Saturday, June 30, 2018

Success Mechanics vs. Story Mechanics

This blog post is my attempt to think through some of my (Stentor's) design philosophy for the three game design projects currently at the front of my mind. I'm not claiming these ideas are new or sophisticated, and I'm certainly not proposing them as normative for anyone else's design. It's just useful to me to spell out what I'm trying to do.

The three games I'm currently working on are:
* Catpocalypse World: Cats surviving after the human apocalypse
* Get Ready 2 Rock: A band on tour getting themselves in trouble
* Admiral Earth: The Earth Team uses the powers of nature to battle eco-villains and summon the planet's greatest defender, Admiral Earth

All three games are rooted in the Apocalypse Engine to various degrees. In particular, all three adopt the "moves" structure -- when a character does particular actions, then you are given a description or list of the sorts of things that might happen in the story. Most moves involve the application of a randomizer (dice roll or card draw) plus modifiers to select between good, compromised, or bad menus of outcomes. A very large percentage of the design work on these games involves writing, testing, and re-writing moves.

The important distinction I'm trying to keep in mind is between what I'm calling success mechanics and story mechanics (or success moves versus story moves, since I'm focused on writing "moves" in an Apocalypse Engine context). Success moves clearly separate the role of the GM and the player. The player inhabits and controls the character, while the GM is fully in charge of the rest of the world. Like real people acting in the real world, characters then encounter situations where the outcomes of their actions are uncertain -- they don't know whether their skills will be adequate to overcome the challenge posed by the outside world, and whether luck will favor them in executing their plan. Success mechanics step in to give us rulings on these outcomes, usually with the application of some randomizer (e.g. dice or cards) to represent the character's uncertainty. The result of the mechanic tells us whether the character succeeds in overcoming the world's barriers or not. The nature of those barriers, and the sorts of outcomes available from overcoming them, rest in the GM's hands (albeit sometimes with their own mechanics and randomizers). Games that are heavily investigative ("solve the mystery") tend to rely heavily on success mechanics. The GM has already decided what the truth behind the mystery is, and so the real question to be decided at the table is whether different strategies by the characters succeed at uncovering clues and piecing them together.

Story moves, on the other hand, put the GM and players both in the role of storytellers crafting a story about the characters and their world. While players may have primary responsibility for choosing their character's actions, the question faced by the player in acting is not "am I good enough (and lucky enough) to succeed at this?" but rather "where does the story go when I try this?" That is, does the overall story go in a direction favorable or unfavorable to the character. This question goes beyond just the things under the character's direct control, potentially reaching into any aspect of the world not yet made canon by appearing in the story. An investigative game in a story mechanics context would give the players control over how the mystery unfolds and perhaps even what the real story behind it is. I specifically like the structure of "moves" (as opposed to the "skill checks" that appear in many games) for story mechanics because it creates the opportunity to give specific narrative prompts for how the story proceeds.

There is definite overlap between the two -- succeeding at one's intended task is one obvious way that the story can go in a direction favorable to the character, and vice-versa for failing at it. But thinking in terms of story moves opens up new possibilities.

 For example: say you have a move that applies when a character hacks a computer system, and one of the characters in the game hacks into the villain's email to find incriminating information. In a success mechanic context, the GM will have already decided what kind of incriminating information is potentially available. The question to be answered by the mechanics is, is the character a good enough hacker to get some or all of that information? In a story mechanics context, the question to be answered by the mechanics pertains (or at least may pertain) to the content of the emails themselves as well. A poor result from the randomizer may mean that the information in the emails turns out to incriminate an ally rather than the villain, because uncovering that is one way for the story to go poorly for the hacker character (despite being a "success" in the sense that their skills were adequate to access the computer system).

Another example: my current favorite basic (i.e. available to all player characters) move in Catpocalypse World is called "You Meant To Do That." The inspiration, of course, is the way cats can fall off of something or otherwise have a total wipeout, then pick themselves up as if everything is going just according to plan. This is such a distinctive cat behavior that I knew there had to be a move about it in a game featuring cats. Originally, this move was called "I Meant To Do That," and its structure heavily drew on the "Keep Your Cool" move in Monsterhearts. The question to be answered was, when pulling off a stunt, do you draw negative attention and look foolish, or do you convince others that you're still in control. I realized that I had written it as very much a success move, deciding whether the character was successful at keeping their cool in the face of obstacles like nervous tics and other characters' perceptiveness. But I saw an opportunity to turn it into a more story-focused move*. The new text reads:

You Meant To Do That: When someone has seemed to fail at something but you wish they had succeeded, roll [2d6] + the same attitude [stat] they took (but using your own bonuses etc.). On a 10+, explain how their apparent failure actually created a great opportunity or accomplished something useful, and they take +1 to taking advantage of it. On a 7-9, your confidence gives them +1 to extricating themself from the mess they made.

The new mechanic gets away from the idea of a character succeeding or failing at some action they're taking in the context of obstacles in the world. Instead, it gives the player a chance to re-write the next step of the story, pointing out how an apparent failure could actually turn out for the best, perhaps in a way anticipated by neither the target character nor the GM.

 I don't intend for all of my moves to be quite as meta as "You Meant To Do That," but it illustrates my approach. When writing prompts for outcomes, I want to ask myself not "what would it look like for a character to succeed/fail at this?" but rather "what would it look like for the story to go in a direction favorable/unfavorable to this character?"

*As well as using this move to cover the need for a "helping" mechanic, which was open after I removed the very Monsterhearts-ish strings mechanic that didn't fit the game's approach.