Friday, December 9, 2011

Story Based Vs. Tools Based

Many of you are likely annoyed that I post four or five times a day, two days a week. There's a simple explanation for that: I'm off from work. I'm going to attempt to use Blogger's scheduling system to post this one tomorrow. Let's see if the chimpanzee can make the internetz thing work...

For a brief period, I worked for Wizards of the Coast. It was a very cool place to work, but also deeply frustrating. Cool, because there was "game Thursday" and all kinds of free swag; and the Aeron chair. Frustrating, because it was a corporation, with reports and corporate-speak. "We have to maximize cross-promotional opportunities across the matrix..." Ugh. But one of the things that made my time with WotC valuable is what I learned about game design there.

One of the things was the difference between story-based games and tools-based games. The latter is better than the former. I think the best examples of both come from my own work, Star Trek.

The first Star Trek game I designed, the Icon System, was more story-based. That is to say, many of the mechanics affected the story. For example, ranks were simply the privilege of calling yourself "captain" or "admiral". Many of the advantages were loosely defined. Like Bold. You gained a bonus when you acted boldly. What they hell did that mean? We left it largely up to the GM and players. In other words, many of the mechanics didn't have a concrete, rules-based effect.

The second Star Trek game, Coda, was tools-based. Everything had an effect on the die-rolling mechanic. In fact, Don Mappin, one of our designers, complained that we'd "drilled down too much." Every element had a measurable effect. Bold now gave you a +2 to your roll. Buying a rank gave you a precise effect (which I don't remember because I haven't looked at that game in years).

I say that the second approach is better because: 1) It provides a concrete benefit. With the story-based approach, your benefit may never come into play; you might forget about it, or your gamemaster might be averse to using it. It leaves less in the hands of the player, by which I mean less up to the whims of players as to how the rule is used. 2) It gives the players tools, things they can use. You take the Bold advantage not because your character is bold (well, you do), but because you want that +2 bonus (and it fits your character concept). You might have taken Curious instead, but that provided a different +2 bonus...

I must admit, as if you couldn't tell, I prefer tools-based mechanics. That's a new design principle, by the way, because we're going to start getting into designing mechanics. We know what our game is going to be about, and what players will do, so now we've got to design rules.

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