Game Mechanics That Fail

…in my estimation, of course.

Every game has mechanics that are supposed to represent something, or are supposed to evoke a response. They reinforce player behavior, lend flavor to a game, and create fun…or they don’t. While listening to the Brilliant Gameologists (yes, yet another gaming podcast I listen to now) Episode 2 I believe, the topic of Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanic came up. It seemed like the hosts all liked the mechanic, but in the past, running Call of Cthulhu or playing in it, I’ve felt the exact opposite. This got me thinking about some central mechanics to popular, often-mentioned games, games I’ve had a lot of experience playing and running, which…fail. I came up with three right off the top of my head. After each example, I’ll suggest a fix for that mechanic, on the off chance that anyone out there agrees with me about these things.

Call of Cthulhu and Sanity Points

I think that going insane is clearly central to stories in the Mythos, but that the Sanity mechanic fails. Running the game, I feel like it gets in the way of evoking genuine reactions from players. Playing in the game, I feel like it distances me from the horrific things that are going on. The problem is that you end up marking off points, and this is a pause in what is going on, a little calculation, or some erasing, that takes what might actually be creepy or frightening and makes it into the equivalent of taking damage in D&D (which I talk about below) – you just mark off some points and move on. It works sort of like this:

GM: “Boo! You’re scared.”
Player: “Uh, no I’m not.”
GM: “Yes you are. Mark off four points. That means you’re really scared.”
Player: “Ah.” Marks off points on sheet. “I see. Now I’m scared.”

Actually, running a Call of Cthulhu game, and then playing in another that was relatively awful, is a lot of what convinced me to work on Horror!, which I’ve written a bit about on this blog thus far, and may do so again once Parsec is finished and sent to the publisher.

The Fix

To fix this, I can suggest a few methods. The best one, I think, its not to tell the players how much sanity they have left. Things should get creepier and creepier, until maybe they start getting downright freakish for one of the player-characters because she’s coming completely unhinged. You can pass little notes to the players to help them get an idea of what’s going on and to ratchet up the paranoia as each of them hears something, or feels something, but none of them are sure what’s real and what is just a symptom of their minds breaking apart under the strain. With some preparation, you can come up with frightening or evocative images or little vignettes and prepare them ahead of time to reveal at the right moment.

Actually scaring players in a horror game is probably the most difficult task a GM can have, but I think that the Sanity system makes it almost impossible. At least for me.

D20, Dungeons and Dragons etc., and Hit Points

I realize I’m stabbing a sacred cow here. You’ll just have to deal.

Hit points are the least flavorful way to handle wounds that I can imagine. Getting hurt hurts. You naturally flinch, cry out, pull back, and shy away from things that could injure you. Unless you’re playing D&D. Then, you’re just keeping track of a total until it falls low enough for you to go from 100% capacity to unconscious. Hit Points have the power to make being eaten by a Dragon boring. Or to make being backstabbed by an assassin worthy of a yawn. In an adventure game, this is unacceptable.

The Fixes

Unearthed Arcana provides one fix for this that D20 Star Wars 2nd Edition (the one before Saga) used as well – Wounds and Vitality. So you have a pool of Vitality points that you can lose and regain quickly that aren’t a big deal. They just represent getting worn down and tired and bruised. Then, you have Wounds, when you lose when someone scores a critical hit on your or when something else serious happens. As soon as you lose even one Wound, you take a penalty. When you lose Wounds, this means that the DM should take a moment to make the wound visceral. The immediate consequences make you shy away from situations that could really hurt you. Running and playing in a game that used Wounds/Vitality, I thought they were a huge imporovement on Hit Points.

Ideally, you should track every significant injury a character sustains. They should all be described vividly and have consequences for the PC. But once you start doing that, you’re not playing D20 anymore.

Vampire the Masquerade and Path Scores/Humanity

Its definitely in vogue to give Vampire a lot of crap as a system, but I’m not jumping on that particular bandwagon. I played Vampire and ran Vampire avidly for about eight years or so, and enjoyed almost every session of every game. I wrote and ran huge (80-100 player) LARPS on two occasions and loved those as well. And look! I’m not even brain-damaged. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

Obviously, the Storyteller system isn’t perfect. I’ve never seen a system that doesn’t have holes I could drive a truck through, frankly, so its all a matter of increments to me. One of the most glaring problems is the Humanity/Path system. In most of my games, Path has played a central role, and I’ve always had house rules galore. As written, your Humanity is just something you grind down as quickly as possible by committing atrocities at every turn. There’s no reason not to (except that one Dementation power is, for some reason, resisted by your Path score). Its just holding you back. Ironically enough, the Path system, as written, has no teeth.

The Fixes

The most recent version of Vampire the Dark Ages to come out before Requiem was released actually dealt with Paths a bit better. They added rules for what they called an Aura – it is basically the sense that others get about you, whether you are a seething pustule of moral corruption or a shimmering paragon of virtue. If you had a high path score, your Aura was beneficial in social situations – it was easier to convince people to trust you, for example, or to appear human to a casual onlooker. Those with high Path scores had trouble with both.

I also added a house rule about the order in which PCs woke up at night and got sleepy as morning approached. So with a higher Path score, you got a chance to go out and accomplish things as a PC before others were even awake, and were less likely to fall asleep in a dangerous situation. This added to the Aura as incentive to actually maintain a Path score.

Of course, there was still the fun of plunging into depravity – but now there was a bit more of a feeling that you were losing something.

7 thoughts on “Game Mechanics That Fail

  1. Neat ideas! I just want to say that while we discussed the CoC insanity mechanic, it's not so much that we liked it, it's more that, at least for me, that mechanic sort of defined the game. We describe it as “Whoever lives the longest, looses.” It just sort of …is.

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  2. That's definitely true.

    And thanks for the comment! I forgot to tell you I linked to your show (I try to do so out of courtesy) but clearly, you found me!

    I like the show, btw. You're doing an excellent job.

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  3. Am I the only one who has a certain nostalgic fondness for THAC0?

    Mind you, it's the same sort of nostalgic fondness one might have for an unhappy childhood, but still. You love the childhood you had, not the one you didn't. 😀

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  4. Just to point out, humanity does have a couple other benefits in Vampire: It determines how quickly you wake up from torpor, it determines your maximum dice pool when you have to act during the day, and… okay, no, I guess that is about it. I actually have always used that house rule you mentioned myself.

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