Posts Tagged ‘mechanics’

Two months since I last posted, and this one’s off-topic. Unforgivable! But I’ve been playing a bunch of Commander format Magic: The Gathering recently, and my play group has made some rule tweaks (some by my own fair hand) to improve our play experience, and I’ve found it interesting to see how our play goals are informing our design choices (i.e. house rules).

Play Goals / Design Principles

Our core principle really is that we want the game to be fun and interesting for everyone. That’s where our rules tweaks have come from, but it’s kindof ill-defined. Working backwards from the changes we’ve made, I’ve extracted these more specific principles:

  1. The group’s desire for all players to have an interesting and enjoyable game trumps any individual’s desire to win.
    • This means any play that totally shuts down an opponent’s deck is not welcome. Obviously answers to individual cards or plays are totally fine, but stopping an entire deck from working is boring and we don’t allow it.
    • This also means that, because of the obvious tension in the above, the game doesn’t work at all for people who can’t stand losing. Ah well.
  2. Variety is the core of an interesting game; consistency is boring.
    • I mean card consistency, really. Consistently getting the same kinds of effects from different cards is fine, but if a deck plays exactly the same every time it comes out, that’s boring.
  3. Interesting commanders make for interesting decks.
    • Commanders with unique mechanics lead to unique decks, which means more unusual and interesting games.
The Rules Changes

The Commander format rules already help with this – the singleton format means plenty of variety and that card consistency is difficult to guarantee, and the commander being returned to a playable state (the command zone) when killed or exiled means that they are easily available and therefore easy to build decks around. (Also, having them there makes them a cool visible centrepiece for the deck, which encourages players to seek out interesting ones.) Principle 1 is well served, too, by a general culture of “play for fun, not for glory” that has grown up around the Commander format in general.

However, it’s not perfect. So here are some of the house rules we use to improve things for our group. Like I say, these evolved organically and I extracted the above principles from them – but I’ve tried to lay out the reasoning as if we’d planned it from day one :-)

  • Re-draw after mulligans.
    • As normal, each mulligan (except the first, as normal for Commander) means you draw one fewer card before making the decision about whether to keep the hand or mulligan again. However, once you’ve made the decision to stick, you draw up to seven cards.
    • Having a dreadful opening hand can dramatically hold a player back, and that’s no fun for them nor for their opponents – and the variance of the singleton format means that this happens more often than we’d like, even in well-balanced decks. With this change, players may have to accept a risky hand, but hopefully never a totally disastrous one.
  • No card-search.
    • Card consistency is boring, so searching (or “tutoring”, in Magic parlance) for specific cards is out.
    • The exception is basic lands. Not having enough mana means a deck gets stuck and is no fun to play – so searching to bring out basic lands is fine.
  • The commander can be returned to the command zone when they’re put into the library (draw deck) or player’s hand.
    • Normally this can only be done when the commander is killed or exiled, but we want to make sure that the commander is always available, even after these other means of removal. In general card consistency is undesirable (principle 2), but the commander is the exception to that because of principle 3 – if people can’t rely on their commander being available, then they won’t build decks around their commander, and that’s a shame because it limits the variety of deck themes.
    • This is particularly important when you remove card-search; that effectively means that if the commander is shuffled into the library, you’re very unlikely to get them out again (and it’s almost impossible if they specifically get placed on the bottom of the library, as some effects will do). Therefore we need a way to ensure that these effects don’t permanently shut down the commander.

I hope those rules are of use to Commander players, and that the principles-to-mechanics design discussion is interesting even for those who don’t know or play Magic. Anyway, I’m off to carry on reworking my Oloro deck; I’ll admit that building a deck that will be fun to play is itself half the fun!

In my last post, I discussed the idea that in most roleplaying games, players’ time is split. Some of it is spent performing as a character, acting exactly as that character would in the fictional world, but some of it is spent on other activities. Exactly what those are depends on the game, of course, but it might be: straightforward narration of material that can’t be directly performed; engaging with some real-world mechanical tool like dice or character sheets; metatechniques like delivering an internal monologue for the benefit of the other players (while their characters remain unaware).

Despite the prevalence of these other activities, many games (and many players) do strive to be in-character and acting “realistically” (i.e. not monologuing or using other dramatic character-breaking tools) as much of the time as possible. This isn’t necessary for a good game, of course – Microscope is a great example of a powerful story-telling game which doesn’t necessarily require any in-character performance at all – but where you do want to encourage the players to stay in character, you can run into difficulties, as there are some actions necessary in the fiction that simply can’t be reproduced in the real-world performance. (The three example techniques above present some ways to get around that.) As mentioned in the last post, there are games like When the Dark is Gone that manage to stay in-character 100% of the time (at least after the setup phase), but the situations you can portray in such a game are heavily restricted.

An alternative approach is to set up your game so that the time spent out of character feels like time spent in character. Use the mechanics, rules, or game setup to foster in the players the mindset that you want your characters to have. There are plenty of great examples of this, such as:

  • Murderous Ghosts, Doomed Pilgrim, and many other games that explicitly have an adversarial relationship between one group of players playing “the world” and another playing the protagonist(s). This sets a tone where the world is not a fair place and in fact is actively working against the protagonist(s) – heightening the tension and the fear factor for their player(s).
  • The Jenga tower in Dread. A very visible and tangible indicator that everything could at any moment come crashing down on top of your character – again, pushing the tension higher and higher until it finally collapses (creating a very real sense of relief for the players not affected by the downfall!)
  • In Remodel, the various manipulations of the house (represented by a real physical set) reflect and enhance the emotional journeys the characters are taking. Physically ripping up tape to “demolish” parts of the house, for example, provides a powerful cathartic experience and prepares the player for their character’s new beginning.
  • In The Secret Lives of Serial Killers, key information is hidden from one player in order to give them a very real sense of horror and betrayal when it finally comes out.

Perhaps nothing can be more realistic than acting something out in full, but that’s a luxury we don’t often have. By choosing techniques carefully, you can “shortcut” some of the acting process and elicit feelings in your players that match those in the characters without needing a full in-character portrayal. If you know others I’ve missed (and there’ll be plenty), let me know in the comments – I’m keen to try them out!

I’ve been re-reading the clouds and dice series on It’s a series of posts about how rules refer to fictional material and to real-world cues (like dice and character sheets). It’s a lot of material but I’d strongly recommend reading it if you’re interested in writing game rules that encourage good fiction.

I was reading part 6 – “Now where WAS I…”, especially the comment thread, when a couple of exciting questions hit me.

To summarise the context:

  • Mechanical effects that emerge from the fiction (“if you have the high ground [fiction], you get a +2 bonus [mechanics]”) help encourage good fiction because they mean the fiction matters – players have to create detailed fiction in order to use the mechanics effectively.
  • But being able to invent your own fictional bonus-producers whenever you want (“err, so, there’s probably a table, right? I jump on it for +2 high ground bonus”) can result in fictional details that are trivial and transient – only there for the bonus, not for the lasting effect – so that in fact the fiction no longer matters after all. (This is an effect I see – and dislike – in Dogs in the Vineyard, sometimes, although I think it is deliberate there in order to encourage escalation for bonuses. But I digress.)

So, ideally, we’d prevent players from creating fictional details on-the-fly just to get a bonus. My questions are:

  1. Can we enforce a system where players have to establish something a few “turns” before they use it?
  2. More interestingly, can we enforce that bonuses can only be taken for statements other people have made?

Note that both these questions are pre-empted by Vincent’s suggested mechanics in comment #43 on that thread (which I read after having the above light-bulb, but you’ll have to take my word for it). What I’m really wondering is can we make better mechanics than those somewhat simplistic teaching examples. In comment #46, Moreno suggests that point 2 is in fact mandated in Spione – I’d better check that out. I wonder if any other games do anything similar?

I think there’s a risk that unless your fictional detail is specifically angled toward someone else getting a bonus for it (e.g. “I provide covering fire”), then it may not be that usable for mechanical effects in most cases. Perhaps I’m being narrow-minded, though – I need to think about it some more. I think a bigger risk is that if such details can be used to get mechanical bonuses against you, then you might be encouraged not to provide them, which would be totally counter-productive. Hmm.

However, I’m particularly hot for Jesse Burneko’s comment #55 – it’s all about communication. By using such mechanics, players are encouraged to communicate effectively – both providing fictional input that has meaningful implications, and considering the implications of the fictional input provided by others.

I think we can rely on players to pay attention to others’ input in order to trigger mechanics (e.g. bonuses). My concern, though, is that it may not reliably get players to give that input in the first place. What encourages that, beside the hope that others will reciprocate for you?

A lot of roleplayers believe that game mechanics are evil things, to be minimised if not completely rejected. A common complaint is that they get in the way of “the story” – which, to story-lovers like myself, is most definitely a Bad Thing.

But is this really justified? Certainly in many games (especially traditional ones), the mechanics are convoluted and difficult to remember, and this can definitely lead to them claiming the focus of the group’s attention, at the cost of the fictional aspects. But is this an unavoidable consequence of mechanics?

I suggest not – and in fact I think mechanics can help the story-focussed group avoid other things that might distract from the story. Here are three examples.

Removing GM responsibility

A roleplaying game is essentially a series of statements made by the various players about things that happen in the fiction. In a “traditional” GM / player model, many of these statements are made by the GM, who, without mechanics, has to decide “what happens” using only their own intution. Sure, they might use some guiding principles (e.g. drama, fairness, plausibility, “cool”, etc.), but fundamentally it’s their call.

Not only is this potentially disempowering for the other players, but it’s also quite risky socially – it’s very easy for GMs to upset or frustrate players by making a call the players don’t like (too harsh, not harsh enough, and so forth). Even with an extremely close understanding between the GM and the players, no GM is flawless – and besides, such understandings are rare treasures indeed. For a new GM, a new player, a new game, a new group, the potential for misjudgement is huge.

A mechanical framework distances the GM from these decisions. If the dice (or whatever) come down against you, then Bad Things Happen, and you’ve accepted the risk by agreeing to play within this particular framework. No hard feelings toward the GM. As Apocalypse World shows extremely clearly, this doesn’t remove the GM’s creative input – there are plenty of different ways Bad Things can Happen – but it can provide a bare-bones structure for the GM to enhance and flesh out in play.

Managing Pacing

In games which focus on “story”, pacing is paramount – but tough to get right. Whoever’s responsible for managing pacing, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside in favour of the other jobs that player’s juggling, leading to play that gets bogged down in mediocre scenes rather than staying focussed on the action.

Using mechanics to handle pacing allows it to be more strictly guided and emerge naturally through play. Sorcerer’s advice: “Get to the Bangs!” is exactly this sort of thing in action.

Clarifying Authority

Any system, no matter how freeform / mechanical, defines who can say what, when, about the game’s fiction. The more freeform (or less strict, or less clear) a system gets, the easier it is for clashes to occur between two (or more!) players whose statements conflict – “hey, GM, you can’t put that into my character’s backstory”.

Having a clear mechanic for who is allowed to say what sorts of things can help avoid such conflicts, and keep the game running smoothly. (Indeed, I think even most “mechanics-light” systems tend to have this dictated somewhere, though not always clearly.)

What I’m Not Saying

Important note: I’m not saying a good GM / group can’t do the above things themselves, without the help of mechanics. They can, of course! But when they don’t, the results can be just as detrimental to the story as the most convoluted mechanical systems out there.

So no, mechanics aren’t the only way to get these things done, but they are another way, and one that might leave the GM / group free to spend effort on other things, e.g. contributing cool stuff to the game, playing more games, or even (shock, horror) their lives outside of roleplaying. (I believe such things exist.)

But wait, there’s more…

But those are just my three things, right? What else can a system do for story-focussed groups, that I haven’t considered?

In the last post, I discovered that my inner roleplayer is a Narrativist – I want to find the hard questions that surround the human condition (premise) and address them through play. Now I need to think about how a system might help players do that. I also promised you mechanics. Well here they are.

I consider “addressing premise” to be “dramatic” – that is, the source of the drama portrayed in the game’s events. With that in mind, I wondered if it were possible (and if so, desirable) to use some score or other function to keep direct and explicit track of whether the system is doing its job – i.e. encouraging drama. If we can monitor it, then we can adjust the system to keep the levels high, right? From that were born Drama Points. The central idea is…

When dramatic events go against a character, that character gains Drama Points. When they go in the character’s favour, the character spends Drama Points.

Simple, I know – and I’ve read games with similar mechanics, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as explicitly focussed on drama as a measurement. (That said, I’m sure there are some systems out there that do this – just not any I’ve seen.)

This opens up some interesting possibilities, though. For example, to gain drama points, players can define what the central dramas are for their characters – e.g. “I want to overcome my cowardice”; “I want to get revenge on my husband’s killer”; etc. These dramas can then be used to earn Drama Points every time they come up in play. If things go against those goals, the characters are rewarded with Drama Points, which they can later spend on making things go their way later on.

I still need to lay out the possibilities for spending those points. I envisage a mechanical system which is actually relatively harsh, but which is made survivable because the players can use drama to get out of difficult situations. For example, Drama Points could be spent to:

  • “just pass” a task attempt that would otherwise have failed – e.g. hanging on to a cliff by the very tips of the fingers;
  • survive an otherwise fatal blow, but have the conditions of survival be entirely at the GM’s discretion (e.g. Fate Points in WFRP and similar games)
  • be warned before a surprise attack kicks in – “my spidey sense is tingling”
  • buy time for discussion during combat, which might ordinarily be restricted because in-character discussion wouldn’t be possible – but this way the players can set up cool dramatic sequences for the combat, making it more interesting for all concerned.

Essentially, Drama Points could be used to power any and all “cool dramatic effects”.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered – for example, I need to define exactly how they’re spent and earned, and whether there’s any limit on how many points can be moved around in this way. Also some powers (especially e.g. in a superhero game) would probably want to be an innate part of the character’s capabilities rather than needing to be powered by Drama. But it’s a start.

In the next post I’ll expand further on this concept and see if I can flesh out some of these details. Meanwhile, if you know of any games that use something like this already, I’d be really grateful to know about them! That way I can steal their ideas study them for inspiration. Drop a comment in the box below :-)