So! Last week, I went on a bit about how I want to see more mechanically-involved RPGs. I'd like to talk a bit this week about what that can mean, because there's a lot of RPGs out there which try to satisfy this criteria by being complex. Complexity, however, often has nothing to do with depth, as many tabletop gamers should know already. But let me give you an example firsthand...
So the best way to give an example is to make one myself! Here's the story: let's say I'm designing this game called Awesome Fantasy Adventures, and my goal is to make it have more mechanical depth than your regular old "roll a die and something happens" game that you find a lot of times. There's two different ways I could approach this: the complex way and the actually-deep way. Spoilers: the complex way doesn't give much depth. Surprise! I'm going to outline how the rules for each one work, and talk a bit about the effect that each ruleset has on the game.
The Complex Way
Awesome Fantasy Adventures is a game about fantasy adventurers doing awesome stuff. But I don't want the rules to be simplistic or straightforward, so I have some great ideas on how to make them mechanically-involved and otherwise interesting! Check it out!
- Characters have five main attributes: Strength, Intellect, Speed, Awareness, and Willpower. Attributes are rated from 1-15, and lower attributes are better.
- Characters have seven different skills: Fighting, Magic, Trapfinding, Dungeoneering, Athletics, Sneaking, and Camping. Skills are rated from 1-5.
- When you are in a situation where things don't clearly resolve, roll a d20 and try to roll higher than your appropriate attribute. If you have a skill, roll a number of d6es equal to your rank in the skill and add the highest one to your attribute roll.
- Whenever you roll a 1 on a d6, subtract it from your attribute roll.
- If you roll high enough on your attribute roll, you do what you were trying to do. Otherwise, you don't do that and something bad happens.
Obviously, a full game would have more rules, but let's break down what's going on here. If you boil it down to its simplest mechanics, this is really a fancy way of saying "roll a die, get a high number". In other words, not terribly different from a basic roll-and-move game. You roll a die, things happen. I know it might look a little different than that, but commit this to memory: some mechanics are just aesthetics. The different probabilities that different types of die-rolling are just ways to make a mechanic feel different from another. They don't really constitute new mechanics or even interesting mechanics. At the end of the day, this ruleset would be a bunch of rules that add absolutely nothing to the depth of the game...and that's just the core mechanic!
The Deep Way
So what could we do instead? The way you add depth in a game is by giving players meaningful choices. Also, it's a good idea to make the individual mechanics in a game relatively straightforward. So, with that in mind, here's Awesome Fantasy Adventures 2.0.
- The game uses a 52-card deck (with two Jokers) for its mechanics. Each player has a hand of four cards when the game begins. The GM has a hand of eight cards.
- If your character does something risky, dangerous, or ill-advised like sneaking up on a dragon, walking through a trap-filled hall, or haggling with a merchant, the GM will tell you what Fate you're about to suffer, and play a card facedown from their hand. At this point, you have options.
- You can accept your Fate and take the GM's card into your hand. The consequences come to pass as the GM told.
- You can defy your Fate and force the GM to play the card. Then, you must try to beat the rank of the card with your cards from hand. If you can't beat it, you manage to avoid the Fate set out by the GM, but still take a significant consequence in the process. If you can beat it, you get off scot-free and do what you were going to do with no consequence.
- If you have no cards in hand, you cannot defy your Fate.
- You can play more than one card if their suit matches the sort of action you're currently taking: Hearts is for situations relying on your charm and will, Spades is for situations relying on your martial prowess and physical force, Clubs is for situations relying on your strength and coordination, and Diamonds is for situations relying on your lore.
- Face cards beat any number of non-face cards, and are otherwise ranked as J -> Q -> K -> A. To beat a face card, you must play a higher face card. Alternatively, you can play a matching face card that's appropriately-suited to the task.
- If you play a Joker to defy your Fate, you not only succeed but succeed magnificently, getting a reward well beyond what you should have been able to get. This is special, and doesn't happen often.
- If the GM plays a Joker against you when you're defying your Fate, you suffer a disastrous failure, a crushing and humiliating defeat that you couldn't have seen coming.
- If both sides play a Joker, this is the sort of cataclysmic happening that sees Fates aligning for the most improbable of outcomes. Both the player and the GM should collaborate on some freakish and bizarre turn of fortune that is neither good nor ill for the player.
- Any player may call for a rest, if the adventurers aren't under immediate threat. In this case, everyone draws back up to four cards (and does nothing if they have four or more) and the GM draws eight additional cards.
Here, I introduced a very simple mechanic: hand management. Now, you have some control over your options, and the GM has some control over their options, and there's an interesting decision space to make each time you try something risky. Do you take the hit this time, preparing for when things get worse, or do you expend your resources now in an attempt to avoid bad things? The suits add another interesting layer to your hand's value: do you spend an off-suit card on a task because it's high-value, or save it for a later task that it's properly-suited for?
This is obviously just the start of a game, but if you compare this with the earlier game, I think you can see how they'll radically change the focus of play. In the first one, the only decisions you make are "is this task reasonably easy, considering my attributes and skills?", and the biggest decision you make is what sorts of things to do. And in a properly-specialized group, that's almost never a decision. In the second one, you're constantly making decisions about what to do--and you could add another layer to this by, for instance, giving certain characters an affinity for one suit or the other, or giving them special abilities that trigger off of straights or pairs or other card functions. None of those abilities override the core choices of the central mechanic, however.
Another interesting thing to note is that, although there's more rules in the second one, I feel that they make more intuitive sense. The only special rules are for face cards and Jokers, which people already recognize as special in some way. Of course you'd have a special rule for a Joker, it's a really unique and outstanding card. It's little rules like that which come together to make a satisfying and engaging layer of gameplay.