Token Pools in Echelon

When I first read of the token pool mechanic in Iron Heroes (the core of which can be found on this site in the Open Gaming Content Library under Token Pools) I wasn’t pleased. I thought they would be a pain to track.

In the last few years I’ve been watching and playing a lot of different board games (something to do during my lunch hour), including a bunch of German board games. These games can be full of resource management and I’ve seen a number of ways of keeping track of resources. Of them all, collecting and manipulating tokens of various types has been perhaps the most straightforward and playable.

Considering how much I dislike keeping track of powers usable a certain number of times per day (let alone how I feel about Pathfinder’s ’rounds per day’ of use of powers like rage… there’s a lot of things I like about Pathfinder, but this isn’t one of them), a mechanism that allows use and reuse of related powers but constrains their overuse appeals to me.

In short, I know a bit more about resource management in games than I did then, and I’ve come to decide that a token pool mechanic such as is described in Iron Heroes may well be what I’m looking for in Echelon.

How Token Pools Work

Token pools are pretty simple. Characters with certain talents can, over the course, build up their ability to use these talents. For instance, a berserker might increase his rage through the course of the fight, such that he can increase his rage bonuses or perform greater acts of destruction, or a character with sneak attack might perform actions or develop circumstances to increase the effects of his sneak attacks. This is done by accumulating tokens relating to the talents and spending them to activate enhanced use of the talents.

A token pool may have tokens of only one type, but a character may have more than one pool. Pools are granted as a side effect of taking particular talents (if you don’t have rage, there is no need for a rage pool so you don’t have one). Some talents are the only ones to use their token pools, in other cases multiple talents might use a single token pool. I suppose there could also be talents that can draw from multiple pools, but I can’t imagine one at the moment. There could even be talents that require tokens of more than one pool to use, but I think that’s probably getting silly.

Gaining Tokens

A character can gain tokens for a pool by doing things consistent with the related talents (an archer could gain aim tokens by taking time to aim at an opponent) or when certain events happen (a berserker could gain tokens when an ally gets dropped or on taking damage himself). Many talents allow a character to spend an action to gain tokens of the appropriate type, with greater actions providing more tokens. In most cases characters with higher tiers in a talent can gain tokens faster.

Tokens may also be lost under certain circumstances (an archer loses all accumulated tokens if he changes the target of his aim pool). All tokens are lost when the encounter is over, but more can be gained in the next encounter.

A character may have a number of tokens in a pool no greater than his level + 10.


  • Maximum of level + 10 + ability score modifier appropriate to the talent.
  • Maximum of 5 per tier of the highest-tier related talent.
  • Tokens may be held for a number of rounds up to the number of tokens (or one token per round is lost when not in an encounter until all are expended).

I probably wouldn’t bother with the last option, and I’m not sure about the first option, but the idea of a maximum of five tokens per tier of the highest-tier related talent has some appeal.

Spending Tokens

Spending tokens is pretty straightforward. Perform an action that requires tokens and remove the tokens from the related pool. If the tokens are actual physical objects (which I recommend) they would normally be returned to a central store, but there are some powers that might do otherwise (such as rage, which will likely use the number of tokens spent to determine the post-rage effects). When the encounter is over, all tokens are returned until needed again.

I like to use tokens of different colors or shapes. Most characters and creatures using tokens probably only have one pool to worry about at a time, but since it is possible to have multiple pools it might be handy to be able to differentiate between them. Poker chips are a good choice, or perhaps markers from Risk, or something similar.

If tokens are available and the talents allow for it, a character may spend tokens from one or more pools on one or more effects. A berserker might spend tokens to increase his rage bonuses and to use an elemental rage power (he’s literally flaming mad). A martial adept might use a Shadow token to use a Shadow Hand technique to move, a Defense token to help avoid getting hit, and an Execution token to cause a crippling wound to the opponent he just teleported behind (though this is probably a contrived example).

Closing Thoughts

I think this mechanism can have a lot of uses. Certainly as Iron Heroes uses them (berserkers have a fury pool that powers their rage abilities, various mastery feats use token pools as well). I can see other possibilities, though

  • Breath weapons are a pretty obvious one. Activation and recovery are an obvious application. Instead of rolling to determine how many rounds until the dragon tries again to cook you, it could be based more on the dragon’s actions (or those of its opponents). There is also adjusting the breath weapon itself (increase the range, damage, save DC, and so on, or even adjust its energy type).
  • Divine channelling and divine talents are another possibility. Rather than having a limited number of uses per day, prayer or other actions appropriate to the deity (or domain) involved could be used to build up divine mojo.
  • Spell-like abilities could use tokens to either recover expended spell-like abilities, or to fuel them in the first place. I don’t feel so bad giving higher-level spell-like abilities more or less at will if it’s impossible to spam them. I’m not entirely sure what actions would be appropriate for gaining tokens besides ‘meditation’ or something during the fight.
  • Spell casting, though perhaps instead of paying for or recovering power for spells cast it might be used to pay for metamagic use. There could be a “Metamagic Talent” that grants access to a Metamagic Pool, then each tier allows you to spend a number of tokens equal to the tier to apply metamagic effects to a spell cast. Tokens might be gained by casting spells or additional casting time. When a spell casting tradition grants the use of a metamagic feat the caster gains access to the Metamagic Pool as above but can use it only as directed.
  • Martial disciplines could use tokens to activate (Shadow Pool has tokens added by sneak attacking someone, White Raven has tokens added by leading others (if I recall correctly), and so on). A character might be able to have a certain number of maneuvers prepared of each level and it costs one token per maneuver to activate them.

I don’t know that I want to get too carried away with the use of token pools, but it looks promising to me.


  1. hadsil

    As mentioned before I’m not thrilled with the token system, but I’m not hostile opposed. For me to be “okay” with it, I have particular conditions.

    1) You need only spend one token to do something awesome, “awesome” is subjective. I’m fine with spending more than one token to do something really, really cool, but one token should be enough for something nifty and useful. Combats tend to end on average in 5 rounds. It is The Suck for the combat to end before you even got the chance to use your token task. With the awesomeness only costing 1 token, you’ll have a reasonable chance to be able to use it.

    2) To gain a token, your action in the round should not be “I gain a token”. I understand an Aiming token for an archer requires actual aiming, but such a thing should be an out of combat preparing for an attack. When you’re in combat, spending a round doing nothing is devastating, which is part of why swordsage maneuver recovery sucks. The warblade, by contrast, can still attack, even full attack. If I am to gain a token, I should still be able to Do Something that round. An in combat Aiming token could be acquired when the archer attacks an enemy, even if he misses. The aiming is getting a better shot.

    3) Not an absolute requirement, but I would prefer that when you spend a token a Natural 1 is not an autofail for the task. It’s ok for the task to have a chance of failure, depending on the task, such as a simple +# to hit depending on number of tokens spent, but a Natural 1 auto-misses is a real downer. If a 1 would miss anyway, fine, but if it would succeed, then it succeeds. The character is just That Good he can’t fail. I allow for exceptions such as if the task succeeds it’s instant death. That would suck if a bad guy did that against a PC. Presumably such a task would allow for a saving throw, even if a Natural 1 on the attack is not an auto-fail. The idea here is to avoid wasted time. It takes some rounds to gain tokens. To finally spend them only to fail because you rolled a 1 is The Suck.

  2. For point 1, in Iron Heroes it takes two tokens to start a rage (which will then last for 2+mCon rounds, if I recall correctly). In my current draft it costs one token per round to activate or maintain rage, but it’s pretty easy to collect that. For a berserker, you can get hits simply by being hit, so it’s really easy to maintain once you’re in melee (I forget if Iron Heroes stipulates being hit in melee or if ranged attacks count too, or spells). I can’t imagine a token-based talent that didn’t offer anything for less than two tokens, even if you can’t use the greater abilities yet.

    For point 2, many token-based talents can be expected to have an option to spend actions to gain tokens, but you’re right, I’d rather see actions gained by taking actions or encouraging situations. In Iron Heroes, berserkers get fury tokens if their friends get dropped, or from taking damage, or stoking their fury (action for tokens). Even at first level you can get a token for a move action, at higher levels you can get fury tokens for swift actions and eventually get one free each round. There are also opportunities to gain more than one at a time.

    Note that ‘encounter’ does not necessarily mean you’re fighting yet. I can easily see a sniper taking multiple rounds of aim actions to build up his tokens before attacking.

    What you say here does not strike me as unreasonable. It makes sense that certain combat options do generate tokens. I don’t much mind doing it that way as long as the actions suit the talent. The spell casting option mentioned above gave tokens for longer casting time (actions for tokens), but also suggested granting tokens just for casting spells. Every few rounds you can throw in a free metamagicked spell, sort of thing.

    Point 3 doesn’t bother me as an option. I may or may not include it, but even if I don’t do that myself it seems a pretty simple thing to house rule.

  3. And it sounds like your position toward them is much as mine used to be. Not impressed, but not offended.

    After the games we’ve played in the last couple of years, this is pretty trivial resource management. Mechanically I don’t think it’s as arduous as I’d originally expected. The only sticking point I can see otherwise is how long it can take to bring powers online.

    It occurs to me that it might be reasonable to start a character with token-based talents with some number of tokens — one per tier of relevant talent? — on starting an ecounter. A legendary berserker might start with five fury tokens, while a legendary elemental berserker might start with ten (two talents at the legendary tier) — or six and twelve, since I have given the option of a Basic rage talent tier.

    This perhaps would not be appropriate for all token-based talents. The archer mentioned that typically gains tokens by aiming might not start with any until he aims (but can do so before the fight starts if not prevented, by covering his target until he’s ready to fire, so it might work out about the same if he’s not surprised).

  4. tussock

    Tokens should be something you can visualise the character collecting and spending too. Rage is OK, the player gathering tokens *is* the character gathering Rage, but why is he losing Rage when he spends them, what is that last bit? Fatigue?

    Also, not too many tokens. 3 is usually enough to differentiate concepts, “some, lots, all”. Bigger numbers are just a distraction.

  5. GreyKnight

    I found a site that sells a good variety of different-coloured plastic counters at a decent price (about 2p/3¢ per counter). By the way, I particularly like the idea of using tokens for breath weapons; I was never a great fan of the random recovery time, it seemed too arbitrary.

    I’m late to the party, but tussock’s point that a small number of values can be sufficient to differentiate things is interesting and makes concrete some vague notions I’d been playing with lately. Maybe I can put this concept to good use. :-3

  6. @tussock: if you consider the tokens as ‘rage fuel’ I think it makes some sense. You ‘build up rage’ (accumulate tokens by various means), then actually ‘use rage’ by spending the tokens. The fatigue here is based on the token used vs. tokens accumulated — if you have more tokens left than you used then you’re not fatigued, if you used more tokens than you have left you are fatigued for a time, if you use them all you’re exhausted. If I remember correctly.

  7. I’m not sure how many should/could be accumulated at once, though. One to three is simple, but I have the impression that the Iron Heroes rules I’m leaning on use them somewhat more liberally. However, I do agree with you and Hadsil that there should be some significant benefit to using even one token. I’m still thinking about it — maybe it costs one token for each ‘step’ of rage you use, and it is maintained as long as you have tokens (possibly whether you want it to or not, berserkers are noted for attacking things other than their enemies, including their allies and the landscape). There’s lots of room for adjustment here.

  8. @GreyKnight: I’ve got huge numbers of things to use as counters, and I suspect most gamers (or groups) can put their hands on such things pretty easily. I doubt anyone would need all that many different colors, to be honest; most characters are likely to have only a small number of abilities that use tokens at all, let alone use them concurrently (my raging archer might want to use rage tokens and aim tokens, but unlikely to use both at the same time).

    And yeah, I’m kind of proud of the idea of using tokens to govern breath weapons and other special ability recovery. As before, these things can use some more consideration and fleshing out, but I think there’s room for good stuff here.

  9. Pingback: Arcane Schools as Common Talents | Echelon d20 - An RPG framework based on the d20 system.

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