Cinemechanix Design Journal 15: Acclaim

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 22 April 2016 Written by Steve

As I've mentioned a few times, the Cinemechanix version of Yum Yums is a mechanic called Acclaim. The basic idea is the same: players get bennies for adding to the game and can use them to get bonuses to rolls or to subtly alter the story in their favor, but the details are a little different. In QAGS, the GM gives you candy when you do something worthwhile and you give it back to him when you want to spend it for a better die roll or to affect the scene. The nice advantage to that system is that Yum Yums rarely require breaking the storytelling for "game speak." Since there's a physical token being passed around, the GM doesn't have to tell you that you've earned Yum Yums and you usually don't need to break character to tell the GM you're spending them.  

Originally I though Acclaim would work exactly like Yum Yums, but since Cinemechanix focuses heavily players as co-authors, I kind of wanted to include an official way for players to be involved in the process of handing out Acclaim. It's common for QAGS players to let the GM know when they think another player deserves Yum Yums, so I wanted to include that kind of thing as an official rule this time around. In fact, I kind of liked the idea of making Yum Yum awards a group decision, rather than an arbitrary GM decision. The problem was that turning the power to award Yum Yums over to the group basically meant voting, which kills the transparency that makes Yum Yums work so well. You don't want to stop the story to hold a straw poll.

The solution came when I remembered something from one of the games I rated for last year's Game Chef. I don't remember the game off the top of my head, but players had a limited range of game actions and used different hand signals to let the other players know which one they'd chosen. The basic idea is the same as crossing your arms to let other players in a Vampire LARP know you're invisible, but I haven't played a Vampire LARP since the Clinton administration, so Game Chef was fresher in my mind. Since Cinemechanix is built around a "think of your RPG as a TV series or movie" conceit, Siskel and Ebert provided the perfect answer. When somebody does something cool, a player who thinks they deserve Acclaim for it gives the thumbs up sign. Other players who agree also hold their thumbs up. If there's a majority, the GM tosses the player an Acclaim token (you can still use candy if you want). If there's a tie, the player gets Acclaim if the GM gave him a thumbs up.  It's a little more involved than tossing candy around, but it's still reasonably non-intrusive. 

Since there's a Thumbs Up, there's also a Thumbs Down. I probably would have needed something along those lines even if symmetry didn't demand it because I set the game up so that player decisions are never decided by dice rolls unless there's some kind of mind control thing going on. No roll can force you to play your fatal flaw. If an NPC tries to fast-talk a character, the player gets to decide whether or not the character believes him, not the dice (though the player is free to roll if he's honestly not sure whether his character would see through the deception). The Thumbs Down provides a way for other players to call bullshit on players who act in bad faith.   

When I showed the Acclaim rules to the Hex crew, they brought up two possible problems, one that I'd already considered and one that hadn't occurred to me. The first one is obvious: since Acclaim is in the hands of the players, the players could "farm" for Acclaim by constantly giving each other Thumbs Up for things that don't really deserve it. That one doesn't really worry me, since I don't think many players who would do that kind of thing are going to be playing Cinemechanix in the first place. Even if they do, I have no interest in writing a game that wastes ink trying to protect the Lowest Common Denominator from themselves. If you want to game the system and stockpile Acclaim so the PCs never face any meaningful challenges you obviously don't understand how stories work, so why the hell are you playing a storytelling game? Go play Rifts or something. 

The other problem was something I didn't think of, but probably should have. Josh pointed out that some people wouldn't like the Thumbs Down rule because it could be construed as confrontational. I'd forgotten that a lot of gamers are incredibly fragile, so in their minds there's really no difference between constructive criticism and a death threat. As Josh predicted, a few playtesters have expressed concern about the Thumbs Down rule, but I'm keeping it just the same. Just like it's not my job to create a game that's Munchkin-proof, it's also not my job to write a game that reinforces geek social fallacies. Besides, if your group doesn't like the Thumbs Down rule, you can always just ignore it. 

The other reason for leaving the Thumbs Down rule in is that some groups, especially those who work hard to avoid any hint of conflict, really need it. As I've mentioned here before, we do a lot of convention panels and the Q&A segment of them usually turns into to a sort of gaming group counseling session. The basic story is always the same: Somebody's doing something that the other players don't like, but the other players don't want to say anything because it might hurt someone's feelings. The solution, of course, is Rule #1: Talk To One Another Like Grown-Up Primates. If you keep walking on eggshells while one player screws up the game for everyone else, the resentment builds until it boils over and things end badly. It's much better to settle problems when they occur and move on. The Thumbs Down mechanic could help some conflict-averse because the criticism is framed as a game mechanic, which may make it seem less personal. It's like taking away a paladin's powers for changing alignment. 


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Cinemechanix Design Journal 15: Acclaim.
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