Buying off a key / Challenging a value

I see an effect used in some games : your character has a value (or something), but if they sacrifice it or go against it, they gain temporary dramatic superpowers. For instance, Buying off a Key in The Shadow of yesterday, or Challenging a value in Smallville.

For me it creates something (climax to a character-arch) with a tool that is not adequate (because there is no arch). Of course, it works, but I see many cases where it is forceful. It works fine to foreshadow and reveal a secret ID, because the gradation, the arc is self evident, but it is forceful when the coward suddenly becomes a brave, because foreshadowing here is broken, there is no arch, so no climax, so why super powers ?

I don't like this mechanic but this is not my point : I want to know it. What have I missed ? What does it do that I didn't see ? and most of all, I'd like to know the culture around it : how did it come to be ? did the function or the use evolve ?


  • I think you're getting it just fine, including the fact that it's going to be ham-handed if there's no build-up. Two points:

    The game could easily include build-up procedures: It's not even difficult to design them. At its simplest you just need a tracking process that tells you when a given issue has been developed "enough". In TSoY, for example, you could say that a Key can't be bought off before it's generated 5 or 10 XP for its owner. That's entirely reasonable, and I have suggested it to groups that have felt insecure about the Buyoff mechanism in TSoY.

    Skill is freedom, and that is also fine: There is a virtue in story game design that allocates certain territories of story creation where it is strictly the sensibility of the player that reigns. The game designer does not try to tell you what a good story looks like: it is up to you to make the choices. The time for the climax is when you say it is. It is a responsibility, but not an onerous one if you want it as a player.

    Doing a Buyoff without developing the theme first is very much like playing D&D and having your character surrender when he meets some orcs. That is, the game posits a certain freedom that the players enjoy, but it does not actually insulate this entire territory in the sense of making all choices equally excellent. There are still poor choices that go against the intentions of the game.

    Some gamers (designers) react to this by adding more rules to actively prevent players from hurting themselves and others while they use their allotted freedom. If you're not allowed to climax whenever you want, then there's no danger of you climaxing inappropriately.

    Others revel in the freedom and responsibility: if you're going to play like an ass, the other players are going to tell you off for it; if you want the positive feedback, you actually have to manage to not be a complete nitwit.

    It goes without saying that you would usually combine both attitudes in the same game, in different places. TSoY, for instance, doesn't try to tell you when it's time for the Buyoff, as it assumes (correctly, I think) that this is an easy and fun thing to decide for yourself as you play. Meanwhile that same game has extreme safety in its challenge scaling rules, making it nigh impossible for a GM to cause an accidental party wipe by having too many orcs or whatever. The designer thinks that it's fun for the players to have a lot of freedom in managing their Keys, while it's also fun for the GM to not have to worry about whether their challenges are too hard.
  • Eero has covered the "player skill" aspect of the design.

    I'll add this:

    The inclusion of the "buyoff" is, to me, pretty fundamental to making Keys and similar mechanics work.

    A Key creates incentives for characters (or players) to act a certain way.

    Without some nuance, a Key can become a button to push, with predictable results. For example, consider a Key of the Coward, which says that you get XP any time you run away from something scary.

    What does this incentivize? It tells us to create scenes where scary things happen, and then for the character to run away from them.

    In terms of system impact, the game is telling you (as the player) to always run away from frightening things.

    This is useful as a roleplaying guide, but ultimately it lacks nuance and, in the wrong hands, can become somewhat of a "one trick pony".

    We have a scary thing, the characters runs away - Ding! XPs. Not so exciting to repeat and repeat.

    So, I find two things quite important in games with Keys:

    1. Key triggers which produces nuanced outcomes,


    2. A dynamic process which allows Keys to be sold, bought, swapped out, and so forth.

    How do we get nuanced outcomes? With XP rewards that point us in different directions and thus have the potential to reward uncertainty.

    A proper Key of the Coward, in my opinion, might look something like this:
    * Gain 1 XP when you panic and flee from something that scares you.
    * Gain 3 XPs when you freeze up and surrender to the source of your fear.

    Buyoff: Face your fear head on and refuse to be afraid. 10 XPs.
    Now, as the GM, I can throw something scary at the player, and I have no idea what he will do (even though all the rewarded actions still reinforce the theme of being a coward!).

    The player also doesn't know. He's balancing a variety of incentives and is free to play his character in a variety of ways.

    Now, why is the buyoff important? In two ways.

    First, it lends weight to the act of choosing not to follow the Key. Without a Buyoff, you can choose to ignore the Key for a while, and that means little. With a Buyoff condition, though, we lend mechanical weight to that moment: not only is it a reward, but it's also a way to signal to the rest of the group that this moment is significant and that the character is changing.

    There's no "going back" after a Buyoff - it's a significant choice which means that the character can no longer benefit from being a Coward, and can never have that Key again.

    That has a much greater weight than just choosing to ignore the Key for a scene. It's a lasting change.

    And, of course, in a well-designed game, it leads naturally to the player choosing a different Key.

    This is important, not only to allay players' boredom and allow the game to evolve, but also because in good fiction characters go through arcs and their priorities change - this is one of the things that makes fictional characters interesting and compelling.

    So, the Buyoff enables character arcs and character development. Building in an incentive for that (the XP reward) reminds players to pursue character development and encourages evolving characters in play.

    It lends weight to player choices to ignore a Key, and makes it a permanent sacrifice instead of just a moment of inconsistent character portrayal.

    At least, that's how I like to use Keys.
  • I agree with the others about Buyoff.

    Its somewhat different than TSoY but in Lady Blackbird every character has at least 3 starting Keys and in my experience it is hard to play all of them equally. One of them usually goes unused. So I often encourage the players to buy them off and choose something which is more interesting for them. So buyoff in pregen versions of TSoY is also a quick method for fine tuning character concepts.

    I just started to use Smallville values in an epic homebrew game, so I dont really have real experience with challenging them.

    But the way I will use them is this: When a character succesfully challanges his value, it drops temporarily. This shows the character as more complex, more fallable but possibly more open to change.

    My extra rule is that until the end of the session the player can ask for an insight from one of his/her previous lives (it gives the character a new background, a source of power) and in return the value drop becomes permanent. So the value challenge is interesting in itself but prepares us for something more important: a flashback to previous lifes, a character changing relevation.

    (A sort of win condition of my game is to reach zero in all values and shake off the chains of reincarnation.)

  • edited November 2018
    Thank you. Paul_T had began to explain to me the Buy off and it stuck as something my game lacks. I have no solution right now, so all these leads are potential hits.
    Of course, Keys are very elegant. But as such, they can be dissected into multiple functions. That is why your "multidimensional" answers are useful to me.

    Endgame Nirvana and character arcs are really the core of my question here. But it makes a difference if the buy off is winning in the short term. With short sessions, this leads to autofire epiphanies : fake. The mechanic bones point in a bad direction (push button get candy).

    Just for contrast, Chuubo treats this simply by outlining character arcs in advance ; and the fakeness is treated slightly different, not as a flaw but as an aesthetic choice, and in this case the Buy off can get very climatic.

    I don't think I want the short term reward (thankso to hamnacb), and I already have variety of choice (coward flies, freezes or fights), and the best foreshadowing tool (propositions). Right now the "permanent change with no return" is really something I want. My go to would then be Ten candles, rather TSoY or Smallville.
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