Storytelling game mechanics, part one: roleplaying games

The best bit about playing games is the storytelling, as exemplified on Tabletop – not just the roleplaying games that are explicitly about narrative, but specific mechanics used in what would otherwise be considered pretty conventional modern board games.

In this part I will talk about a couple of roleplaying game mechanics which enhance the story telling.

Mad! Mad, I Tell You!

The roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu is about combatting eldritch horrors and, more practically, their deranged minions. A crucial part of the game is that your character has a limited amount of sanity which is eroded by encounters with the darkness – once a character’s sanity is gone, he or she becomes permanently insane and ceases to be a player character.

Sanity is a percentile value (01-00 => 1 to 100). It has a starting value usually in the range 50-75%, and has the following interesting properties.

Firstly, when a character encounters an unspeakable (or even speakable) horror, he or she makes a sanity roll to see how severe an effect the horror has: that is, the player rolls percentile dice trying to roll at or below the sanity statistic. In other words, the more sanity a character loses, the harder it is for that character to avoid losing more.

Secondly, there is another statistic – a knowledge skill – called Cthulhu Mythos. This is a measure of how much knowledge a character has of the dark horrors lurking under the surface of our world. It is a useful skill in investigating these terrible puzzles. A character’s sanity may increase, but it is limited at its maximum to 100 minus Cthulhu Mythos – the more competent a character becomes at deciphering the unspeakable mysteries, the less sane they may be.

The combination of these two mechanics conveys a sense of desperate decline over the course of the game, which exactly mirrors the feeling of hopeless decay evoked by Lovecraft’s original stories.

Hard to Kill

Another feature of Call of Cthulhu which I like is how deadly it is. By contrast, Savage Worlds is meant to be a a much more cinematic – even pulpy – game system. Part of that pulpiness is how difficult it is to kill the characters.

One mechanic which helps here is the wild die.

Characters have traits whose proficiency is measured in the type of die: the best skills have a d12, the weakest trained skills have a d4 (untrained skills are d4-2). Testing a skill requires the character to roll at or above a certain target number with the trait – usually 4, Harder tasks have a higher target number (eg trying to shoot someone hiding behind a wall increases the difficulty). So if your skill is trained to a d8 proficiency, it is easier to make the shot than for your buddy who has never picked up a bow before.

However, player characters roll two dice: the trait die, and the wild die – a d6 which gives a second chance to succeed at any test of skill or stamina. This makes it harder to kill characters because they usually roll successfully to evade a trap or disarm an attacker with one of their dice.

The second mechanic which helps is that each character gets bennies. If a roll was bad, the character may spend one of their bennies for the session and reroll.

The effectiveness of these mechanics can be measured by the fact that in Savage Worlds settings where the pulpiness is not desired (such as the Cthulhu Mythos setting) both of these mechanics are removed or weakened.

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