A few weeks ago I wrote about flawed mechanics that shouldn’t be in roleplaying games, and a day or so later, Jonny sent me this email:
I loved Oren’s article “Five Roleplaying Mechanics That Must Go.” I couldn’t help but feel, however, that it would’ve been made much better with comparisons of each problem to a place where a system did a similar thing much better, circumvented the problem, et cetera.
Instead, perhaps you could do a blog post about “Five Great Roleplaying Mechanics?” I think it’d be useful to show roleplayers, homebrewers, and people trying to make their own system some examples and what makes them so great.
First of all, thanks for the praise, Jonny. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Also, you’re totally right; it’s important to highlight good mechanics so GMs and designers alike will know where to look for inspiration. These are some of my favorites.
1. Character Bonds, Dungeon World
I did not like Dungeon World (DW). I found its mechanics poorly thought out, its language was confusing, and I was frustrated by limitations in class/race combinations. However, there is one excellent mechanic to be found in DW: the character bonds.
Character bonds are a number of short, descriptive sentences with a blank space. Each PC gets several bonds, and they fill the blank space with another PC’s name. For example, one of the Bard’s bonds is “I sang stories of _____________ long before I ever met them in person.”
These bonds are a lot of fun to fill out, and they get players talking about their characters’ relationships to each other. This is valuable because it helps get past what I call early session awkwardness. We’ve all experienced this right at the start of a campaign where no one knows how to relate to the other PCs. It slows the game down and is especially weird if the characters are supposed to have known each other before the campaign started.
Bonds give the players a starting point in order to orient themselves. The other PCs aren’t complete strangers; they’re the subject of songs or the recipient of old debts. Everyone hits the ground roleplaying and bantering, as it should be.
Critically, bonds don’t tell you how your character feels about another PC, just what experiences they share. Yes, you sang stories about Belmar the Cleric, but were those songs heroic or mocking? That’s up to you!
2. Turn System, Mouse Guard
Mouse Guard is one of my favorite roleplaying games ever, and I was tempted to just put the entire system on this list, but that wouldn’t be very useful. Instead let’s focus on the turn system.
A session of Mouse Guard is divided into GM turns and player turns that follow each other sequentially. First you have a GM turn, then a player turn, then a GM turn, etc. Many sessions will only have one of each, but there’s no hard limit.
In the GM turn, bad things happen to the PCs. The GM pelts them with obstacles, from stormy weather to weasel attacks, and the story is driven by how the PCs react. By the end of a GM turn, the players are hungry, afraid, injured, or all of the above. The player turn happens when the party reaches a place of (relative) safety, be that a town or a dry hollow in the woods. The PCs have a chance to recover from their various aliments and prepare for the next leg of their adventure.
This system promotes a rhythm that storytellers will immediately recognize: rising action, followed by a breather, followed by more rising action. The rising action keeps the story interesting, and the breather keeps the audience from being overwhelmed. Normally, GMs must achieve this rhythm on their own, but in Mouse Guard the rules do it automatically.
The turn system also promotes good roleplaying via traits. Each character has two to three traits like Jaded, Old-Fur, Brave, etc. When a PC invokes one of their traits to give themselves a penalty during the GM turn, they get a bonus action in the player turn. This is a built-in reward system for playing up a character’s flaws, and it is beautiful.
3. Character Creation, Chronicles of Darkness
In most systems, character creation is a long and involved process. Players need to copy down their stats, reference various tables, and pore over pages and pages of options. If there’s only one book to go around, it takes even longer. Sometimes, even setting aside an entire session for character creation isn’t enough.
Chronicles of Darkness* is different. Almost all the information a player needs is present on the character sheet. The sheet is one page, and at the bottom it has notations for the number of points a character gets and how they’re spent. What’s more, every skill in the game is on the character sheet, so players don’t have to go through long lists of skills to find the right one.
In addition to being accessible, character creation is simple and straightforward. There are no equations for figuring out derived stats or dividing points in half for cross-class skills. If the players are new, they’ll still need a primer on what some of the skills do,* but after that they’re ready to go.
To say this saves time is a serious understatement. Most of a Chronicles character can be generated in 15 minutes or less, provided the player knows what they want to make. As a side benefit, the system gives enough points to make a capable character while still leaving room to grow.
The one downside is that players still need to look in the book to choose their Merits, which can take a while. But even with this delay, Chronicles of Darkness has incredibly fast character creation for such a complex system.
4. Chase Rules, Spycraft
Extended conflict systems are really hard to get right, and most of the time I think of them as little more than complex time-wasters. The Spycraft 1.0 chase rules are an exception. Considering how many spy stories involve car chases, it makes sense that a game about spooks and martinis would include rules for driving at high speeds. Even so, to this day I’m amazed by how good they are.
A core difficulty of conflict mechanics is the balance between detail and abstraction. If a system is too detailed, even if the details are good, it’s difficult to use. This is The Riddle of Steel’s downfall – too much math and too many random tables. If a system is too abstract, players have a hard time connecting their mechanical choices with their characters’ action. This is a problem for Mouse Guard, where players are often left unsure what their “Maneuver” action means.
Spycraft’s chase rules straddle that line beautifully. While the game abstracts the vehicles’ exact positions, it’s detailed on player actions. When a player chooses the Hairpin Turn action, they know their character is making a hairpin turn. This makes visualizing the chase much easier.
The rules also give players enough information to form strategies, but not so much as to cause analysis paralysis. One player might favor running their opponent off the road, while another might prefer to keep the chase at a low speed so their fellow spies can shoot out the other car’s tires.
In a chase, it’s not just the driver taking actions, so this system is fun for the whole party. The default way for passengers to assist is by shooting the aforementioned tires, and this works well since everyone in Spycraft can at least handle a pistol. But if the characters want to try something more exciting, like hacking a city’s traffic system, the rules are open to it.
Unfortunately, this praise only applies to the chase rules from Spycraft’s first edition. For Spycraft 2.0, Crafty Games tried to adapt the chase rules to work for other types of conflicts and ended up with something that didn’t work nearly as well. But hey, they’re working on 3.0 now, so maybe we’ll see an improvement.
5. Skill Specialization, The Cortex System
Skill granularity is something many systems struggle with. If a skill is too broad, it feels silly. A Science skill that grants expertise in all things scientific is so obviously unrealistic that it will break many players’ suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, if skills are too narrow, it forces players to spread their points thinly. A veteran soldier should realistically know how to use multiple types of firearms, but how many points will that cost? Overly granular skills also lead to hilarious situations where a character has maximum ranks in Scuba but no ranks in Swim.
The Cortex System, which is used for games like Serenity and Battlestar Galactica, has an elegant solution. In this system, skills are measured in die sizes. A low skill will be rated at a d4, while a very high skill is rated at a d12. At first, the skills look very broad, but the trick is that each skill maxes out at a d6, and after that a PC must specialize.
For example, the Pilot skill lets a PC fly or drive just about anything, from spaceship to race car. But a character can only advance Pilot to a d6. After that, they can get a d8 in Pilot: Midbulk Transport or Pilot: Ground Car. Characters can have multiple specializations within the same skill, of course. A ship’s engineer might have Mechanics at d6, and within that have Repair at d8, and Fabrication at d10.
This rule not only keeps the game’s skill list from growing out of control but also adds an important layer of believability. If a player makes an ace pilot, there’s an expectation that their pilot can handle most vehicles with some degree of proficiency. At the same time, it would seem comical if the character could fly every vehicle with the same degree of skill. The Cortex System achieves that important balance.
These rules also allow the GM to put the PCs at a disadvantage without completely hamstringing them. If a PC with a d12 in Swords is winning fights too easily, the GM can ambush them when the only weapon at hand is a spear. The PC won’t roll as well, but their base Melee skill gives them enough to keep the fight from being hopeless.
6. Bloody Vs Test, Burning Wheel
I’ve already mentioned how extended conflict mechanics are usually bad, and Burning Wheel’s (BW) combat is no exception. It’s slow, confusing, and riddled with imbalances. Fortunately, BW gives you a way around combat entirely!
This is the Bloody Vs Test. In BW, a Vs Test is any roll opposed by another roll, rather than a static difficulty number. The bloody part is self explanatory. This is what you do when two or more people want to fight, but there’s no time for full combat. In the really simple version, the combatants simply roll their weapon skill and compare their results. The winner gets what they wanted, and the loser doesn’t. If the group wants to be a little more detailed, combatants can tally advantage dice from their armor, weapon length, and any other factors that might give them an advantage.
This rule is a breath of fresh air for anyone tired of spending hours in boring combat. Suddenly there’s no need; just make a single roll to resolve things and keep the story moving. Even if you’re not bored with combat mechanics, sometimes there’s no time to roll initiative. Maybe the session is ending, or you’ve just got a lot of story to cover. The Bloody Vs Test is your friend.
Burning Wheel isn’t the only system to have such a rule,* but it was the first system I found that specifically called it out as an option. Of all the rules on this list, the Bloody Vs Test is the one I most recommend house-ruling into systems that don’t already have it. Doing so is usually simple, and it will save a lot of time that would otherwise be spent figuring out how many times per round each PC can attack an orc.
Some of these rules are from good systems, while others are from… systems with less merit. This is why I always advise GMs and designers both to read as many roleplaying books as they can manage. Even if they never end up using the book to run a game, they might find a useful mechanic that can be lifted and used elsewhere.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.