Saturday 30 December 2023

Whose Mechanic is it Anyway?

Here's a simple principle:

(1) The player who needs to use a quantity should be the one tracking it.

If you're the one who updates your rogue's hit points, the hit point score should be on a piece of paper in your hands, not somebody else's (e.g. the GMs). Pretty obvious.

I can only ever remember this principle being broken once: in an early version of Blades in the Dark, it was actually the GM who had to factor up all the player skills as part of resolution.. but the GM didn't actually have this information, the players did. We adapted by making a little GM tracking sheet for all the PC's skill levels, but this was a bunch of bookkeeping. (A later version soon smoothed out this problem.)

Here's another principle, one this article is really about:

(2) The player who desires the outcome of a mechanic should be responsible for invoking it.

If you're playing a role-playing game, and part of your fun as GM is to force the PCs to face the hazards of the Purple Steppes, it should be you, the GM, that invokes the wandering encounter table.

This is a simple enough idea, but games break it all the time. This mostly happens because tracking quantities is work, and it can easily overwhelm the GM. But the consequences of giving a mechanic to somebody who doesn't want to use it are often that it doesn't get used at all.

Think about things like negative character conditions: wet, exhausted or plain old arithmetic-heavy encumbrance rules. These are quantities that the players must track, but which is against the PCs' interests. Think about how often these rules get forgotten?

Struggling with adversity is an awesome part of RPGs, but it usually falls to the GM to bring the adversity. When we leave it to players to do a bookkeeping-heavy task whose outcome they don't want, there are subtle incentives built into the rules that will encourage the group to ignore those rules.

I tried to address this in some versions of ALM, where PC conditions are tracked by the GM. It's the GM who wants the PCs to feel the freezing chill after they swim through an icy river, so the GM should a) be the one tracking that information and b) be the one who invokes it.

Here's an addition to that last principle:

(2.b) Mechanics which produce only negative or positive outcomes are especially important to give to the proper player

If a mechanic only ever produces bad news for the PCs, or nothing, it's especially important that it's not the PCs' job to invoke this mechanic. Encumbrance is the classic example of this.

Oh Right, I Forgot About Encumbrance

Look at all this stuff I forgot to weigh

Encumbrance is such a great example of these problems:

  • Encumbrance is a bunch of granular arithmetic, so it takes genuine effort to keep track of it.
  • It's is a purely negative mechanic. There's nothing good that happens with encumbrance, it's all downside. Either you're as normal or penalized.
  • The player who is inconvenienced by encumbrance is the one who has to track it

All together, old B/X encumbrance seems almost purpose-built to be ignored. Do a bunch of math for no other reason than to inconvenience your PC? Oh, we're not bothering with that in this campaign.

Pairing the Good with the Bad

The old approach we're probably all familiar with is to try to be clever about reducing bookkeeping. This is especially true for mechanics with negative outcomes for the PCs, which (by principle #2) properly belong with the GM. GMs are busy and can only track so much, so if you can reduce your quantity to a simple tag or a single-digit number that doesn't change very often.

But a new approach I'm trying out more recently is to pair positive and negative outcomes in the same mechanic. Here's part of the character sheet for my Isle of Wight game:

This is an equipment list, and I've tried to make it chunky/simplistic ('reduce bookkeeping'), but the important part here is that lightly loaded characters get +1 to all of their rolls. This is a big deal, and a massive incentive for players to care about tracking encumbrance. Judging by the player chatter as the characters set out on forays, it's having the desired effect.

There are other areas in adventuring where I think this approach has merit, although I haven't worked out the details:

Lighting and Darkness

In many dungeon crawling games, the GM is the one advocating for the penalties and dangers of darkness, but isn't the one tracking torches. Secondly, having sufficient lighting has no upside, it's basically a mechanic where you just operate normally until you run out of light, at which point it's terrible. Forgetting to track your torches is a great idea!

Instead of this "boring until it's deadly" approach, imagine letting players use excess lighting for bonuses. Sure, they can get by with that one dude's flickering torch and its 30' radius, but imagine a system where searching, movement speed, noticing monsters—all of that is easier if they're using more than the minimum of light. Even if the tracking is still a little cumbersome, players would have reasons  to want to bring these rules into play.

Spell Components

Spend money and track encumbrance so you can use your cool powers? This has forget about it written all over it.

Instead, think about magic that works okay (normally) without components, but if you buy, find, or quest for special components it enhances the magic, or even unlock new versions or higher levels of the spell. As written, AD&D spell components just seem like a way to sop up player money, more than it is an interesting aspect of play. Why not elevate it to an interesting focal point that the players will want to highlight?

* * *

I think there are similar possibilities to give players incentives to invoke rules for things like:

  • Food tracking: like light and darkness, instead of 'eat enough or suffer', turn eating into a benefit.
  • Oh right, we forgot we had those hirelings with us—what useful thing have they done/what trouble have they gotten into?
  • The behavior of pets, familiars, dogs, and pack animals
  • Relationships with allies; reconnecting might reveal you've neglected them or that your rivals have been whispering to them, but it could also bring benefits like crucial news, or perhaps even timely gifts.
What other subsystems could be refined with these principles?