Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

“Setting or mechanics first” is a common roleplaying game design question. Its a bit of a trap, because each complements the other, and design is an iterative process. Sure, if you create a compelling new setting, you might do a long brain dump first. Vice versa, if you devise a new way of rolling dice/shuffling cards no one else has thought of before, that likely needs some careful number crunching before you show it off to the world for feedback.

In trying to find some design space to wiggle around in and create something new, I have been much more character focused. I have found my players are pretty much happy with any setting that fits “same, but different” and for the mechanics, the simpler, the better.

My current campaign is a fantasy world with musketeers and awakening great old ones. It uses the Runequest 6/Mythras system, which is a toolkit I wanted for bounded character power, crunch detail, and combat verisimilitude – following the simple and easy Dragon Age system of my previous campaign, which suffered from the classic problem of “bloated Hit Points” means nothing really threatens the characters unless its Save or Die!

Thinking about Jared Sorensen’s Big Three Questions (+bonus from John Wick) …

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage / reward this?
  • How do you make this fun?

… I think its clear to me that while my players are having fun with intrigue, duels, seductions, and running away from tentacles, that I did not quite tune the campaign’s themes to the RQ rules adequately.

I had not played RQ with the Passion mechanic before, and I can now see that the game would have been better if I had emphasized musketeer behaviour with the passions. While the characters have been getting into trouble a fair bit, almost all of the hard choices are dealt with by passing a “loyalty to empire” passion check. I should have sat down and thought more about the characters, and less about the setting, and identified the passions needed to make the game more like the classic musketeer novels.

I now think that hacking the Sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu into a Virtue stat has not worked out too well. Its just taken a bit too long for interesting consequences to turn up, and while that has now happened for one corrupted character (who is now burnt by sunlight, and can only regenerate magic points through self-inflicted pain) I am now looking at corruption mechanics in other games (e.g. Urban Shadows) as doing the job better.

I also wants a game that plays much faster. I now find the combat too detailed, and the handling time for resolution means that as GM I am not feeling a lot of joy in resolving combat scenes. The social mechanics lack the fine detail of the combat mechanics, and that has been a bit of a problem in trying to figure out just what the heck a die roll in front of me means when an Influence check is done. Reading *World games has brought home to me that you should really not ask for die rolls unless something of consequence will actually happen for both success and failure outcomes. Maybe I want something closer to the ‘duel of wits’ mechanic in Burning Wheel?

I have been reading a lot of game systems lately – I am drowning in content from PDFs delivered from Kickstarters and Bundles of Holding – and one that looks really promising to me is the 2d20 system for Age of Conan. The quickstart rules looked like they would satisfy my real life history/martial arts knowledge with some rules for reach and guard stances (which on first reading were significantly more intelligible than those in RQ6) plus a core mechanic that generates a shared resource for the party (something I have been trying to develop myself).

I would like to have a go at designing and publishing a game, and the main obstacle for me at the moment, is trying to come up with an idea for what the characters are about, that has not been done before. I do not want to sink a few years spare time into a ‘fantasy heartbreaker’. Like doing a PhD, I want to try and push the boundary out a bit and build something original. You want to find the “Aha!” idea that has people go “Wow!” about the game when you explain it to them, not shift their eyes sideways to the clock on the wall above you.

I found a new way of looking at characters – which is to think about what you want them to be capable of doing in the setting (and being more specific than just choosing a setting on somewhere on the zero to hero scale). When I recast my core game ideas into a capability framework I get characters that can:

  1. make a choice about the community they identity with (mixed heritage characters are free to go either way)
  2. cast spells and can always cast spells (no running out of magic points)
  3. change the community they exist in (to paraphrase Marx, “the point is not to understand the setting, the point is to change the setting”)
  4. always cooperate with each other (because magic, and because I think it will make for a better game).

Working backwards from that I end up with a game concept that is “orphan street kid mages in a city of spies”. Which is a bit like Blades in the Dark but at least I didn’t end up with a Dogs in the Vineyard clone again.

Changing tack, I was thinking about how to express in game mechanics something that made character’s different and fun, and hit on the Greek word “hubris”. Rather than having luck, fate, fortune (or to stick with the classical theme, Tyche) points being the character meta-currency to influence the game I thought I could call it Hubris to reflect both the kind of behaviour player characters often indulge in, and the kind of behaviour I thought power-hungry mages should be inclined towards:

  • Irrational pride or confidence.
  • Violent or excessive behaviour.
  • Shame, humiliation and gratification.
  • Sexual crimes, prostitution, theft of public or sacred property.
  • An act that offends the Gods.
  • Presumption towards the Gods.
  • Violating the bounds meant for mortals.
  • Lack of humility, modesty, respect or timidity.
  • Faustian bargains for knowledge and power.

Along with Milton’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” quote, I found this quote, that really seemed to gel with the idea of mixed race characters who do not belong to any established community and have a lot of questions to answer about their identity:

If you were born Somewhere, hubris would come easy. But if you are Nowhere’s child, hubris is an import, pride a thing you decide to acquire. —Sarah Vowell, GQ, May 1998

Riffing on *World I can use Hubris and rename Fronts as Nemesis. Nemesis is the inescapable agent of downfall, the retributive justice for wrong-doing and presumption, the balancer of too much good fortune. So any time a player uses Hubris to succeed in a task, a possible complication is the countdown clock on one of the Nemesis fronts advancing. I could also use Hubris in a way similar to Corruption in Urban Shadows, a route to advance your character, but not necessarily one you want to indulge in too often.

…and that I think will give me a neat little mechanic for the setting, which fits the capabilities I want the characters to have.

 

 

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One Response to Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

  1. crochet says:

    Great article! We are linking to this great article on our website.

    Keep up the great writing.

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