Three Ways to Cut a Cake: Game Mechanics Part 1
Game Mechanics are one of the most complicated aspects of writing an Adventure Game, and it’s not because of the difficulty. Every single game has mechanical elements, with different degrees of prominence within a particular game. These mechanics develop together into systems – relationships of mechanics that inform each other. For example, each different spell a wizard can know is a mechanic, together they form a system. As someone who is involved heavily in the Tabletop Roleplaying Game world, a world where systems are far more prominent when discussing game design, I find myself thinking a lot about how to use mechanics and systems to develop the emotional reactions I would like in a game. In this article, I’m not going to talk about how to use game mechanics for your game. Not yet. Instead, I’m going to introduce a vocabulary for talking about game mechanics, taking them apart, and examining them critically. None of these systems of mechanical discussion are perfect for every game mechanic. Instead, you should mix and match these different divisions of game mechanics to gain a deeper understanding of how game mechanics work.
What is a “Game Mechanic”?
At its most basic level, a game mechanic is a rule about how the world of your adventure game functions. Technically, every single aspect of how we interact with an adventure game is a game mechanic. We just take the majority of these “mechanics” for granted. For example, a core game mechanic that is true in 99% of all Adventure Games is how a sword operates. This is, in many ways, the heart of the greater Wayfinder system – the core that everything else is rooted in. On a more abstract level, something like “talking” is technically a game mechanic. When I speak out loud, it’s understood that my character is speaking out loud and saying the same words that I’m saying normally. However, we can appreciate this as a mechanic when we notice when this isn’t true. If I cross my fingers before I talk, this indicates at Wayfinder that I’m speaking out-of-character, and that my character isn’t actually saying the words that I’m saying at the moment. Similarly, words can indicate mechanical importance. If I point at you and yell “Knockdown!”, then it is left unclear whether my character is actually saying these words. Instead, it is understood that I am casting a spell or using psionic abilities to repel you and shove you onto the ground.
Game mechanics develop into a System. A System is a series of interconnected mechanics. The classic example is the Wayfinder Magic System. It is composed entirely of different moving parts, that intersect to form a cohesive whole. Systems make assumptions about how play is supposed to operate. By including swords in your game, you are probably assuming at least the following things:
- 1. Swords will exist in the game and at least the threat of sword use will appear.
- 2. That when a player sees the out-of-game object we refer to as a sword, they will understand that that object represents a large hunk of metal (they will imagine it is a sword).
- 3. That injury or death is possible within the game, and there are additional game mechanics to handle that.
That last point is the most important. Game mechanics naturally beget other game mechanics, as part of developing a system. We possess a death system, in which players understand what is to happen mechanically when they are killed as a result of actions in game. That is a game mechanic. As an extension of that, there must be game mechanics in place to facilitate what happens ways to die. Do I die if someone points at me and says “Death!”. Do I die if someone hits me with a sword or shoots me with a NERF bullet? Do I die if someone shines a red light on me? What if something weird happens, like I set off a tripwire? These are all game mechanics that combine with the mechanism of RE to create a game system.
Cues and You
New Game Mechanics can be challenging. An improperly implemented game mechanic can be at best confusing, or at worst actively destructive to the game. The key to creating a game mechanic which successfully adds to the game is ease of remembrance. The easiest way to do that is to build it into Wayfinder’s pre-existing system that is assumed in games. For example, the majority of spells at Wayfinder are communicated via pointing at someone and yelling one or two words that correspond to what the effect is for the player being pointed at. This is a fairly intuitive system – the receiving player is literally being instructed in how to react. If I want a new mechanic that represents the evil villain’s ability to rot away at people’s skin, the easiest way to do that and ensure people will remember it is by attaching a verbal cue – perhaps the villain points at its victim and yells “Wither!”. Wayfinder most often uses verbal cues in its game mechanics (although somatic cues – cues that are communicated via unusual physical action – aren’t uncommon, especially in the Sci-Fi system and its derivatives) However, that’s not always the appropriate solution. What if I want the withering effect to be constant?
In that scenario, a common solution is to tie the withering to a visual cue. I might, before game, inform everyone that if they see Jud Packard, that means their skin begins to rot off. Sometimes, this works! However, visual cues don’t often work passively. It’s easy to forget that there’s something special associated with Jud Packard, in the heat of the moment. The best way to ensure players remember visual cues is by making the visual cue impossible to miss and to really, really drill it into their heads. Silence Blooming, a game ran in 2017 by myself and Jeremy Gleick, made heavy use of visual cues for game mechanics. The one that really stuck in people’s heads was “Everyone follow the Whale Monster!” which is to say, that when people see a giant monster composed of multiple moving people, they have to follow it. We turned this into a callback to ensure that people would remember it, and it worked effectively in game. We also made strong use of colored lights for verbal cues. I was wrapped entirely in glowing string lights for game, and if you had a particular disease, you had to follow me. This only mattered to people with the disease, so people were already aware of something to look out for. Also, string lights are very visible at night.
Another tool you have at your disposal disconnects mechanics from active players. Object cues and written cues are both ways of allowing mechanics to exist in the world without having a player enforcing them. An object cue is a particular object with a mechanical effect when you interact with it – a sword hurts you when you’re hit by it, or a red LED light melts your skin off when it’s held up to you. Written cues instruct the player in how to proceed. A common one is “sickness papers”, when you have a small piece of paper that explains to you the symptom of a disease you possess. Sometimes, these cues blend together. An object might have a written cue on it, to instruct you as to what happens when you pick it up, and a piece of paper might represent an object – like a piece of tape with TRAP written on it.
Often, it’s possible for a single game mechanic to possess multiple cues attached to it at a single time. While a sword kills you if it hits you, it requires a somatic component (being swung at you) to actually have an impact – we have an understanding that a sword just sitting there won’t injure you. Spells like Repulsion also possess a somatic component – outstretched arms – and an object cue and a visual cue are closely interlinked. The important part for a mechanic within a system is that the mechanic is easy to remember and consistent with other mechanics, both within the game and in a larger context at Wayfinder. For example, it is commonly accepted that when you hear someone blow a vuvuzela, that means they are freezing time. This is such an ingrained reaction for many of us that even when told the vuvuzela blast means something else, we’ll often react by freezing. It often goes without saying, but you also want to have consistency within the world of the game – if red LED lights cause your skin to melt off, make sure Sets & Props isn’t using any for any scene if that’s not your desired effect!
Naturalistic vs. Symbolic
In Art History (my personal discipline) there is a continuum that exists, between naturalism (that is, art that perfectly resembles the real world) and symbolic (art that has no visual connection to the natural world). We can also construct this line for game mechanics. This section of this article draws on the work of Lauri Lukka in “6 Levels of Substitution: The Behavioral Substitution Model”, published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. (An aside: if you ever have a free night or two, hunt down all the Knutpunkt/Knudepunkt/Solmukohta articles you can find, and check them out. There are some real gems!)
On one end of the spectrum, (no substitution, in Lukka’s language) is a game mechanic which is perfectly naturalistic. What the game mechanic represents as a symbol is exactly what happens in real life. An obvious example of this is that in the majority of game, “walking” as an in-game action is represented by performing the physical action “walking”, which is to say, when you want to walk around, you walk around. Another, significantly more dangerous example would be a game in which people actually stab each other with swords to represent a swordfight. Sometimes, a perfectly naturalistic game mechanic makes sense – we don’t need to abstract walking (the majority of the time). However, for other mechanics, it’s sometimes dangerous – there’s a reason we have foam swords.
The other end of that continuum is a perfectly symbolic (or abstract) game mechanic. This is when the symbol of the concept completely replaces any real interaction with the world. This could be a spirit journey where someone describes to you what’s going on, or where you read information off of a piece of paper on the ground. These are mechanics you’d expect to find in a tabletop game, or perhaps in play-by-post. Your physical body doesn’t matter, as it’s been completely substituted.
In the middle are game mechanics which either depend more heavily on naturalistic behavior, or on symbolic information. Our system for sword combat, where we have abstracted it to the point where we’re not using literal swords, and we treat the swords differently than how they are as actual objects, but we strive for realism in how the swords operate, is a mostly-naturalistic mechanic. A system in which, instead of fighting with swords, you engage in a dance party, is heavily abstracted but in an interesting way. It’s still satisfying the same physical mechanisms as a sword fight does, but the swords have been abstracted out of the combat. Even further abstracted would be a system where sword fights are represented through a game of poker. Gone is the physical association, and instead is a mental association. One could say that a game of Texas Hold’em is a lot like a Mexican Standoff in terms of the tenseness and cultural associations, making a symbolic switch like that appealing.
Lukka posits that this is connected to a “Dual Processing Model” and proposes a Grotesque Zone where the naturalistic and symbolic clash (an idea I disagree with for subtle reasons but is still a useful mechanism for discussion). I would argue that game mechanics anywhere along the line can be failing, but the advantage of the continuum is that it gives you the ability to understand how you want your mechanics to be realized, and when they fall apart, why they fall apart. It’s possible for a game mechanic to be more abstracted than it needs to be, by involving layers of thought that replace one’s ability to intuit how the mechanic works. Conversely, it’s possible for a game mechanic to be more naturalistic than it needs to be, either by endangering people or forcing you to conform to your weaknesses as a physical person. An example of how this can be contentious is the Hide mechanic used in the current Magic System. One camp of people argues that the mechanic is too abstracted, making people worse at hiding because it gets in the way of how to “actually” hide as a Rogue. The other camp argues that the mechanic is perfectly fine because it abstracts the act of hiding into something anyone is capable of doing and something they’re guaranteed to succeed at physically.
Game Mechanics as Improv Prompts
A third and valuable way of subdividing game mechanics is by how players engage with them. There are four such categories in this sense – Active Mechanics, Passive Mechanics, Reactive Mechanics, and Collaborative Mechanics.
Active mechanics are ones that are forced upon a player by another player or their environment. If I hit you with a sword, I have now caused you to experience a scene against your will. You didn’t choose to be hit by a sword (maybe), but you are now given the improvisational prompt “you’re wounded!”. Similarly, if I point at you and yell, “Fear!”, I’m directly giving you a prompt to change how you’re roleplaying. Sometimes, Active mechanics will require me to change my own behavior – a spell might physically exhaust me, for instance – but I’m the one making the choice to invoke the convention.
Passive mechanics are internal ones. They’re truths about one’s character that define how that character operates. Often, no one knows a particular passive mechanic exists, or it folds effortlessly into pre-existing systems. A curse that’s built into my character from the start of game is an example of a passive mechanic – if I do something, I must change my roleplaying, but no one needs to know about that but me. Another passive mechanic is the ability to hide, or the entire mechanic for reincarnation and death. Passive mechanics aren’t put upon you, except by either the gamewriter or yourself.
Reactive mechanics occur reflexively when another player does something, but otherwise have no effect. The best example of a reactive mechanic is Protection. Reactive mechanics tend to be very similar to passive mechanics, as you’re the only person who needs to keep track of them, but you tend to need to inform another player that they’re occuring. Personally, I’m not a big fan of reactive mechanics whose only function is to protect you from having to react to magic. The entire function of the system is to give people the chance to be affected by cool magic, and while it can be empowering to not have to react, it clashes against the interesting scene made by having to react.
Finally, collaborative mechanics are ones which two or more people opt into together, taking on the improv prompt as a group. The only example of this that I can think of in the traditional magic system is Sanctuary, where multiple people can be guarded by a single ringing bell, but it’s possible to create others. I believe collaborative mechanics are especially valuable in games when you want to foster a sense of community and team-building. In a sense, all rituals are collaborative mechanics, as they’re a group of people working together to execute the mechanic. Often, collaborative mechanics have someone orchestrating them, but the players are all joining into it to build the scene.
Examples of Evaluating Mechanics
For the final portion of this article, we’re going to take a few game mechanics, and you must identify the cues of the mechanic, whether the mechanic is more naturalistic or symbolic, and whether the mechanic is active, passive, reactive, or collaborative. In addition, each mechanic has a different flaw with it that will cause problems during game, and I’d like you to identify how this appears. This isn’t a test – I don’t expect you to guess them perfectly. Instead, I want you to start using these different division systems as a way of talking about mechanics, and understand how they can be applied, and how they can be useful. If you disagree with me on any of these mechanics, you’re welcome to hunt me down on the internet and passionately explain to me why I’m wrong.
- 1. The Sword of Angrathnar. If a glowing red sword would kill you, you become a ghost that follows the wielder of the blade around, invisible to everyone. The wielder can issue commands to you, which you must obey.
- 2. Rosie Ring. If two Spore Disciples hold hands together and start dancing while singing a terrifying nursery rhyme, they begin a ritual that transforms them into the host of an arcane disease that warps reality. They must dance for five minutes straight, at which point they may become horrible monstrosities, and change into monster costumes.
- 3. Misty Step. If a spell would be cast on a Wizard who is capable of casting the spell themselves, they may instead ignore the spell and wave their arms around, putting on their spirit costume. They may then run up to 30 feet and reappear somewhere else.
- 4. The Mark of Kaine. Those who carry the mark of Kaine, a black rune on one’s forehead, cannot be harmed by any wound, and instead any wound that would harm them appears on those who tried to harm them.
1. The Sword of Angrathnar. This is a visual object cue (the sword is an object, and it’s glowing red, which reminds you visually). This is not especially symbolic or naturalistic, as it abstracts a non-natural experience, but I could hear arguments leaning either way. It is an active game mechanic, as the wielder of the weapon inflicts it onto other players with the blade itself. The flaw that I would articulate is that the mechanic is too active – it takes control and limits the victim’s games in a way that isn’t fun (they now have to be ghosts forever, and don’t get to make their own choices while being invisible to everyone).
2. Rosie Ring. This is a somatic cue (dancing), accompanied by a verbal cue (singing). It is fairly naturalistic, as even though it represents a non-natural process, the process is very literal. You’re dancing and singing, which is what you’re doing in the fiction. At the end, there’s a split into abstraction as they have to stop and change into monster costumes. Finally, the mechanic is collaborative – it’s engaged willingly by two people, and alters their behavior without directly impacting anyone else. The flaw of this mechanic is that naturalism and symbolism are clashing. Having to stop the immersive scene at the end of it to change into costumes kills the mood, and ruins whatever the writer was trying to go with with the creepy transformation sequence.
3. Misty Step. This mechanic features a visual object cue (the spirit costume), and hypothetically a somatic cue (the waving-around arms). It is neither especially naturalistic or symbolic, to the point where it’s unclear what’s going on from either perspective. Finally, it is a reactive mechanic, which only allows you to do something if someone’s cast a spell on you. There’s two main problems with the spell: first, the somatic cue is unnecessary and confusing. The other problem is that it’s too reactive. You have to jump through too many hoops in order to use it, and there’s a good chance someone is let down by their spell randomly happening to fail.
4. The Mark of Kaine. This is a visual cue (the forehead symbol). It’s neither especially naturalistic or symbolic, beyond how our own weapon system is abstracted. Finally, the kind of prompt this is is tricky. On one hand, it’s active – you’re changing your roleplay behavior because of something the person with the mark is doing. On the other hand, it’s reactive – your own actions are causing something to happen to you. Perhaps from the person with the mark’s perspective, it’s passive. They don’t have to do a single thing. The problem with this mechanic is this lack of clarity in how the cues operate. When we use this mechanic normally in Wayfinder games (often called “Thorns”), we accompany it with a verbal cue (yelling “Thorns!” when the person with the mark is injured). This reminds the person engaging in the injuring how the mechanic works, and turns it into a reactive mechanic that causes an active mechanic to occur.
Game Mechanics are, on a fundamental level, how we interface with the fiction that is the Adventure Game. Every single thing you do in an adventure game is technically a game mechanic, and even something as simple as talking to someone else can have multiple meanings or purposes. Don’t treat your game mechanics like something extra, to toss on top of your game when you need some garnish. They’re the tools you use to immerse your players and build your narrative. Take command of your mechanics, and sculpt your world with them. In the future, I’ll be talking about how mechanics combine, and how that builds a system.
Written by Jay Dragon
March 30, 2018.