Currency in Game Systems

I enjoyed this thread of deconstructed PbtA moves by Brandon Leon-Gambetta.

One thing Brandon touches on several times in the thread is the idea of currency systems in games. I think I understand what he means by that, but I want to try an exercise of pulling out what I think are the game currencies of a game I’m familiar with: Masks.

Influence—a social currency, existing in on/off modes rather than accruing. Players gain it through fiction (and occasionally mechanics) and gain advantages on particular characters by holding it, and one-time bigger advantages on those characters by spending it.

Conditions—a harm-adjacent currency. Players take conditions as fictional/mechanical consequences. Conditions give you a handicap to certain moves. You are incentivized to clear your conditions, either by being comforted by a fellow PC or by taking a dramatic (possibly disadvantageous) action keyed to the condition (e.g. to clear Guilty, make a sacrifice to absolve your guilt).

Team—an abstraction of teamwork/morale. Players as a whole gain Team mechanically in ways responsive to how united the team is, then spend it to help other players with near-misses on rolls. Or spend it selfishly to shift their own labels.

Potential—The XP currency. When you roll a miss, you mark potential. Filling up your potential track lets you take an advancement.

Labels—The stats of the game. Characters with Influence over you (PCs or adult NPCs) can tell you how the world works and shift your labels unless you roll to resist them. Certain mechanics let you shift your own labels.

Burn—One playbook (The Nova) gains this special currency with a risky move, then spends the currency to use their powerful abilities.

Did I get all the main Masks currencies? Any thoughts on currencies from games you know, PbtA or otherwise? Any thoughts on what makes things more or less effective currencies in games?

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The DOOMED gets the Doom Track and can take the Burn option as an advancement.

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I really love that thread, and identifying the core structure of moves and a game’s currencies is a really nice exercise ^___^

I agree that this is a very useful design exercise!

One concern: I feel like some of the items in your list don’t look like currencies to me. For example, labels. You can’t save, spend or exchange labels – which I think are core characteristics of a currency.

One obvious example of a currency is the point system in Dream Askew and related hacks. There, you accumulate points for taking weak moves and spend points to take strong moves.

It’s maybe interesting to note that points in Dream Askew is a meta currency – i.e., it doesn’t purport to represent anything in-fiction. Rather, it functions as a way of regulating story beats: you get a balance of high and low moments because players have to earn points to spend them. In contrast, “potential” in Masks represents the experience gained by PCs through failure. That experience is a quality of the characters in fiction.

Anyway, cool topic!

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I actually like that @Alexi_Sarge put the Labels as currency, because of the fact that they are fluid stats in Masks, and you may decide you want to resist a particular shift in a label because it might be a stat you treasure, and you don’t want it reduced to a new low, reducing your capital to invest in a roll, so to speak. In effect, the labels are what Influence buys and sells, no?

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I’d say that it’s an “economy” then. Influence would be the “currency”, no?

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To a limited extent many PbtA games have currency - every time you see a move that has Hold - that’s a currency. You exchange it later for whatever the move does. It’s limited in that most games don’t allow Hold to be used for anything other than the move that generates it.

Hmm, I’m no economist…but your description makes Labels sound more like “goods” and Influence is the true currency. I’m worried, though, that I’ve steered us into a debate on semantics. I’m trying to think what the larger design issue is here. What role do currencies play in games? How are they different from other kinds of mechanics? One thing that occurs to me: Once you have a currency, I think you automatically introduce the idea of resource management into the game. Players will devote some cognitive energy to questions like: how to get more, when to spend it, etc. If we assume that players can only pay attention to a finite number of things, then I guess there’s a question of whether a currency is worth the cognitive load that it imposes on players. I think it definitely works in Dream Askew: The desire to gain points to make strong moves incentivises players take weak moves which in turn helps balamce the entire narrative between high & low beats. It’s also the only currency in the game so it doesnt take up a lot of player brain space. The possible downside is that this point economy draws attention away from anything that doesnt participate in it — for example, I paid little attention to regular moves that neither earned nor cost points.

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