Tuesday, April 07, 2015

What is a “Catch-Up” Mechanic?


Every RPG, just about, has some kind of tactical situation.  A lot of people confuse “tactical” with “combat”, but that’s just wrong.  Tactics can be used in the political arena, historical arena, the emotional arena, or in lots of places I haven’t even thought of.  The point is, these games produce someone who is ahead and someone who is behind at some point during play.

We all know that’s true, so what then?  In many games, especially traditional games that were made prior to 2001, the usual method of resolving this imbalance was the person behind had to get extremely lucky to win or he just lost.  This was especially true of games that featured a Death Spiral.

But something has changed.  Games have developed a series of methods to help the player who is behind to regain an equal footing (and in some cases, surpass the player who was ahead).  I call these methods “Catch-Up” mechanics.

Catch-up mechanics have been around for ages, and they didn’t start with RPGs.  Think about the escalating scale for reinforcements when you turn in cards when playing Risk or about landing on Free Parking in many house-ruled games of Monopoly.  These mechanics are great because it decreases the frustration players feel once they get behind.  They know that there is a chance that they might land on the right space or draw the right card and turn the tables on their opponents.  But it’s just a chance, never a guarantee.

And that’s the important thing.  Catch-Up mechanics offer an opportunity to catch up, not a promise that you will.  So let’s look at some from some RPGs you may know:

Healing Surges in D&D 4e:  This mechanic lets a hero who is behind on hit points recoup some, most, or all of them (depending on what else is going on) during a fight.  The hero (or villain) who was near death is suddenly back to health and ready to continue combat.

Critical Hit system in Rolemaster: In Rolemaster, the slightest knick can kill.  During combat, if you score a hit, you deal damage AND inflict some type of critical wound.  Even a light hit causes a roll on a “Critical Table.”  Just about every level of critical (A-E back when I was playing) can kill if you roll high enough on your d100.  So, no matter how far you are behind in a fight, your next sword strike could drop your enemy.

Escalating in DitV: In Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent created an “escalating” mechanic.  Let’s say your character starts an argument.  You roll some dice and they don’t roll in your favor.  So you escalate by hitting the guy.  In DiTV when you make that decision to use your fists you get a band new pool of dice to roll.  Let’s say you lose that roll too.  So you pull a knife.  When you pull that knife, you get a new pool of dice.  And so on.  Each time you escalate, you are given a new chance to win the conflict.  There are consequences for doing that, of course, but the escalating mechanic helps the player who’s behind catch up and get another shot at winning.

Catch-Up mechanics are great for games of all types.  Combat-centric games like D&D and Rolemaster benefit from them in the same way artsy-fartsy games like Dogs in the Vineyard benefit from them.  Giving the players a chance to win from a losing position keeps them engaged and can mitigate the effect of an unlucky roll or tactical misstep.  The important thing to remember, though, is the Catch-Up mechanic cannot guarantee victory.  It should never be an auto-win panic button.  It should just give the player a second shot at victory, and might even come at some kind of price.