Today’s thing is “Which game mechanic inspires your game the most?” Weird question once you get out of the trad/conventional play bubble, but it did get me thinking. Mostly I got hung up on “what even is a mechanic?”
My pedantic game-theory brain hates the word right out of the gate; it’s a mechanism not a mechanic. A mechanic is somebody who works on your car. That’s never caught on and it’s not really the hill I wanted to die on, so I’ve always fallen back to “procedure.” That also kind of opens up the topic in my head beyond, you know, death spirals and escalation dice and aspects and flags.
I think the one procedure, which is more like a guiding philosophy, I guess, that is most present in my mind no matter what kind of game I’m running or playing, is the idea of Radical Transparency.
This came to me via several concurrent threads I was chasing down, oh, maybe a decade ago. One thread was wrapping my head around the task/intent split in Burning Wheel, which absolutely requires the player be honest and explicit about what it is they want out of their effort. Another thread was a really great grid I saw someone put together that looked at explicit intent versus transparency, I think. Gosh, I went looking for it online but heck if I can remember how it went.
Anyway, the “procedure” (such as it is) is super straightforward: if you’re a player, let the other players know what you’re going for. If you’re facilitating, keep digging until you’re super clear on what the player is getting at. This sounds pretty fucking obvious but it’s transformational when you’ve been breathing trad air for decades. This means no more gotcha moments from the GM, no more acting pissy because you were trying to psychically project what you were going for but didn’t want to “break immersion” or whatever. My younger readers might be horrified to read that both those things are awfully common out in the big trad ocean.
This one change to how I approach play was probably the single most bad-disruptive event in my ongoing gaming scene. Players suddenly needed to take a lot more responsibility. Everyone suddenly needed to trust each other: nobody can “beat” anyone else at the game when there are no gotchas. And as the GM most of the time, I really needed to take player goals and desires into account rather than performing a (not really) “neutral” refereeing job around the pure physics of the game.
Ironically, some of my favorite current games actually don’t work that well with explicitly transparent intents getting spelled out. Apocalypse World and most of its offspring doesn’t need or care about intent: you just trigger the move, or the move is triggered, and fuck your intentions. And yet our local play habits have so thoroughly absorbed the lessons of radical transparency that we end up talking about intent in sidebar all the time: “Okay so what I’m trying to get Balls to do is just walk away from protecting the hardhold. I so do not want to start shit.” “Okay yeah then you’re really not gonna Go Aggro, right, you’re manipulating.” Whatever. That conversation happens a dozen times every night, no matter what we’re running.
What’s funny about internalizing Radical Transparency is that it’s so very obvious when you’re playing with someone who has not.
I had a gaming buddy, one of my best, playing with his wife and my wife in an Urban Shadows game before they moved to another state. And in that game, he was playing a ghost. Well, so as GM, I’m having to pay attention to a lot of stuff and I haven’t memorized everything about every playbook in the game. So we had this scene where a ghost gang basically cornered his character to beat on him. I know they’re all ghosts and the damage isn’t real or permanent, and I explain (for transparency reasons) that they’re really just showing him that there’s more of them and they’re tough guys. Anyway, when I ask what he does about he just says “nothing,” and sits back with a smug look on his face. I’m not sure what to do about this! So I’m like, “Um…nothing? Just take the beating? I feel like you’re not participating because you got cornered and outnumbered.” He just shrugs. Well, what I had forgotten was that ghosts always return to some anchor point in the world, rather than taking lasting damage. He figured out how to “win” the scene but didn’t want to say it out loud until he could show off that he’d outsmarted me, I guess.
It was a weird moment! Like, it was more important to him to win the scene than it was to just say “oh, I’ll just let myself rematerialize back at the church” or whatever. At least that’s how it felt. And that’s the big split when you’ve got folks who have not bought into the idea that Radical Transparency is how I’m operating. When you’re the transparent one and they’re not, it’s easy to feel taken advantage of.
I’ve had folks act surprised at this approach at conventions, which I’ve come to expect. Especially true from the mostly-Pathfinder folks who want to drop in on some weird indie shit for a session just to see. It doesn’t always work out; sometimes they don’t feel good about the lack of surprise and gotcha, the creative and intellectual combat mode of play between the player and the GM. I still feel like there’s a lot of good creative tension between both roles! But it doesn’t rely on opacity about intent.
I don’t know that this is a “mechanic” (mechanism, procedure) really but it’s what came to mind. Fight me.
(Don’t fight me.)