A passing comment on twitter got me thinking about a White Collar hack for Leverage. It’s doable, but chewing on it lead to me hurting my teeth on a familiar nut, one which also is worrying me a little bit in the context of the system I’ve been developing.
I’m going to use Cortex+ to illustrate this issue, but it is far from the only game where it’s an issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s an issue with many games, but it’s most evident in games which support very flexible labels for dice pools (such as cliche’s in Risus, descriptors in over the Edge, term in PDQ and Assets & Complications in Cortex+).
The problem is this: the systems have no real support for the idea of the right tool for the job.
What does that mean? In fiction (and in life) one of the best ways to solve a problem is to find the right tool for the job. If you need to drive a screw, you get a screwdriver. If you need to drive off Frankenstein’s monster, you get a torch. In many cases, the real skill in an activity comes in knowing how to choose the right tools, then applying them properly.
Games poorly support this. There may be a threshold of applicability (that is, “Can I use this die in this roll?”) but beyond that, all dice are created equal. If I need to make perfect croissants, it’s more important to have a skilled baker than a good kitchen, but if I have “Kitchen d8” and “Baker d8” then they’re equally valuable.
Now, not to say this doesn’t work at all. A lot of narrative logic is perfectly fine determining what the best tool for the job was after things have been resolved. And some of this gets subsumed in the creation of dice – if you have a d8 Kitchen, there is presumably some reason why that kitchen matters, so it’s no big deal, right?
Ok, so it makes me a little crazy for two reasons, one selfish and one a little more well thought out.
For the selfish one, I really like problem-solving. Figuring out the right tool for the job is like solving a puzzle, and in fact it’s basically the mechanic that many games (like text adventures) use for resolution. You _can’t_ solve the problem unless you use the right tool.
I don’t actually want anything that restrictive, but I really like the idea of finding a clever application of a tool and being rewarded for it. Similarly, I like the idea of rewarding greater planning, though to knowledge within the game. Taken to a crunchy level, it’s a similar desire to one that desires that tactics be rewarded in a conflict.
Anyway, that’s my personal fun, but it’s not the only issue.
The other issue is one of player choice. When dice (or bonuses or the like) are fungible – that is, can be used interchangeably – it becomes very hard to introduce situations where the player is forced to make a hard choice with mechanical consequences.
Consider, for example, the offer of help from a mob boss. It comes with certain strings attached, which would normally be enough to reject it outright, but the task is really hard and really important. Do you take his help?
Well, if his help is an extra d10, you probably don’t. Mechanically, there are other ways for you to get that d10 (or near enough) that the price is almost certainly not worth it.
Now, this is admittedly an area where Cortex+ (and Leverage in particular) is a problematic example because it’s built on a foundation of competence. With success as the norm, you’ll be hard pressed to ever really _need_ a particular bonus so badly that you’d be willing to eat bitter for it. However, my own design has a similar success-based focus, so it’s perhaps doubly informative.
This also speaks to why the interpretive solution (GM handing out bonuses to reflect this stuff) can be unsatisfying. The problem is that bonuses are – generally speaking – just as generic and easy to get as anything else.
Fate Nerds: This problem comes up with aspects a lot too, with aspects that are appropriate to the character but not the situation (or vice versa). Having your father’s sword as an aspect is a great all-purpose bonus-generator when you get in swordfights, but if used that way, it offers no distinction between using it on a random thug and using it on your father’s killer.
And, argh, I think that may be it. That split between “appropriate to the character” and “Appropriate to the situation” is the heart of the problem. The vast majority of game mechanics are appropriate to the character and some are appropriate to the situation, but there is almost no recognition of the synergy between the two.
And thinking about it, I can see why. It’s a bookeeping challenge. The only really practical way to mechanize it is to do things in paired elements, one on the actor and one on the target. When you see this sort of thing in action (Such as attacks with a fire keyword and a creature with a fire vulnerability) it’s effective, but it hinges on a lot of extra data. Could you really have a game where the bonuses are based on the interaction between two elements rather than their inherent nature?
I dunno. This one has actually thrown me for a loop – I feel like I started picking at a thread and an entire sweater has come apart in my hands. I feel like I’ve got a better grasp on the problem no, but am no closer to a solution.