A Nervous System: So What Do I Want

Posted: February 15, 2011 in A Nervous System, System Design
Tags: , ,

In the last post, I took a step (or several) back from the specifics of system design to think about what I’m actually aiming to get from the system. I ended up with the following two qualities I want it to have:

  • Engaging: I want it to produce a game that’s interesting, stimulating and challenging for both the players and the GM.
  • Satisfying: I also want it to feel “complete”, i.e. not to feel like something is lacking or unfinished or half-baked.

I then went away and tried to explain exactly what I meant by those qualities in practical terms. I even drew MindMaps. And I hate MindMaps.

Below is the outcome. I’ll tidy this up into some stricter requirements later, but for now it’s just in bullet point brainstorm format so you can see my thought process.


  • Interesting / Stimulating
    • Nobody getting bored
      • All players involved in the action, even if their character isn’t
      • No character overshadowed by another
      • Play is inherently watchable
    • “Dramatic”
      • Has moments of tension
      • Even failures can be rewarding / interesting
      • Has a mechanism for encouraging dramatic / exciting character actions
    • Encourages varied play
      • Supports different settings
      • Supports a good variety of character actions
  • Challenging
    • Requires and rewards imagination / good ideas
      • Doesn’t limit character actions to a restricted set (e.g. a skill list)
    • Low / Medium power level
    • Has clear consequences of PC action
    • Strategic
  • Immersive
    • Not hampered by out-of-character stuff
      • Quick resolution mechanism
      • Mechanics that are easy to remember
        • Simple
        • Consistent
        • Intuitive
    • In-character knowledge = out-of-character knowledge
      • Restricted conferring / tactical planning time
    • Focussed on the player characters
      • No mass combat
      • Heroic not Epic characters (as per this post on Transneptune Games’ blog)


  • Reasonably realistic simulation
    • At least from the players’ point of view; behind the screen it can be less so.
    • Believable character descriptors and advancement
    • Mechanics for chance need to be realistic for the game world
    • This will lead to intuitive mechanics
  • Fictional world supplies the mechanics, not vice versa
    • Including character development – not powered by beating challenges (or at least not only by that method)

It’s clear that some of these points naturally reinforce each other, while some may be at odds. Still, my system doesn’t have to capture every single point on that list – the main thing is that I understand what those points are, so I can make explicit decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

To me, the most interesting points are Immersive and Strategic, which are quite ill-defined in my mind. In the next post I’ll consider those two a little more closely. After that, I’ll come back to the points above and re-examine them in light of the articles I’ve been reading on RPG theory.

  1. I think there’s a lot of good stuff here and am looking forward to seeing how you develop it. One question: regarding character development, are you talking of character advancement, or character change? Those two concepts seem distinct to me, and worth calling out separately.

  2. Blackrat says:

    Yes, that’s a very good point. Hmm… I guess in the above I probably meant character advancement, i.e. the mechanical changes to the character. But actually, what I’m really talking about, I think, is the relationship between the two.

    I was considering it in the context of the “Fictional world supplies the mechanics” point – so I guess what I really mean is that character change, i.e. the character’s IC reactions to the fictional situation, should lead directly to character advancement, i.e. some mechanical effect appropriate to that fictional effect. And not the other way round.

    So for example, if a character loses a bad fight because they fought too aggressively and left themselves open to attack. The character might then resolve to fight more defensively in future – which might power some mechanical effect that supports that. (Say, +1 to defensive fighting.)

    In other words, the player should decide the character’s reaction to the situation, and take an appropriate mechanical advance – rather than the player getting free choice of advancement and then adjusting their character’s behaviour to play to those new mechanical strengths. (As an aside, I guess this means the mechanical advances need to be very flexible, to account for the countless different fictional reactions the characters might have.)

    Thanks for the question – that’s really helped me to clarify this in my own mind! I hope that clarity has found its way into this comment, too :-)

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