By Joseph Teller & Kiralee McCauley
Originally Published in Interregnum APA
"Damn. I need 10 more points to get these three background skills."
"Are you ever really going to need Area Knowledge in Butane Iowa if the game is set in London? Or in Science Fiction Literature and Animal Husbandry?"
"No, but my character should have them - it's part of their background... Maybe I can take a sexual deviation disadvantage to balance the points?"
"No one would ever expect that Captain Justice is a pedophile - but could you really play a superhero with that problem?"
"No...darn... Maybe if I drop my speed down one rank...."
How many times have you gone thru this sort of grueling situation in designing a character under a constructed game system? How many times have you sacrificed part of the character background or concept, or taken odd disadvantages just to make a 'point balance'? How would you like to avoid such point scrimping, without sacrificing your concepts? Karmatic Debt may be an answer - a simple way to bring a subjective element to your roleplaying game, without destroying balance and overall objectivity. Rather than damaging a player's character concept, Karmatic debt balances the necessary extra points by slightly expanding the GM's powers with regard to that particular character.
What is Karmatic Debt? In game, it represents a debt the character owes the universe for an exceptional position or ability. In mechanics terms, it's a pool of points which the GM can let players draw from for their character's construction. These are not free points; they will be paid for later in the game, in an unusual way.
The Karmatic Debt allows the GM some level of editorial control over the character being introduced. The GM can use them to conceive mystery negative traits that can show up in play (ex: Little did the character know that their past exploits had drawn the attention of a secret society that will attempt to recruit them sometime in the near future), or can use them to introduce plot elements (ex: An old girlfriend you haven't seen in a year calls and says she has to talk with you. You agree and she shows up at your apartment that evening carrying a beautiful baby boy. The bad news is - you're the father.)
The GM can also use Karmatic Debt more directly. For example, a player character is engaged in a fight with the major villian. The GM had planned for the villian to escape (leading to the final encounter next session), but some creative planning and good die rolls ended with the PC trapping him and wrestling him to the ground with a knife. The player gains the upper hand in die rolls, and stabs for what (mechanically) would be a fatal blow. The GM can spend one point of the players debt to modify the roll, reducing the damage by ten hit points (no vital organs were hit!) and snapping the blade against a rib. The hero is disarmed, and the villain may be able to use the hero's momentary surprise to escape his grasp, fleeing to fight another day.
In Fantasy Realms we also allow the spending of Destiny points to buy off Karmatic Debt. A Destiny point is awarded to players for roleplaying, and can be used by any of their characters in play to add 10 to any die roll. Since these are not handed out in large quantities, or in every session, they are valuable thus often saved for emergencies. This makes them equal, from our point of view, to Karmatic Debt points.
GMs should not abuse their use of a character's Karmatic Debt. It is something that should be spread out bit by bit, no more than one karmatic experience appearing in any session. Karmatic Debt should require time and effort to work off. In addition the GM should never use Karmatic Debt against a player, only against a character. The idea is to use them where they will benefit the plots, concepts and thrill of the game. As a GM you are expected to have a shared interest in the game - you build up trust with your players that you, as the sole representative of 'the universe', will be reasonably fair and not do things simply to torture or bore them.
Players should be made to realize that Karma is in play. The GM should tell them between games when they have experienced the spending of Karmatic Debt points, so that they will know when they have fulfilled payment of the debt (but don't tell them during actual play to keep mechanics from intruding into the roleplaying aspects of the game.)
Thru all this Karmatic Debt will prove to be a useful addition to any constructed character game system, allowing players to build characters that truly fulfill their vision and giving GMs a useful and flexible tool to introduce plot events and new twists to the characters lives.