They say that ‘coding is poetry‘ right? Well, I think of game mechanics as grammar. That’s why it’s so fun (honest!)
If the game is a language then, then what are you trying to communicate? What are the rules of that language; what sorts of things cant you say, or make no sense?
- The game rules have to reflect the core Stranger Things values we described earlier (in our case, friendship, geekery, horror, and investigation).
A common example of where game-grammar craps up is probably with critical successes and critical failures:
Two Parables: 1. We're playing Iron Crown Enterprise's MERP (Middle Earth Roleplaying). We have a party of hobbits, a half-elf, a ranger and a dwarf and are about to start the very first scene of our very first adventure. A party of Orcs had attacked nearby Bayswater! The party head off to put up a valiant defence, and in round 1 of the first fight, the novice Hobbit manages to - POW! - punch the head off an orc chief. It was hilarious, it was a critical success, and it broke our session completely.It wasn't that we didn't like the win, or that we couldn't have kept on playing - but the fact that the critical success had seemed to come out of nowhere completely obliterated our trust in the rules. 2. We're playing Rolemaster, and none of our characters are noobs. One player has this tanked-up Ranger-Cleric kind of dude. The start of this adventure saw us attacked by bandits - Ranger-Cleric dude trips over his own short spear and the player manages to botch the roll so badly that they end up impaling themselves and dying horribly without the bandit even lifting their thwacky-stick.
This is what we’re talking about when we say that game mechanics is grammar – and that when the grammar is faulty you end up saying nonsensical things. Things which kick the players out of immersion in their characters. Many players and games can handle these sorts of outside-of-the-curve events, but the fact that they can be so random, so beholden to chance, that sometimes it can kinda feel a bit, well, mean.
And we dont want our indy-build Stranger Things, a game about enduring friendship after all, to be mean.
Some Ground Rules:
Games are a generous art. And by that I mean that the mechanics are there to give fun, exciting, and worthwhile experiences to the players. They shouldn’t be there to constrict or penalize.
2. Belief & Immersion
Grammar is best when you don’t spot it. The same goes for rules. We want to keep them light and agile enough so that the story flows naturally. Hit-tables and critical-charts and weapon stats can be fun – but they can also be boring. I want to keep my ST players inside the story as much as possible, and not in the rulebooks.
Essentially – we’re using ‘game grammar’ [*] in the same way a writer or a director works to find the logic for those words and images. Narrative flow. Internal consistency. Remaining true to the spirit of the narrative, etc…
- What are the key action scenes? When the protags are cycling away from the Evil Bad Guys [ed. no spoilers!] do I reckon that is a case of ‘roll bike ability – wow, you did really well/crap/botched…’ Or is there something else going on?
There’s an urge to turn eveeeerything into game mechanics from cycling to running to remembering ADnD rules or whatever… But really – it’s a temptation to be avoided, in my humble opinion… Not everything is interesting or dynamic enough to have a mechanic associated with it. Crunch can easily kill a good story.
With all the above in mind – there are three rules systems out there I think might be a good match for ST. They fulfil the criteria of being both generous and light, as well as fitting our earlier brief for a fiction first, ability-centered game.
These are Odyssey, GUMSHOE, and Fate. [**][***]
Will Hindmarch’s Odyssey is such a juicy system in terms of story-creation. All it asks you is this: What is your character…? Are you a gun-toting cowboy? Or an elvish cyber-cop? It uses noun + verb pairings to describe your character, which gives you a broad catch-all for what your character can do.
In an ST example, Eleven might be a psychic runaway, meaning that any time her player is in a situation where blasting people with her mentalist superpowers might help, they would get a roll. Or any time that they have to stay out of sight, stay quiet – or anything that can remotely be argued as a runaway ability – they’d get a roll.
This is why I think Odyssey would be a perfect fit for 80s-inspired and pulpy games. John Hughes stereotypes [yeah, bleurgh, I know but…] with an up-to-date mentality. Inquisitive Nerd, Tough Sports Jock, Funny DnD Kid, Determined Cop etc… We could create the ST characters from a list of traits that anyone might have fun playing…
But Odyssey only takes us so far. It’s a great story-creation system precisely because it is so open-ended, but remember that we also want to have that emphasis on investigation and abilities (skills) as well, right?
Well, if you’re talking investigation mechanics (finding a clue, deciphering the bigger picture, having a past encounter/memory trigger an epiphany…) then sooner or later you’re going to encounter the two giants in the field: Chaosium’s Call of Cthulu and GUMSHOE.
Call of Cthulu, although it awesomely fits the whole Lovecraftian/Upside Down/Nightmare dimension thing going on in ST – I think it also fails the freeform, relationships-first approach we want to try and capture. It’s a D100 open-license system, so we’re talking huge character sheets, lots of lists of stats and abilities. Way too crunchy for what I want to build.
So Cthulu is out. That leaves us with GUMSHOE, as designed by Robin Laws through Pelgrane Press. It’s a framework rules system specializing in, unsurprisingly, police-procedural, detective, crime-noir, pulp etc. GUMSHOE is an ability-over-attributes system, so players list what skills make them unique and don’t have innate attributes at all. The nice thing about GUMSHOE is that you ‘spend’ your ability points to gain clues and successes in the game. In ST, the main characters might always be spending their AV Club ability points in order to get the walkie-talkies to talk across dimensions, for example.
The only thing that GUMSHOE lacks though, is still that story-first emotional emphasis and friendship that we wanted to capture.
And then we come to the framework system from Evil Hat Productions, Fate. This is another very attractive option because, like the above it eschews the use of attributes to focus on gameplay and story (‘only role for interesting, amazing things…’).
Fate is based on the FUDGE mechanic – a really simple D6 system that gives you an outcome ranging from something like -4 to +4, with character abilities and situational modifiers bumping that up and down. That means that you get a gradiant of success: 4 successes is better than 3; all the way down to a -4 result being atrociously bad. In ST Season 2 Ep.7 ‘The Lost Sister’ one of the characters manages to psychically fool the cops chasing them that there is a barrier in the way – but the barrier lasts only a few seconds. This might be 3 successes rather than a 4…
What’s really pleasing about Fate is that it also brings into play Stunts and Effects. Which are personal ‘powers’ or special abilities which means you can help dictate the course of action in the scene.
eg. GM: "You're surrounded by Big Evil Bad Guys, they've got guns. You're barely adolescent. You're not escaping this one..." Player 1: "But can't I use Eleven's Make Heads Explode special Effect...?"
Fits nicely, huh?
That Fiction-First Fluffy-Yoghurt Stuff
All the above three systems have elements I like;
- Odyssey’s noun + verb templating.
- GUMSHOE’s buy clues with ability (skill) pool.
- Fate’s FUDGE mechanic + use of Stunts and Effects.
…but it still feels like we’re lagging behind on that relationships-centred game (Mike Wheeler’s loyalty to Eleven, Jonathan’s outsider-romance with… Dustin’s Stand By Me moment with Steve Harrington)?
We could go ‘full-indy’ and borrow some leaves out of storygames like the excellent Feast. Or we could leave it all up to player interaction alone – not a bad idea at all – but you can end up putting a lot of emotional expectations on your players. It depends on your crew of course, with some players really grokking the emotional freeform style of play, and others wanting to beat the crap out of the Demagorgon with baseball bats…
The solve [ed. or fudge…*cough] might be to have a sideral mechanic that only relates to that aspect of the game. A lot of rpg games have things like Backgrounds, Attachments, Passions etc, which dont really have a mechanical role, but signal to the gamesmaster what non-mechanical advantages they might have.
eg. GM: 'Oh, you've got a 3 point Loyalty background to Eleven? Okay lover-boy, instead of losing this fight and eating mud, you get back up to your feet, glaring and mad, half your health restored - NOTHING is gonna stop you from finding Eleven!'
We could even tie in those friendship kinda things to other parts of the game, like experience points, rewards, fate points, clues etc… Something like: You get awarded experience as-a-party; encouraging co-operation (low-level yoghurt solve). Or each character can ‘activate’ certain advantages or modifiers when they are working with another character: If Mike Wheeler and Eleven share the ‘loyalty to…’ background, then whenever they are working to that aim, they get +1 success to their rolls, or similar… (complicated high-level yoghurt solve).
Now we want to get to a point where we can take all the best bits of the systems mentioned above, and have them work together in a wonderful symbiotic harmony.
Or as close as dammit so no one can see the stitching, anyway…
Obviously this is all WIP – but I can imagine ending up with something a bit like this:
In Part 3 of this indy build, we’ll take a look at this character sheet in a bit more depth [ed. At this point I realize I’m no graphic designer nor am I John Harper…] and get around to some play examples.
Next: Stranger Things v1.01: Play.
[*] There’s probably a name for this affliction: The obsession to try and model everything in game terms [ludophile? ludist?]…
[**] I own no rights to any of these games so, y’know, all Rites Reversed and all that…
[***] Eager-eyed kittlings and drekkheads will of course spot the influence of TSOY all over everything.