03 January, 2009

Game Mechanic of the Week #1: The Conscience Bag

As I sit down to write my first game mechanic, I realise how intimidating this task actually is. There are a lot of options involved and there are a lot of different ways that I could take this personal challenge. Do I simply offer a bunch of new ways to create randomness [stick black and white beads in a bag and draw one out to determine the result] or do I put them in a specific context [the black beads represent a characters dark desires while the white beads represent their noble aspirations].

I think that simply providing a new randomising method is a bit of a cop out. Otherwise I could get lazy and simply show a picture of a d20, with the quote "game mechanic number 47", or something similar. The context option gives observers of this blog something more solid that they can take back to their gaming tables.

In light of that, and in light of the two bracketed descriptions above, I'll use for the first game mechanic something I've been playing with for a while. Beads in a bag.

I've played with this option for defining degrees of success, but it can be pretty slow for that sort of thing.

The initial concept revolved around the notion that all activities have forces working in opposite directions. A force of change versus a force of stasis, a drift to liberalism versus a drift to conservatism. One side is represented by black tokens, while the other side is represented by white tokens. Each side contributes a number of tokens reflecting the amount they are investing into the activity being described (a minimum of 1). The amount contributed is blind, with neither side seeing how much influence the other has put into a task, which means that some contests might end up being fairly even, while others end up being very one sided. Event resolution consists of simply drawing a token from the bag, the colour of the token indicates the side whose influence was more successful. Additional degrees of success can be determined by drawing additional tokens, a single black followed by a white means that the black side only managed to achieve a marginal success...two blacks followed by a white means that the black side has fully achieved their goals...three blacks followed by a white means that they've exceeded beyond what they originally hoped...four blacks followed by a white is a landslide victory to that side...etc.

The act of placing the tokens in the bag, then drawing them out has a certain tension to it. But no more so than drawing cards from a deck. On the other hand, it allows the participants involved to place their investment on the line. I could easily return to this basic mechanic a dozen times to show how it could be used in different contexts, but I'll make sure that no two consecutive weeks have the same basic mechanic, or the same context for two different mechanics.

So, for the first context. I'll take the bracketed example at the beginning of this post and look at something psychological.

Everyone is torn between a good side and a bad side. This seems to be true in reality, as well as most form of fiction. Some people may be very good at denying their dark sides, or they may have learnt to ignore their conscience; but no-one is able to completely over-ride a side of their desire.

To bring this sort of effect into a game, all players assign their characters a noble aspiration and a dark desire. The noble aspiration reflects the socially acceptable desires of the character, it could be a desire to help the people around them, heal the sick, enforce the law...as long as it fits the concept of the character. The dark desire is a more personal drive, a way in which the character says "Screw You" to the world around them in order to fulfil their own agendas.

They also start with an even number of tokens in each (half a dozen of each would be a good starting point), these are hidden in a bag. A communal pool of black and white tokens remains at the centre of the table.

In this version of the mechanic, the bag represents the mix of thoughts at the back of a character's mind. Sometimes they'll have the desire to do good for the world, sometimes they'll have the desire to be selfish and only follow their own agendas. Every time they do good, the other players at the table can decide whether to contribute an extra white token to the bag. Conversely, every time the character pursues their own selfish desires, the group can choose to add a black token to the bag.

When the character is forced to make a decision based on their communal spirit or their selfishness, they must draw a token from the bag...this occurs at times determined by the GM, at critical moments of the story, or when the other players at the table decide that such a moment is appropriate...once the call for a drawn token has been made, the player must see what their instincts are, whether they want to or not!

The first token drawn from the bag determines the character's instincts in the current situation, while consecutive tokens of the same colour determine how far they are willing to follow these instincts. Once a token of the oppositie colour has been drawn, no more tokens are revealed.

If the character draws white tokens, they must act on their noble aspirations with respect to the current scene. While black tokens represent their darker desires. A single token of the relevant colour represents that the character is inclined to folow this path, a pair of tokens represents that they are willing to take some risks in order to follow this path, three tokens mean that the character is willing to make some major risks, while 4 or more tokens mean that the character is willing to risk their life to follow this agenda.

Once a character's gut reactions are revealed, the player may choose if they want to follow their gut reactions, but if the player chooses to go against the character's gut reactions they will suffer penalties. For every token of gut reaction that the player is working against, they must roll an additional time for the current task at hand. The worst die roll is taken from the results.

If the player follows their gut instincts, they get to roll an additional time for every token of gut reaction, but this time they make take the best die roll.

For example, if a player draws three black tokens followed by a white, they are very inclined to follow their darker instincts even though they are in a situation where their lighter aspirations would be an advantage. Either way, they are rolling three times for the task at hand. If they follow their darker instincts, they take the best roll of the three; if they follow their light instincts, they take the worst roll of the three.

The player may choose whether to place the tokens used back into the communal pile at the centre of the table, or place them back into the bag. A selfish players who had just performed a good deed, might consder this to be their one good deed for the day, before continuing on a path of destruction [they throw their tokens back into the middle]. A good character performing the same deed might consider this to be a sign of their virtue [and put the tokens back into their bag].

Over the course of the game, the tokens in the bag could be modified in different ways. Some examples could include:
  • A holy priest could successfully convince a felon to amend their ways [adding a white token to the felon's conscience bag for every success they get]
  • A character meditates on their recent actions [adding their choice of either black or white tokens for every degree of success]
  • A character could experience atrocities and wonder if it is all worth it [use a gut reaction check to see what the character thinks of the atrocity. If they draw black tokens, then the character think that a selfish path would be more advantageous; they return twice the number of black tokens drawn to their bag. If they draw white tokens, then the character resolves themselves against the horror and stands firm in the beleif that only they can correct the situation through honour and virtue; they return twice the number of white tokens to their bag.

The whole idea behind this mechanic is to get players to consider the ramifications of their actions on their own conscience, rather than just seeing the effects of their deeds on the outside world.

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