Thinking outside the Toybox

There’s this thing in gaming that really doesn’t work: adding new optional things to a system that the players are very familiar with.

This could be talking to the players and ask them to try to use some different method of play or an optional rule, adding in a few cool rules from another game that matches the goal of the GM, or just trying to encourage the new thing in play as GM.

These are all situations where the new thing was ‘optional’. I’ve never seen it work.

The reasons are simple. Typically, players feel that they’re supposed to do what they were doing before, plus some other things that just add to the level of complexity.

The most common thing that happens is… nothing. The players still see the original game’s system and they don’t adjust in any way to the new stuff.

Alternately, players alter their mode a little but then feel they’re being made to do things that are uncomfortable, boring, or just not what they expect out of that game. Canalized players know what they want, and even when they’re presented with something that’s potentially fun, they might not see where it’s fun. Especially if it happens to conflict with what they normally consider fun.

Put another way, if they can play the same old way, they will play the same old way.

Let me give two examples from two different system/settings: d20 and Amber.

D20: I’m currently playing in a Spycraft game. Tremendous amount of fun. One of the things that’s different about the game versus standard d20 is the concept of action dice. I’ve been reading all this Narrative-game theory and checking out games like Trollbabe and Paladin and stuff and I think “Holy crap, this is a way to give Player’s some narrative control over the situation.” so I burn these things like water — I’m invariably out of the damn things about an hour into each session. Loosely stated, they give you the option to give yourself bumps to your rolls that you’d really like to succeed at, the option to call in favors and so forth from home base, and they also must be traded in to convert a d20 ‘threat’ into a ‘critical’ — it’s the only way it can happen.

Anyone want to take any guess as to where 90% of all action dice get spent?

Yup. On the thing that you have to spend it on. I’ve seen players at the game sit there and potentially accept failure in lieu of spending AD’s during the game — and I don’t think it’susually because anyone’s waiting to see if they get a crit later that they can use them on — they just don’t *think* of it. (Not to take too much credit for anything, but when the other players spend have spent AD’s on bonuses to skill checks, it’s usually because I badger suggest it to them.)

Why? Cuz the optional things get pushed out by the d20 mindset. Crits you know — crits require this mechanic. That’s what they get used for.

Amber: It won’t surprise anyone when I point out that I’m not in love with the ADRPG’s resolution mechanic — the “static karma, plus drama’ systems just don’t work for me — whether via dice or some sort of resource pool, some dynamism is just something I think the system needs. YMMV.

I sat, astonished, when I started to grasp the elegance of the Nobilis diceless system, because with the Miracle Point pools it did what I didn’t think a truly diceless, fortuneless (no dice, no cards) system could do.

A few days ago, I ran across a saved copy of Mike Sullivan’s Amber system for his New Mutiny game. Reading through it (about one page), I was stunned to notice that it had a ‘resource pool’ mechanic right there –granted, it’s more like 7th Sea or HeroQuest’s Hero Points than Nobilis in that it uses the same pool of points that you used to raise your stats with, but it was there, and I’d seen it almost two years before Nobilis.

Why didn’t I remember it? Because I saw the whole thing as an Amber system, and that ‘optional’ rule for pushing up your score was immediately fnorded out by me — I simply didn’t see it — all I saw were the ‘mandatory’ rules variations he’d set up for defining attributes (themselves a good thing), not the optional ‘pushing’ rules.

There’s a simple solution to this: just play a game that strongly supports the change you’re looking for from the ground up — either do this to try out the feel of such a thing, or do more long-term to get the kind of play you like without modifying the old system. The biggest advantage is that these games have the ‘thing you want to try’ built in at some integral level, and they’re largely new ground for the players who, lacking any preconceptions about the gameplay, will try out the new rules.

Here’s a quick example: In the ADRPG, in the section on combat, Wuj points out that the player’s got a lot of leeway with combat scenes — if you’re in a hallway in Castle Amber and you need a weapon, you can just use the logic of the setting and say “I grab a sword off the wall from where it’s behind one of those heraldic shields.” It’s one of the coolest bits of advice I’d ever read at that point in my gaming life, and that kind of player control just blew my mind.

No one does this. No one. I’ve played over two-hundred sessions of Amber and I’ve never seen a player do this. (They might ask if there’s a sword there, but they never just put one there themselves.) Why? It’s optional.

Then there’s Trollbabe, wherein, if you miss a roll, one of the (five or six) ways that you can earn a reroll is by introducing ‘a new object’ into the scene.

Time elapsed in actual game play before someone used the logic of the setting to introduce a handy improvised weapon? About ten minutes. It was, in fact, the first thing anyone used to earn a reroll.

Why? It’s built into the system.

Maybe something that might work for a game like Spycraft would be to play a session of Wushu or even Sorcerer (hmm… Spy-genre Donjon… hmmm) — everything cool you describe gets you more dice and you will, quite frankly, get your kung-fu ass HANDED to you if you don’t set up those cool actions.

Then take that play experience and try to translate that kind of feel back to the pre-existing mechanic Spycraft — the players are maybe doing more stuff with the dice, doing more things that would *earn* them the dice in the game, and the GM is letting them flow more freely, like Force Points in Star Wars (wasn’t really cool: it’s gone; used it to do something cool: you’ll get it back; used it to do something cool at the perfect time or this resulted in a dramatic scene or something; get it back and have another — all this in addition to the other reasons they give for distributing them in the game itself.)

Conversely, I think to really see the strength of Mike’s New Mutiny system design, you take the system out of Amber entirely and run something else with it… hell, Ancient Chinese Sorcery wire-fu works as well as anything else and lets you “push” appropriately — then take it back into the game it was meant to.

But, the bottom line: if you want to break a habit, make a clean break first.

If you want the players to exercise more control on the story in the game, you drop them into InSpectres. Period. They don’t really have any choice but take control or the game just stops.

To paraphrase Mike Holmes: It’s the reason why Everyway cards work in Everyway/Amberway and can’t just be dropped into a standard ADRPG-system game game with real success: if changing the system alone were enough to change mode, then those nifty alterations would work. The cards get ignored, though, so that people can focus on the ‘actual system’, even if they might save their butt. Where in “what would my character do?” does the player consider when to play “Unlooked-for Ally”? He doesn’t.

I’ve mentioned that I’m wrapping up my DnD game soon. After that happens, my plan (providing my players don’t run screaming from the table at the idea, which is a possibility) is to do some short-run games (1-5 sessions each) in systems that players haven’t played before — the genre will probably remain fantasy for most of it, but I’m looking at stuff like Donjon, Burning Wheel, HeroQuest, Sorcerer & Sword, Paladin, and another thing I’ve been playing around with — what they all have in common is that they would work in the same setting we’ve been using and introduce new concepts to game play as an integral part of the game.

Integral. Cannot be ignored. Et cetera. That’s where you get outside the box.


  1. This extends even farther in the AD selection. It’s like pulling teeth to get folks to suggest awarding AD for clever or entertaining play. And I, as the GM, don’t think of it, either. Part of it is that everyone around the table expect everyone to be clever and entertaining. The other part is that, as you point out, it’s a different mechanic, so the mind sort of just glides over it if attention is not focused.

  2. I’ve toyed with the idea, with Spycraft, of having you set an “AD Timer” for 30-minute increments, just so we can ask ourselves “has anyone done something worthy of an AD since the last reminder?” 🙂

  3. On the other hand, the Fortune Cookie mechanic works. In fact, people actively monitor to see if the fortune applies (or at least monitor it more closely — I’ve heard a few cases at the end of a session when folks lament that their fortune applied to a circumstance that occured).

  4. Hmmmm … timer might be interesting way of doing it. God knows I use one actively with all my other tasks.

  5. That is, most definitely, a fun mechanic.
    I wish only that it tied into the game theme somehow. Like… if #2 were chinese or something — or if we fought the Pan-Asian collective a lot — or… something. Not saying it’s not cool anyway.
    Would have worked for OA, maybe, but that’s so trite.
    Heh. Firefly. Thematically, it would work for Firefly 🙂
    That said, I wish we kept game logs, and I wish that said game logs recorded player’s fortunes at the beginning and then noted when they played out. 🙂 That would be cool. 🙂

  6. Okay, game logs. There’s another mechanic that is difficult to impose, unless it’s integral to the game.
    For myself, keeping the Nobilis log is integral to figuring out what’s going on, fleshing out stuff that doesn’t get fleshed out in play … and because it’s the only way to advance, rules-wise.
    But it’s rare I’ve consistently kept a log like that. And an attempt to graft it onto another system, even with incentives, would be difficult to get people to do, particuarly mid-campaign.
    That said, yes, it would be cool if there were a campaign log, if not individual logs, in IDC.

  7. An excellent example: I don’t know that Game logs are integral to any game, even Amber, necessarily, but that’s what people associate it with.
    For myself, keeping the Nobilis log is integral to figuring out what’s going on…
    I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
    fleshing out stuff that doesn’t get fleshed out in play …
    Hmm. I don’t think that’s probably good. 🙂
    and because it’s the only way to advance, rules-wise.
    Que? You get character points no matter what happens. Logs, both character and game-wise, are entirely an add-on that I added, tying it to gain of Miracle Points because it seems so darn elegant. Definitely not Character-advancement-required, though.
    But it’s rare I’ve consistently kept a log like that. And an attempt to graft it onto another system, even with incentives, would be difficult to get people to do, particuarly mid-campaign.
    I’ve struggled with how to do that in d20, and tried any number of things — never got very far. XP rewards seem… sorta pointless when it really doesn’t get you anything.
    To borrow from the ‘adding to the pool’ idea I used for Nobilis motivation, I’ll tell you what would get my writing for Spycraft: Bonus AD. XP bonuses wouldn’t do. AD’s would. Like gangbusters.
    Lesse: Turn in Gamelog before the next session, start that next session with 1 additional die in the AD pool. I’m there.
    Personal log: hmm… should probably be worth less. Hmm. Maybe, an AD award by the GM that can only be spent on a specific type of activity (boost to skill, boost to combat, favor check of a specific type), relevant to… something that they liked out of the personal log.

  8. Or personal logs get you a ‘reroll’ chit like Jackie gave out… in Spycraft, maybe you could use it to reroll or to make a 1 stay nothing more than a ‘miss’ 🙂

  9. Okay. *blink* Consider it due to the dis-ad of not having read the rules thoroughly. My mistake.
    Nonetheless, the nature of a complex narrative tale such as Nobilis is that it almost requires keeping a game log (for me at least). Otherwise, I’d have no (well, at least less) idea of what was going on. And Sian’s voice would be much less developed.
    So … would 1 additional AD make that much difference in motivation?

  10. Huh, I guess you and play with a different breed of gamers.
    Your “coolest bit of advice” which “No one does” was something players in my Champions campaign did all the time. Of course being being super-powered their idea of weapons included in one case a church pew.
    I mean, either the GM is required to describe the proverbial “hunting rifle on the wall” or the players need to assume that every hunting cabin has one. My players knew a logical arguments would always win.

  11. Genre determines a lot of that — supers encourages picking random stuff up and hitting other random stuff with it — other genres seem to not encourage it as much.

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