Sunday, December 18, 2011

Game Design Equation, Part 3 - Mechanics

We looked the other day at the over all equation, and today, thanks to several nice emails I got, I want to talk a little about mechanics. Absent from this conversation will be a lengthy section about probability and the mathematics of outcome, because quite frankly that topic either confuses or bores me and I'd rather not have it explained to me, so that I can explain it to you.

But where I can offer you, game designer, some help is in mechanical text. 'Mechanical text' refers to the paragraph(s) that accompanies the math. And it is almost exclusively the area an editor dreads for two reasons:

1. If something gets changed here, then the mechanics may change as a result.
2. If something doesn't get changed, then the mechanics may be misunderstood.

So into this minefield we plunge.

I've brought you three red flags to look for in your own game. If you're doing any of these things, go talk to an editor immediately and ask for help. No, seriously, do it. These mistakes are causing your game to not work, costing you sales and ultimately making you not successful. And they're fixable, so why not do something about them.

I. Big complicated math, weak text
One of the first danger zones for game designers is the very rigid thinking that the game mechanics have to explain the majority of 'How' and 'Why' of the game. To task the roll of dice with moving the story forward is a sign of a weak and timid design.

The dice's job is just to see if a particular challenge is succeeded or to grant a number/level on a particular variable for part of a story-equation. Read that again. And then again.

The dice are there to give you numbers to quantify story elements and act as a binary "Did you succeed or fail" checksum. Nothing else.

The dice say you've got a skill of 60 in Firearms. How that expresses itself as part of your character is not the job of the dice, but rather that of the feel of the game, the quality of the player and the tone the GM is looking to set.

The dice say you've got a strength of 11. And the table in the book says that means you can carry so many pounds or have this percent-chance to bash in a door. Again, those facts are information for challenges a player may face down the road. How that strength score impacts the nature of the character is left to the player.

Now, let's go grab some complicated mechanics.

[Herbalism Test] + [Chemistry Test]  + [Intelligence] > [Recipe Difficulty per round]  + [Situation Penalties]

That's an old potion-brewing mechanic. Let's look at the text that went with it.

Roll the relevant skills and exceed the penalties. 

No seriously, that's all it said. My notes in the margin do actually say, "Thanks Captain Obvious."

While that text might be true (it is, that's just a really boiled down way of phrasing it), it's not enough. This shows that the writer/designer thinks the player will "get it" if they haven't already.

Important tip - It's the writing's job and purpose to make sure the players get it by the time they're done reading. Not before, not during.

What makes that mechanic so complicated?

1. The "Test" refers to a percentile skill check against both the skill and the 'Learning Curve'...so really you're rolling 2 percent-checks and hoping you win them both.
2. After each test (so that's 4 rolls, 2 per Skill), you check against your Intelligence, which was another percentile.

So on one side of the equation, that's 5 rolls.

On the other, the potion you wanted to brew was checked against a single table and then divided by the player's choice of rounds -- they got to pick how long it took them to make it -- and then you simply assessed any penalties like being Crippled, or Blind or working in a crappy lab.

Yes, I said the players got to pick how long it took to make the potion. And yes, as you'd expect, everyone said they'd craft the potion in 1 round, which was a flat 10 on the difficulty table.

So, 5 percentile rolls versus Penalties plus ten. 

Or for the crunchy math nerds:

79 + 80 + 19 > 10 +(-50)

And you wonder why the game sold so poorly...

Text that serves as instructions has to be clear, not patronizing and written generally in a structure that encourages people to actually feel like they can do it. It's always better to overwrite the sentences and get them trimmed, than to underwrite and leave people guessing.

II. 'Swiss Army' Mechanics
I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but your game doesn't actually have to do EVERYTHING. If you're writing a game about the struggles of pioneers (finally, someone will tell the true story of the Donner party....), then you don't need to go outside the scope of 'pioneers' and I should not see mechanics for space travel, alien languages, complicated firearms, siege weapons or magic.

I'm not saying you have to over-specify (though if you do, you're only pressuring yourself to really deliver on specific experiences), but you don't need to make a themed-game into a one-game-to-rule-them-all book.

How this creeps into game design is when the design starts straying from their strengths (alliteration!) and allows worry and extraneous thinking to clutter their minds.

Your game, right now, what's it about. Say it. Don't mumble. Yes, it's fine if you have a few 'Um' and 'Uhh' in there. Good for you if you're able to explain it in a few sentences. (If you couldn't....PRACTICE.)

Within the scope of what you just said, surely you can find things that don't belong. If your game is about space exploration and colonization, I probably won't expect to see a horse-racing minigame, will I? Or if your game is about gypsy assassins, there probably won't be cyborgs, right?

But, you say, I like all these things, shouldn't they be in a game?

Yes, they should be in A game. That doesn't mean it has to be THIS game does it?

Have a good serious discussion with an editor about your mechanics, and if you've got far more mechanics than you've got story elements or reason for them, maybe you've got two games sandwiched together, and you can now be the proud designer of TWO games, not one. Mazel Tov, or whatever.

III. Far Too Many Dice Syndrome
Roll percentiles for your skills. Roll d20 for your attributes. Resolve conflicts with Fudge Dice. Determine hit location and severity of injury with a deck of playing cards.  Can you imagine that all in one game? (I can. I wrote a game with all that in it....sigh.)

How many different types of dice are you asking players and GMs to roll during a session of play? Make a list.

For the above freakshow of a game, here's mine:

  • 3 different mechanics during combat (to-hit, damage, defense)
  • 1 mechanic for unopposed skill checks
  • 1 different mechanic for opposed skill checks
  • 1 mechanic for investigation and clue discovery
  • 1 mechanic for clue interpretation
  • 2 mechanics for magic (channeling power and spell casting)
  • 3 mechanics for psionics (channeling power, mental attack, mental resistance)
What you're doing when you load up on mechanics is telling the players that all these situations could arise in any given session at any time.

Should mechanics trump story? That's a question for the designer/writer to answer. (Pro tip: Figure out that answer before you find an editor.)

I've not written this thinking your game has all these red flags. Maybe your game doesn't have any of these problems. Maybe you know of games that do though. And maybe that's who you're going to talk to about this post. 

If you've got a game that's doing this or something that you fear is worse, let's talk about it.