In the world of RPG design, there are millions of different mechanics that have been invented over the four decades of our hobby. Sometimes these mechanics work really well with how the game is played or with the theme, genre, mood, and/or setting of the game. Other times, the mechanics seem disjointed, false, or imported from an entirely different game and given a thin veneer of originality. How does one design mechanics that not only function well but also fit the focus of play the game is trying to evoke? That’s what I’m going to try to talk about today.
For this article, I plan on using a lot of examples, anecdotes, and hypothetical situations. It’s impossible to intelligently talk about mechanics in a vacuum. So as best I can, I will try to provide some amount of context as I go.
The key to designing good mechanics is to constantly, diligently stay focused on what your game is about and what the players do. You may recognize the italicized portion from the Big 3, but there’s something I intentionally left out with regards to the questions the Big 3 poses: what the characters do. Mechanics are not for characters; they are for people. To rephrase: mechanics are what the players do and what the players do should reinforce what the game is about. If you get nothing else from this entry, I hope you get that.
So, let’s start with some negative examples. Take Call of Cthullu for instance (6th Edition). The BRP system it uses is great for creating a very simple and generic resolution mechanic that holds up fairly well under most circumstances during play. But, how does a d100 roll-under mechanic really reinforce the horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing? The truth is, it doesn’t. That’s why CoC has a totally separate and tacked-on sub-system called Sanity.
Having these two separate systems always felt disjointed to me. It increased handling time right in the middle of the satisfying, high-tension moments of play. It forced players to stop doing one thing, and start doing another, then go back to doing the first thing again. Also, since the connection between the two mechanics is loose, it is easy to go through lengthy periods of play during a session ignoring one or the other. To me, that was unsatisfying and an example of taking the easy way out in game design. BRP worked, so they used it. It reinforced Chaosium’s branding, so they used it. In my way of thinking, those are not good reasons for using a particular mechanic or set of mechanics.
Instead, let’s imagine a different resolution system, one that more closely integrates what the players do to the sanity genre trope associated with CoC (i.e. what the game is really about). Rather than a d100, I would give each player a standard deck of cards, jokers included. Whenever a character attempted a task, the player would shuffle his deck and flip over the top card. If that card’s value beat the target number, then the character succeeded. If it didn’t, the character fails OR the player has the option to flip over another card and add its value to the original. He could repeat this any number of times. Once the value beat the target number, he’d have to stop flipping. Values for face cards, aces, and jokers would all have different effects. This would have to involve some kind of risk, however.
Any successful skill-check involving the occult or monsters or scary places automatically causes the player to remove from his pile of flipped cards the card or cards with the lowest value. A failure would result in the loss of all cards. When a player runs out of cards in his deck, his character goes insane. Thus, the resolution mechanics and the sanity mechanics are much more intertwined and visceral. As the deck gets thinner, the player knows he’s getting closer to losing his character. But at the same time he also knows that his average card values are getting higher, so it entices him to take more risks in his skill checks- especially those made when not dealing with the spooky stuff, which is a true sign of someone who is losing his/her mind. I believe this would do a better job of communicating to the players through play what the game was really about: the genre convention of slowly going insane as you fight against unimaginable powers.
Let’s take another example that might surprise some: The Riddle of Steel. This game was first published in 2002 by Jake Norwood. TRoS is among the most venerable and beautiful independent RPGs ever produced, so I do not choose to criticize it lightly. I know full well that TRoS is a very functional and enjoyable game to play.
My criticism of The Riddle of Steel comes from the seeming mis-match of combat rules and Spiritual Attributes. The game is really about the Spiritual Attributes and the moral dilemmas they present the players during play. The SA mechanic can force the players to make hard-hitting, gut-wrenching decisions and to reexamine their values. Then, all of a sudden, players are thrust into a highly technical, simulationsist style of sword fencing the moment combat enters the scene. It’s jarring for some. At times, it felt like I pulling my mind out of a deep well of narrativist decisions making, link by link, and then plunging it into the boiling cauldron of an SCA fencing tournament.
It wasn’t jolting every time, but there were moments when the group wanted a fight, and I was like, “Fiddling with all these moves is the last thing I want to do right now.” Unlike the call of Cthullu example, there is nothing generic, cheap, or “easy way out” about Jake’s design. It’s brilliant. But I’ve wondered on several occasions if the combat system would have fit better in a game about sword duals and if the Spiritual Abilities mechanic would have been better served by a more direct and relevant combat system (what I mean by ‘relevant’ is putting what the characters were fighting about at the center of the conflict rather than the thrusts and parries Jake meticulously described in his text). In TroS, I felt at times that I was leaving behind what I really cared about in favor of caring about which fencing technique would be best to defeat the character played by the GM this time around.
Is The Riddle of Steel functional as is? Heck yeah! Is it fun? Heck yeah! Could it be improved by swapping out one set of mechanics for another? I think maybe it could.
Now, let’s talk about some positive examples.
First up, I’m going to talk about Prime Time Adventures. The game is all about exploring the types of themes explored on TV shows. Players portray television (or movie) characters through episodes and seasons. That description actually does the game a disservice. There’s lots more to it than that. If you’re interested in learning more about Matt Willson’s game, I encourage you to pick it up. For the purposes of this article, though, the above description will suffice.
So anyway, PTA incorporates its mechanics extremely well into what the game is about and what the players do. In fact, it does it so well, that it’s hard for me to know where to start in the chain of mechanics. Let’s take the Fan Mail mechanic for instance. Fan Mail is given out by the players to the other players for doing a good job portraying their characters and addressing the premise. The Fan Mail is then used as currency to buy bonus die to be used during play.
I love this mechanic for several reasons. First, it incentivizes players to do what they are supposed to do which is to portray their characters well and engage the story lines in accordance with the premise the group has decided upon. Second, it fits the television motif perfectly. Imagine if Fan Mail was called advancement points or story points instead. It wouldn’t have anything close to the impactful connotation “Fan Mail” brings to the game. So, yes, keywords matter, and flavorful keywords are almost always better and more effective than something generic and common. Finally, I love this mechanic because it creates a closed circuit. It leads the players from the “how we play” mechanics to the rewards mechanics and then back to the “how we play” mechanics. It’s beautiful, symmetrical, and fun. Fan Mail tells the players what to do while helping “what the game is about” to be front and center the whole time.
Let’s take a look at another example. At first I was reluctant to use this game as an example because I always use the game as an example. But a good example is a good example, so here we go.
Dogs in the Vineyard has several mechanics that I feel are expertly woven into what the game is about and what the players are to do. The Escalation mechanic is among its best, IMO. The game, in large part, is about violence and the problems it causes. The resolution system of DitV puts violence at the heart of what the game is about. As the level of violence increases, i.e. Escalates, the player adds more and bigger dice to his pool. The mechanic nails what I am talking about both on a thematic and a visceral level. Physically adding bigger dice to one’s pool gives this mechanic a sensory aspect that enhances its effect on play. Imagine if Vincent had decided that escalation just let you reroll your dice or gave you a +3 bonus to your highest three rolls instead. The mechanic would not be nearly as powerful in communicating the increase in tension and in stakes. It would be dry and uninspiring IMHO. I don’t think the role the physical aspect of game mechanics plays in design and play can be understated. It certainly is underappreciated in many games. I salute DitV for equating the physical act of escalating the number of dice in a pool to the escalating level of violence in-game. (for more on cool mechanics about violence, see also Vincent Baker’s Poison’d- IMO, it’s DitV cranked to 11).
Moving on, there are some games that start off well with regards to the mechanics reinforcing what the game is about, but then lose that initial brilliance in the interest of expedience. Deadlands is the poster child for this, IMO. When it first came out, the poker mechanics used for resolution were very fun and flavorful. Later, though the game switched to the Savage Worlds Engine which is dice-based. I felt the game lost a large amount of its charm when that happened.
Some games have mechanics and play that are totally unrelated, but as time passes and newer editions come out, the game moves toward a greater convergence between mechanics and play. Take AD&D2E’s evolution into D&D4e. AD&D’s mechanics were very abstract, generic, and at times, counter intuitive. They did nothing to tie together what the players did, let alone reinforce the fact that they were actually playing a fantasy RPG. The migration through 3E into 4E, however, changed that. Now mechanics like feats and stances are much more flavorful with regards to the fantasy tropes the game is all about, and the requirement of using miniatures throughout play is much better at mating the mechanics to what the players are actually doing during a play session. Fourth Edition is not everyone’s cup of tea (it’s certainly not mine), but I respect the fact that the mechanics are much more tightly woven into to the types of play and color the game wants to create.
It’s probably time for me to close this article. I’ve rambled long enough. Just remember, your mechanics are for people, and the implementation of those mechanics should closely resemble and reinforce what the game is all about and what the players are actually doing.