The Madness of Game Mechanics



“Most inventions start out like this: a lot of people being like ‘That’s not the way it was before’ and other people being like ‘SHUT UP I’M DRUNK.” – Hanna Hart

I hacked-up my Beta edition of Edge of the Empire awhile back. And by hacked-up, I mean I ripped out the entire Skills chapter and redacted all references to it. This was part of an experiment in hacking the physical game itself. Another such experiment led to an ad-hoc expansion for my one-of-a-kind game, StikBash. I’m starting to think every game board, rule book, card, die, and Monopoly dollar is fair game.

When I first started gaming, my poison of choice was Cyberpunk 2020. One of the core aspects of cyberpunk literature is that much of the gear the main characters use is hacked and re-purposed. Little is “off the rack”. Cyberpunk has systems for modifying or building programs, guns, and powered armor. I just took this idea and applied it to the rules themselves.

When you get down to it, character sheets are the main reference to the rule books. The books are just repositories for the rules mentioned on the sheet. If you change the reference, you change the game. Like so:













You’ll notice that the character sheet above references both Cyberpunk and Cybergeneration. You’ll also notice there are no stats, just skills. That bit was borrowed from Castle Falkenstein. In fact, you could use the card system from Falkenstein if you wanted to. Below is an even more chopped-up version.


This whole train of thought started with Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, Cyberpunk’s answer to a DM’s Guide. The book is mostly suggestions on how to run the game or change the setting. It’s a great book. Funny thing is, there’s no mention of tinkering with the mechanics. Just optional plug-ins for explosives or simplified combat.

But there are a few examples of “official” game hacking out there. World of Darkness: Mirrors and The Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide are the pinnacle of this idea, but the Risus and Fiasco companions also encourage GMs to tinker with mechanics. Board games are also becoming fair game. The Boardgame Remix KitLego Games, and The Duke all encourage messing with rules, and Risk Legacy baked the concept into the game itself. Hell, Flatpack just assimilates board games into itself Borg-style.

I mention this because a lot of disciplines are heading in this direction. Many a TED talk espouses remixing the world around you. Music. Electronics. Ideas. Everything is just a component waiting to be re-purposed.

Another thing I’ve been obsessing over is the use of physical components. A lot of game designers are overlooking the interaction with the physical things that make up a game. Is this why role playing games never caught on with the general public? Because the only components you interact with are a character sheet and a book? More to the point, a sheet with more numbers than a quarterly report and a book full of tables and charts?

Think about this: When you draw a Go Directly To Jail card in Monopoly, you move your token to Jail. That’s a real thing that really happens. Also, when you take damage in D&D, you note your new hit points on your character sheet. That’s also a real thing that really happens. But is there something more interesting and fun about first example than the second? Probably. The first seems more “real” because it was something that “should” happen in a game. The second example is paperwork, something that isn’t normally considered “playing”.

Let’s look at the original Marvel RPG. Most of a character’s powers inflict or prevent damage. Some also inflict a status, but again, they just cause you to do bookkeeping or keeping track of something in the pretend world. However, there’s one power that does something that most people consider “real”: Probability Control. This allows you to switch the position of the dice you roll, turning a 19 into a 91. This is an example of “playing the rules”.

In fact, playing the rules tends to happen in most Marvel RPG editions. Both the SAGA and Cortex editions have very gamist sensibilities that allow both the players and the GM to play the rules. Perhaps this is only feasible when the game is heavily reliant on components, such as SAGA’s Fate Deck and Cortex’s multiple uses for dice.

This idea can be taken a step further. There’s an RPG called The Five which uses dominoes as its core resolution component. All conflict resolution is done by playing a short game of dominos. All of the abilities a character can gain affect the domino mechanic directly, like allowing you to switch two dominoes’ positions, or draw more dominoes to choose from. In short, the abilities do something “real”.

I’ve been obsessed with game components for a while. Not just as extras but as stand-ins for rule books. After all, Magic: The Gathering’s entire rule book is a pamphlet that fits in a card box. The rest of the rules are on the cards. The game is mostly components. Most games are mostly components, with the exception of RPGs.

Now let’s say I wanted to make a Space Cadets RPG. The only things missing from the board game is a story, the ability to move freely within the game universe, and how the GM fits in. The easiest thing to do is to consider the mini-games self-contained systems for resolving conflicts and inserting GM fiat into the game. The GM would call for game play as normal, or alter things as he or she saw fit to represent stunts (like in Exalted, Scion, and Adventure) or events that happened in narrative scenes (like in Marvel Cortex). Basically, the GM is just making up a new mission on the fly.

What this means is that almost any board, card, or war game can be a role playing game if you add a GM. Space Hulk. Heroclix. The Resistance. Neuroshima Hex. All of them. Or, you could turn that idea sideways by installing any tabletop game into an RPG’s engine. Like Flatpack.

Mechanics. Toygaming. Components. Frankengames. All of these things and more have been rattling around in my head for months and I need to do something with it all. In an effort to get a handle on all these ideas, I’m creating a series of…something..that are somewhere between Fluxus art and proof of concept prototypes to experiment with ideas about game mechanics, usability, formats, and other aspects of tabletop gaming. I’m not ready to go into details yet, but I’m working on the first batch right now. They should be ready in a few weeks.

They are different. To say the least.

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