Five Elegant RPG Mechanics

Commentary Elegance List Mechanics System

Dice fiveMaybe it’s the code hacker in me, but I have a deep appreciation for those times when a problem is solved well and elegantly. Elegance is a concept that’s often hard to convey in this context. I guess that the best I can do is to say that the solution is simple, correct, and is aesthetically pleasing.

For example, I love percolating coffee makers. Go ahead, laugh. Think about it though, this is a machine with zero moving parts. You add water, grounds, and heat, and merely by fact of the shape of that internal funnel thingy, you get coffee. They don’t wear down, they don’t need electricity, and they have no controls.

Similarly, consider the venerable chalk line. A string on a reel, covered in chalk. That’s it. With one, however, you can mark a straight line as long as you have string. Can you think of another way to make a straight line of arbitrary length with something that fits in a pocket and doesn’t need power?

In the spirit of these elegant tools, I present the following list of RPG game mechanics. When I used these for the first time, they immediately struck me as the right solutions for their respective problems.

5) Consequences

In several previous posts, I’ve mentioned that players often disregard the risks their characters take in an RPG because any unwanted results of failure are so fleeting. I’m probably a lot more reluctant to get into a fight than most of my characters, despite my intention to play them realistically, because I can’t just heal up by the next day. Then again, maybe I am portraying them accurately, given the “health economy” in which they live.

One way of changing the incentives of that health economy is to make it harder to heal. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of slowing down the game, as characters become more risk-averse. A middle road is to essentially have two ways of dealing damage: one healing quickly, and the other slowly.

Lots of games provide long term damage effects: Warhammer RPG and older versions of D&D (with ability loss) for example. My favorite implementation so far, though, has been in FATE. In this version, a player voluntarily takes a Consequence in order to stave off damage that would otherwise remove the character from action. The more severe the Consequence, the more damage it prevents. Not only does this provide the looming danger of long term effects if you start that fight, it allows the player to choose what happens so that it fits the game and the character.

4) D&D 4E’s Attack/Defense System

I was tempted to put Powers here. The more that I thought about it, though, the more I’ve come to believe that Powers aren’t quite perfected yet. While they do provide a straightforward way to give characters a variety of options in combat, they also have a couple problems we’ve posted about before.

However, I do love the attack/defense abstraction of D&D Fourth Edition. Previous versions of D&D had completely different systems for the resolution of physical attacks, magic, and psionics. In addition, you had to add exceptions to those systems to support (for instance) Dex-based fighters.

With 4E’s Attack/Defense system, each attack simply specifies what attribute you use to make the attack, and what defense you’re targeting. No matter what kind of attack it is, the structure remains the same. It could be an Intelligence vs. Will enchantment, and Intelligence vs. Reflex fireball, or a plain ol’ Strength vs. Armor Class hammer to the gizzard. This single, unified system can model an amazingly wide variety of attacks.

3) Charlie’s Ammo Dice

As I mentioned in my playtest report, Charlie’s Ammo Dice idea is just awesome. You can reduce tracking ammo to an extra die roll, and an intermittent update of the character sheet. It’s simple, easy to remember, and (for the 40 arrow/d12 example) reduces your character sheet updates by about eight times. It also introduces a bit of risk to make what would normally be “accounting” fun.

2) Dread Tower

For those who haven’t experienced it, this is essentially using a Jenga tower (or generic substitute) for task resolution. If you pull your assigned number of blocks, you succeed. If you give up, you fail. If you knock over the tower, your character is removed from the game (i.e. dead, insane, abducted, etc.)

I have been captivated with the Dread Tower since the time of our first oneshot. This is the single best mechanic for a suspense game I’ve ever experienced, and all you need is a game you can find for $10 in the game aisle of your local mega-store. Watching the whole group hold its breath as a character’s life stood teetering in the middle of the table was quite eye opening.

1) Fate’s Aspects

I liked Aspects the first time I used them. The more I think about it, though, the more I love this mechanic. Charlie mentioned my comparison of having an Intelligence of 6 in D&D, and having the Aspect of “Stupid.”

Just to make sure everyone’s on the same page, an Aspect is just a statement about some facet of your character. You spend resources to use it to your advantage. You get resources when it’s used against you.

It’s that simple, but a lot of awesome effects come out of that simple concept. They let you:

    • Thoroughly yet succinctly describe who your character is
    • Give your character bonuses to the things at which you want him to excel
    • Get incentives to roleplay the disadvantages
    • Tell your GM exactly the sort of challenges you want thrown at your character

What mechanics do you think should have made this list? Do you think we’ve been talking about FATE too much? Think I’m crazy for my appreciation of percolating coffee makers? Let us know in the comments!

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