Wednesday, July 13, 2011

RPG Game Mechanics That Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time

Sometimes a game will introduce a mechanic that I really like at first, but that later I find to be flawed in practice. I'm going to discuss two of these mechanics. The first is the concept of character flaws that give the character build points at character generation, but are purely negatives for the rest of the game. The second is the concept of experience in the form of a resource that you can choose to either spend in game to give you a bonus, or spend between games to improve your character, but not both.

When I was first introduced to the concept of advantages and disadvantages they seemed like a great idea. Take a flaw for your character and get points to improve their strengths. The problem is that this method practically requires min-maxing your character, trying to get flaws that will never actually affect you in game in exchange for benefits that you can use often. I much prefer the newer systems where flaws continue to benefit the players during the game. Usually this is done by providing some sort of credit they can use to help themselves in the future whenever a flaw is used in the present.

This second method turns flaws into what they were originally meant to be: something that defines your character, not something to be avoided in play at all cost. It's such a big deal to me that when I run across a system that treats flaws in the old way, I might avoid it even if I'd be interested in it otherwise.

I wasn't as enthusiastic about the second concept as I was about character flaws, but people that I played with thought it was a great idea at the time, and I was OK with it at first. That concept is experience that serves a dual purpose, either being burned up during a game to provide immediate benefits or else saved up until between sessions to improve a character. There seemed to be a lot of games that experimented with this idea back when I was in college. Torg and Shadowrun were two big ones. I can only speculate as to what the designers were going for with this concept. I assume they were trying to add more interesting choices to the game.

I suppose it probably works as long as all the players are spending their experience (XP) in a similar manner. The problems come when they don't. In my experience, some gamers will simply refuse to spend the experience in game unless it is truly a matter of life and death for their characters. If that means the mission fails, so be it. At least they get decent XP to build their characters with.

In a party where some players are willing to spend XP in game and others aren't, there will soon be an imbalance between those characters who spend all the XP they earn on character improvement and those who don't. This can eventually lead to a negative feedback loop for those who spend XP on temporary bonuses as threats designed to challenge their more capable companions can only be dealt with by spending even more XP on temporary bonuses.

Like character flaws with no in-game benefit, this is another one of those mechanics that causes me to reconsider playing a game that includes it, even if it's an otherwise interesting game.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who prefers these mechanics and their reasons for doing so. Perhaps I've missed some advantage that they have.


Scott said...

Drama card: +3 possibilities >>>>>>>>>> roll again ... once

The two issues I had with disadvantages in gurps were ...

1, the balance was completely off. IIRC missing and eye (and hence sucking at everything ranged) was the same value as overconfidence (and hence being awesome).

2, what you said - 10 pts or so bonus initially is not worth a permanent penalty. Make it like a % based reward - every time you gain points (including character creation), have the penalty give you a bonus.

librarian said...

See, if your games all tend to be similar, then yes, the disads become constant flaw. However, if you have a) rotating GMs with the same characters or b) a GM who changes things up on a regular basis, then the disads/ads thing can work ok.

For instance, we had a campaign where everyone started out 12 years old. People were supposed to create 50 (or maybe 75) pt characters that were similar to how they felt they were at 12. And then the ingame adventure was mostly exploration at first (finding a lighthouse with no inhabitants, then exploring a cave complex with "strangeness"). Then there was some combat - follow up again with trying to lie their way into the huge Lair of Evil Mastermind under Disneyland.

While indeed, since the players were playing themselves as 12 y.o., maybe they could take Odious Personal Habits 10pts; but most of the players played it straight.

I guess it boils down to is the game a shared narrative, where the GM is both an arbiter and partner in creating an entertaining event for all; or is it a strategy game where GM is more of an opponent/nemesis?

On point 2, I agree, I hated that. Shadowrun 1st ed stank for just that reason. We only played because background was so cool at the time.

librarian said...

I guess I never actually made my point: If the game is varied enough, what is an "advantageous" disad in one situation can become a real disadvantage in another situation. Overconfidence is great if it's all combat, but it will ruin your party if you are trying to bluff your way into something.

Fulminata said...

In my experience, without a mechanical means to encourage players to actually play their flaws, it simply becomes a contest between the GM and the player with the GM attempting to bring the flaw into play and the player attempting to keep it from coming into play.

The only difference with an "advantageous" disantvantage is that the contestants sometimes switch sides.

When the system rewards players to actually bring their flaws into play, then both GM and player end up cooperating to create a better story, and hence a better game.

Scott: Torg was definitely the system I was thinking of the most when discussing that mechanic. Unfortunately, it's not the only one, simply the one where I saw it most abused (mainly by me). Librarian mentioned Shadowrun, which I had actually forgotten used that mechanic as well.

There's also an otherwise interesting storytelling RPG, HeroQuest, that unfortunately uses the mechanic as well.

Fulminata said...

Also, thank you both for the comments!

This is definitely a topic that I like to get more feedback on.

Scott said...

In Shadowrun, what drove me nuts was that my mage had to spend XP (I forget what Fasa called XP in SR, so I'll just say XP) to bind magical trinkets or effects of various sorts ... which published adventures would casually strip away from you. Very very rude.

As I recall, I had just spent XP saved up over 2 months after raising an initiate rank on some magical stuff ... and then that toxic shaman adventure had a plot point where the group is to be captured, have to break loose, and recover all their weapons & armor ... but I was just SOL since they stripped my magical gear & enchantments and there was no recovery of that stuff once it was taken or destroyed. XP -> poof. I was not a happy camper.

RPGs without risks are dumb; but this wasn't a risk you could avert, avoid, or overcome; you were just bent over and that's how it was.

Fulminata said...

Yeah, I remember that now.

I think the idea was that spending XP helped slow the power creep of the magic users, which could get really powerful as they advanced.

It's not quite the same thing as what I was talking about, but I can certainly see your point of view in how when the items are lost it might as well be.

Still not a great mechanic.

Was that one of the adventures I ran? It sounds like maybe it was. If I'd been a better GM back then I could have probably figured out something to do about that, but definitely a design oversight as well.

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