Monthly Archives: August 2011

Using Less

I had an interesting conversation about 4e yesterday that revealed something I’ve been waiting for. Somewhere along the way, it has crossed the tipping point where the way to do really awesome things with it is not by adding things, but rather by taking them away.

This point was easy to see coming. As early as the PHB2 it was reasonable to look at things and think “What kind of setting would I have if I removed this class or power source?” This kind of pruning makes for a great thought exercise, but early on it had the problem that if you removed any significant portion of the game, you were limiting the range of available play. If, for example, you were to remove all Arcane classes back when the only options were PHB1 and PHB2, you’ve just really diminished your options.

But now there is enough material that a decision like that is a lot less impactful. Yes, you might create a problem for someone who wants to play a specific class because they want that specific class, but you’re not creating a situation where a player has a really narrow class selection if they want to play a particular style. The bucket is big enough that you can take a big scoop out and still have a large element remaining.

One very nice example of this was put forward by Gamefiend on twitter, suggesting that you could treat the new Thundercats as all being psionic heroes (an idea I like at least in part because none of them have the stupid looking halos that apparently denote psionics in default 4e). Story-wise this is pretty cool: they have a world where powers are defined by certain boundaries (the psionic power source) but are now encountering enemies and ancient mysteries outside that understanding (the arcane power source). It’s a classic theme, and it’s classic because it works well.

Now, admittedly 4e supports this sort of things very haphazardly. Power sources have very little mechanical weight, and they have almost no meaning beyond how they apply to character classes – settings, monsters and the like have no real resonance with these ideas, which is kind of a shame.

However, while the idea has very little support, it’s very supportable (and one could point out that the Dark Sun setting is pretty good evidence of this). The rub is it’s never going to be an idea that WOTC is really going to get behind because it hinges on removing things, and that’s bad for their business model. But they’ve made it pretty easy for a DM to decide what power sources mean in his world and remove things that suit his sensibilities.

Now, obviously, there’s more to this than the DM tossing things willy-nilly, but I wan tot come back to the premise: 4e has reached the point where you’ll get more out of it by treating design of your game as sculpture rather than painting – what you add is less important than what you take away.

(Huh. Note to self – maybe the alternative to multi-classing rules is multi-power-sourcing rules. What happens when your Warlock switches from Arcane to Divine? Must think on this. )

Jumping Turtles

I’ve been playing Bastion lately, and enjoying it very much. It’s a very pretty Xbox game with some reasonably fun gameplay and fantastic music and visuals, but what’s been keeping me hooked is the story it’s telling. Some of this is from interesting gimmicks, like a narrator who is very responsive to events in play, but some of it is because the story being told has absolutely captured me, and I’m curious where it’s going (it does not hurt that the story in question speaks right to some of the sensibilities that I like to bring to Amber). It’s not a long game, and I find myself playing it in only small bits to stretch out the experience.

I’ve been struck by how well the narration works to illustrate the relationship between the story and the game. This seems to be a result of the narration being in a true storytelling cadence – that is, one which speaks to the essentials of a story more than the details. To understand what I mean, consider the difference between the telling of a legend like Hercules or Beowulf to a modern fantasy novel. The old epics, designed to be told rather than read, might have as much violence or as many events as a novel, but they’re described in a few sentences rather than some number of pages.

This is, I should note, not a criticism of either legends or novels – both are awesome – but they definitely deliver the story in different ways, much the same way that movies or comics do so as well. What’s interesting to me is that most modern methods of storytelling tend to drill down further into the details because they can, and because they have the tools (Special effects, cool art, patient and well trained readers) to be able to do so. They take pains to make the scene interesting and compelling and – if all goes well – the scene reflects well up onto the story being told.

But there is a disconnect between that level of detail and the story. A master can smooth over that disconnect easily, but the seam is usually visible. A tale may have fantastic scenes but little real story or vice versa. The thing is that, as an audience, I think we are better trained to be forgiving of good elements/poor story than we are of the reverse (though it may also be a case where it’s hard to make a good story out of bad parts).

This, in turn, leads to some interesting shifts in perspective to the point where the details can _becomes_ the story, and that gets very weird because then the story is something very different than we’re talking about when we go back to King Arthur and Theseus and such.

If all this seems a weird set of distinctions, there’s a very concrete way to illustrate it – pick a movie or novel you like, then think about how you’d tell its story. You won’t be able to remember every detail, and even if you could, just giving a blow by blow is not a very good story. You’re going to drop details, smooth hings out and change focus so it’s interesting to your listener. Much the same way a movie changes for a novelization, you’re to change the story to tell it. Try is with Star Wars.

Anyway, this comes back to video games because the disconnect between the details and the story being told is MUCH broader than it is in something like movies or books. It’s not a total disconnect – the details (that is, the part you actually play) can feed back to the story, but usually only in highlights and details. But at the same time, the width of that disconnect means that there’s more freedom to actually tell the story without fear that the details will overwhelm it. Compare this to a movie: If you have a cool story, but make every scene awesome, it’s possible the scenes will be what people will take away. In a video game, making play more awesome does not intrinsically detract from (or add to) the power of the story. That’s pretty potent.

Now, some qualifications are in order. There are plenty of video games where the story follows a more traditional model, and which do so by making the gameplay experience more like a movie or book. Most modern RPG’s are like this, including some of my favorites like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. There is art and skill to doing those right, but it’s familiar to me.

Wat has surprised me is how much story I’ve been finding in simpler games, ones which are much more about gameplay. Side scrollers like Braid & Limbo or fighting games like Bastion. Yes, absolutely, video game designers have used story as a coat of paint & spackle to justify the details of their games since forever. Some have tried to buck this trend by making the game into the story (think MYST) but it’s always been an odd match.

But now, as the games have matured to a certain point and there’s less of a need to desperately justify why the blue colored blob of pixels wants to kill the green blob of pixels, story has moved beyond mere explanation and started finding a home in surprising places. I’m pretty happy with this.

Your Better Instincts

I admit that I’m usually all about taking advantage of your instincts to hose your players to make things more fun for them, but I want to take a second to turn that around.

See, while I’ve gotten better, one of my real weaknesses as a GM is a tendency to be too nice. If things fall apart or go horribly wrong, my instinct is to step in with my GM authority and help save the day. This is a terrible habit – I just can’t stress it enough. Even if I’m not setting forth to show the players the story of my cool NPCs (which I’m not), having them step in to dramatically save the day has the same net result. My game’s no longer about the players, it’s now about whatever the stakes of this particular adventure are.

This is a sinister problem, in part because it comes from a well-intentioned place. Your players are maybe upset and disappointed with the way things have gone, and you want to mitigate that. It’s totally human and understandable, but it will suck the fun out of your game.

However, like all bad habits, advice to “Just stop doing it” is basically useless. There are reasons people have the patterns they do, no matter how “obvious” things may seem to people outside those patterns. So if you have this instinct and you want to change it, then the trick is not to stop, but rather to redirect it.

So, the net time you find yourself in this situation, stop for a second as you pull it all together. Things have gone badly, so you’ve got the cavalry ready to ride. This is the point when you should stop and think – _how_ is the cavalry going to save the day? You need to have a better answer for this than “With their sheer awesomeness” and you probably will have one, because hey, you’re a good, thoughtful, conscientious GM and even if you’re helping you’re not just going to pull an Elminster.

Once you’ve thought about that, think of it as a plot seed. Specifically, think of it as something that’s ready to go but is missing one key element. Then make that element the player’s responsibility.

This may sound tricky, but it’s surprisingly easy, and it’s something you see in fiction all the time. Consider the scenario where the cavalry literally shows up to help – they’ve got the men, they can win the battle, but they’re pinned down by the artillery up on that mesa. Clearly, someone needs to sneak up there and take out that artillery team! Really, look at almost any fiction where the backdrop involves huge, powerful forces (like a war) and you’ll find eamples of how the story narrows down to some lynchpin action on the part of the protagonists.

And now here’s the real dirty trick – once you’ve gotten the hang of doing this, it becomes a trick you can incorporate into all your adventures. This is especially true if you want games against a big backdrop, or ones with powerful NPCs calling the shots, like The Forgotten Realms or any of the older World of Darkness products. If it’s important to you that things and people be bigger than your PCs, then you can still keep things robust by getting the movers and shakers up to 90% but have them need help to get that last 10%.

This works in most play models, even classic mission-based play, but it has the advantage of giving the missions a reason that is somewhat more significant than “The Prince can’t be bothered. You go do it”. And more, by given the players even a small part in big events, you’ll find that it ties them into events more tightly over time. These events, after all, are the things that NPCs respond to, and if players have a tie to the event, that’s a one-step-removed tie to most of the interesting NPCs.

Plus as a bonus, it makes something that’s historically a drag into a real play booster. Normally, the more invested you are in what Khelben Blackstaff or the Malkavian Antediluvian are up to, the less invested you end up being in your players, but by looking for that 10%, that lynchpin, you turne that investment back onto the players, hopefully to a good end.

Anyway, I try not to be a nice GM these days, but the habits are still there. For me, it’s useful to have a practical way to channel them.

Ow Ow Ow

Gah, gonna be a short one today. Wrenched my back, and my attention span is SQUIRREL.

I am cautiously optimistic about some of the things WOTC has had to say about the future of 4e at Gencon, most of which I received via Critical Hits coverage of the new product seminar. The funny thing is that I’m not terribly excited about any product in particular (except perhaps Lord of Waterdeep – people I trust keep saying good things about it) but there seems to be a shift in emphasis in adventure, setting and material design that gravitates towards a little more setting buy in and dramatic focus. That’s ambitious.

I’d be excited if it could work. Every now and again I get the urge to drastically crack 4e open to better support such things. It wouldn’t be hard – the core engine is pretty robust, and it would be easy to make a handful of changes (Change skills, connection between stats and attacks, revamp rituals and try some different power ideas) to make a game that would probably be a lot of fun to try. However, it would be terrible to share and on sufficiently shaky legal ground that it’s just not worth the risk. Still, there’s a specific area where this raises my curiosity, and that is setting.

4e tends toward static settings. This Is not a failure of writing so much as a function of the way NPCs and powers are handled. Very little in 4e has much effect longer than scene length, and there is barely even a concept of recurring enemies. The result has been settings which are magnificent set-pieces but which don’t necessarily have a lot of dynamism to them. Coupled with the fact that the system is a fairly abstract one (rather than representational) it’s hard for a setting to come to life on its own.

While there’s some criticism in this, I feel I should also point out the upside – 4e material has been much more focused on going from Zero to playing something cool in no time flat, and that’s a pretty good goal. What’s more, the desire that a setting be dynamic is directly at odds with a lot of the source fiction people draw on – settings are often static backdrops except where the main characters interact with them, and there’s a lot of virtue to that. Like many things, it’s a trade-off, and how well it works depends a lot on how you value the elements and how they’re balanced.

But the thing is, while the mechanics exert a certain gravity, it’s far from inescapable. I feel that encounter design has matured a lot since 4e came out, and it’s mature enough that focus can now be shifted to setting and adventures. If so, I’ll be really curious to see what comes of it.

That Also Happened

There doesn’t seem to be anything to link to about it yet, so I’ll hijack someone else’s coverage of the announcement. Short form, Margaret Weis Productions has announced that they got the Marvel license and that it will be a Cortex+ product. I should also add that I will be involved in the design process (as are a number of other really awesome folks).

One thing I want to note: MWP has announced what can only be interpreted as a very aggressive release schedule (16 products in 15 months) but that is not quite as crazy as it sounds. They’re following a particular model of releases which I think is very much in line with the material while also being novel in ways that I think will pay off very well.

Anyway, it’s not something I can really talk about much yet, but I’m excited about it, and optimistic. I have a great love of supers RPGs in all their various forms and shapes, and on some level I think you can argue that it’s the most essential of RPG genres – almost every game out there with powers and badassery and limited trips to the emergency room is some narrow slice of supers. Yet for all that, it’s a well that has a lot of potential to be tapped for more goodness. Or so I hope!

So, That Happened

So, the 2011 Ennies were announced on Friday night. I watched most of it via live-streaming (thanks to neoncon) and caught the parts I missed via twitter. I greatly regretted not being there.

The flowchart held up decently well, but it’s clear I overestimated the power of WOTC. The reality is that I could have gone with a much simpler chart that was basically “IS PAIZO IN THE CATEGORY? THEN THEY WIN!” There’s a bit of a joke to it, but that’s kind of the reality. Paizo walked away with 9 ennies, and the only one which was silver was for Best Adventure, where they also took the gold. Now, I totally don’t want to bust on Paizo – they do great stuff – and it seems mean spirited to suggest that there’s any reason for the wins other than their quality, and so i shall not do so. Instead, I’m going to cheer them – it used to be that you had to handicap the ennies for several companies, but now it seems it’s just Paizo, and that speaks well for how well they’ve done.

Of course, I can say this without sour grapes, primarily because the Ennies were very kind to us indeed. Evil hat took home 6 ennies for The Dresden Files – Silvers for Best Production Values and Product of the Year, and gold for Best Writing, Best Rules, Best Game and Best New Game. That was…jaw dropping. I was hoping for us to take home a few silvers, maybe a gold if we were lucky. There was just so many good competition and I had expected to be beaten by Pathfinder: Bestiary 2 for Production Values (and we were), Delta Green for writing, D&D Rules Compendium for rules (that was the real breaking point for the flowchart), The Laundry for Best new game and Mutants & Masterminds for Best Game. I didn’t even expect a showing for Product of the Year (which we lost to Paizo, natch).

Were I a younger man, this would be insecurity talking, but the reality is far more about the fantastic quality of the Ennies slate this year. And with that in mind, even though it’s just for this year, I’m going to encourage folks to handicap for Evil Hat. We did great, and thank you all for your support. It means the world, and the best reward you can give yourself is to check out some of the folks we beat because, man, there’s real metaphorical gold in them thar hills.


Man, one thing leads to another, so here’s another sidebar about mook rules.

This was inspired by my reading of the new webcomic, Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, which is basically “Greg Rucka’s the Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies Webcomic” (which is a pretty cool thing). It hasn’t been going very long but the most recent strip reminded me very clearly of why I don’t like mook rules.

Aside if you’re unfamiliar: Mook rules are rules for handling the “nameless extras” in a fight, allowing large numbers of opponents to be put in play but be casually cut down by the hero. The term comes from Feng Shui, which is the daddy of this. Some people claim the less-than-1HD rules from AD&D are the basis of this, but the similarity is – to my mind – shallow and cosmetic.

You can go read it is you like – there are only 8 comics or so at this point – but to sum up, this is the point where we see the heroine kick the asses of multiple badguys at once without breaking a sweat. This is, theoretically, supposed to impress us with just how intensely badass and awesome the protagonist is, but in practice it tends to fall a little flat. Partly because it’s so blatant, partly because it’s so overused, it tends to feel like the author going “See! See!” more than anything which tells me about the character (which is, I note, an interesting contrast to the page before, which is both badass and says something).

There’s a trick that bad writers use to make a character seem smart – they make everyone around them stupid. This is a terrible, lame, dissatisfying trick and mooks tend to be the badass equivalent of it. By making the opposition so trivial that they are casually knocked down, you don’t make your protagonist look awesome, you just underscore how lame everything is.

This is not to say that mooks can’t be done well, it’s just that they’re often not. One of the magnificent things about Hong Kong cinema was that it made fights with lots of guys seem awesome when compared to the same number of guys fighting John Rambo. There’s a balance to strike – the opposition needs to seem dangerous enough that the protagonist’s triumph does not seem inevitable. This same is true of games.

Games use mook rules for a variety of reasons, but there are three big ones: Genre simulation, Bookkeeping, and reinforcing awesome. Now, I have no real beef with the first two. If you want to model Hong Kong cinema, you need rules to model the big fights. Similarly, if you’re playing a system where tracking a lot of lesser adversaries is cumbersome, a system for aggregating them can be a lifesaver. The problem is the last.

Mook rules rarely illustrate character awesome for the same reasons they can fail in fiction. Unless there’s a sense of real opposition, then it’s just a stylish pantomime. If that’s what you’re really looking for, then that’s fine, but I point out that you’re making a tradeoff to do it. Mook rules tend to do a great job of reinforcing the lethality of a system – hundreds of peopel get shot or cut down, after all! – but they often do so in direct contradiction to the way the rest of the system works. This is not a bad thing in its own right, but you need to realize that there is a cognitive cost in introducing such a clearly meta-gaming rule, and when there’s a cost, you better make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

Now, Chad Underkoffler challenged me to say how you handle Zorro, Inigo Montoya and Batman without Mook rules, and I think those are GREAT examples of other ways to think of th e problem.

First, Batman’s an oddball because there’s some question of which batman you’re talking about. Grant Morrison writing JLA Batman could fight a million ninjas and win but he wouldn’t have too because he’s ALREADY BEATEN THEM, but that’s the extreme case. Going with something like the Animated series, Batman can take on 3 or 4 thugs at once, but he’ll have a hard time of it. With that in mind, the only time he ends up in that kind of fight is when he’s the one getting ambushed. If he’s in control of the fight, he isolates enemies and takes them down one at a time (something easily handled by rules that handle difference in skill + surprise). If he’s outnumbered, he’ll try to break the fight up so he’s taking on few people at a time.

Zorro follows almost exactly the same pattern (and, in fact, has the same question – lots of Zorros out there) which is no surprise given the connection between Batman and Zorro. The main difference is one of flash – Zorro may face large numbers of opponents, but a lot of the whole swashbuckling, umping around, swinging on things and so on is that it keeps him from ever being in one place where he has to fight them all at once. The exceptions to this tend to be the cheesiest, lamest of fight sequences (such as when Zorro, surrounded by men with drawn blades, sings his blade in a wide arc, hitting all their swords and – by some dark magic – knocking all his opponents back.)

Inigo is the most interesting case. He can explicitly take on 10 guys (Maybe 20 – it’s been a while) because he’s just that awesome, though we could only guess what that would look like. The problem is, it’s clear he really sees that as a stretch – this is something that’s really freaking hard, possible only because of his awesome level of skill. He’s not casually dismissing the guards. Now, this doesn’t rule out mook rules – you could do it with mooks that are reasonably dangerous – but it doesn’t necessitate them. The same logic that we’ve applied to Zorro probably is equally applicable here.

Now, this does reveal something interesting – in all of these examples we’re really talking less about the actual fight and more about controlling the situation. It’s a somewhat different focus, and one that not all games necessarily support, but I think it’s a powerful perspective.

Quantum Aspects

OK, I’ve gotten knocked off on a tangent, and I’ll stay on it for the moment. What the heck, it’s Gencon week, so things are weird anyway.

First off, feedback to yesterday’s post was fantastic. I want to thank everyone who weighed in. Lots of good thoughts, and the starting points of some solutions, I think. Going to percolate a bit.

But the fact that it spun off into Fate lead to me thinking about aspects, and some thinking I’ve had regarding them. I very rarely make concrete declarations about aspects because they are not terribly concrete. Oh, sure, there’s an idea there which can be used, but its borders and shape are quite fuzzy. This is, I think, very much a good thing. It’s the reason the idea of aspects can be so easily inserted into so many different contexts, but it also addresses a harsh reality of gaming – we’re a painfully inconsistent lot.

Nothing reflects this more than the rules for compels, and it’s no surprise that these may often be the most confusing or problematic thing for players to work with. Some of this is because they’re different than other games – players who are used to implicit limiters may balk at explicit ones, for example – but I think there’s a deeper, more essential issue.

So, one of the core principals of gaming in my mind is that bad things are going to happen to your characters. Some people object to this, but I’ll stand by it on the simple grounds that bad things are the basis for almost every interesting thing that can happen in a game. It’s theoretically possible to have a game where players just build everything up positively, but given the relative rarity of such games, I’ll stick by my thesis: Bad things happen in good games.

Given that, the next question is where those bad things come from. It’s entirely possible for the bad things to be random, capricious, or entirely external to the characters. This is fine, but it is my opinion that arbitrary bad things are less interesting that bad things which touch upon the characters in some way. This is not to say everything needs to stem directly from the characters – there’s a sliding scale – but I definitely gravitate towards character-connected badness.

That’s two value judgments so far, and here’s an important jumping-off point. If you disagree with one or both of those, FATE Is not going to be a very good match for you. It won’t automatically become bad as a result, but it’ll be like a pair of shoes that’s not quite the right size. You can still run and walk, but it’ll rub you wrong, and you might just want a better-fitted pair.

Ok, so given that, how do we find good ways to draw things out of characters? Rich backgrounds can do it, of course, but that’s a lot of writing and a lot of reading that no one really wants to do. There needs to be a shorthand. Advantages and disadvantages can do this, but they have a couple problems. First, they tend to have limited lists. Second, they tend to be dominated by mechanics. Some people may pick ads & disads based on flavor, but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable to suggest that they are most often picked for maximum mechanical benefit (for ads) or minimal impact (for disads). Yes, I acknowledge that you may be a special snowflake who would never do such a thing, but me? I _totally_ would. My GURPs characters and various point-build supers over the years are utter embarrassments.

So, obviously, aspects step into that niche. And, conceptually, they’re very straightforward – will it help you? Get a bonus! Will it hinder you? Get a fate point! But there’s a lot of fiddle room in there, and that’s where confuses emerges. Not so often for when the bonus is given, since that’s very straightforward – player asserts the aspect is appropriate by declaring it and if the GM doesn’t countermand or call for elaboration then the bonus is given. There’s a little room for debate, but it’s smooth going overall.

Compels though…that gets kind of crazy. On some level, it would have been easiest if we’d just been more draconian about it and let the GM say “No, you can’t, you’ve got that aspect” and hand the player a point. That may allow the occasional dick move, but it’s very clear. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how we roll. We really _like_ that moment in fiction when someone exceeds their limitations or defies expectations, and it was with that in mind that we included the idea that the player could step up, spend a point and say “No, this matters enough that I will overcome my limitation and press on.”

Nice concept, eh? But the “spending a point” bit really muddied the waters. People love their Fate points, and the idea of needing to spend one without getting a bonus is one that does not sit well on them, especially if they are inclined to see it as GM bullying or extortion. It’s with that in mind that a lot of people have adopted a model of making the compel an offer rather than a demand, allowing players to simply refuse to take the point (and thus refuse the compel). I’ve talked about these Hard vs. Soft compels in the past, and it’s mechanically addressable, but doing so kind of skips the underlying question.

The real question behind any compel is how the player perceives it. That is – how much does the player _want_ to be hindered by the things he declared important during chargen. Sometimes the answer is “not at all” and it’s important to be able to recognize it. Sometimes the answer is “All the time” and you’re likely to have problems with compelling these players because they’re going to be pre-emptively embracing their problems.

But the rub is, how do you make a mechanic that incorporates both of these players?

This, I should note, is part of why I stick with hard compels (ones that demand payoff ) simply to make sure that they have teeth. Provided my sensibilities are in line with my players (and I hope thye are) my compels will rarely be rebuffed because what I’m really doing with a compel is offering the player a chance to do the thing he would have done if he’d seen the connection between it and his aspect. Yes, if the player’s being a jerk and trying to run sprints with a broken leg, then I’m also using it as an enforcement mechanism, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve needed to do that.

And that’s where we come to the self contradiction. Through my embrace of hard compels, I am almost never put in a position where I have to use them, which is really the ideal space. That is – the best use of the tool is not not need it.

It’s a nerdy kind of Zen, but I’ll take it.

The Right Tool For the Job

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.