Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?
The questions for the next three days are pretty interesting. I’m afraid that a certain part of my answer for each day will include a bit of “it depends”. However this isn’t being indecisive. Far from it. Rather, the intention or desired effect has a lot to do with which mechanic to use. Game design intrigues me, & I keep toying with the idea of designing a couple of simple ones just to try out some ideas. Stretch goals on my kickstarter will be autographed pictures of yours truly ~ because who could possibly be more fascinating?
It really didn’t take me long to realize what my answer for today would be. It’s not really a specific mechanic, but a family or type of mechanics. They model what we have done by feel in RPGs for a long time, but they formalize the process and remove most of the potential for cries of “unfair GM fiat” while at the same time reminding us to utilize a powerful method of making the fiction far more interesting.
The mechanics in question insert the possibility of effects that are in addition to, tangential, or orthogonal to the intent of the characters when they make an attempt to do something. These are the “ANDs” and the “BUTs”. They include the idea of a degree of success or failure ~ (“YES you succeeded at hacking the computer AND you were able to hide your intrusion entirely” or “NO you were unable to pick the lock AND you just triggered an alarm”) ~ however these mechanics go beyond that idea and take it a step further.
Perhaps the best example of this type of mechanic is found in the narrative dice system of Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars & the spin off Genesys “generic system”. Dice are rolled during skill attempts to determine success or failure, but they also can indicate advantages, threats, triumphs, & despairs. This second axis of fortunate & unfortunate events can sometimes represent a degree of success or failure over and above the simple yes/no paradigm, but more often it indicates positive or negative effects caused by or related to the attempts or actions of the characters, but that occur independently of success or failure. This introduces the “BUTs” into the narration. ~ (“YES, you succeed at talking your way past the guard, BUT once inside the convention hall a rival smuggler recognizes you and looks as though he suspects something’s up” or (“NO you don’t hit the stormtrooper with your blaster shot, BUT you do hit the comm panel next to him & he is unable to call for reinforcements”). ~ The combinations of successes, failures, advantages, threats, triumphs, & despairs are practically unlimited, (outside of not being able to succeed and fail at the same time), so many outcomes are possible from a single event.
Other games such as those powered by the Apocalypse World engine (PBTA) include a “partial success” or “success at cost” possibility in the dice mechanic. While the partial success is an interesting outcome, I find the success with a cost or failure with an opportunity for advantage type of results to be much more inspiring. ~ In many cases I find the spirit of that mechanic to be more inspiring than the actual numbers that a given mechanic produces, but that is a topic for another day.
To me, this type of mechanic opens up many possibilities. The various systems often formalize player narration or choice of positive outcomes, which took some getting used to at first, but really seems to foster engagement in the fiction. Other mechanics invite this participation as well, but these seem to excel at it, & the formalization of the collaborative narrative effort removes a lot of uncertainty.
As I mentioned in the beginning, a wonderful thing is that it reduces the potential for adversarial relationships between the players and the GM. (Actually, it reduces the potential to suspect an adversarial relationship). As Game Masters, many of us have been inserting and narrating these tangential effects (positive & negative) for many years. But it was entirely upon our discretion. With this sort of mechanic, the dice decide when these unexpected events happen. The plastic gods speak, and the onus of responsibility is off the GM who can sit back and be transparently impartial.
Finally, as I also alluded to, the cool thing about these mechanics (of which there are several), is that they prompt us to insert interesting and unexpected elements into the fiction. Let’s face it ~ it’s really easy to get into the groove and think of everything in terms of success or failure. RPGs are wonderful because the creation of the fiction is collaborative between several people, however, even that can get stale & predictable. These mechanics, with their sideways and sudden insertion of boons & banes seemingly from left field, force us out of established patterns and demand that we enrich the fiction with the narration of events that no one could predict. ~ We play to find out & the mechanics guide us, but we get to create the details & nuances of those unforeseen effects.
What’s not to like about that?