01 February, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #6: Pigeonholing.

The concept of keywords has come up in a few discussions lately, so I thought I'd make sure to add this into a game mechani(sm).

A few games seem to use this idea to varying degrees of success.

I think the first time I saw it used effectively was in the classic R. Talsorian game "Castle Falkenstein". In which a player would write down a half a page describing their character's current appearance and mannerisms, along with a bit of history. After writing this down, they'd underline key words and the phrases which meant something in the context of the game.

Henry joined the royal navy when he was 16 and it was in his years of service there that he became a master seaman and a gained some knowledge with how to fire a pistol.

In that game, the keywords used in the description of the character were simply ways to get the character sheet drawn up in a new and interesting way. Instead of tables and numbers, the player got in the feel of the game by starting to write a journal of their past exploits, hopefully continuing this journal through the course of play.

Other games have incorporated the concept, from the Nature and Demeanor system of White Wolf's Old World of Darkness, even to my own game "The Eighth Sea".

Some games even go so far as to define a character purely by one or more of these keywords, each providing specific in game effects (or even just as narrative cues for storytelling).

But I'm not just trying to use this game mechani(sm) series as a way to archive existing systems, I'm more interested in what new ways the mechanisms can be used.

In that light, I'm more interested in an example I remember from the card game "Illuminati: New World Order", in which there are a number of defining keywords that not only define a character, but define potential alliances, enmities and agendas.

In that game, there are 8 keywords that describe a faction, and each keyword has an opposing keyword, for example: liberal vs conservative.

Thisserves a two-fold purpose in the game, firstly it gives factions a specific feeling, it gives you an idea of the kinds of agendas the group might pursue (and as a follow on from this it makes certain other effects easier to produce in a game if the keyword is present). Secondly, if factions have the same keywords, there is a better likelihood of them working together, conversely if they have opposing keywords then they have a better chance of fighting when they meet one another.

I'd like to see the same sort of thing from an individual perspective. I haven't seen this in a game yet (it might exist, but I haven't seen it). It would only take three keywords assigned to each character.

A character's keywords are quickly cross referenced to an NPC's keywords, and if the number of similar keywords is dominant then the character has a better chance of finding similar points of view with the NPC. If there are a higher number of opposing keywords, then the characters will have a better chance of arguing or fighting.

If the character matches all three keywords with the NPC to whom they are talking, then the pair mesh on such an intrinsic level that it would count as an automatic success...conversely, three opposing terms would lead to instant bloodshed.

If I were incorporating this concept into a game, I'd pick a dozen or so terms related to the setting in six pairs (or anywhere up to 20 words grouped in ten pairs). Then throw in a word like fanatical which always ups the ante in a negative way unless the two other keywords are shared.

A decent number of keywords helps ensure the diversity of possible belief systems and agendas that could be present in a population.

As a simple example, the seven deadly sins could be used as keywords, each opposed by the seven cardinal virtues.

The traditional/hermetic elements each have opposing elemental forces also.

Supernatural creatures and cultural groups have their traditional enemies in many settings. (Elves vs Dwarves, Vampires vs Werewolves, Unionists vs Confederates)

Throwing in three key words gives characters a chance to see the similarities with their enemies if they have a single keyword in opposition while two keywords are shared.

It helps give players some food for thought as their characters engage in interactions.

Isn't that what roleplaying is all about?
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