RPG Mechanic Round-Up #7


Progress and Drama

In the game text, instead of listing the result of a passed test in a resolution mechanic as “success”, describe it as “progress.” That is, progress is made toward whatever your goal was, or toward winning what was at stake. In parallel, instead of listing a failed test in your resolution mechanic as “failure”, call it “drama”, in that the dramatic tension increases in the scene or in the story. This could almost be the only change in how a system is written, but I think it opens up results in interesting ways.

Let’s say your D&D player does the classic thing and makes an absurd proficiency check – then they roll a 20, and even though there isn’t a “natural 20” rule in 5E for proficiency checks, they still expect something big from their absurd plan (seduce the dragon, pick the lock with mage hand, lie to the Inevitable’s face, etc.). So if passing the test equals “progress” rather than “success”, you can just describe how their absurd plan gets them closer to their goal. Similarly, for all of those proficiency checks where failure just means the story stops, if it is “drama” (or “tension” perhaps, or “threat”) instead of “failure” for a failed test, the attempt can be technically successful, moving things ahead, but they are now worse than they were.

Theme Music

Each player chooses a theme song for their character and queue’s it up on their phone. At any time during the session, they can hit play for the song, play a bit of it, and their character automatically succeeds on whatever it is they are doing. Maybe instead of Inspiration, players can gain bonus uses of their theme music during the session. Similarly, the DM can queue up theme songs for any Big Bads they’ll face, and those enable them to use a legendary save ability to choose to save on a failed saving throw, or to resist death for a round after being reduced to 0 hit points, etc.

Big and Small Advantages with Percentile Dice

This is a layer of complexity that one might not choose, but it occurred to me while listening (and enjoying) another How We Roll actual play of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. In CoC 7E there is an advantage mechanic, where you roll the 10s digit die more than once and take the worse of the two rolls. I thought that this made sense for big advantages and disadvantages, but for smaller advantages and disadvantages it would make sense to roll the 1s digit die twice and take the better or worse of the two rolls. This gives you an approximately 1 in 10 change of barely making, or barely missing, the roll, and isn’t a big deal, but could be an interesting tweak, maybe for when the player thinks they should have advantage but the Keeper disagrees. “Yes, but…”

Percentile Auto-Success

Rolling is not always fun. Games usually have some kind of hand-wavey rule about “only roll when it is interesting” or “only roll when there is danger involved” but even in games where that is spelled out enforcement is sporadic. It occurred to me, in particular in a percentile system, that it could be simpler and also more interesting to give each character a number of auto-successes equal to the tens digit of the applicable skill. So, again looking at Call of Cthulhu, your investigator with a Credit Rating of 57 could just have 5 automatic successes on Credit Rating rolls during the scenario (intended to be more than one session). The downside is that you don’t get any chance to advance when using one of these auto-successes, nor can you get a critical success of any kind. Maybe one could ignore this rule in combat, and of course the Keeper would be able to say that it doesn’t apply in a certain situation (like a Sanity roll, or a situation where the danger of failure is really interesting), but I like it as a rule.

Final Fantasy Action Selector

Remember old school Final Fantasy where you had the action selector when each character’s turn came up? It looked something vaguely like this:

  • Fight / Run
  • Magic
  • Drink
  • Item

I was thinking about something like this for new players. Frequently, players at my table forget all of the various things their character can do when it is their turn, especially at higher levels. What if new players had something like this, printed up by the DM, with their abilities on it? Something for a Druid might look like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Shapechange

And one for a Rogue more like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Dash
  • Disengage
  • Hide

Of course, the player can put whatever is interesting on the selector, and can always do things not listed, but it might be helpful to just have that at a glance. I’ve seen a lot of new players stare glassy-eyed at their complex character sheet when their turn comes when really they only have two or three viable and interesting options. The problem is that it takes significant system mastery for one to know what those few viable and interesting options are.


Ken Hite, Tim Powers, and the Great Old One Himself

Image: Bruce Timm’s rendition of Lovecraft, c/o Dark Forces Book Group

I was having a conversation with a friend and colleague today about a number of things, among them Tim Powers and H. P. Lovecraft. Feel free to check out more about both of these authors if you’re interested via Wikipedia. Whoever is reading this blog probably knows who Lovecraft is and may or may not know who Tim Powers is (he’s an award-winning fantasy author who focuses on secret histories).

I was reflecting on a quote from Lovecraft, and something occurred to me – the fact that along one axis at least, Powers and Lovecraft are mirror images of each other. The Lovecraft quote is this:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. This quote is the first line from Lovecraft’s most famous tale, The Call of Cthulhu. What Lovecraft seems to be alluding to here, as well as in other works, is that if one were to understand the totality of existence, one would fall into madness and despair, and that our inability to fully comprehend is our salvation as a species. As long as we are in the dark, we are ok. When the truth is revealed to us, it shatters us.

I compared this to Tim Powers. What Tim Powers is good at is writing fantasy that takes place in the lives of known, historical figures and events. He takes the supernatural and intersperses it into history almost seamlessly, so that you come away from the story thinking “For all I know, that’s how it went.” He does this by doing a tremendous amount of research both on the ‘official’ history of people like Romantic poets or famous pirates or Cold Warriors and then finds the spaces between what is recorded them and inserts the fantastic.

What Tim Powers does, in other words, is he skillfully correlates the contents of his mind. Because he is able to do this, he is able to put together truly amazing stories that do not have to shatter our accepted history, but only embellish it, like a virtuoso soloist in a jazz ensemble. The soloist isn’t breaking the music, s/he’s making it even more beautiful and evocative.

Where Lovecraft saw horror and insanity, Powers sees beauty and stories worth telling, and both of them take their jumping-off place, in part, from correlation. Lovecraft looks at the immensity of experience and thinks “Behind all this is some kind of seething, infinite darkness which means us ill.” Powers looks at the same immensity and complexity and interconnectedness and thinks “I bet I can tell a story about Lord Byron the vampire hunter, or the Cold War fought by means of genies, or Texas Hold ’em players fighting for control of a Tarot-throne in Las Vegas.”

In the final analysis, while Lovecraft has had a far greater impact on our culture than Powers, I prefer Powers’ view. It is another kind of genius. Rather than fear, Powers tends to offer wonder. Both writers are awe-ful in their own way, however, and very much worth reading.


I only mentioned Ken Hite in this post because he is the author of many superb books on the Lovecraft Mythos, the most recent of which is Cthulhu 101. Look for it wherever games or comics are sold.

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.