Don’t overwork a mechanic.

For the purposes of this post, a mechanic is a set of procedures, defined by the game, that players go through at a table to resolve a conflict of player interest with respect to the world of the fiction. It may rely a lot or a little on randomness, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is something that the game designer has laid out as the way to sort out cruxes in the game’s story.

Right now, I’m working on Et in Arcadia Ego, a game about magicians in Regency England. It owes a lot to Susanna Clarke and Jane Austen. I’m trying to work out how to make the conflict mechanic work well. Like in any design process, I’ve been through many iterations of it. At this point, the mechanic has come back around to looking more like it did at the beginning than it did in the middle, but there have been a few darlings to kill along the way—tying the mechanic to various period card games, for example. At each step of the way, though, the changes I’ve made have made perfect sense to me, as they are responses to things I found to be wrong with a previous iteration. Sometimes the flaws were seen instantly, just on thinking about the mechanic, and sometimes they were seen only after playing with the mechanic a bit to get a feel for it. In any case, the changes grow out of the previous mechanic.

There’s a real risk here. The final mechanic, whatever it may be, makes perfect sense to me in terms of the history I have gone through to get there. I will be able to point to each bit of its design and say “the mechanic is this way because…”. But to someone who has just picked up the game, and who reads it, that mechanic may look very strange. Avoid this!

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Human Heart

A heart, courtesy of thevintagecollective on Flickr.

Here’s an idea that I’ve been hashing out with my friends Alex and Amir, neither of whom have enough internet presence to link to, sadly.

Looking at games like Mouse Guard and Dread, we started thinking about limited resources, particularly resources-for-action, and refresh mechanics. Let me unpack that a bit. Both games very nicely constrain action: in Mouse Guard, there are two phases to play, and in one, the Players’ Turn, you can only act n times, where n increases by taking more badness during the GM‘s turn. In Dread, every action brings the group closer to a horrible death by making the Jenga tower more precarious, but every horrible death resets the tower, partially.

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