Incentivising Genre Play in Game Design
How do we curate the experiences players feel playing TTRPGs? This week, I'll share my own understandings of the relationship between experience and mechanics in TTRPG design.
As I began my journey into tabletop design with Fight or Fright, my upcoming TTRPG project, I had one big question that persisted throughout the design process.
How do we design for experiences at the table?
Essentially, I wanted to figure out how I could control the sort of experiences that the game facilitated through its rules and mechanics. As I explored more games as part of my study, I found that each game used certain mechanics that brought the genre to the forefront.
For Blades in the Dark, stress and devil’s bargains cemented the heisting, pushed-to-the-brink feel of being a criminal in the dark city of Duskvol. For Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the strings mechanics and relationship oriented moves made the romantic tensions between characters the focus of the game. Every game I looked at found ways to deploy genre and theme through the intentional use of mechanics, and this was a skill I wanted to learn.
Fight or Fright is a spooky Halloween game about kids who fight possessed monsters with their superpowered costumes, and the core feeling I want to evoke is that of being a kid and wanting desperately to be a hero. During the design process, I had a huge breakthrough about my game, which I catalogued here in this design update about my new dice pool system. I was really excited about these changes, as I could finally see the ideas I had about theme and genre being reflected in the gameplay.
I’d made a system where a set number of dice shift between two pools, one representing the abilities of your costume (FIGHT pool), and one representing the kid beneath the costume (FRIGHT pool). The real catch is how these dice shift, tied to the archetype that players selected when creating their character. These archetypes were types of classic kids like “the jock” or “the prankster”.
But why were these choices important?
The Initial System
In the first playtest of the game, each archetype had a shift trigger for each dice pool. Let’s take a look at the Prankster, for example:
You can see I’m starting to think about the experience at the table here. I want the players to really take on the roles of these kids on Halloween Night, and by tying the mechanics to certain behaviours, I can steer the direction of play!
I didn’t always succeed though. Here’s another example, the Geek.
Are these definitely things that made the player feel like a geek? Sure, these are geeky things, who doesn’t love a fun fact? But while I was enabling a player to take on the role of a geek, I wasn’t making that style of play engaging or active. Beyond shifting their dice between pools, what was the player actually achieving or changing? The state of the story or action doesn’t change after a Geek player shifts their dice to their fright pool.
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Solving a Momentum Problem
The feedback from my playtester, Liam, got me thinking. Playing a Geek, he felt like the shift triggers weren’t active enough. The Geek’s triggers didn’t meaningfully affect the story, whereas the prankster’s triggers could introduce and resolve tensions.
Aha! There we go, it’s about action. I needed to balance my desire to evoke an experience with the ability to meaningfully take the story forward. I realised I had to design triggers that would create a beat for characters to change or consequences to arise.
So I’ve currently divided the triggers in the following way.
For shifting dice to Fright, the stat that represents the kid beneath the costume, triggers should be about encouraging relationships between characters and letting those archetypes shine. They prompt scenes of rest, or moments of pause that emphasise that these characters are just kids!
For Fight, the stat that represents the costume’s powers, triggers are focuses on offense, solving problems in a dangerous way that might create new problems, and usually have negative implications for social scenes.
The set up of these triggers is intentional, and closely tied to the story-world of the game, where as the kids engage more with their costumes, they risk losing more and more of their own identity. That’s dangerous, but sometimes players might have to make tough choices.
In terms of incentivising players to engage with the game’s narratives, I learned that I have to balance these adjustments so that the rules still help the players move things forward! I feel like I’ve got a good balance where players are encouraged to take on the role of trick-or-treaters suddenly burdened with incredible power, and can feel free to act as those kids whilst still affecting the story world itself.
Here’s an example of the updated Prankster. You can see I’ve changed a few structural elements of the triggers as well.
I’m still tinkering with the Geek and other archetypes, and the language used to describe them and their shift triggers. But these changes make me really excited to not only get the game back to the table, but also to release the public playtest soon!
The Game Design Carnival, From Dice Exploder!
Last week, I published an article about how I’d recommend someone get into game design, as part of a blog carnival ran by Sam Dunnewold of Dice Exploder.
He’s since published a summary including many of the posts, and I really think you should check it out!
That’s all for this week! I hope this discussion about the relationship between mechanics and experience was helpful for you, and you get the chance to bring this into your own work.
If you haven’t listened to the design journey of Fight or Fright on the Wait, Roll That Again! podcast, you can find all those episode posts collected here!