If you’re a creative person you probably know what it’s like to work on something for hours or days, struggling and obsessing over it, feeling stuck. Then, after psyching your self up, reaching out to a trusted friend for feedback only to have them, in a single sentence, drop the most profound, game-changing wisdom that you begin to question everything you know about reality. With only a small amount of hyperbole I say to you that my world has been thoroughly shook.
Ever since he was a guest on my podcast, The Hard Move, Jesse Ross has been a friend, an adviser, and, in a recent Discord chat, the bringer of knowledge so great it rivals the fire that Prometheus stole for mortal man. I have thought about our brief conversation dozens of times over the last two days and decided it needed to be transcribed, not only so the rest of the world can benefit from his wisdom, but so I might free my mind of its constant presence.
As I wrote previously I have been working on a short-form storytelling game about magicians in a world where magic is leaving them. I have made great progress on the game in recent days but was still having trouble rationalizing my core theme with the core mechanic. I didn’t know what, for sure, was the issue and I obviously didn’t know how to resolve it. So, I did what any great creator does in times like these: I asked my friend.
For more specific context, the trouble I was having was creating a mechanical way for magic to leave the game. In my current design, “magic” is represented by a pool of dice, so the “leaving” is simply removing dice from the game. Simple enough, I thought, and rather elegant to tie the loss of magic to the removal of a die, a powerful artifact to any TTRPG player. I decided that any time a player fails a roll they would remove one die from the game to signify the further loss of magic.
Right off the bat I knew it felt weird. Magic is supposed to be leaving for a reason, not just because some magicians are trying to cast spells. I was also worried that the risk of failure might lead players to purposely not cast spells; you can’t fail rolls if you don’t make them. There were a lot of initial issues, but at the core of it there was something bigger, something more fundamental about this that felt… off. What I couldn’t figure out in nearly a week of work, Jesse honed in on in fewer than six minutes.
Jesse immediately stripped away all the trappings of dice pools, magical loss, and roll results to arrive at a very simple way of looking at this feature of my game. In essence I had a mechanic (the rolling of dice) leading to another mechanic (the removal of dice). Both of these things were rules-based and, aside from what a player may feel doing it, was devoid of the opportunity to tell a story or interpret the results. He proposed that, in order to make the feature feel compelling and interesting, it should take one of two forms: a mechanic leading to a thematic or a thematic leading to a mechanic.
The former is relatively easy to conceptualize if you’ve ever played a TTRPG before. Consider rolling some dice to see if you can hit the fiendish demon with your spear, seeing the result, and then describing how you do or do not succeed. The mechanic (rolling dice) leads to a thematic (the narrative outcome of your attack). Yes, there’s more mechanics on the back end like damage and so forth, but the core nugget of mechanic to thematic is there.
The other side of this, a thematic leading to a mechanic, might be harder to imagine, but if you’ve ever played a Powered by the Apocalypse game, then you are already familiar with this. Moves in PbtA games have a narrative trigger, something you must do before you can activate the ability and, in most cases, roll some dice. In these systems, you would first describe how you level your spear at the demon, uttering a word of power as you drive the point towards your foe, to indicate to the GM you are making a move. Then the move is chosen, dice are rolled, and the outcomes are decided. The thematic (describing the attack) leads to the mechanic (rolling some dice).
Coming back to my game, I realized that my mechanic leading to another mechanic was working against me, that no matter how much I tried to make it feel good to the players this one-sided journey would always be awkward. So, to implement Jesse’s guidance, I decide to disconnect the removal of dice from spell casting rolls entirely. Instead, there are now narrative triggers that, when they occur in the story, invoke the removal of a die from the magic supply, signifying the further loss of magic.
This is a remarkably simple feature, easy to remember and put into practice, and immediately conveys the feeling of loss and tension. It does everything I wanted it to and more, and it does so in a very intuitive way. I feel extremely bolstered to continue working on this game and I have Jesse to thank for that. My hope is that this advice can help others who may be struggling with complicated or overwrought elements of their games. Remember to consider the journey between mechanic and thematic and your game rules will come to life.
This blog post was made possible by my friend and fellow game designer Jesse Ross, author of Trophy and co-author of Girl Underground to name a few. Check out work at jesseross.com and follow him on Twitter @jesseross.
Header image by mamaru