Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.23: Rules and Mechanics

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Cassandra Khaw, Dan Wells, James L. Sutter, and Howard Tayler

Let’s talk about how players interact with the mechanics of the game, and what kinds of requirements those might put on the writers.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Pick a game you’re familiar with and design three new rules elements for it. These could be new cards for Magic, new feats or character abilities for a TTRPG, new power-ups for Super Mario, etc.
Try to think through all the ways these could be fun, and then try to find ways a player could use them to totally break a story.

Thing of the week: Disco Elysium.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Rules and mechanics are important in tabletop games, where players and game masters interact directly with the rules. Computer games can have some behind the scenes parts. However, the same principles apply to both. First, stick to a few core mechanics. This helps people learn them easily, and transfer skills between different characters. Repetition is important, to make sure everyone understands what is being talked about. Be aware of three types of players, the ones who just want to get to the action, the ones who want a story, but not all the nitty gritty, and the ones who will spend enormous amounts of time and energy on very small points. As a designer, make the tools simple and let players come up with cool ideas using them. What’s going to make it fun at the table? If you’re adding new rules, anchor them to elements already in the game. Look for the holes, and fill them!

[Season 16, Episode 23]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[Cassandra] Rules and Mechanics.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[James] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Background rumble, laughter]

[Howard] And we’re listening to a distant motorcycle.

[Dan] Obviously, not in much of a hurry.


[James] Let’s keep that.

[Mary Robinette] Oh. Hi. I’m Mary Robinette.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[James] I’m James.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] This is the episode we’re recording after lunch.


[Mary Robinette] Rules and mechanics. Rule number one, people get drowsy after lunch.

[James] All right. So, rules and mechanics, this is more important with tabletop games, where both the players and the game masters are interacting directly with the rules. With computer games, you can have a little bit behind the scenes. But a lot of the same principles still apply. So, one of the things I think about when thinking about mechanics is that you want to stick to a few core mechanics or principles. For instance, in Dungeons & Dragons, you’re kind of always rolling a D20, a 20 sided die, and higher is better. That’s a very simple mechanic that, of course, it’s used in a bunch of different ways. But that basic idea is the same. The reason you want to keep it that way is because it helps people to learn, and it allows people to transfer their skill between different characters. So if you know how to play a barbarian, then you probably, even if you don’t know all about the spells the wizard has, you at least know the basic idea. So I think of this kind of like an arcade fighter game or something. All the characters are going to have different special abilities, but if A is punch for one of them, it’s going to be punch for all of them. So that’ll allow you to easily transfer your abilities. But, Cass, what do you think about first when thinking about mechanics for a game?

[Cassandra] Oh, queerly enough, it’s very similar. Although a bulk of the work is often done by the designers in larger studios. Maintaining the idea that there is a sense of symmetry is important. One of the things I learned writing [branching areas?] for video games is, for example, the importance universally of always repeating keywords in every single line of dialogue. I remember having this incredibly long frustrated fight with my manager about it, though, I cannot keep repeating the same words in every single line of dialogue. He’s like, “Yes, I understand. But this is how games work.” Because when you play a game, your brain is actually divided between so many other things. You’re looking at environment, you’re thinking about your quests, you’re  thinking about how your characters are moving, where you want to go. It’s easy to get distracted. I did not believe him until this one quest line I was developing, I’d worked with a designer for six months on that very specific quest. One day I was like, “All right. Would you help me playtest this quest chain?” Again, remember this is the man who he’s worked with me from scratch on this for six months extensively. He plays through the whole thing. Now, this quest has a single robot. I repeated the name of this robot about seven times. I missed it in one last line of dialogue. My designer, when he was done, he turns around and he looks at me and he goes like, “Oh, do we mention the robot anywhere?” I’m like, “Oh, my God.”


[Cassandra] He was right. This is absolutely necessary. I remember swearing so loudly, people two rows down in the office turned around and were wondering what was going on.


[Cassandra] I think it’s kind of… Dovetails neatly into the necessity for sanitizing language and copying existing solves that. I think it’s very, very obvious in tabletop RPG’s.

[James] Yeah. I know this is something, Dan, you’ve complained about this to me before…


[James] When you were learning how to write for stuff like Pathfinder and Starfinder. There’s all this standardized language, and you’re copying all of these styles, and when you start writing for tabletop role-playing games, they’ll often give you a giant style guide that you have to learn. It feels really counterintuitive to a prose writer, because you’re always told to mix up your word choice. Don’t be repetitive. But the reason why repetition is so important in tabletop games is that it makes it easier for everybody to understand exactly what’s being talked about, and you got players interpreting the rules from diff… On their own. So by hammering out the language once, you can avoid problems and people know that… If you say creature most of the time and suddenly you say monster for one rule, people are going to think that that means something different when it doesn’t actually. Mary Robinette, you wanted to speak to that?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So this is actually a mechanic, a real world mechanic, about the way our own brains are designed. That we are designed to look for threats. Right? Out in the wild. Anything that is repetitive is not a natural thing, so we pay attention to it. So anything that breaks the pattern, that is again a point at which we pay attention to it. So a certain type of repetitive thing… It’s like as soon as you identify it, you tune it out and it becomes unimportant. But the things that break that, those are the things that suddenly pop into focus. So that’s one of the reasons… Not just when you’re thinking about that in… Four-game writing, but also in narrative, when you want to make conscious choices about that repetition and where you deliberately break that repetition.

[Howard] It’s worth pointing out here that there are terms that are supercritical within whatever set of game mechanics you’re writing to. For instance, the word resistance is so often a game mechanic that is tied to whether you have resistance to magic, resistance to fire, resistance to all-out… Whatever. Naming a political organization the resistance in that game setting is absolutely contraindicated. Don’t do it. Because now you’ve overburdened that domain, and it’s guaranteed that you will be confusing some of the players.

[Dan] I do want to go back to one thing really quick, because, as James said, I have whined to him extensively about having to write inside of certain style guides for games. I just think that that’s a good thing to point out, if you are primarily a prose writer, a fiction writer, and you want to get into game writing. Be prepared for a very different editorial process. I’m accustomed to, with novels, just sending something that is incredibly bare-bones, and then knowing that the typesetter and the editor are going to make it look the way it’s supposed to look. We usually don’t have to deal with formatting at all. Depending on the game company you are submitting to, you do have to deal with formatting. It becomes very important. So, that’s just something to keep in mind.

[James] Well, some of the style guides that Dan has raged against are things that I actually wrote or worked on when…


[James] I was the executive editor at Paizo.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, you’re that James.

[James] Yes. But, yeah, it’s important because you gotta remember that the rules are a puzzle that a certain type of player is going to be constantly, and… Actually, I think Cass is this type of player… Is going to be constantly looking at to see like how can I find the loopholes or the interesting ways to like hook these rules together. If you have any un… Or any ambiguous language, players will absolutely figure out how to exploit that. There was this idea among a certain type of player that if a game can be broken, it’s like your moral imperative to break the game. So, like by finding those loopholes. So you’ll have players who figure out how to use your rules to break the game in such a way that they no longer have fun, and then they will yell at you because it is your fault. It is your fault for allowing…

[Dan] Yeah. Brandon…

[James] Them to poke themselves in the eye. So you have to come to it with that idea.

[Dan] Brandon is not on these episodes with us, but he’s absolutely that kind of player as well. Pure power gamer, rules lawyer, break the game.

[James] I’m shocked.

[Dan] Anyway, let’s take a break real quick.


[Dan] For our game of the week from Cass.

[Cassandra] The game of the week is Disco Elysium. Where it kind of opens with you as an amnesiac, trying to put everything together. It’s a really weird, dark world. But the reason that I wanted to draw attention to it is it has this really cool mechanic called the Thought Cabinet. The Thought Cabinet is basically, like, you can put points in different thoughts, like feminism, your sense of drama. That changes how your conversations go. That one itself is really interesting. Something I’ve never seen before. But depending on how you build your Thought Cabinet, it can also mean that when the various parts of your brain argue with each other, and we’ve all had that, like, different sides of us, like, maybe this idea is better and that idea is better. If one side of your brain is weighted very heavily in, let’s say drama, you will absolutely think that drama is the root whether you like it or not. It should feel punishing, but it always ends up with you kind of going, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense. I am a drama queen.”

[Dan] That’s great.

[James] I love that. So, actually, brains is a perfect segue, because, Cass, we were talking in preparation for this about sort of the different types of gamers. I’m curious your thoughts on that?

[Cassandra] I think there are a whole variety of them, but one thing that was really interesting, a piece of knowledge that was passed on to me by the manager was talking to me about the robot thing, in fact, is, with video games, there are very often three types of players. The first type of player is the kind of person who just wants to [garbled see for twitch?] who wants to get to the action. He wants to mess around and not paying any attention to the plot. It’s easy to think that these kinds of players don’t care about story, except they do. So you have to build games or somebody who only wants a surface level story can look at it and go, “Okay. I understand the narrative. I am going to blow shit up.” The second type of player, I think, is the one that most of us who like reading falling to. We want to do the action bits, we want to push the game along, but we’re interested in a story. We are not necessarily interested in the nitty gritty like why one faction dislikes another, but we want to know that there’s two factions that hate each other. The last category of players, I think, is very easily described by let’s say Bloodborne’s fan base, where you have people looking at one or two lines from a piece of armor and you go to the subReddit and it’s 600 pages of people arguing how those two lines correlate to a thing that is solved five seconds ago before a certain boss. Yet, because… All of these three types of players need to be catered for in every game, because if you don’t, one of them will complain and there will be a problem with a capital P.

[James] Yeah. Well, I also think it’s important just to think about when you’re crafting your tools… So, like, whether it’s for computer games or for especially for tabletop role-playing games, making the tools simpler makes it easier for players to come up with cool ideas using them. It’s often really tempting for you as the game designer to build out these big Byzantine systems. But it can also be just as much fun to just create something simple and allow the players to figure out all the different ways that they can use that to tell different stories.

[Dan] Yeah. So, we’ve been talking a lot about rules like core game mechanics, but a lot of the time when you are writing an adventure or a… In a campaign supplement, you get to add new rules to it. I recently had the chance to run a group through a Pathfinder campaign that starts with a circus. It was really fun, because at the beginning, they just present, these are the rules of the circus, you have whatever other adventures you get into as well, but you still have to have this circus. Then, as you travel around from town to town, you need to be as entertaining as possible, because that’s how you support yourselves. It just presented some very simple rules for how to measure the entertainment value of your circus. Then the players just have this sandbox to run around in and say, “Oh, well, based on how these mechanics work, I can come up with a new act or we can get a new animal or something exciting that way.” It was a lot of fun.

[Howard] In the Gods of Vaeron Typecast RPG campaign, I think it was late 2019 when one of the game mechanics we adopted was, okay, if combat isn’t over in three rounds, we’ve done something wrong. That’s… Dan, you reminded me of that with the whole the circus has to be entertaining. We have an audience here and we are principally storytellers. If we are grinding around the table rolling dice for an hour in order to resolve something that’s really only about 45 seconds of story, we’ve failed our audience. So Dan had to create behind the curtain game mechanics and level balancing that ensured that these encounters would go quickly.

[James] Well, that’s… That raises the point that it’s important to think about the cool factor when you’re introducing a new item or a new ability or something. What’s going to make it fun at the table? A +1 bonus to hit is like maybe useful, and maybe a certain type of player is excited about that, but it doesn’t feel like anything in the story. Whereas something like a… In the Starfinder campaign I’m running, we decided that for all sonic weapons, you have to choose what song you’re blasting people with. So you’re shooting them with a dubstep cannon or Total Eclipse of the Heart or whatever. Suddenly, that turns combat into sort of an improv comedy routine. Right? So giving people that option…

[Mary Robinette] We… Years ago, at the first writing retreat, Writing Excuses retreat, which was at my parent’s house, we came up with croquet LARP as a game. You… It was this giant… Two giant teams of croquet players. You could multi class by switching the head on your mallet with the handle on your mallet. Each color represented a different class. But in order to activate the power that came with whatever class you had, whether it was like wizard could teleport, thieves could sneak through barriers, you had to shout your power word or something like that. So, like, my dad, who was playing with us, every time he… For people who have not met my dad, he looks like Doc Brown but southern. He was playing a wizard. So any time he needed to teleport, he would point a finger up in the air and go, “Gadzooks!”


[Mary Robinette] It was… That little bit of fun added to it. It wasn’t just, “Oh, you get to do this thing.” It’s that you had to do something fun and silly. Everybody got to pick their own power word. Like someone else was like, “Aaooga!”

[Dan] Now, speaking of which, I do need to point out, since we talked about different types of players, we all learned… I think even Mary Robinette was surprised at this… That her father was totally the power gamer rule breaker type.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, my goodness.

[Dan] In ways we did not expect. It destroyed the game. It was delightful. But…

[Mary Robinette] It was… He is basically 12. Or eight.

[Cassandra] What I think all of this kind of points out is that there’s so much importance in keeping the rules and mechanics incredibly simple and incredibly elegant. Because if you have something that is unnecessarily complex, you can’t really have opportunities like this. People spend too much time learning about rules as opposed to having fun. Which, I guess, depending on the [setting?] is not terrible. But, there’s a place and time for everything. What do you think, James?

[James] Yeah. I agree completely. But I also… I’m sort of like a rules-light guy by nature. But I also think it’s important, coming from a game like Pathfinder and Starfinder, where those are very quote unquote crunchy games, for there’s a lot of rules and a lot of carefully balanced mechanics. So if somebody’s listening to this and going, “Yeah, but how do I write for those?” I think one of the easiest things you can do is when you’re creating new rules, you can balance them by anchoring them to elements already in the game. So if you know that a level 2 gun does 2D6 damage and costs 50 credits, then you know that a different level 2 item that you come up with is probably somewhere in that ballpark. Probably does about that much damage, etc. You can also create new items or new abilities by sort of looking at the rules, learning them really well, and then saying what are the holes here? Not necessarily intentional ones, like the fighter doesn’t have magic. Like, that’s an intentional hole. But if there’s a fire wizard ability and an ice wizard ability, you can… Maybe you say, “Well, what about an acid wizard or an electricity wizard, that kind of thing?” Finding thematic or mechanical holes in a given rule set can allow you to create new things that players will be excited about. We should probably wrap it up there, since we’re a little bit over time.

[James] Your homework this week is to do exactly that. Pick a game you’re familiar with and design three new rules elements for it. So that could be new cards for Magic: The Gathering, new feats or character abilities for a tabletop role-playing game. Even, like, a new power up for Super Mario. Try to think through all the ways that your ideas could be fun. Then try to think of all the ways that a player could use them to totally break the game.

[Dan] Awesome. That sounds like great homework. I look forward to crazy new rules being devised. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.