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I don’t like bennies, action points, hero points and fate points. I’ve seen them and did not like them in Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, Savage Worlds and Barbarians of Lemuria. (And I’m still playing in a Barbarians of Lemuria campaign with GM Florian. Just because I don’t like a particular element of the rules doesn’t mean that I don’t want to play or that I can’t enjoy the game.)
I recently listened to an episode of RPG Circus on Out of Print Games and Dead Lines where one of the hosts absolutely loves hero points. He said something along the lines of “in the old days, no matter how much my character wanted to succeed, all I ever got to do was roll a d20 to hit!” He wanted his character’s desires to influence the story. I think he even called them “script points” at the beginning of the segment.
When I play games that have bennies, however, I realized that using them robbed me of excitement at the table. I only got excited when I ran out of bennies. Thus, bennies just delayed my excitement. I think the reason is that I as a player only get excited when there are unfulfilled desires. When I desperately want a roll to succeed and I don’t know whether it’ll work or not, when I fail the roll and agonize over my character’s fate. When I have bennies, the experience is not as immediate. First, I’ll check how many bennies I still have. Then I’ll consider whether I can spend them now or whether I need to save them. Then I’ll pay a benny or two for rerolls, and as it turns out, by the time I fail my second check, I’m already rather detached from the action. If the bennies saved my character, that’s cool, and if the bennies didn’t save my character, I’m just back to the situation without bennies in the first place.
In addition to this cushioning of the player from the blows of fate there is an additional problem with bennies: their use devalues the decisions I have made. I made the decision to enter a fight and now I’m using bennies to save myself. I made the decision to do something and now I’m using bennies to change elements of the scene. If I’m playing in a game where Player Agency is paramount, the referee will have made sure that I could have evaded the fight, that I could have prepared myself better. By cushioning the consequences of my actions, the decisions I made to get there are being devalued. It’s very subtle, but one of the telling signs is when players are overly confident at the table and are willing the take the low road, follow the obvious plot, fight any monsters encountered – a slight whisper of “it doesn’t matter anyway, we have bennies to save us from our laziness.”
I’m sure other people have other reactions to bennies. I imagine some people play a Conan character and use bennies steer the action in a way that would make a great movie. They like to see their characters act and succeed like movie heroes. That’s cool – but it’s not what I am looking for. Personally, living through a movie in a role-playing game is not what I’m looking for. I’d rather agonize over a decision to fight, I’d rather weep because of the blows of fate bringing me down (and not because I made a deal with the referee and got a fate point for it but because I made a mistake).
I’m tempted to say: Play unsafe! Play without bennies.