While I love the creative and storytelling aspects of being a GM, also I love the mechanical aspects of games. In my downtime from running games and stirring the Stew, I read a lot of rulebooks, many for games I am not planning to run, just to read about different mechanics. I love to see how different designers handle skill checks, car chases, or character growth. With my background in science and computer programming, I find the idea of how a game designer models the world using rules and dice to be fascinating.
The more games I read and play, the more I am starting to identify a group of common game mechanics that I prefer over others. These mechanics are not from a single game, and in most cases not even all in one game, but they are the types of mechanics that I find myself gravitating towards, as I look at the games that I want to run.
I wanted to share my three favorites. These three have not always been my favorites, rather, they reflect where I am right now as both a GM and a player.
Margin of Success
Examples: WoD Storyteller System, Burning Wheel, Corporation, and Savage Worlds
Margin of Success is part of the task resolution mechanic, showing not only a Pass/Fail outcome, but expanding the range of the Pass outcome into degrees of success. This creates a situation where a task resolution success can be marginal, when the check is passed by obtaining the target number, or wildly successful, when passed with a large margin between the roll and the target number. Most of these systems empower the GM to embellish the outcome of the check based on the margin of success.
What I like about this mechanic is that it puts in the GM’s hands the power to interpret the outcome of a check, and to reward the player by adding additional elements for well-rolled checks. This mechanic is great for skill checks that are observation based, like Gather Information, Perception, Notice, etc. In those cases, the additional margin of success can reveal information that is more useful than information gained with a base level of success.
Margin of Success is also useful in combat mechanics, translating the margin of success as the severity of the attack, often resulting in increased damage. In Savage Worlds a raise on an attack leads to in an increased number of dice of damage. In Corporation only weapon experts can utilize their XS on an attack roll, the untrained can only do base damage.
Examples: Action Points from D&D 4e, Bennies from Savage World, Style Points from Houses of the Blooded, Artha from Burning Wheel
This mechanic gives the player (not character) some commodity, often represented in points, which have influence over the mechanics of the game. Often the points are spent to influence dice rolls, but can also grant narrative control (see below) or avoid certain death.
What I like about this mechanic is that it gives the player a mechanism allowing him to define when a roll is important and to give him an advantage in that moment. When the hero has the villain in his sights, he can spend his point to increase his attack roll, and in turn his chances to strike the opponent. The player is expressing that this adversary is important, and this is then an indicator to the GM what his players find to be important.
As a GM, knowing how your players spend their rewards is more important than the bonuses the rewards grant them. Paying attention to how the players spend their rewards, and what they spend them on, gives you the roadmap to creating adventures that are exciting for your players.
Player Narrative Control
Examples: Wagers in Houses of the Blooded, Raises in Dogs In The Vineyard
This mechanic allows the players to take the GM’s role for a brief time, and to narrate a part of the session. Most often this mechanic is employed after task resolution. The player who wins a check is allowed to narrate the outcome, injecting his own descriptions and elements into the game.
This mechanic has recently become a favorite of mine. Over time, I have increasingly become a fan of turning over narrative control to the players. It started with allowing players to define minor NPCs and limited locations. I then expanded it to allow the players to narrate some of the side plots in the campaign. I found it exciting not to know exactly where the story was going, and to have to build off of elements that the players introduced.
The more I GM, the more I want to collaborate and not dictate to my players. I am having the most fun GMing when I am setting the stage for the game, and my players are driving the game by creating drama, and at times complications for themselves, because it makes a better story.
I Showed You Mine…Now Show Me Yours
The mechanics of a game evoke passion in us. Look no further then the passion and often absurdly of the recent D&D edition wars to see how important mechanics are. Talk to a fan of 2nd Edition Rolemaster and ask him about RMSS or why I cannot open the Conspiracy X 2.0 book after playing the first edition for three years.
I have shared some of my favorite mechanics with you, now it’s your turn to tell me what mechanics are your favorites.