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?


  1. "It's is a purely negative mechanic. There's nothing good that happens with encumbrance, it's all downside."
    One of the potential good things about an inventory slot based encumbrance system is that the player gets all their stuff on one convenient list, and over-encumbrance is relatively clear (instead of requiring weight-based math). Item-based problem solving is important in many types of game. There's a strong incentive to have all your problem-solving tools listed in a legible and convenient way, so that you don't forget that you have a Scroll of Water Elemental Control when you run into a water elemental (etc.)

    There is no incentive to tell the DM if you go over the limit, it's true, but that's sort of the contract of fairness/trust in an RPG.

    1. There is also somewhat of an incentive, especially if you are dungeon delving, to keep some slots free for any goodies you might find as you adventure, but there is a chance that nothing happens with that empty slot. I do like the idea of some tiers of bonuses that are based on how many slots you have free. Maybe something like a bonus to speed, AC (increase in agility), or your saving throws.

    2. Another side benefit of slots is you can use a "shields must be sundered" style mechanic for equipment. Okay the Giant's club didn't squash you but one of the slots is smashed and everything in it destroyed/unusable. Now you are undamaged, less encumbered, but you are gonna be hungry in the dark before long and you're gonna miss that healing potion.

  2. Great design lens Michael! You focussed on the issue of forgettability, but there are likely enjoyability benefits from this as well: I've also thought on these issues a bit, so here are my reflections.

    Encumbrance: I've been playing a hacked Oddlike (based on Cairn) where players have a fixed 12 item slots, and their HP is equal to the number of free slots (so fully loaded at 12 items they have 0 HP and damage goes direct to STR). I didn't expect this, but they actually saw dropping items and making sure I knew they had as beneficial, as their HP went up before the next fight! I certainly find slot systems generally far more likely to get used rather than forgotten.

    Light and Darkness: I actually have moved away from tracking depleting light sources ( and just focus on the sensory limitations of artificial light underground, but can definitely see presenting a lit torch as akin to 'detect magic' and tracking its duration (which I find tends to work well) as it would be needed to reveal fine, coloured and hidden/secret details.

    Spell components: I have also experimented with 'special' components that ADD some extra effect or improve duration / range of standard spells (rather than being a minimum requirement), and they were popular and tracked as diligently as healing potions (a pinnacle of value in my games, where they are rarely for sale).

    Food: I think I first saw it in the GLOG (mere coincidence, I assure you!), but I've had good results with framing rations as the fuel for daily HP recovery (rather than just a penalty for not eating), and additionally makes it easy to have different qualities of food that provide different healing rates (rather than making iron and standard rations spoil at different rates - ain't no one got time for that!).

    I haven't explored hirelings, animals or relationships in this way yet. I do like the Bonds mechanic from Emmy Verte's FLEE, and the Bonds in Delta Green for something outside DIY elfgames. Presenting these connections as a resource players may 'tap into' to assist recovery or gain information would put the ball in their court.

    Last example I'll bring up: those fiddly little 'ribbon' modifiers games love to give you (+1 to saves against food poisoning on full moons or -1 to attack rolls against the seventh son of a seventh son). I clearly don't love them, but if a game must have them, PLEASE keep them as positives for players to invoke, as I can't remember all of these for each player, and they are in my experience even worse culprits than encumbrance for players to 'conveniently forget.'

    1. I really like your idea about using free inventory slots as HP. It makes a lot of sense in Cairn and other Odd-likes.

  3. Excellent points! Especially with light, it really ought to be a weapon against the darkness, something players use actively. Maybe something with veins-style lamp initiative?

    The main thing stopping me from adopting slot-based initiative in AD&D is logistics. Slots seem to work well for games with more discrete item-based problem solving and interaction, but less well for games emphasizing supplies and attrition. If you know of a system that has bridged that, please let me know.

  4. Good post.

    I've never articulated these principles in this way, and this was really helpful to see. I have circled intuitively around this in His Majesty the Worm, so I have a few examples there.

    One is that negative stat modifiers in combat (Blind, Tripped, whatever) provide *benefits to the attacker* not *negatives to the defender* because I realized that negatives are lame to remember and benefits are fun to remember. It's easier math.

    1. Feng Shui 2e does this for environmentals.

    2. Not familiar with that one, you get some kind of benefit for triggering an adverse environment? I suppose Burning Wheel is an example as well, with the way disadvantages earn you Fate points.

  5. But tracking PC's hit points tickling down in a combat is also a detriment to the PC (PC is either normal or is injured/dead), by this logic, so should HP mechanic be in hands of DM in this case too? Given that PCs are not often at full HP, I don't think giving any mechanical bonus for full health would be an effective solution.

    1. I gotta say that the bloodied condition in D&D 4e (triggered when you got to half your hit points) that was actually a trigger for a lot of abilities was an incentive to tick down your HP. You could also have another condition like "Decimated" for when you get down to 10% or lower of your HP where you may have even better nova abilities - "desperate last chance" type abilities

  6. MEATHEADS forefronts the necessity of eating by having the quality of your meal affect the quality of your death saves

  7. These are some good lesser insights, but they miss that there are more important ones.

    1. The default should be the baseline. Having to, for example, add in a modifier everytime someone happens during the day because it's good light is incorrect.

    2. Know the purpose of the rule. For example, spell components are like weapons - to allow foes or PCs to be disarmed safely instead of just killing them. Ask any DM who says they are ignoring spell components if a bound gagged caster can still cast every spell unimpeded. If the answer is yes, they don't understand why the rule is there - red flag. Sorry, having no way to ever deal with a caster except killing them has so many issues. On the other hand, if they say no, then they don't understand what their house rule does. You need to understand why for rule exist before you can change it effectively - also a red flag.

  8. I agree with your basic premise of 1 and 2, however I strongly disagree with your resolution of "add good things to all the bad things", for a few reasons.

    1 - Sometimes those bad things are meant to be things the PCs should be trying to avoid, mitigate, or accept as "the cost of doing business" (that last one has hidden "good things" already in it - see #2 below).

    For instance, HP loss in games that concern themselves with or FP/Power Pool stat. Losing all your HPs is supposed to be bad, FP/PP is meant to strictly limit "how awesome" your PC can be, sometimes it's an "Oh No" save yourself pool, either way they need to be strictly limited adding benes to reducing them is usually (but not always) out of genre.

    2 - Be aware of "negative" things that have hidden benes already in them. Notably Encumbrance. The hidden bene of encumbrance is that the PCs are carrying Goodies! Encumbrance is the trackable and obvious 'bad thing' added to limit the Goodies that PCs can carry. Making "carrying goodies even more gooderer" is, well...

    Lastly, I handle this by adding another "stick"* to the carrot-stick that is exp. If a Player consistently ignores the negatives on their character sheets, they get less exp than the Player who consistently remembers their negatives (without me having to hound them). Exps tend to be the ultimate "goodie" to add to everything. If they get more exp for remembering and playing their Disads, remembering to track their expendables, remembering their proper Encumbrance, etc... well... you get Players who want to keep track of those things better.

    * I say 'stick of not getting as much exp' rather than the 'carrot of getting more exp', because that's how several whiny Players have looked at it. So... I just straight up refer to it that way, it stops Players from whining later about it, they know going in "don't track consumables used, don;t track encumbrance, etc and you'll hit hit with the get less exp stick", and they frankly take it better.

    1. All good points. To be clear, I'm definitely not saying that all bad things should have good things paired. That's just one solution if you want to follow principle #2, which again is not something I'm saying must always be done. It's one factor to consider, a principle that is useful to consider rather than be followed to the letter.

  9. Food for thought. I notice even some computer games, in which the maths portion of it should be trivial, keeps only the positive modifiers. In Cyberpunk 2077 you get an XP boost from sleeping, and eating and drinking gives you some plusses for a few minutes.

  10. This topic is why Vincent lumpley Baker chooses collapsible design.
    (4. Apocalypse World structure)