Gaming Technology

Gaming has technology. Our games are full of interesting moving parts that we use to a variety of effects. Sometimes a given part doesn’t work that well, or two parts don’t work that well together, but that’s where the joy of pulling out a part, polishing it off, tweaking it a bit, and plugging it back in can really live.

These are ideas which are expressed as rules more than the rules themselves. The idea of mook rules is easily recognizable between Feng Shui and D&D 4e despite the differences in implementation, and it’s a great little piece of technology (#6 on the list in fact).

This is a list of 10 pretty cool pieces of gaming technology that I’m calling out because while each one may be familiar, they also still have untapped swaths of potential. These aren’t the only 10 technologies, or the 10 best – any such list would be nonsensical. Instead, the purpose of the list is to maybe make you think about technologies that you think need a little more airtime.

As a last caveat, this list is in no particular order. It’s a collection, not a ranking.

1. Character Creation as Play
2. Generators
3. Fruitful Downtime
4. Narrative Currency
5. Buying Your Pain
6. Tiered Opposition
7. Paired Stats
8. Rich Dice
9. Weighted Skill Pricing
10. Lists

1. Character Creation as Play
I think this idea was made most palpable to me in the Amber DRPG with the idea of the stat auction. In retrospect it was a bit crude and metagamey, but that level of player engagement was pretty exciting. Coupled with ideas like lifepaths (more on those below) this has steadily grown into a great way to really get the foundation under a game before the dice hti the table, both in terms of getting players synced up with the setting and with each other, and for revealing the player priorities to the GM. This idea had big traction in Fate (and in turn in SOTC).

2. Generators
Roll a die, draw a card, and use the element that comes up on the appropriate list. This is old school tech, from Traveller’s lifepath, to the old Dungeon Master’s Design Kit (man I loved that) to more modern incarnations like the fantastic one roll chargen in Reign or the situation generators from In a Wicked Age to all the magnificent toys at Abulafia. Add in some of their more abstract cousins like Story Cards and you have this fantastic set of ideas, literally. This is one of those ideas that seems like it’s played out, but constantly surprises and amazes.

3. Fruitful Downtime
Your characters are not always adventuring, so what do you do with the time in between sessions? I trace this one back to first edition AD&D, and the idea of building and maintaining your own castle. I spent way too much time planning castles, drawing and pricing them out, making cunning plans if they were ever attacked (they weren’t). Unlike the rules for training or research, this was a change I could make to the world, and that was pretty intoxicating. Later on games like Ars Magica and Birthright came along and really filled out this idea for me.
On one level, this can be a lot like playing a boardgame and an RPG simultaneously, with the boardgame turns happening between RPG sessions, and that’s pretty cool. However, in the broader sense it’s a way to let player take a bigger hand in the game than just moving their guy around, and that may be even cooler.

4. Narrative Currency
Fate points, Action points, Karma, Fan mail. Whatever it’s called, there’s a core idea of a spendable currency which can be used to add a bonus when players _really_ need it. By itself, this helps characters excel when it is most dramatically appropriate, and if it was just that then this currency would be quite useful, but the reality far exceeds that. What the currency can be spent on and how it is earned makes for a powerful one-two punch that can really bring a game to life though a cycle of rewards and reinforcement. If you reward behaviors that support the way the game should go, then allow currency to be spent in a way that emphasizes that, you set up a virtuous cycle.
As an example, if I was creating a game that was going to play like Die Hard, I want things to go wrong for the protagonist but I also want him to be able to keep fighting on. I could capture this by rewarding currency whenever things go wrong and allow the player to spend currency to heal or remain standing. Without even looking at the other rules for the game, that sets up a cycle of things getting worse, but the hero fighting on – perfect!
As a bonus, currency is also a great way to handle metagame concerns, like GM authority, by allowing currency to blur that line. A common example is “Spend a point to introduce an NPC”.

5. Buying Your Pain
If you allow them to, players who trust the game will do far meaner things to themselves than any GM will ever think of. That fact is a little closer to technique than technology, but it informs upon a counterintuitive piece of technology that I first encountered in 7th Sea. Rather than rewarding players for their characters’ drawbacks, players had to pay for those drawbacks, with the promise of a greater reward when that drawback came up in play. This seemed nonsensical to me until I realized that bad things are always going to happen to characters; that’s the very basis of adventure gaming! What you are buying is some control over which bad things are going to happen to you, and that’s practically very potent in play. This idea strongly informed the nature of aspects, but all in all I think it’s only barely been tapped.

6. Tiers
Consistency is the bugbear of small minds. Sometimes it is also actually a bugbear.
As with many things, Feng Shui was my first exposure to this idea, where enemies were divided into “mooks” and “named enemies” with very different capabilities. 7th Sea expanded on it by introducing a middle tier, and the idea’s been pretty firmly written into D&D 4e with minions, elites and bosses.
This is a great idea, especially if you want to capture a very adventurous or cinematic feel, since it enables a lot of things we’re used to in fiction, like the hero easily overcoming the guards (Mooks/Minions) but then having an extended duel with the evil cardinal (a named character).
Eden Studios turned this on its head with the Buffy and Angel RPGs. Since they were using setting which included a wide disparity in character power, it differentiated mechanically between heroes and “White Hats”, the good guys with less power, by giving the white hats more things they could do with the narrative currency. I admit I await the day someone does this with supers – it totally makes sense to me that Batman has less power but much more narrative authority than the rest of the justice league.

7. Paired Scores
Mechanically, this is a pretty simple idea: two values are in opposition, and as one gets higher the other gets lower. At its simplest, the two stats will always total up to a specific value, so it acts as a sort of slider. So, for example, the Blue and Yellow stats always total up to 10: If I increase my Blue from 2 to 3, I decrease my Yellow from 8 to 7.
A refinement on this creates a bit more play in the middle. I first encounters this in Fading Suns and recently A Dirty World has used it to good effect. The change is that at low values, the two scores may be equal and independent, but there is some threshold beyond which they move into contention. For example, in Fading Suns, your Human and Alien stat were in opposition, and could not total more than 10. However, since both stats started at 0 or 1, they would not come into conflict until you had substantially bought up one or the other. A Dirty World expresses this idea very elegantly with little dots that you fill in.
So why would you do this? Simple: It puts big thematic conflicts right there on the character sheet.

8. Rich Dice
I do not think there’s a greater proponent for this idea than my friend and partner and a great many of his game design ideas have explored ways to expand this idea.
The basic principle is simple: when the dice hit the table, that’s a whole lot of data. Traditionally we extract a single value from the roll (such as a number, or the number of successes) and use that, but depending on what dice are rolled and how they are counted, there might be more data to extract. This can be done by making some dice stand out, such as with the colored dice of Don’t Rest Your Head or the ‘Wild Die’ from some iterations of the D6 system, so that the outcome can change based upon how certain dice fall.
This is a mostly untapped field, but at the very simplest this adds nuance and depth to what might otherwise be a very binary exercise. A word of caution, though: The line between rich dice and an overly complicated dice game can be razor thin, so be wary of it.

9. Weighted Skill Pricing
This is something I first saw in Big Eyes, Small Mouth and the idea is really very simple – the less important a skill is to a game, the cheaper it should be. Thsi means that if you’re playing a game of kung fu fighting, it is reasonably inexpensive for one of the characters to be a Nobel prize winning botanist because – for the purposes of the game – that’s more of an interesting piece of color than anything else. In a “fairly” priced game, such a character would have to really sacrifice their other skills to do this, which can be a lot less fun.
BESM remains the only game I’ve seen this explicitly addressed in, but you’ll find that it is subtly worked into a lot of games with fixed skill lists by keeping costs the same but changing the scope of skills. If “Handguns” and “Science” cost the same amount, it’s pretty clear there’s a little weighting going on there.

10. Lists
Lists are great way to communicate simple pieces of information in a way that is easily digestible and even more easily referenced. A few games have found ways to use this to a mechanical advantage, by putting some of the essential elements of the game in list form. This helps insure that everyone is on the same page about these elements and also keeps them fresh in mind. My favorite examples of this include the handling of gods in Questers of the Middle Realms, who are listed in terms of their relationships to the PCs, something that captures a wonderfully Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser sort of vibe. Mortal Coil goes even further and explicitly uses lists for its setting building and for creating the tenets of magic. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff to be done with this particular gizmo.

Again, this list is far from comprehensive. Even as I finish, I regret the exclusion of things like “Punch me in the Girlfiend!”, “Quirks are Cheating” or “Drawing Stuff” but I think it’s best to leave it incomplete, especially because that let’s me ask folks for any additions they’d like to make to the list.

I’m off at Origins this week, so I’m dusting off some old posts while I’m gone. This one is from 2009, and you can see the original (along with extensive discussion) here.

2 thoughts on “Gaming Technology

  1. jessecoombs

    One piece of tech that I think was really elegant was the “FATE” system’s (no, not yours, the one that TSR used for Marvel Supers and Dragonlance) use of a hand of cards to represent ability and health. By letting the player see what they were capable of, the system was actually allowing the player to have a subtle bit of narrative control that dice might not have allowed.

    “I’d better save this card for something really dangerous. I’ll just use this low one now, because I don’t care if I fail here.”

    The two others I love are In a Wicked Age’s negotiation conflict system and Mouse Guard’s conditions.

  2. alan-de-smet

    I wonder if the inverted tiers technique in Buffy/Angel influenced the Dresden Files “You can be more awesome at the expensive of Fate point pool” system. Dresden Files really opened my eyes to the power of that tradeoff, giving a player a different type of benefit for passing on the obvious direct power route. It a technique I’m considering using for a BPRD campaign.

    I like the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s rich dice system. It uses custom dice, but a single roll can convey several interesting facts, some mechanically backed and others left for the GM to use as guidance.


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