Cinemechanix Design Journal 21: Forces of Habit

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 05 August 2016 Written by Steve

Sorry about not posting last week. I've was busy working on a couple of Brainfart Press projects and tilting at windmills over at my non-game blog, so the game blog kind of slipped through the cracks. 

After a longer delay than I would have liked, I think we've got a workable solution to the core mechanic/combat system problems with Cinemechanix that showed up in playtesting. The basic plan is to limit the dice pool to three dice: the default die everybody gets, a Concept Die (which is always a bonus die) for things that are central to the character concept, and a Context Die (which may be a bonus or penalty dice) that basically covers everything else. Instead of adding dice to the pool, Tropes will be modifiers to the roll. This should get rid of the problem of roll ranges so limited that nobody gets an advantage without a loss of scalability. A couple of our GMs are running Cinemechanix games at GenCon, so hopefully I'll have some feedback on how things work in the near future. 

An early version of the system (when it was still QAGS 3.0) included a similar mix of bonus dice and modifiers, but I dropped it because (not yet having noticed the problem with large dice pools) I thought that leaving modifiers out altogether would eliminate temptation for "fiddly" modifiers that add complexity to the system without really adding anything to the gaming experience. Unfortunately this led to a different kind of fiddliness. I've known it was there for awhile, but kept trying to ignore it or improve upon it (in ways that probably just made it more fiddly) because admitting to it would require rewriting the way characters are defined. Knowing that I'm going to have to rewrite big sections because of the core mechanics changes just made it easier to admit. 

The fiddliness comes from that weird class of character traits that are somewhere in the middle between game stats and story elements. Things that are clearly character abilities (like the character's marksmanship skills or super strength) are easy; they need game stats. Things that are pure story (like the character's eye color or favorite Stooge) are also easy; they don't need game stats. The problem comes from the stuff in between that are story elements that seem like they need to have game mechanics tied to them--things like contacts and resources and reputation. Up until now I've been trying to include these things as a sorta-kinda-mechanic under the character concept as something called "Hooks," but it's created a lot of confusion since Hooks can easily overlap with and even require repetition as other game traits (especially Drawbacks and Special Effects). This has led to what I sort of think of as "Storygame fiddliness" where game concepts have such precise meanings that it makes things confusing in a way that's just as off-putting and inaccessible as multi-page femoral artery integrity check rules. 

A lot of the tendency to try to turn "damned" (to borrow from Charles Fort) character traits like these into game mechanics tied up in the myth of game balance, which is hard to get away from because some of the things done in the name of game balance are useful for reasons that have nothing to do with the "problem" they're trying to solve. For example, some of the damned character traits that led to all the fiddliness need to be accounted for because they can affect both the story and the game mechanics. The question is how to do it without an obnoxious level of precision. 

The other thing that's led to fiddliness is a tendency to think in terms of generic game system standards (which are the norm, especially for "universal" systems) instead of adaptable game systems (which is what I'm trying to write). I'm sure I've gone into the difference (probably at length) here before, but the quick version is that a generic game system is a blueprint, an adaptable game system is a toolbox. Generic systems say "here are the rules for magic"; adaptable systems say "here are some rules concepts you can use to create the magic system that works best for the game you're running." A lot of the fiddliness I was creating was creeping in because I was still thinking in terms of generic game system (in my defense, the distinction between the two is something that I've been developing along with the system, so it's not like I've got a handbook to refer to). If you're playing a fantasy game using Cinemechanix, you should be able to say "I'm a fighter" and have a generic bonus for "fighter stuff" or create D&D style advancement tables that enumerate specific fighter abilities and bonuses by Hero Factor, whichever works best for your game. In an adaptable system, the best way for dealing with damned traits is something the players need to figure out when they're building their game. By trying to force certain kinds of traits into specific mechanical bins like generic games do, I'm taking away the players' ability to customize the system to the game they're going to run.  

Long story short, I'm re-writing the character creation chapter right now, and it's getting a lot clearer and simpler all the time.


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Cinemechanix Design Journal 21: Forces of Habit.
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