fort experiment

Willpower and Determination

Story Mode Design diary #1

One of my favourite mechanics in Story Mode is Willpower. It came about from my desire to make sure the players had opportunities to tell epic stories about awesome deeds, but also that they have to make tough decisions to succeed in their ambitions.


Willpower represents a characters determination to go on adventuring. Each character starts with 3 willpower.
At any time, a character may spend 1 willpower to replace the result of a die roll with the highest value on that die. The roll does not count as a critical success.
For each willpower a character has spent, they have a -1 penalty to skill checks and their inventory capacity is reduced by 1.
If they spend it all, they must test their willpower.

Spending a Willpower is like the character putting all of their grit and determination behind the action. Pushing themselves to the point that there is no chance of failure. These guys are heroes, "failure is not an option" is an option for them.

Willpower gives you another resource to play with, a new tool to help you succeed on your adventures. Chiefly, it gives the players additional control over the narrative for the things they really care about. It also gives a meaningful cost for doing so. -1 penalty to your rolls and inventory is a minor inconvenience. -2 is a set-back worth considering the value of. -3 is potentially deadly, expecially when accompanied by an additional drawback in Testing your willpower. When their willpower is all gone, the character loses something else of value.

Testing your Willpower is a simple D6 roll on the following table to determine what is lost:

D6 Test your willpower - what do you lose?
1 The will to live - you die.
2 Your mind - disadvantage on skill checks for the rest of the day.
3 Your edge - you may no longer use your abilities today.
4 Your temper - break your weapon or a precious item.
5 Your patience - you cannot take actions other than attacks for 10 minutes.
6 Your love of adventuring - retire when you next reach safety.

These range from game ending, to narratively interesting. They're also intentionally open ended and should be adapted to suit the narrative and the reason the final Willpower point was spent. Perhaps the thief has to succeed on their skill check to unlock a door before the room floods with water and the party drowns. They spend their final Willpower to do so and then roll 4 on the Test your Willpower table. They succeed at unlocking the door, but the stress of the situation makes them so angry they snap their only remaining lockpick too. Importantly, the player doesn't know the outcome until after they have succeeded the check. This is self-sacrifice and heroicism. Giving up something to save the party is a classic adventure story motif, and the making of an epic hero.

Remember, that losing something off the table is the result of the players choice, and so it's not as punishing as it seems. When players have complete information about the potential outcomes of their decisions, then they have only themselves to blame when things go wrong.

I like to attack the whole character sheet to generate interesting narratives and exciting gameplay and this gives you another tool to do it with. Willpower is an additional stat which your enemies can do damage to. A successful attack from an enemy may be a scream so harrowing that it saps some of the listener's Willpower. Instead of physical damage, which causes problems later on on one axis, monsters can drain willpower to potentially hamper the party down the line with worse skill checks. Do be careful with this method though, because making players' rolls worse can quickly lead to a death spiral - one of the reasons we've removed attack rolls from Story Mode. If you're playing with no attack rolls, I think the player should need to fail a skill check before they lose resources other than HP.

Using Willpower in other systems

To adapt this to other systems, such as 5e or B/X style games, I'd consider making some of the following changes.

In a "roll-under" game, have it that you can choose the value of the dice, rather than changing to the highest value.

Change the number of Willpower each character gets. We've tried it with 1, 2, 4 and 5 as well. Even 2d4 per character, selected at character generation. We settled on 3 as seemingly the best balance between utility and punishment, but your table may be different. Because Story Mode is designed specifically for one shots, the amount of Willpower is static. To pick this up in a long term game with character levels, I'd make the number equal half the PC's current level rounded up (minimum 1).

Have the player succeed a Wisdom save when they spend their final willpower, losing something from the Test your Willpower table only if they fail. Story Mode is intentionally punishing because of it's short lived nature, your game might not be.

Perhaps remove the Test your Willpower bit altogether if you want to be extra forgiving.

Some games use "Willpower" as a core attribute, just change this mechanic to be called "Determination".

And finally, if the idea of everyone having this all the time is too unbalanced for your table but you want to include it somewhere, just stick it on a magic item:

Beligerent Blade

This item has 3 charges which are replenished each day at sun-down. When you fail an attack roll, you may spend 1 charge to succeed the attack instead. This success cannot be a critical success. You may spend 1 charge to deal maximum damage with an attack that succeeds.

Obstinate Amulet

This item has 3 charges. To replenish them, you must boast to a crowded room about your incredibly successful adventures. When you fail a saving throw or ability check, you may spend 1 charge to succeed instead.

Let me know if you try it out in your games, how it goes and any tweaks that you make!

Till next time, peace.