A good DM should always be on the lookout for new additions to his or her bag of tricks. One of the simplest and yet most useful such tricks, in my experience, is picking up a set or two of poker chips. For just a few bucks, these little trinkets add a lot to your game. Here are some things I learned from using poker chips at my D&D table.
I picked up a $3 set with large red, blue, and white plastic chips to begin.
Action points – We use blue chips to represent action points. Every time the group takes an extended rest, I collect all but one of their chips. After two encounters, I give them a blue chip for their milestone action point. When a player wants to get all heroic and take another action, they spend the point. It’s simple, with no need for the players to record anything on their character sheets.
“Awesome points” – Like many other DMs, including the guys from the Exemplary DM Podcast, I use an incentive system to reward my players. I call them “awesome points”. Anytime a player does something exceptional, they get an awesome point. Maybe the rogue uses an action point and takes a brute from barely bloodied to dead in one turn. Perhaps the paladin’s Defender Aura causes an enemy to miss the nearby shaman due to the attack penalty. Possibly the the mage blew up six minions with one spell. All of these things are awesome, and so they are deserving of an awesome point.
I like to give out awesome points for good roleplaying, making skill challenge checks, and puzzle solving, as well. Whenever a player makes an impassioned speech to convince an NPC of his innocence, or nails a Hard DC Thieving skill check to disarm a trap, I give out an awesome point. One twist to the system I use is allowing the players as a group to award awesome points to each other. If the common consensus for the party is that a player did something worthy, the DM would usually agree. Putting the responsibility on the players instead of the DM is helpful because the DM has a lot to worry about anyway, and awarding awesome points to each other helps build the sense of camaraderie for the group.
So what can these awesome points be used for? An awesome point can be turned in at any time in order to add to or subtract from an attack, skill, or saving throw roll. Red chips are worth 2, and white chips are worth 1. It works very much like the Heroic Effort human power. Like Sly Flourish, I let players see monster stats after a couple rounds, so they often know exactly how many awesome points they need to spend to turn that near miss into a timely hit.
A word of caution: awesome points may not be right for every group. Players may abuse the system and award them too easily. A huge collection of awesome points could be cashed in to easily overcome what was intended to be a difficult encounter. Use your own judgement in these situations. I’ve never had a player accumulate more than five or six total awesome points, and that seems about right to me. For us, the system works great and adds some enjoyment to the game. Those near misses really, really suck, after all.
As a session progresses, the players will accumulate a decent stack of poker chips, representing action points and awesome points. When the night is over, just throw them all in a labelled ziplock bag and put it in your D&D Box, if you have one. (And if you don’t, why not?) Next time you get together, everyone knows exactly how many awesome points and action points they have available, without any bookkeeping at all. Very convenient!
But that’s not all you can do with poker chips. I found a set of mini poker chips, about half the size of my first set, that came in a nice case, for about $12. These chips are heavier, not the casino style clay chips, but a thicker plastic. They are about an inch across, and come in several colors: mostly orange and green, with some black and blue as well. So what do I use this set for?
Money – this may seem very obvious, but it turns out that the real life purpose of poker chips, to represent money, is one of the best uses in a D&D game. Keeping track of money on a character sheet certainly works, and is probably easier. However, the poker chips add a tactile quality to the experience that my players and I really enjoy.
Think of them as just another prop that you can use to really make your game come to life. When the slayer hands over his hard-earned gold to the shopkeeper for a shiny new axe, and the player has to actually count it out and give it to you, it feels far different than if he just adjusted a number on his character sheet. You can change the value of the poker chips as needed depending on how rich or poor your characters are. A good set of poker chips can be useful for tracking wealth from level 1 to level 30.
Map Markers – I like to use mini-hair clips for tracking conditions like bloodied, dazed, etc. These work very well for indicating status effects on particular figures. But sometimes, you need to mark an area of the map, like a spell effect, or difficult terrain. Pipe cleaners are one way to do this, as is craft wire (which I hope to write more about soon). I found my small set of poker chips is fantastic for this purpose, too.
Mini poker chips are the perfect size to fit in the 1″ squares used in 4E battlemaps. Just flip a few down on the map to represent whatever is needed. We’ve used orange chips to mark bursts of flame, poisonous clouds with green, and areas of freezing cold in blue. One night, I improvised that the orc warriors my group was facing used small vials of acid as ranged weapons. If they missed a target, I rolled a d8 to find an adjacent location, then put a black chip down to represent the puddle left by the shattered vial of acid. It worked very nicely, and added an interesting element to the fight. For large areas of effect, I’d recommend just marking the corners for time’s sake, but for 3×3 or less effects, placing the poker chips in each spot is pretty quick.
There are many accessories out there that make your 4E D&D game run more smoothly. Some of them are very expensive. A couple cheap sets of poker chips, of various sizes and colors, is a great value. The “bang for the buck” on these is very high. Pick up a set the next time you are at a big retail store, and use them in your next D&D game. I doubt you’ll be disappointed!