Design Goals: Cinemechanix

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 30 October 2015 Written by Steve

Today in shameless self-promotion, I’ve just released my latest non-gaming book through Brainfart Press. It’s called Dispatches From The MGT: Curious Signs from the American Workplace and you can get your copy from CreateSpace or Amazon. My previous Brainfart books, Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed) (Kindle edition also available) and The Callipygian Grimoire: A Discordian Activity & Spell Book, are also still available through both sites. 

A couple weeks ago I talked about Cinemechanix, the new game system I’ve been working on that developed out of what was originally going to be QAGS 3rd Edition. Since work on the project, like love, will come in spurts (and since it’s sometimes hard to think of things to write about in a gaming blog when you’re not gaming regularly), I’m going to post updates and “designer’s notes” types of things here than rather starting a separate blog with sporadic updates. That  being the case, it seems like a good idea to start by talking about my design goals for Cinemechanix. Since these goals are based on my idea of what makes gaming fun, some of this will sound familiar to regular readers. 

The System Should Support Collaborative Storytelling

This seems like a straightforward goal, but let’s unpack it just the same. First off, Cinemechanix is a storytelling game, not a strategy game, so players should be rewarded for contributing to the story, not for finding ways to exploit the rules. The best way to do this is to keep the rules simple. Complex rules, whether intentionally or not, often become gatekeeping mechanisms when they make new players (or players with lives) feel like they’re at a disadvantage because they haven’t had time to read (or money to buy) all the supplements in order to use obscure rules to optimize their characters. As someone who has a financial as well as personal interest in making gaming inviting for new players, I want as few gatekeepers as possible. 

The disadvantage created by too much rules complexity also hampers a new or casual player’s ability to effectively collaborate, since according to Celine’s Second Law true communication can only occur between equals. It’s always going to take new players  a while to learn all the rules, but the rules shouldn’t be so complex that players who haven’t mastered them feel like second-class citizens. Celine’s Second Law also comes into play in relation to the power dynamic between the players and the GM. It’s not the GM’s game, it’s everybody’s game. The players should feel like they’re active co-authors of the story, not editors who are punching up the GM’s half-assed characterization. If you’re worried that giving players more control over the direction of the story will lead to a game where players always “win” an empty victory, there are two things you should know: (1) you don’t understand how stories work; (2) you are not the target audience for this game. 

While there are some mechanics (like the Cinemechanix version of Yum Yums, called Acclaim) that help encourage a more egalitarian relationship between the players and GM, it’s more a matter of encouraging a game “culture” that allows for more player involvement in the initial campaign design as well as ongoing world creation. 

The System Should Be Cinematic

The fact that the game is called “Cinemechanix” probably clued you into this. The name comes from a multi-part series of articles about cinematic role-playing that Deep Space Rescue author Jason Whisman wrote for one of the early incarnations of The Death Cookie. We also used the name for QAGS Cops & Robbers, which we subtitled “A Cinemechanix Guide for QAGS.” Since the system is geared toward “cinematic” gaming and since I make a lot of comparisons between RPGs and movies/television in the rules, the name seemed like a natural fit. Don’t worry, I checked with Jason and he said I could use it. 

I’m not using the term “cinematic” here in quite the same context that most gamers use it. In gamer-speak, “cinematic” usually means “there are rules for doing action-movie style fights and stunts.” Typically, these rules are just as complicated, simulationist, time-consuming, and generally destructive to any sense of narrative flow as the "non-cinematic" rules found in first and second generation RPGs. I’m using the word “cinematic” to suggest that playing the game should feel like you’re watching a great movie or television show, not like you’re doing math. Or, as we put it in QAGS, the game should model fiction, not reality. 

A big part of meeting the goal of making the game system cinematic is recognizing the sorts of rules that don’t do anything to enhance storytelling (and often get in the way of it) and are mostly included in games because of inertia and tradition. QAGS has already done a lot of the heavy lifting here, but even it has a few of these. A good example is the Damage Bonus rule for weapons. In a simulationist game that attempts to model reality, it makes sense. In fiction, combat prowess is a function of the character, not the props he’s carrying. If Buster Bluth tries to shoot Machete with his machine gun and all Machete has is a fluffy pink bunny, Buster’s going to end up unconscious on the ground with a fluffy pink bunny shoved up his ass nine times out of ten. 

The myth of game balance and the idea of the character sheet as an inventory are bigger picture concepts that also need to go, but they're so ingrained in role-playing culture that they sometimes try to slip into the rules even when you’re actively trying to keep them out. Both have their place in more strategy-oriented games where the goal is to “out-play” the other players through use of the game rules, but are completely unnecessary in a cooperative social game unless the players lack emotional maturity and/or basic human decency. If that’s the case, there’s no rule that’s going to help. 

The Game Should Be Adaptable

Players should be able to use the system to play any kind of story they want to play. For games about action movie cops or Old West gunfighters or vikings, you can probably just take the core rules and run with them. The need for special rules usually arises when you throw something weird like magic or super-powers or futuristic technology into the mix. I’m using “adaptable” here to differentiate the game from “generic” or “universal” systems. The generic approach says, for example, “Here are the rules for psychic powers. Any character with psychic powers in any setting uses these rules.” The problem of course, is that psychic powers may work very differently or have a different flavor from one ficton (or even one character) to the next. The “one rule to rule them all” approach more often than not results in a mechanic that kind of works in a lot of situations but doesn’t work especially well in any of them. 

The “adaptable” approach says “Here is a toolbox of rules concepts. Use them in whatever way works best for your game.” The Hulk’s “Super Strength” ability might not use the same rules as Superman’s (or even Thor’s), and a magic system that works perfectly for Hogwart's isn't going to work very well for Sunnydale High. Adaptability requires mechanics that are simple and versatile enough that adapting them to a particular use is mainly a matter of either defining how the general rules work in specific situations or creating new rules that work alongside the existing rules without changing them. An example of the former would be deciding what kind of roll players make when they want to hack into a computer system and how high they need to roll to achieve common results. An example of the latter would be adding a spell point system that governs how much magic players can use during a particular span of game time. The core rulebook should also provide a lot of examples (very clearly presented as examples, not universal rules) to give players ideas of how to adapt the rules to different settings and situations. 

Outside of the rules, one of the things I’m trying to do to encourage the idea of adaptability is to put a lot of emphasis on “designing” your game. This doesn’t mean drawing a map and writing up pages and pages of minutia, it means getting together with the group and deciding what kind of world you want to play in and what kinds of stories you want to tell. Part of the process is deciding what setting elements, story concepts, or character abilities require additional or more detailed rules to achieve the desired flavor and level of detail. A Star Wars game will probably need rules for spaceship combat. A Firefly game won’t. 

That’s the big picture of what I want to accomplish with Cinemechanix: an adaptable, cinematic system for collaborative storytelling. I’ll go into more detail about how I’m trying to do it in future posts. The playtest draft is close to being presentable enough to show to people other than Hex staff, personal friends, and Patreon followers, but it’s not quite there yet. Right now I’m  focusing on helping with the editing of And One For All (Ian’s Three Musketeers sourcebook) so the text will be ready for layout as soon as the art (by Robert Kemp, who did the cover and interior art for Aces & Apes) is finished. 

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