The throughplot of Mass Effect 3 involves gathering War Assets to raise Military Strength: essentially, the ending of the game depends on how many resources you can throw at the enemy in the final battle. This creates an interesting shift in the mission structure of the game, as cash and experience are secondary rewards for many missions. The major reward is in an NPC, group, artifact, ship, or other resource that adds a few points to your total. Now, the actual system is somewhat opaque and one can’t trust the game’s feedback on how many resources is enough for the best ending, but it does work to good effect. I’ve spent two previous installments without taking much time to read codex entries in the journal, but I’ve read every word of backstory the writers wrote for each War Asset.
This reminds me of something I mentioned in my Technoir review:
There are few elements of player psychology more powerful than the act of putting something on a character sheet, and I have never seen a player get emotionally attached to an NPC faster than every player in my Technoir sessions got attached to the connections in what was basically a one-shot.
It should be pretty easy to take ME3‘s system of War Assets and translate that to virtually any game where players rely on NPCs or other resources for success. Historically, players are difficult to predict when it comes to NPC attachment and world engagement. You might bring out an NPC that you expect to be a cherished assistant for most of the campaign, and your players ignore him as inconsequential. You might try to get them interested in a particular area or project, and have them dismiss it and wander off. But what if you handed them a card with the resource’s name and a value on it? They may still decide to pass because of the effort or because they just dislike it, but they’re far more likely to take it seriously than something that they can assume is just color.
There are several ways to use this in play, in escalating order of complexity.
The first is to use it at a bare minimum: PC goals can be associated with requiring outside help. You might tell them the explicit number, or give them an idea of the scope and let them start assembling resources. Convinced the Duke, 20 points; bargained with the Thieves Guild, 40 points; took over a small stronghold, 60 points; and so on. The problem could be anything from defending a position, to finding out intel, to getting access to a cool toy: as long as you can quantify it as something that requires aid or resources the PCs don’t currently possess, you can hook it in.
The second is more complicated: allow resources to be improved once they’re acquired. For NPCs, this might be hooking part of their value into their friendliness to the PCs, and diplomacy or doing jobs for them can improve their value (as they’re willing to commit more resources). NPCs can also improve if they level up (likely related to the PCs giving them the opportunity). Inanimate resources can be improved by physically upgrading them: perhaps the defensive grid the PCs found isn’t a resource on its own, but it can grant a 20% improvement to any defense-based asset.
The third is to make values more complicated than a single number, and require resources to be allotted to different tasks (which could possibly expend them). You might give resources an offense and defense rating, a diplomacy and intimidation rating, a martial and magic rating, or whatever set of conflicting values make sense for the game. Players then need to arrange them to obtain multiple goals at the same time. The Knights of the Scroll could be used to increase the power of the assault against the orc fortress, but they might be more valuable contributing to the research project trying to find a ward against the necromancer’s oblivion field.
The fourth is to feed them fully into a tactical wargame. ME3 already features signature NPCs that add as many points as a whole squad, so it wouldn’t take much of a leap to treat them as hero units. Resource cards might include synergies to give the players ideas on how to effectively arrange resources into units. Then confrontations are played out in turns. And it need not be entirely war campaigns: a political campaign could have just as interesting an arrangement of resources, as could a massive research project.
The fifth is to turn the system from an add-on to the core of gameplay itself. Each PC is represented with his or her own card, an aggregation of smaller resources, or the very concept of PCs might be done away with and the players take on the role of dynasties or other major powers. All challenges in the game are about proper allocation of resources: can you direct enough at the problem to succeed without sacrificing something else?
Whichever route you choose, I expect most players are going to pay way more attention to the state of the game world when it’s hooked into quantifiable values that they can hold in their hands and think about tactically.