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Mechanics, My Favorite Things

While I love the creative and storytelling aspects of being a GM, also I love the mechanical aspects of games. In my downtime from running games and stirring the Stew, I read a lot of rulebooks, many for games I am not planning to run, just to read about different mechanics. I love to see how different designers handle skill checks, car chases, or character growth. With my background in science and computer programming, I find the idea of how a game designer models the world using rules and dice to be fascinating.

The more games I read and play, the more I am starting to identify a group of common game mechanics that I prefer over others. These mechanics are not from a single game, and in most cases not even all in one game, but they are the types of mechanics that I find myself gravitating towards, as I look at the games that I want to run.

I wanted to share my three favorites. These three have not always been my favorites, rather, they reflect where I am right now as both a GM and a player.

Margin of Success

Examples:  WoD Storyteller System, Burning Wheel, Corporation, and Savage Worlds

Margin of Success is part of the task resolution mechanic, showing not only a Pass/Fail outcome, but expanding the range of the Pass outcome into degrees of success. This creates a situation where a task resolution success can be marginal, when the check is passed by obtaining the target number, or wildly successful, when passed with a large margin between the roll and the target number. Most of these systems empower the GM to embellish the outcome of the check based on the margin of success.

What I like about this mechanic is that it puts in the GM’s hands the power to  interpret the outcome of a check, and to reward the player by adding additional elements for well-rolled checks. This mechanic is great for skill checks that are observation based, like Gather Information, Perception, Notice, etc.  In those cases, the additional margin of success can reveal information that is more useful than information gained with a base level of success.

Margin of Success is also useful in combat mechanics, translating the margin of success as the severity of the attack, often resulting in increased damage. In Savage Worlds a raise on an attack leads to in an increased number of dice of damage. In Corporation only weapon experts can utilize their XS on an attack roll, the untrained can only do base damage.

Player Rewards

Examples: Action Points from D&D 4e, Bennies from Savage World, Style Points from Houses of the Blooded, Artha from Burning Wheel

This mechanic gives the player (not character) some commodity, often represented in points, which have influence over the mechanics of the game. Often the points are spent to influence dice rolls, but can also grant narrative control (see below) or avoid certain death.

What I like about this mechanic is that it gives the player a mechanism allowing him to define when a roll is important and to give him an advantage in that moment.  When the hero has the villain in his sights, he can spend his point to increase his attack roll, and in turn his chances to strike the opponent. The player is expressing that this adversary is important, and this is then an indicator to the GM what his players find to be important.

As a GM, knowing how your players spend their rewards is more important than the bonuses the rewards grant them. Paying attention to how the players spend their rewards, and what they spend them on, gives you the roadmap to creating adventures that are exciting for your players.

Player Narrative Control

Examples: Wagers in Houses of the Blooded, Raises in Dogs In The Vineyard

This mechanic allows the players to take the GM’s role for a brief time, and to narrate a part of the session. Most often this mechanic is employed after task resolution.  The player who wins a check is allowed to narrate the outcome, injecting his own descriptions and elements into the game.

This mechanic has recently become a favorite of mine. Over time, I have increasingly become a fan of turning over narrative control to the players. It started with allowing players to define minor NPCs and limited locations. I then expanded it to allow the players to narrate some of the side plots in the campaign. I found it exciting not to know exactly where the story was going, and to have to build off of elements that the players introduced.

The more I GM, the more I want to collaborate and not dictate to my players. I am having the most fun GMing when I am setting the stage for the game, and my players are driving the game by creating drama, and at times complications for themselves, because it makes a better story.

I Showed You Mine…Now Show Me Yours

The mechanics of a game evoke passion in us. Look no further then the passion and often absurdly of the recent D&D edition wars to see how important mechanics are.  Talk to a fan [1] of 2nd Edition Rolemaster and ask him about RMSS or why I cannot open the Conspiracy X 2.0 book after playing the first edition for three years.

I have shared some of my favorite mechanics with you, now it’s your turn to tell me what mechanics are your favorites.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Mechanics, My Favorite Things"

#1 Comment By Lee Hanna On January 8, 2010 @ 9:04 am

Hmm,food for thought. I do like these mechanics you mention. Cortex (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural) has all three of these, since Plot points can be used to influence the story or die-rolls.

Lifepath character generation– does that count as a mechanic? I first met this in Classic Traveller and in other GDW games, and I’ve always liked it as an alternative to levels or point-buy. Rolling up even the barest skeleton of a background gives me more to build a character around. Since I don’t have a lot of natural creativity, that helps a lot.

#2 Comment By Jagyr Ebonwood On January 8, 2010 @ 10:15 am

Haha! Lee beat me to the punch. I came over here for the sole purpose of plugging Cortex, which is my second favorite game system (an extremely close second, right after d20).

Cortex has all the things you mention, Phil. It’s worth checking out: [2]

#3 Comment By DNAphil On January 8, 2010 @ 10:25 am

@Lee– I would say that Lifepath Generation is a mechanic, and it is seen in several games. Traveler has it, with the famous “die during character creation”. Mongoose has extended that mechanic into the new Judge Dredd game, that uses the Traveler rules in its core.

Burning Wheel has a very detailed lifepath system, where the choices you make early on effect your overall path, and what choices are available to you at higher levels. Some have said that it is nearly its own game.

Cyberpunk 2020 also had a lifepath system, which did not do much for your stats and skills, but it did define your characters background.

@Lee and Jagyr– I had known about Cortex for a while, but had not gotten any of the books yet. I am a big Firefly fan, so I will have to add that rule book to my 2010 reading list.

#4 Comment By Tabulazero On January 8, 2010 @ 10:51 am

What about narrative creation systems like the one in Heroquest?

Have your player write a 100 word description of their character and from this text derive the whole character sheet thanks to the use of key words?

Original mechanism that I like? Dual token systems. Let-me explain: Players have a shared token pool which they can draw from to get action points/re-rolls/activate special abilities..etc. Once the pool is empty, they players can still draw on it but this time they give tokens to the DM’s pool. The DM can use this pool in turn to activate the special abilities of the NPC / flaws in the PCs or force them to re-roll a succesful roll. Of course, once the DM’s pool is empty, then tokens get accreted to the player pool.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 8, 2010 @ 11:00 am

My favorite standalone mechanic is the Top Secret/S.I. hand-to-hand combat system’s roll to hit. One roll of percentile dice resolved if you hit, and if successful where you hit and how much damage you inflicted. Simple and elegant. Great design!

My favorite system of mechanics is Fudge. The system is so flexible that you can do a great deal with it, but once you have designed the rules for your game you do not have that generic feel like with other systems.

#6 Comment By Alan De Smet On January 8, 2010 @ 11:49 am

I will always hold a flame in my heart for my first RPG crush, the engine now known as the Mayfair Exponential Game System, used in DC Heroes, Blood of Heroes, and (in modified form) Underground. What does it offer?

1. A logarithmic scale. Superman can be wildly stronger than Batman, but the numbers remain reasonable (something like 6 versus 10, if I recall) and more importantly can have conflicts with risk, as opposed to other system which want to give Batman a 6 and Superman a 200 and mean Batman can’t hold over Superman for even a moment.

2. A grand unified system. The logarithmic scale is applied to everything. Weight, time, distance, money. This leads to interesting benefits. You can throw an object a distance equal to your strength minus the weight of the object. Some operations, like anything involving the combination of speed, distance, and time, can be calculated with addition and subtraction; no multiplication or division needed.

3. Another grand unified system. DC Heroes was a role-playing game about superpowers, so everything is modeled as a super power. Bad weather? Look to the wind control, water generation, and blast (electrical) powers. A Batcomputer that knows everything? Give it the Complete Recall power.

Sadly, I’ve since discovered that while I love the system, extremely “scientific” simulations of superpowers aren’t what I want from a supers game, and I never anticipate playing again.

For something more recent:


As in, arbitrary keywords or keyphrases for my character (and possibly NPCs, scenes, locations, and more) that have mechanical power in the game. FATE (Spirit of the Century, Awesome Adventures, Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, upcoming Dresden Files. Based on FUDGE.) hits traits exactly how I want. I can write down just about anything I want. If it’s good, I can spent Fate points to get a benefit. “I Can’t Be Stopped!” might give me +2 (which is a lot in the system) to ripping apart handcuffs. If it’s bad, the GM can give me Fate points to tap into it and make my life harder. “Oooh, shiny” might be tagged to let someone get the drop on me while I’m distracted, but at least I get a Fate point. The best ones can work both ways. “World Famous Criminal” might be tagged positively to give me a bonus to lock picking or sneaking around, to get find a fence or get in touch with a crime lord, but the GM might tag it negatively to have the law on my tail, or to be recognized in a situation where that would be bad. Locations can have traits you can tag (Dark, Crowded, Tall, Perilous. Some games add traits to scenes, worlds, and more. It’s absolutely brilliant. Awesome Adventures will likely be the system for a BPRD (Hellboy) game I’m planning.

#7 Comment By Razjah On January 8, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

Skill Challenges- I will drop this into any game that uses a skill system. I turn an encounter into one where the trap/wall/whatever are the opponents and the skills become the ways to defeat it. Also combining this with an encounter is a great thing. The individual failures cause problems as well as the outcome based on number of success vs failures.

#8 Comment By rwenderlich On January 8, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

I’m a fan of the Edges/Hindrances system in Savage World, White Wolf, and others where during character generation you can penalize your character in some way with a negative hindrance (such as One Legged) to get a corresponding positive edge (like Fast Shot).

Sometimes having Hindrances makes your characters have a better defined personality and makes it more fun too!

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On January 8, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

Rewarding Flaws— I like flaws that reward you when they affect the story– like 7th Sea and FATE’s aspects. It disembowels the “take flaws for the most points and conveniently ‘forget them'” approach.

Varying Levels of Resolution. I like the ability to resolve a conflict in one roll, particularly if it’s tangential to the story– but letting players who decide that it’s important enough to spend time go to deeper resolution. PTA allows it for “chase” style conflicts, and The Shadow of Yesterday’s “Bring Down the Pain” is the exemplar of this technique.

Broadly Applied Skills— I like a system that allows you to use most skills for a conflict if you can figure out a logical application. FATE does this by allowing the fast talker to distract a badguy while Hercules lines up a punch, but Truth and Justice is also great at allowing creative power use.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 8, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

[3] – I think you mean Aspects and not Traits. Traits is the term Fudge and FATE use to cover Skills, Attributes, Gifts, Faults, and Aspects. Aspects are what you are describing, and Fred Hicks did do an excellent job in his design of them for FATE.



#11 Comment By Alan De Smet On January 8, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

[6] – You are quite correct, I do mean Aspects. It’s been a while since I’ve run a FATE game, and it’s apparently gotten a bit mushy in my brain. Thanks for the correction.

#12 Comment By Rafe On January 8, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

I’m afraid this’ll come across as total fanboi’ism, but I have to say “all things Burning Wheel.” All the things you mentioned above, plus Let it Ride, Fight!, Duel of Wits (!), success and narrating it being sacrosanct, lifepaths, gaining epiphanies via Artha (the rewards mechanic), progress-what-you-use stat/skill/ability progression… everything.

I’ll have to check out Cortex.

#13 Comment By Zzarchov On January 8, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

I too love mechanics. I have built an entire system from them and write about them to no end on my blog.

Re-rolls, Narratives, Social conflict rules, Schrodingers character, giant piles


If you love mechanics just to see how they work, that might be an hour or two of entertainment for you (100+ articles)

#14 Comment By drow On January 9, 2010 @ 12:05 am

a lovely mechanic i’ve recently come upon is the new Doctor Who RPG’s initiative system. talkers go first, then movers, then doers, then fighters. simple, and perfect for doctor who. brilliant.

#15 Comment By DNAphil On January 9, 2010 @ 7:45 am

[8] – I have never tried Heroquest, but that does sound interesting. As for the Dual Token system the closest I have used, is the Mojo Pool in X-Crawl where the team had a pool of Mojo points they could give each other, but could not take for themselves.

@Patrick– Top Secret/SI’s combat system was awesome. My favorite part of that hit location, was that your skill level could allow you to bump the location up or down by a number of points, allowing an expert marksman to always land a head or chest shot every time.

@Alan– I played a lot of DC Heroes when I was younger, despite not liking DC comics as much as Marvel comics. I loved the universal system. I also own all the Underground books, and have always wanted to run an Underground game.

@Razjah — I have been incorporating skill challenges into different games. I like the idea of a scene being resolved by a challenge of skill and not just combat.

@rwenderlich– I am a fan of games that use some kind of Edge/Hindrance system. Conspiracy X and Witchcraft also used a system like that, and while it runs the risk of Min/Maxing, you can get some ideas for some unique character traits from them. The Aspect system Houses of the Blooded is also an interesting way to sue these.

@Rafe– its hard not to gush about all the mechanics of Burning Wheel. I love all of them as well. I have used the Let It Ride mechanic in most other games I run.

@Zzarchov– I am subscribing to your RSS feed now. Can’t wait to read what you have.

@drow– I had hears about that initiative system in some review. I like how it favors the non-combatants, which is a direct reflection of how the show functions. That is a great example of how the designers modeled the Show using mechanics.

Thanks for all the comments guys.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 9, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

Any well-written player-narrative system (action points, hero points, bennies, plot points, etc). Many players are hesitant to subject themselves to the vagaries of the dice. A good “ignore the dice” or “second try” mechanic can change that behavior.

Anything that allows the group to choose either roleplay or mechanics to resolve a situation. (Or a combination of the two.) Many GMs use this instinctively (“You can roll Diplomacy, or you can just try talking to him.”), but I prefer to see it spelled out explicitly.