Designing ChoicesJanuary 22, 2010
Per Vincent Baker, rpgs have two things bouncing back and forth to organize play- cues, and fiction. Cues are all the things which you could count, or physically track in some fashion (mini’s, maps, character sheets, scores, etc.). Fiction is all the imaginary stuff- the fiction, the characters as exist in your heads, the context of meaning between the players about all the imaginary elements.
Here’s this imaginary game about Sarah and Kristen who are in love. Who they are to each other, how they feel, and what that means for the players is fiction. Their “Love Points” is a cue- it’s a score that can be tracked, counted, measured.
Let’s say in this game, there’s two features about Love Points- if you run out, the relationship is irrevocably broken, and, under certain conditions, another player can force your character to do something unless you spend a Love Point.
The first rule sets up a path from the cues to the fiction- when you hit 0 Love Points, this condition occurs in the fiction. The second rule sets up a choice- either to accept something of the fiction (“This is what your character does”) or get closer to the irrevocably broken relationship.
What you’re really choosing
Superficially you’re choosing between points vs. fiction (“Damn, do I let Sarah give Kristen the silent treatment, or do I preserve my last 2 Love Points?!?”), what you’re really doing is choosing between an immediate fictional result or a possible future fictional result- weighed by risk, personal value, etc.
You’re choosing between fictions and in that process, you’re making an interesting statement about how you feel about Sarah as a character, how you feel about Kristen as a character, and their relationship… about what you value.
Notice the other thing happening- as your Love Points get lower, you’re forced to accept more and more input from others about your character. Vice versa- other players are probably able to make more daring demands.
Mismatched Cues aren’t choices- they’re just ignored
If the cue resources don’t match up or affect what the players care about in terms of fictional resources then the cues become superfluous, and groups either see them as a chore or drop them altogether. Note that this applies equally whether you design a game claiming to be about one thing with mechanics and cue resources that don’t match or if the group simply decides they want to play a game different than what your mechanics are doing.
The ability for people to understand what a mechanic is doing- as in, what they want it to do, what choices are offered, what they want to avoid, often depends on how many steps removed the cue resources are from interacting with the fiction.
Love Points 0 = Ruined relationship is pretty direct: Cue to Fiction, one step.
Use Experience Points to Buy Powers to Do Stuff is two steps, a little more abstract.
Earn Merit Points to Get Promotions that also increases the Hazard Rating which triggers dangerous things in play is 3 steps. Really abstracted.
Though having mechanics that hand cue resources to fictional results in one step is direct and most easily understood, having multiple steps can have some value- it’s a great way to put a larger pacing or reward cycle into play and making it “invisible” to most players. (Mind you, the process of handling it should be easy at each step, the process of what it does to the whole game need not be explained.)