Monday, February 28, 2011

Mechanics Control Feel

How your game feels is a very important part in how your game plays. This is true for a GM running a game, and it is true for the designer who is making a game. Different systems have a different feel to them. They encourage different feels. They fit better with different kinds of stories. You don't use a system like Toon to run a super serious game, nor do you use BESM for a gritty and dangerous game. Sure, you could probably force the system into doing it for you, but that isn't what the system wants to do. Because of this, it is important to keep in mind what feel you want games to have when you are designing a system. Why and how? Well, let's discuss that.

How Capable Are the Players?
This is a choice that a game master generally gets to make, but before the GM makes the call, the designer makes it. A GM, when running a game, can choose to give players more points/levels/etc in order to run a game with more powerful people. A designer, on the other hand, actually gets to choose how powerful a player is by default. Designers for RPGs choose what the average difficulty will be in the system, how high the player will need to roll to achieve most things. They also get to decide how hard it is for a player to hit that on average.

For example, let's look at Legend of the Five Rings. In L5R the average difficulty is a 15. So, as I said above, if you want to do something that the GM considers to be of "average" difficulty for the task at hand, you need to roll a 15 or better. Now, a PC starts with a 2 in all of their stats, and a '2' in the stat is considered the average for a samurai to have. Now, 2D10 on average will give you an 11 or 12 for a result. This means that the average person needs at least 1 rank in the skill, and in fact probably 2 ranks in a skill (out of 10 total) in order to be able to reliably (Once out of every 2 tries or better).Now, what if the average difficulty was 10? Well then, that would mean that most tasks that a person ran across could be handled by a PC whether or not they had any skill in the task at hand.

Now, the GM can modify this, but the game designer sets the guidelines for how it should work, and more to the point, they set the rules for how things work against it. You can tell when a game has grown beyond the scope the designers intended for it. Things start to...fall apart in interesting ways.

How Fast Do The Players Grow?
This is also set by the designers, and is a big part of the balancing for a game. When looking through an RPG book, the game will generally give you guidelines for how much XP (or other resources used for progression) are gained by the players. The book also has the prices set for how much players have to pay to get the things they'll be wanting to get. In games with classes, they set how much stuff each class gets with the new levels, or what abilities they can get. These are all set by the designer, and when they're put in, thought is given to just how fast the game is expecting players to progress.

Believe me, there is a reason that the game book says you should give 750 XP per session, and it takes 3000 XP for a player to hit rank 2. It's because they feel that the power progression is most fun when you hit rank 2 after 4 sessions. Now, again, the GM can modify this for their game, but the guidelines are still set by the designer, and when the GM changes it they have made an active decision to change the feel of the game. Which in and of itself is important to note.

How Do The Players Compare To Other People?
This goes back to what I talked about at first, but when putting together the character rules the game designer has stats in mind for the normal person. Like I said in L5R, the average samurai has a 2 in their stat. This means that a player who starts off with a 3 in that stat, has started off better than the average person. This is one of the areas where it is harder for GMs to change how it works, because character creation often deals with characters at their most basic. Now, some game systems allow the GM to control this. GURPS for example gives players a number of points to make their characters, and the GM determines how many points that each player starts with. There is a big difference between playing in a 75 points GURPS game, and a 200 points game.

However, in most systems this base line is pre-determined. Players start off with all stats at 2, plus two stats at 3, seven skills at rank 1, and forty experience points to buy more stuff. That is a basic character for L5R, and that means that a basic character in L5R starts off with two areas where they are better than normal. This comes back into the feel for the players, because it determines how close they are to any other person on the street. The better they are than an "average" person, the more powerful the player is supposed to feel. The closer they are to those stats, the more normal they are supposed to feel.

Wrap Up
Those are just three areas where mechanics can contribute to the feel of a game. These are also only the most basic way they do it, and how they control how powerful the player feels. There are other ways that they do this, and I'll try and talk about them at later intervals. For now though, whether you are making a game or choosing a system for your new game, take a look at the feel that your system is trying to encourage. Is that how you want it to be? If not, what would need to change to get it to how you want it?


  1. Hm, I guess I prefer slow advancement. It lets me understand my characters and keep up with them more easily, and I have fewer things to worry about.

    I also like characters that aren't extremely powerful compared to the rest of the world. I like them to be more focused on something but decent at most things. I don't like "I can succeed at everything" characters very much, simply because it gives me more of a structure for playing my character when he is blatantly good at something.

  2. My favorites are games are ones that are very granular and most of the basic tasks in the game don't overlap.

    Granularity allows for slow progression, it's difficult to imagine a person with a 2 for a stat suddenly becoming a 3. That means they're 33% better at something. . . suddenly. If I have a BRP system that allowed a player to jump from a 50% chance of accomplishing a task to a 66% chance (a 33% jump) I would consider that somewhat broken. I'm not complaining about L5R, I'm just saying I prefer smaller increments of advancement.

    A system with little overlap is also more interesting to me because if you have a min/max player, they aren't unbeatable, on the contrary most players are afraid of playing an unbalanced player. So what do I mean by overlap? Combat may have two or even three important attributes that all play a role. For example Speed (governing initiative and things like dodging), Agility and Strength. The system can also reward high intelligence by making them learn skills faster, which makes player not look at it as disposable. Intuition, commonly considered a dump stat in favor of brawn can be balanced out by applying ambush rules if an individual fails their Intuition check. Suddenly there are three stats critical for survival and two more that are important for it. Min/Maxers beware.

  3. Out of curiosity Emmet, in a percentile system would you prefer 5% increases (1/20 of ability) like Dark Heresy does, or 1% increases, like I believe unknown Armies does.

    Basically, I'm just curious if you have a level that is too granular, or would you be all for "if I could raise it by the decimal when needed, that'd be great"

  4. Greywulf did a post recently that talked about the idea of restricting options in 4e, and how much effect this would have on the feel of the game. Some of the best GM advice I've gotten is to run a system you'd like to play. Deciding which system best fits game feel depends on your interests as GM, and your players. Usually there are a mix of playstyles represented at the table. So how do you choose?

    You've made some good points to consider when choosing a system. Looking forward to hearing more. I'm also

  5. A.L. I think the improvements have to be meaningful. In my systems I start out at around 3% jumps at the beginning of the attribute curve if a number is low. At average proficiency it's about 2% and then as the proficiency progresses I ratchet it down to 1%. It's designed to help a player that really wants to up an attribute that's sub par. I find they really don't like playing a character that has more than two low attributes so I let them build it quicker at the start and then cool things down as they go to prevent things from maxing out too quickly. Now a player may be able to do that 2 or 3 times with a single game's XP so on the low end that's 9% if they choose.

    I would say that if a player could conceivably say .1% would be valuable I'd say go for it but since BRP dice don't roll decimals (1d1000 anyone?) there's no functional value to that without some really funky mechanics.

  6. I really, REALLY need to check out BRP it seems. I do like the idea of making it so someone can raise their low stat significantly quickly to shore up an unwanted weakness. Also that as you get higher up, smaller increases are harder to get than they once were.

    Mechanics for the .1 wouldn't be too hard. It would just mean that the player didn't increase the stat until they had earned such a thing 10 times. It could work for a more natural progression, or as a reward from the GM. I.E. "That was a clever plan, add .3 to your battle planning skill" It gets the person closer, without giving a whole ton to the player.

  7. I like BRP - I'm actually playing in a game on Mondays using the BRP system. I like that it's simple to learn and there are a lot of options for adapting to many different settings, but I have a few issues with it.

    I don't know if it's how my GMs have run it or if it's the rules (I've never actually read the rules or looked at the book, go figure) but the skills list on the character sheet is full of many different skills, but they're all too undefined for my taste. A skill like Sense seems odd to me because I'm not sure what I'm sensing with it. The way my GMs run is if you can think of a way to use your skill and explain it well enough, you can use it that way. I don't like that ambiguity in skills; I prefer something more solid.

    I also have a bit of an issue with the number of options you get for different settings. I like the amount, but each one just adds a new rule that you have to learn and even those are a bit ambiguous (at least the way the game's been run for me).

    I do love the leveling system, though. The way we do it, because it's a roll under percentile system, is you roll over the skills that you used during that in-game day and, if you roll over, you roll 1d6 and raise your skill by that amount. That way you'll level skills up a lot faster starting off, but slower as they're raised higher and higher.

    It's a good system, I just prefer something a bit more well defined.

  8. That actually sounds like a handy way to do progression *takes notes shamelessly*. How your GM handles skills is interesting. I suppose I can see some merit in it. Unknown Armies uses a similar system where players come up with their own skill names (i.e., I had a char with the Baseball Bat! skill) and then have to choose how it applies. Baseball Bat! in this case obviously applied while batting, but also when clubbing things hard with blunt objects.

    Course, you then got into weirder ones, like the person who talked the GM into allowing 'Drunken Irishman' for one of his skills to help handle booze and other toxins.

  9. If you want skill ideas, feel free to look at The Artifact's skills. 104 of them, but that's the basics, you can have Weapon Skill *anything* and then there's Pilot *specific* and I'm always having players ask me for more. I avoided the "Play Music" or "Sing" skills because I never thought that it would be useful. Then a player came up with an awesome use for the skill.