Mechanical Philosophy

Mechanical Philosophy

Kannagara is a tabletop roleplaying game, and therefore it has mechanics. Since I’ve already talked about the guiding ideas behind the game itself, I’d like to talk briefly about my approach to the mechanics.

Anyone who is familiar with my work on Ars Magica will know that I lean towards mechanical systems that are quite detailed and simulationist. That is something that will be reflected in Kannagara’s mechanics, partly as a matter of personal preference, but also for more fundamental reasons. Here, I’ll focus on the more fundamental reasons.

First, I believe that the mechanics of a game should be part of the expression of the game. If two games are supposed to have very different moods and deal with different subjects, then they really should have different mechanics. I am not, as you might guess, a big believer in generic systems. In my experience, they tend to do one genre well, and others poorly, at least until different mechanics are written to extend them to a new area. The other side of this is that, if something is important to the game, it should have mechanics. Broadly speaking, something should only be left to the creativity of the players if it is colour that does not really matter to the way the game works. (This is only true broadly speaking, and I am pretty sure that there will be exceptions in Kannagara.)

Second, I believe that restricting the choices available to players is a very important part of making a good game. This is particularly true when you are introducing a setting that is not familiar to them. The rules should present a limited set of sensible choices (three to six is the number often cited) at each point, so that players have some control over the course of the story, but aren’t drowning in options. This means that there should be a defined list of skills and such, not “write down some phrases that define your character”.

Put these two together, and you are looking at a very crunchy system. That means that you want a consistent, and simple, basic mechanic, which can be applied in lots of different situations to capture the different aspects of the game. “Roll one twenty-sided die and add something, trying to beat a target number” is a good example of a basic mechanic. That one is actually a bit too simple for what I want to do, but I do want to use the same basic mechanic at all points. (The basic mechanic will get its own post, a little later.)

I said above that restricting choice is important. This is true, but players who are familiar with the system should be able to create exactly the character they want, and do whatever they want, within the constraints of the game. (In Kannagara, the rules will not support creating a skilled fighter, because that is not what the game is about.) Pathfinder does this by starting with eight or so basic classes, but then having archetypes and prestige classes, and choices of feats and skills, which allow you to create almost anything you want. I don’t think that the way Pathfinder does it is ideal, because the player really needs to know exactly what she wants to do right at the beginning, but it’s good; the flexibility of the system is impressive. The problem with really needing to make the choice at the beginning is that the player does face dozens of options at that point.

However, allowing players to create whatever character they want is not necessarily inconsistent with restricting choice, because the restriction only applies to each choice point. If you have five options at each choice point, then twenty choice points give you 95 billion final options. It does take some effort to make sure that the available paths cover all the desirable outcomes, but that’s one of the things that game design (and playtesting) is about.

My aim, then, is to have mechanics based on a consistent core mechanic, which provide systems for all the important activities in the system (growth, relationships, creation, and discovery). At any point, both in character creation and in play, a player should face a limited number of options, but a player should be able to reach any end point that makes sense in the game by making a series of choices that seem sensible at the time.

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