I originally got the idea for my karma rules from David Harper’s Kismet rules. They are not available online, unfortunately. I have adapted them for use with d20 rules.
Karma is a point-based measure of accumulated luck, divine favor, and other such concepts. Karma points are also sometimes referred to as ‘save-my-ass points’, reflecting their typical use.
Karma comes in two types, ‘good karma’ and ‘bad karma’. In play, I represent karma points with poker chips; I found that using chips made it easier for everyone to remember to use it, and made tracking during play more efficient.
White karma is good, red karma is bad. Below I treat ‘white karma’ and ‘red karma’ as synonymous with ‘good karma’ and ‘bad karma’ respectively. My players started using the ‘white/red karma’ to describe it instead of ‘good/bad karma’ and the designation stuck.
I could probably come up with some in-game rationalization for the colors, too. Perhaps the heavens are white and hells are red? Maybe the Goddess of luck has a white hand and a red hand?
Hmm… grizzled mercenary sergeant telling his men, “The Red-Hand Bitch has come again… get ready, lads!” I can work with this.
Players start with no karma. As the game goes on, players accumulate white karma by performing heroic actions, good roleplay, or otherwise generally improving the game. They gain red karma mostly by ‘pushing their luck’ (using more white karma than they actually have) or, on rare occasions, by detracting from the game.
White – Acts of Great Heroism
A player may gain a point of white karma (or possibly more) by performing an act of great heroism. The definition of an act of great heroism varies by player, character, and level. As a general rule, the act must ‘do something heroic’, put the character at risk, and be something that the character has no justification to expect to be successful at. It helps if the action has style; it can be swashbuckling style, it can be facing-down-death style, it can be I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this style, whatever — if it seems like the action of an archetype, it can be style.
Some simple examples:
- a paladin calmly facing off against his nemesis, protecting the innocents fleeing behind him… despite being horribly outnumbered;
- a privateer sailing into the gale to get the princess to safety;
- a war captain ordering his troops to fight to the last man to defend their post;
- a priest calling on his god and becoming an avatar, though it may destroy him;
- a wizard overcasting a powerful spell to banish a greater demon.
An act of great heroism must always be a decision. The action involved is almost always *necessary*, but there must be the option of not performing the action. The paladin *could* flee with the others (possibly successfully), the privateer *could* refuse to carry the princess and surrender her, the captan *could* accept quarter and surrender, the priest *could* choose to not become an avatar, the wizard *could* choose not to overcast and leave the greater demon in the prime plane. The character must choose to put themselves at risk ‘because it’s right’.
To clarify, though, it isn’t necessary that the character is ‘good’ or even that the act is ‘good’. Many of the above acts could be turned around by varying allegiances — an evil Holy Warrior could delay the Forces of Good while the priests call the Dark Lord to their world, the pirate could be carting away a great treasure so it can’t be used by the enemy, the mercenary could decide to stand and hold to bleed the liberators as much as possible, the priest could become and avatar to face off and destroy an order of paladins, the wizard could overcast in an effort to raze a city. The definition of ‘heroic’ is subjective and varies by allegiance and goals.
White – Notable Roleplay
Dramatic, well-roleplayed scenes can gain white karma for those involved. This hasn’t happened often in my campaign, largely because my players prefer a more action-oriented game. However, it is an option and has happened.
White – Generally Improving the Game
This is sort of a catch-all category. Anything that happens that the DM feels improves the quality of the game can gain white karma.
In some cases it is just a well-turned, well-timed phrase. I’ve been known to give karma to a player that breaks the table up with a well-timed, well-turned comment that, in context of the current game situation, is immensely funny. Of course, these things are very context-sensitive (“wouldda hadda been there” things); examples would be utterly meaningless.
In others an improvement in play can gain white karma. One of my players tended to just go along and take the easy, obvious solution. He got stuck in an awkward situation and rather than blasting his way out — which would have worked — he found a clever solution. This was in-character for the PC, but a departure for the player, so he was rewarded.
Red – Overspending Karma
The most common way of gaining red karma is by overspending white karma. I allow players to freely overspend; each point of karma deficit is represented with red karma.
Red karma must be used to be removed, though. You can’t go into karmic debt, gain more white karma, and pay it off. If you go into karmic debt it *will* bite you.
Red – Generally Detracting from the Game
This has only come up once in my campaign. If something happens that seriously detracts from the game and goes against character, it can gain red karma for those involved.
This mostly covers disruptive play or derailing the game in a fashion that is out of character. This isn’t used as a railroading tool — if my players would rather do something else we change plots, no problem — but for causing play to go into the ditch. Again, it’s a highly subjective thing that varies by character, player, and situation.
In the case in question, the PCs were returning to the Empire. They stopped by an Imperial guard station and were taxed on treasure, including unregistered magic items. About one tenth of the monetary treasure was taken, and about one in ten of the unregistered magic items — chosen from those not in use, nobody lost a personal item — were taken (they’d been away for a while, doing very profitable things).
A few of the PCs decided to rob the guard station that night and slaughtered the guards present. The items had already been carried away at the shift change. This burned up about half the session, annoyed the rest of the players (and the DM), and was out of character for those PCs (well, a couple of them; one of them it was quite in character… he didn’t pick up any red karma).
Yes, I could’ve just glossed over it; the PCs grossly outmatched the guards. I played it out to give them a chance to change their minds. Arranging to have the Empire put a bounty on your heads is something that deserves a bit of time and the opportunity to back out of, after all.
Karma can be used in several ways. White is used by the player for the character’s benefit, red is used by the DM to complicate things for the player.
Karma can be used to improve d20 rolls (for attack rolls, saves, skill checks, whatever). Each karma spent may gains a +2 bonus to the roll. I may change this to have increasing cost (1 point gets +2, 2 more points get another +2, three more after that get a further +2, etc.). This has never come up in play because most players go for the reroll option.
Karma may be used to cause a reroll of any ‘instant result’ roll (such as attack roll, save, skill check, damage roll, etc.). It cannot be used to reroll hit points or ability scores.
The new roll replaces the old one (even if worse). A single roll may be rerolled more than once, though, at increasing cost (one karma for the first, two for the second, three for the third, and so on). I have only ever once had a character use more than one reroll (Concentration check to get a dimension door spell off so he could ‘port out of the jaws of a behir that was about to have him as a snack).
Changing the Situation
This is probably the most useful thing karma can be used for. Karma can be used to possibly change things that have not yet been established. That is, it can’t ‘for sure’ change reality, but if reality has not been determined, it can be used to choose it.
That is a terrible explanation. Some examples will probably help.
You cannot change reality that has been determined. If you walk up to a door and try it and it’s locked, you cannot use karma to suddenly make it ‘not have been locked’. However, you can use karma before trying the door to ‘find it unlocked’ when you get there. This case actually came up in a game. The PCs were in the bottom of a tower that was about to collapse. One player tossed over a couple of karma chips and said “I really hope that door isn’t locked, we need *out* *now*” and glory be! it was not locked. All the other doors had been, but this one wasn’t. This is probably the best ‘save my ass’ use of karma, ‘changing’ the situation in the player’s favor.
The likelihood of it working is a function of the karma spent. I don’t have a table or the like handy, but as a general rule one karma will cause a ‘doesn’t seem unlikely’ event, ten can cause a ‘really unlikely’ event. In the previous example the character could’ve spent one point and found the door unlocked; he spent three and found it ajar (i.e. even less in his way). On the other hand, ten karma is not going to be enough to find the Vault of the Dwarven King unlocked, though it might mean you find it unguarded for a few minutes. This is, again, subjective and must be adjudicated at the time.
Karma Use by the DM – PC
When using red karma against PCs, I almost never use it mechanically. I don’t like applying arbitrary penalties, and forcing rerolls is very difficult to do fairly, or at least with the perception of fairness.
I have only seen a player go willingly into karmic debt to save his life. That suggests multiple rerolls to make a crucial save (or must-make hit roll or skill check). The karmic debt was drawn for a very important thing… it should be repayed for something as important. Forcing a player to reroll a must-make save or hit roll, while fair in this sense, will justifiably annoy him.
As a result, I almost always use red karma to complicate the situation. In a fight a PC might be put up against the enemy he least wants to fight. He might run into a courtier who can identify him as the one who was meeting with a known traitor. The Night Watch might come upon him just as he climbs down the wall from a noble’s townhouse he just burgled.
Basically, I use red karma to complicate a PCs life and make it difficult. If I can, I use it to lead to other adventures, subplots or sidetreks.
Karma Use by the DM – NPC
Few NPCs have karma of any sort. Only major NPCs and those noted for being lucky or having divine favor have karma. Everyone else is assumed to have balanced karma (no good, no bad); for the most part they lack the opportunity to gain either type (or are assumed to have used it).
In the event that an NPC has white karma, it may get used for bonuses and rerolls. I only very, very rarely allow an NPC to go into karmic debt, and that only if I am certain the NPC will be seen again (in most cases the karmic debt is gained in an effort to escape, in fact). Since karmic debt can’t really carry over for NPCs the way it does for PCs, it’s too easy to rack up a massive debt and write it off. This would be unfair.
If an NPC has negative karma, I try to burn it off as quickly as possible. He might lose something, suck down negatives in combat (or unfortunate rerolls), or be unable to face the PCs because he’s busy dealing with another problem (they might still have to deal with his henchmen, but he won’t be there himself; it’ll make for an easier fight).
These are other notes about karma that don’t really fit into the sections above.
Karma is Attached to Players
Karma is intended as a reward for good play and things that improve the game, not (necessarily) for achievement in the game. As such, it is awarded to the players, not the characters. When a character is replaced (dies or otherwise leaves the campaign) the current karma stays with the player. If a player builds up a high karma total over time, then loses it because his character dies, that would be unfair. OTOH, if he racks up a large karmic debt, the character gets killed off, and he starts over with a fresh slate, that would be unfair as well. The simplest thing to do is have karma carry over between characters.
Karma and the Luck Domain
The Luck domain power is that once per day a character may reroll a roll. Karma sort of overpowers this (since it can be used more than once per day, for almost any roll) but has to be earned back through play rather than regained with morning prayers. This doesn’t seem right, and there are a couple of changes that could be made to sort it out.
The first is to change the domain power to “all karma awards are doubled”. When you gain white karma, you gain twice as much. When you gain red karma (either through deficit since you somehow used all your white karma, or otherwise) you gain twice as much. This is basically “pushing your luck until it breaks”.
The second is to change the domain power to “each day you have one free karma point”. You can do what you want with it, you get another point free in the morning, but these ones don’t carry over. They may or may not be used to pay off bad karma (it’s not unreasonable to have your good luck return over time if you stop abusing it, you’re lucky after all, but it also is not unreasonable to rule that if you abuse your luck that much you can’t just have the bad luck go away).
Spending Karma on Others
Karma is intended to be used for the benefit of the spender. Others may benefit indirectly, but the primary beneficiary of the expenditure must be the spender. It cannot usually be spent offensively (to give another creature a penalty or force a reroll).
In the door example above, the entire party benefited from a single player’s karma expenditure, since the circumstance was generally beneficial (and partly because the character involved was the first to the door, and the player spent three karma where only one would have been needed).
A player may spend karma to protect his character through another character’s action, if there is no other way. For instance, a character that is down (hit points < 0) might use karma to improve a cleric’s chances of making it past the enemy to heal him (possibly forcing a reroll of an attack of opportunity or perhaps ‘redirecting it’ to another creature). Similarly, a player might spend karma to give a friendly archer a bonus to hit the minotaur that’s about to smash the character flat. I would consider and probably allow these cases since the player spending the karma directly benefits from the others’ actions. I would not allow these uses of karma if the character did not gain from them directly.
I would, however, allow a character to improve circumstances for another. If the party healer needs a particular herb to heal someone, another party member could ‘look for it’ and spend karma to ensure he found it. He can’t use it directly, but can make it available to the healer… even if he doesn’t even know what it looks like. “Hey Ulrich! You said you need an althorn leaf… that’s a plant that has a white flower with red bit in the middle and long skinny leaves, right? *rip* Like this?”
Another of those ‘must be adjudicated at the time’ things, I guess.
Karma and Action Points
d20 Modern, Eberron, and Unearthed Arcana all use Action Points. They are quite similar to Karma.
Action Points are gained by a character on gaining a level and do not carry over from level to level. Once used, they never return (at least, not until more are gained with the next level). They can be applied to gain bonuses to rolls and to power certain character abilities.
Karma points are gained by a player as a reward for good play, there is no limit on the amount of karma a player can have, and it carries over from character to character. Once used, more karma can be earned to replace it, and a player may choose to go into karmic debt if he needs more karma than he has available.
While both can be used as ‘save-my-ass’ points, they otherwise serve different purposes. I am probably going to allow the use of both in my next campaign. The only place they overlap in effect is with die rolls; only one type may be applied to a roll. Apart from this there is no overlap in application.