parachuting. If two Traits apply, use the high one.

Combining Tokens

You can’t do this, either. That is, if you’re trying some fancy plot insertion in which you’re all miraculously rescued by the Airborne Amazon Ranger Vixens, you can only wager it in with your own tokens – your fellow players can’t give you their tokens to beef up the attempt. If you’re using your STAR PILOT Trait to get through the minefield, they can’t add tokens to the wager or add their STAR CO-PILOT Trait to yours in order to improve your odds.

Helping

This doesn’t mean you can’t help each other. It just means that assis­tance is handled serially, not collectively. If you want to help your buddy with something, succeed at a wager test to make his test easier. To give a dumb but very comprehensible example, suppose the two of you want to pick up a rock. You can try to pick up the rock and fail, he can try to pick up the rock and fail. Or you can say, “I’m going to help him pick up the rock.” If you succeed at that wager against the GM (who, for the purposes of this example, is queerly adamant about that rock staying put), the rock doesn’t necessarily go up. But the GM should reduce the rock’s Challenge by a point, making it somewhat easier for your friend to win his wager. Chipping away in this fashion cuts problems down to size. It also draws contests out, but that’s more of a feature than a bug, since instantly clobbering the narrative can end things prematurely.

It’s the same thing with the GM’s characters’ Traits. If one character is attempting to make time with someone who has RESIST HAM-HANDED PICKUP LINES 2, and you want to see him succeed (instead of fail hilariously), you can enter a wager with the GM by describing some kind of loyal wingman maneuver. If you succeed, that RESIST HAM-HANDED PICKUP LINES Trait drops when your pal makes his play. Or, if you want to help with the mad scientist’s atomic zombie stoat man project, you can start a wager by shuffling around, calling your fellow PC “marshter” and going out to steal brains. Win that wager, and his MAD SCIENTIST Trait pops up by one.

It is also, of course, possible to increase the Challenge ratings and Traits of GM-controlled opponents. Fun, too.

Out of Tokens

At the beginning of every game session, the GM starts with a number of tokens equal to the highest number possessed by any single player. If none of the players start a session with any tokens, the game can declare bankruptcy and start over with a clean slate. Each player, and the GM, gets a new store of seven tokens and play goes from there. (Bankruptcy doesn’t come up much, but it can happen.)

Traits

Characters have Traits. Traits describe how well they do the stuff they do. Anything can be a Trait: STRONG, HIVE INTELLIGENCE ALIEN, GOOD SHOT, POORLY-PROGRAMMED ROBOT SUPERVILLAIN, SHANK SQUEALERS IN THE PENITENTIARY SHOWER, STARSHIP ENGINEER, CABIN BOY, FULL INVERSION STRIPPER, COOK… whatever, as long as it’s in that cool small-caps font. There are some refinements, but by and large characters have Traits rated from 1-3, and the rating indicates how much free plot control it gives the player. For instance, a character with MASSAGE THERAPIST 1 can apply that Trait whenever she tries to use massage skills to get someone to relax, to help a strain or injury heal, to recognize different whale-song tapes, or to get the character with ROCKIN’ BOD 3 to slip his shirt off so she can work out the tension he’s holding in his shoulders.

What these do is add free virtual tokens to any action to which they apply. A character with PAYS BILLS ON TIME 3 can exert 3 tokens’ worth of influence on any situation where being a person who pays bills on time would help – and all without risking any tokens on the action.

Tokens can be risked on Trait actions, adding to the base level the Trait establishes. If my character has MAD SCIENTIST 2 and I spend three tokens to try and create a race of atomic zombie stoat men, I get to influence the plot as if I were risking a whopping five tokens.

The best thing about using Traits is that if you risk no tokens and win just on your Trait, you don’t have to pay tokens and you still get to narrate. For AWESOME!

How to Improve a Trait

To improve a trait, you have to explain why your skill in LEADER OF A GUITAR CULT improves from 3 to 4, and you have to arrange a scene where concrete actions occur which better that ability. Then, you try and impose that scene on the GM with tokens. In this case, the Trait you’re trying to improve works against you. The GM gets a number of free tokens equal to its rating. Thus, to start from LEADER OF A GUITAR CULT 3 and go up one, you need to be holding at least four tokens, because the GM can risk zero actual tokens and use the level of the trait against you. Furthermore, any time you rise, you’re going to lose one token at least – and possibly more if the GM’s bet matches yours.

Character Generation

When developing a new character, players get four points to distribute among Traits. No Trait can start higher than 3, or ever get higher than 5.

When building a new character, you can designate one Trait as broad. While most Traits cover a specific skill or ability (FLIGHT, COMPUTER SEDUCTION, MAKE THINGS EXPLODE WITH MY MIND), broad Traits encompass a wider array of ability. While most Traits describe one thing a character can do, the broad Trait really describes who he, she or it is. Thus, someone could build a heroic space captain by buying PILOT, COMBAT and INSPIRATIONAL PUBLIC SPEAKING skills separately – or just jump into the role of HEROIC SPACE CAPTAIN, which covers them all.

Clearly, there’s the temptation to choose a Trait that’s broader than broad, such as OMNIPOTENT SUPREME BEING or JACK OF ALL TRADES, PARTICULARLY ANY I HAPPEN TO NEED TO LOOK COOL DURING THE GAME. Don’t do that. As a good rule of thumb, a broad Trait covers three things that come up over and over, as well as any rare or exotic things that, most likely, only come up once.

For example: SPACE PIRATE covers fighting, piloting, and rowdy-but-not-actually-vicious partying. Arguing that SPACE PIRATE allows one to fix starship engines could be out of bounds (or not – talk to your GM). Identifying different brands of grog by taste is probably covered, along with understanding of pirate argot and the art of makeshift prosthesis construction. But robbing banks isn’t part of the space pirate scene. BANK ROBBER, on the other hand, would presum­ably cover robbing banks, shooting it out with the dirty coppers, and getaway driving.

Some sample broad Traits follow, to give you a general idea how it works.

SUPERHERO: By and large, superheroes can fly, exert super-strength, and bounce bullets off their chests. You want other superpowers like heat vision, fish telepathy or lickety speed, you buy them separately or swap them in.

PLUMBER: First and foremost, they can solve plumbing emergen­cies. Furthermore, even in the distant future, plumbers are experts at the art of bald-facedly overcharging for services rendered. Finally, they’re good at delicately spurning (or, discretely succumbing to) the libidinous advances of lonesome housewives.

SUPER-EVOLVED CELL PHONE: While the current cell phones have no arms or legs (unless they’re sold separately), they can make calls throughout the cosmos, look up data on the Internet, and use limited precognition to anticipate the desires of the caller.

ROBOT: Robots are tougher than humans, sexually blasé (and therefore immune to the romantic appeals that can produce so much human foolishness) and they usually have some job-related skill as well – a welding robot welds, a research robot knows lots of things, an autopilot can fly a space ship, etc.

HYPERINTELLIGENT CHIMP: As expected, hyperintelligent chips are smarter than humans (which often bothers humans no end), they’re more acrobatic and athletic, and they’re far less shy than humans when it comes time to fling poo – which, in turn, makes them more accurate with it.

NINJA: Disappear from plain sight, kill with the sword, dodge away from danger – you know, all that ninja crap.

BANK CASHIER: Show absolutely no expression and be unimpressed with anyone, no matter how overwhelming. Count rapidly. Discuss business knowledgably, by which I mean, bore the hell out of all the space pirates, ninjas and hyperintelligent chimps.

ENGINEER: Fix anything. Repurpose machinery (say, turning an exercise device into a weapon of mass destruction) simply by blathering in jargon and then giving a simple metaphor. (“I’ll just reconfigure the vibrations of the semi-plasma matrix in order to create enough quantum uncertainty that we can get the ship through the tractor beam while it’s focused on our false signal. It’ll be like the time Vinny got so drunk he peed in the sink by mistake.”) Appear inept and buffoonish to any member of the opposite sex.

FASHIONISTA: Garb herself and others in alluring raiment. Snub people and make them want to cry. Get into any party, anywhere, with any entity.

Combat

When combat is joined, it’s a standard wagering contest. The winner narrates her victory (or defeat, if that’s her bag). If a Trait was applied to win the wager, events can only be narrated in a way that ties in to that Trait. Thus, if someone applied INVULNERABLE 3 to win the wager, the description would have to involve the character’s invulner­ability.

Large or particularly important combats may be broken into multiple segments, with each segment being resolved via wagering. Players may need to help one another out to break down the Challenge levels or Traits of a particularly tough combatant, but there’s no need for special rules for that.

Whoever wins narration rights can take out one major character, or an appropriate number of minor combatants who (let’s face it) are only there for the PCs to beat up in a studly and/or humorous fashion.

The weapons available are pretty nasty. Anything built to kill people with super futuristic technology is probably going to get the job done on the first shot, unless the person being fired upon has some similar high-tech defenses. But by and large, both attacks and defenses are handled with Traits, so if you lose the wager, you’re probably hurt, possibly dead, certainly out of the fight.

Dead, however, doesn’t mean gone, and hurt doesn’t mean useless.

Back In The Game

There’s this stuff called “Doc Inna Box” – it’s a gray, slightly mealy powder. Costs about twenty bucks a dose. You dump it on a nonfatal wound and you get better in five minutes or your next dose is free. It’s widely available.

Of course, Doc Inna Box has to be tailored to a specific species – you can get weird side-effects if you dump Monkey Doc into a wounded human. As for robots, they’re tough but fixing them takes a little more time and effort than a broken person (mostly because human whining about pain is sufficient to create a market for D.I.B., while robots generally just put up with it until they can D.I.B. won’t do anything for a dead guy. That sort of problem requires a specialist, but reanimating the dead is well within the realm of technology. However, the older the stiff, the more it’s going to cost.

If you drag a guy killed by fight or mischance to a decent doctor within a day or two, he can get the body reanimated and the brain functions restored. It usually takes a couple hours, including at least one spent in a waiting room. (Of course, if you’re uninsured all bets are off.) Missing limbs cost extra.

Another possibility is, only the brain gets saved. In that case, they clone a body (which takes a couple days) while restarting the brain in a jar. Usually they give the brain a loaner robot body until the clone’s ready. As a bonus, they usually stop the clone growing at eighteen, when it’s still dewy fresh. The downside of this is that such clones have no instinctive muscle memory, so Traits like ACROBAT or JULIENNE CHEF or INSTINCTIVE MUSCLE MEMORY may suffer. Alternately, some people find they prefer their robot bodies, which are refreshingly free of biological urges.

Even if the whole body gets vaporized and the brain goes poof too, there’s hope – as long as a brain-print (see “Brint” under “Stuff Of The Cosmos”) is available. The memories are only as recent as the date of the print, and sometimes old skin or hair matter pulled out of unwashed laundry or dirty bathtubs produces errant clones, but it’s better than being dead. Or, at least that seems to be the presumption behind brain-printing.

The most expensive method of resurrection is beyond the means of any but the wealthiest individuals, but a quantum-scan recon­struction can sometimes be performed by taking an object that was present at the death, evaluating the position of all its atoms, then effectively “rewinding” the object’s history until it was in the presence of the dead guy. Then sophisticated quantum extrapola­tion techniques are applied to gauge, by the effect on the object, the exact position of every molecule in the dead body before it got killed (and, presumably, reduced to component atoms). In theory, quantum-scan reconstructions are a pretty close approximation of the dead loved one. In practice, they’re an approximation. The reconstructors cheat liberally by using old photos and credit-card data, too. The result is usually something that can pass for the individual, to those who didn’t know him particularly well. Most times the reconstruction can even talk in complete sentences (which may be a surprise if the dead guy could not). get to a repair shop).