Dedicated Mechanics

Reynard

Legend
Over in this thread the following came up while talking about heist mechanics.
And that could be said for almost any game. But D&D doesn't model heist in any way, mechanically speaking. It simply becomes a matter of playstyle.

In which case, I prefer a game that gives me the instruments to play on the strengths of the heist.
I wanted to move it to its own thread and out of D&D-land so we could discuss it more broadly.

How do you feel about specific mechanics to force or encourage genre trope or elements? In the heist example, games that focus on them include things like "flashbacks" that make it easier to create the illusion of the kind of planning heist books and movies highlight. Other elements could be tightly focused roles (the boss, the heavy, the safecracker, whatever) as well as genre-appropriate methods for dealing with combat, injury, death or whatever. Games with narrative bents often use these kinds of mechanical tools, such as PbtA, FitD and Fate games (among others). But sometimes more traditional RPGs fold these kinds of mechanics into a broader general core mechanic. An example of this might be Journeys from The One Ring.

Do you think focused mechanics are better in games built for that one thing, or do you like focused mechanics within more broadly applicable game systems? Do you not like these kinds of specific mechanics and think you should be able to use the core mechanic to accomplish these things?

For my part, while I enjoy some games designed with a laser focus, I generally prefer medium crunch highly applicable rules systems. I can do a heist in D&D or Savage Worlds as well as I can in Scum and Villainy. It just means conducting play in a way that feels like the heist genre and using the tools you have to make it happen. That said, I will adapt things like SWADE's "dramatic tasks" for whatever the thing is I am trying to emulate and tweak the rules if need be.

Thoughts?
 
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jdrakeh

Front Range Warlock
I'm reviewing a game right now that, while ostensibly a d20-based OSR game with all that entails, includes a bunch of highly specific mechanics that cater to the game's in-built premise and setting*, providing a much better play experience than a generic d20-based OSR game ever could. So I guess I'm in the "specific mechanics" for a specific play experience camp.

*Specifically, in this game, player characters are Branded, former Inquisitors, now called heretics, who have been marked with the Brand of Sacrifice, a mark that draws evil to them, but also allows them to divine the location of evil to be fought. Additionally, when near the restless dead, spirits may possess the bodies of the Branded, using them for their own ends.
 

Ghal Maraz

Adventurer
I appreciate the thread-branching.
Myself, I usually prefer rules systems that model the narrative and the fiction, but it doesn't have to be a laser-focus on some specific aspect. I mean, I can certainly do some FitD, but I also appreciate a broader focus: The One Rings is actually a fitting example, as its focus isn't journey, but Tolkien-feeling. The feeling of playing Tolkien comes from some particular aspects of the rules, like the Journey mechanics.
If I look at a game like Smallville, I can see many different layers working there, like the "troupe-character-creation", that blend together in the (TV serialised) drama making the engine works.
But I don't dislike having some trope mechanic making its way in more generalised systems, being them really universal ones like Savage Worlds, or more focused ones, like D&D (which is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, as D&D created its own genre, in time). What I don't appreciate is having to prep more to convey particular tropes in games that aren't focused on those and require some solid modifications to work.
And, yes, those modifications can sometimes be just pure roleplaying, but it's still some solid work. (I should note that heist is one of those tropes that, IMHO, require ad-hoc mechanics to work smoothly.)
 


Reynard

Legend
I think my first "sub system" was the combined War Machine and Domain Management from the Companion Rules. For some reason my gut says that's "different" than a heist or journey system, but it really isn't, is it? And I have long struggled with trying to develop a "social combat" system to layer on top of D&D.
 

Committed Hero

Explorer
This dovetails nicely with the thread about rules not being important. If your game is about PCs doing X, the rules you include should reinforce the ability of PCs to do X. It's not a fair knock on D&D to say it doesn't run heists, since we don't typically turn to D&D to scratch that itch. Nor is it fair to say it can't run heists at all, since group buy-in is just as important.
 

aco175

Legend
D&D might not have great rules for a heist or chase but when they put out a book about that, they can include a mechanic to make it work. Leaving it up to the DM likely will not work. You cannot just make 20 Deception rolls and think it will work. Maybe there are points of success along the way or various NPCs that need to be brought on board and they total to a success. This sounds more like a board game than a RPG at some point though.
 

MGibster

Legend
How do you feel about specific mechanics to force or encourage genre trope or elements? In the heist example, games that focus on them include things like "flashbacks" that make it easier to create the illusion of the kind of planning heist books and movies highlight. Other elements could be tightly focused roles (the boss, the heavy, the safecracker, whatever) as well as genre-appropriate methods for dealing with combat, injury, death or whatever.
When the authors have a clear vision of what they want the game to be all about, I think specific mechanics to encourage a particular style of play are fantastic. Blade Runner from Free League is not a generic cyberpunk game, it's designed to emulate the neo-noir style of the 1982 movie as well as the 2017 sequel. Vampire the Masqurade (5th edition) is also designed with a particular game style in mind and won't work for every single vampire story.
 

phuong

Explorer
I'm not sure I understand the question. (Unless it wasn't for me because maybe I can't see someone you quoted? That happens sometimes with ignore lists.)
I assumed you are a game designer working on something given the design questions you ask each week.
 

Reynard

Legend
I assumed you are a game designer working on something given the design questions you ask each week.
I am a freelance designer and writer but that's not why I ask these questions. I ask them because I like discussing design philosophies with people.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Do you think focused mechanics are better in games built for that one thing, or do you like focused mechanics within more broadly applicable game systems? Do you not like these kinds of specific mechanics and think you should be able to use the core mechanic to accomplish these things?

I think "focused mechanics within more broadly applicable game systems" in core rules is apt to disappoint. That core ruleset has to fit within a reasonable page count, so they can't have focused mechanics for everything, and so you'll always find they are missing some key thing you want.

Focused mechanics are a great supplement to broadly applicable systems. If there's a failure in some of WotC's adventure/setting products of late, it is in not going quite far enough as a sources of optional rules and style guidance.

Imho, a Ravenloft product should not be "here's a taste of Ravenloft". It should be, "Here's how to do gothic horror in D&D, with Ravenloft as an example." Dragonlance should be, "Here's how to do war in D&D, with The War of the Lance as an example." and so on.
 

payn

Legend
I dont care for it as a core component for a game like D&D and derivatives. The first heist or two are cool, but once you realize that is the playloop, it becomes a rather singular experience. I much prefer the traditional general DMG design where the game is set to encompass a myriad styles of play. During Pathfinder1 and I'm sure continuing into PF2, Paizo played with sub-systems for chases, haunts, romance, etc... with adventure material. I found this to be a much better approach and the successful takes made their way into future GM mastery and campaign guide supplements.

Now if you have your heart set on emulating a TV show, like say Leverage but in a fantasy skin, I can see this being a desirable path. If you don't get tired of the same loop over and over and over again, then the bespoke path is likely the best one for you. That said, I guess its up tot he designers to decide what type of experience they want to deliver. Specific or general? Go from there.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Thoughts?

I have addressed this generally in the past in multiple ways, so I will try and be brief (for me).

Game systems (arguably, systems) start simple, and then move toward complexity. This push/pull was seen with Kriegsspiel; as the system gradually accumulated more and more rules to handle more and more specialized situations, it become calcified and unwieldy, eventually leading to Free Kriegsspiel (a game with few rules and mostly referee adjudications "FK").

The original role playing games (Arneson) were derived from Braunstein, which was FK (technically, Strategos-based, but close enough for forum discussion). Arneson continued to run games in an FK-inspired manner, with codifications of some rules as necessary.

When Gygax became involved, he attempted to translate this looser style of play into a more codified system. Over time (supplements, articles in Dragon Magazine, eventually AD&D) the game acquired more and more rules- things to handle specialized scenarios. Whether it was tables for different people tunneling in the earth, or weapon v. armor class adjustment, or what have you- it was the accumulation of rules to handle specific situations- instead of a specific DM having to make a ruling on the fly, you could look to a specific rule.

Of course, this become unwieldy with time. The accumulation of rules always does this.

The use of specialized rules is generally unwieldy, and in my opinion only works for highly-focused games. Essentially, people can (and do!) argue about the "fitness" of the rules (how applicable the rules are to the fiction) in modern games like BiTD, but the reason that the fitness exists is because these are incredibly focused games; the more focused the game, the more easy it is to have bespoke rules for the situation that are not unwieldy.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
I am a big fan of plug-in subsystems to handle specific minigames - such as a heist, a chase, building an organization, running a business, conducting a mass battle, crafting an object, etc. etc. etc. - that might come up in play. In fact, I've written before that I consider the presence of numerous minigames within the game to simulate all the different features of the imagined reality to be the defining trait of an RPG. Certainly, that and not role-play is actually the defining trait of cRPGs like Skyrim or Witcher III or even something like Ultima IV. Modern RPGs try to make the switching between minigames feel more seamless, but it's still there.

Modern tabletop RPG design has IMO become fixated on "elegance", which the designer usually defines as a single master mechanic which is intended by them to handle every situation that comes up. But since the real things being modeled or simulated are often very different, abstracting them all to the same system invariably leads to problems when you try to adapt the one master mechanic to minigames the author poorly considered or didn't think of as important.

Some good examples are skill mechanics which in modern games often are the sole mechanic of the game, and if not are at least a single mechanic governing all the skills used in the game whether social, mental or physical. The truth is, this usually leads to absurdities that come into play whenever you start trying to reify the mechanics to concrete in game situations. A single game mechanic typically means all skill checks are pass/fail when some skills are better modeled as quantitative results, and a single game mechanic means that the standard deviation on expected success is governed not by the thing being modeled but by the arbitrary range allowed by your fortune mechanic.

Since the most easily reified skills are physical ones since they relate to things that can be quantified, this is most easily demonstrated by how a uniform skill mechanic handles breaks when dealing with physical skills like lifting things or jumping. What you end up with is minor absurdities where the weaker character regularly can move loads the stronger character can't because the range of the fortune is larger than the range of modifiers to the check and the mechanic is trying to model a simple pass/fail question like, "Can X be moved?". Or for example, you end up with a jump mechanic were the same jumper randomly jumps between 5 feet and 25 feet just because how far you are jump is tied to the range of the fortune mechanic.

Another common example is that even a very good turn-based combat system that simulates tactical squad-based combat well enough to suspend disbelief, often utterly falls down when simulating a chase scene where everyone is moving at once. Suddenly it becomes important that the system allows one side or character to make all of their move at once while the other side is suspended in time unable to react. A game that simulates fencing might not and probably does not simulate a game of tag or a game of football very well. It turns out that you need minigames with different assumptions for that.

One common problem that arises is that designers historically rather than abandoning the notion of a single master game with mechanics that cover all situations, try to make that game granular enough to solve the problem. For example, the problem of a game that doesn't handle both fencing and tag well can be solved by reducing the time scale way down to "impulses" or "segments" of a turn where each party can only engage in small fractional movement. In other words, trying to more realistically modelling everything in "real time" rather than "turn based" (a real time video game is just a game with very short turns and no pauses between them). But of course, the problem with this in a tabletop game is that eventually reifying your mechanics to make them more realistic makes them unwieldy and slows down play.

But contrast, multiple minigames with different simplifying assumptions - a game of fencing can model position and a chase can model relative distance for example, or maybe fencing models characters taking all of their actions together for simplicity, whereas tag models the same thing in phases where in each phase there is simultaneous action of potential types with movement being one phase of the turn.

Personally I would rather a game have a large number of provided minigame solutions than be elegant and one of the frustrations I have with most modern game systems is that they get so focused on the one thing that they do that they don't actually provide a solution for players with actual agency interacting with the fiction in a legitimate way but not in the way the game expects, effectively moving off the mechanical map into a white space that is not described.
 

Celebrim

Legend
During Pathfinder1 and I'm sure continuing into PF2, Paizo played with sub-systems for chases, haunts, romance, etc... with adventure material.

For me, the biggest problem I had with Pathfinder is that while they understood the need for minigames, they were often really bad at designing and playtesting them.
 

payn

Legend
For me, the biggest problem I had with Pathfinder is that while they understood the need for minigames, they were often really bad at designing and playtesting them.
Yes, the rapid fire requirement to get the adventure material to the masses left little time to test adequately. However, lessons were definitely learned and later revised copies came out that resolved some of the issues. I'm cool with that, but I can certainly see how other folks would not be.
 

Reynard

Legend
I am a big fan of plug-in subsystems to handle specific minigames - such as a heist, a chase, building an organization, running a business, conducting a mass battle, crafting an object, etc. etc. etc. - that might come up in play. In fact, I've written before that I consider the presence of numerous minigames within the game to simulate all the different features of the imagined reality to be the defining trait of an RPG. Certainly, that and not role-play is actually the defining trait of cRPGs like Skyrim or Witcher III or even something like Ultima IV. Modern RPGs try to make the switching between minigames feel more seamless, but it's still there.

Modern tabletop RPG design has IMO become fixated on "elegance", which the designer usually defines as a single master mechanic which is intended by them to handle every situation that comes up. But since the real things being modeled or simulated are often very different, abstracting them all to the same system invariably leads to problems when you try to adapt the one master mechanic to minigames the author poorly considered or didn't think of as important.

Some good examples are skill mechanics which in modern games often are the sole mechanic of the game, and if not are at least a single mechanic governing all the skills used in the game whether social, mental or physical. The truth is, this usually leads to absurdities that come into play whenever you start trying to reify the mechanics to concrete in game situations. A single game mechanic typically means all skill checks are pass/fail when some skills are better modeled as quantitative results, and a single game mechanic means that the standard deviation on expected success is governed not by the thing being modeled but by the arbitrary range allowed by your fortune mechanic.

Since the most easily reified skills are physical ones since they relate to things that can be quantified, this is most easily demonstrated by how a uniform skill mechanic handles breaks when dealing with physical skills like lifting things or jumping. What you end up with is minor absurdities where the weaker character regularly can move loads the stronger character can't because the range of the fortune is larger than the range of modifiers to the check and the mechanic is trying to model a simple pass/fail question like, "Can X be moved?". Or for example, you end up with a jump mechanic were the same jumper randomly jumps between 5 feet and 25 feet just because how far you are jump is tied to the range of the fortune mechanic.

Another common example is that even a very good turn-based combat system that simulates tactical squad-based combat well enough to suspend disbelief, often utterly falls down when simulating a chase scene where everyone is moving at once. Suddenly it becomes important that the system allows one side or character to make all of their move at once while the other side is suspended in time unable to react. A game that simulates fencing might not and probably does not simulate a game of tag or a game of football very well. It turns out that you need minigames with different assumptions for that.

One common problem that arises is that designers historically rather than abandoning the notion of a single master game with mechanics that cover all situations, try to make that game granular enough to solve the problem. For example, the problem of a game that doesn't handle both fencing and tag well can be solved by reducing the time scale way down to "impulses" or "segments" of a turn where each party can only engage in small fractional movement. In other words, trying to more realistically modelling everything in "real time" rather than "turn based" (a real time video game is just a game with very short turns and no pauses between them). But of course, the problem with this in a tabletop game is that eventually reifying your mechanics to make them more realistic makes them unwieldy and slows down play.

But contrast, multiple minigames with different simplifying assumptions - a game of fencing can model position and a chase can model relative distance for example, or maybe fencing models characters taking all of their actions together for simplicity, whereas tag models the same thing in phases where in each phase there is simultaneous action of potential types with movement being one phase of the turn.

Personally I would rather a game have a large number of provided minigame solutions than be elegant and one of the frustrations I have with most modern game systems is that they get so focused on the one thing that they do that they don't actually provide a solution for players with actual agency interacting with the fiction in a legitimate way but not in the way the game expects, effectively moving off the mechanical map into a white space that is not described.
This is a really great post and a compelling argument for subsystems.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Personally I would rather a game have a large number of provided minigame solutions than be elegant and one of the frustrations I have with most modern game systems is that they get so focused on the one thing that they do that they don't actually provide a solution for players with actual agency interacting with the fiction in a legitimate way but not in the way the game expects, effectively moving off the mechanical map into a white space that is not described.

Well said ... however you run into the issue I discussed above. Personally, I can enjoy a game with a number of bespoke subsystems (the "1e approach" for example), but the issues that style of game always run into are the same-

First, increasing numbers of differentiated subsystems adds to the overall complexity of the game. Each time you add a new (and different) minigame, you are asking people to learn that minigame. Eventually, you end up with a morass of minigames with different rules.

Which leads to the second problem- while this works great in theory, in practice people will have trouble defining the edges of these minigames. If you have a "chase" minigame and a "combat" minigame, what happens when someone wants to shoot an arrow at their pursuer (combat while there is a chase). You always end up with different subsystems colliding. And then you end up with the overall system- how to adjudicate the other rules (especially if you are using exception-based design) when it comes to the various mini-games. If there is a chase minigame going on, and someone wants to use a general spell, how is that adjudicated?

The reason I bring this up isn't to throw cold water on your preferences- I enjoy these types of games as well! Just to point out that the accretion of subsystems has its own particular issues.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
How do you feel about specific mechanics to force or encourage genre trope or elements?
If they're good mechanics, it's fine. Most are clunky messes that don't do that good of a job emulating the genre tropes.
In the heist example, games that focus on them include things like "flashbacks" that make it easier to create the illusion of the kind of planning heist books and movies highlight. Other elements could be tightly focused roles (the boss, the heavy, the safecracker, whatever) as well as genre-appropriate methods for dealing with combat, injury, death or whatever. Games with narrative bents often use these kinds of mechanical tools, such as PbtA, FitD and Fate games (among others). But sometimes more traditional RPGs fold these kinds of mechanics into a broader general core mechanic. An example of this might be Journeys from The One Ring.
The games with the best heist mechanics, that I'm aware of, are Blades in the Dark and Leverage. I'm more recently familiar with BitD and it's been a few years since I read Leverage. It's a really hard genre element to put in games well. People who want immersion will tend to want to actually go through the process of planning things beforehand, which is a nightmare. People who are okay with metacurrency and explicitly gamey elements will be cool with BitD's flashbacks. As much as I love immersion, I don't want to sit through another session filled with the players bumbling their way through planning some overly involved thing that's stupid from the off and depends on their false impressions or goes off the rails with a single failed die roll. Just gimme the stress track and flashbacks.
Do you think focused mechanics are better in games built for that one thing, or do you like focused mechanics within more broadly applicable game systems? Do you not like these kinds of specific mechanics and think you should be able to use the core mechanic to accomplish these things?
It's a tough one. They make more sense in focused games and lots of dedicated subsystems tend to clutter up games. I tend to prefer systems that are fewer in rules where those rules are more broadly applicable. It's easier to internalize those fewer rules and easier to play rather than looking up the minutia of rules for everything.
For my part, while I enjoy some games designed with a laser focus, I generally prefer medium crunch highly applicable rules systems. I can do a heist in D&D or Savage Worlds as well as I can in Scum and Villainy. It just means conducting play in a way that feels like the heist genre and using the tools you have to make it happen. That said, I will adapt things like SWADE's "dramatic tasks" for whatever the thing is I am trying to emulate and tweak the rules if need be.
I like laser-focused games for one-shots or short campaigns, like 5-6 sessions. Anything longer than that and I want something that's more broadly useful and playable. I want variety.
Thoughts?
Pulling in dedicated subsystems is great. The only trouble is having to explain those subsystems. Unfortunately, a lot of players think they can't make decisions without having some kind of system mastery, so porting in the flashback rules into D&D, for example, causes all kinds of problems.
 

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