Thursday, 12 May 2016

Best game elements to steal from #threeforged 2015

We're gonna steal some game mechanics. Some really good game mechanics.

I found them in last year's Threeforged RPG Challenge. There were just over 100 short roleplaying games, randomly created by blind teams of three designers per game. For each of my own reviews, I tried to include a highlight of the game. The "Best Bit". And some of the best Best Bits were in games that didn't make the final selection. But I'm still thinking of them, and I think that they are brilliant.

So lets steal them. Lets grab them and add them to the toolbox; that secret chest of tricks, tips, and tweaks that helps make our games great. Because we need the best parts if we're to patch together our own great games. Even if it does mean looting the corpses of the games that didn't quite make it in the contest.

Lets go grave-robbing. We've got monsters to make.

The Die-Drop Map-Making Method
I have no idea who came up with the idea of "the die-drop" method, but I witnessed it three times during Threeforged. Essentially, you pick up a handful of dice, drop them on a sheet of paper and then note where they land. This creates the map of your game setting.

The game that introduced me to the concept was Forgeborn, and it is my favourite. Essentially, Forgeborn has you drop 4d4, 8d6, 2d8, 2d10, and 1d12. The d4s are villages, so you draw a triangle where they land and put the number rolled on the d4 inside it (symbolising the encounter difficulty in that village.) and you then connect the villages with roads. Even d6s are forest areas, and they can link up with each other; odd d6s are mountains and do likewise. The d8s are ruins, the d10s are cities (more roads) and the d12 is the dragon's lair (or whatever villain you want.) The numbers rolled on these last are all important, too.

This type of map-making is entertaining in its own right. It's easily adaptable; you can make cities, star clusters, continents, whatever. There's another way to use it, which was shown in another Threeforged game, The Rending of the Veil, which very nearly won the contest. Veil had a map already laid out which you dropped dice on to determine where major storyline events will happen. It's a slightly different approach to Forgeborn (or Under a Broken Moon which was the third die-dropper), but it also conjures up ways to use a similar method for any other game (detective stories immediately spring to mind).

Consider a map of Arkham for a Cthullu game, filled with all the major locations. You drop the dice and find connections. With a little creative interpretation you've got a basic plotline.

The Two-Fisted Combat Throw
I used to play in a big worldwide game which used scissors-paper-rock as its core resolution method. It is a limited system on the whole, best used for simple scenarios, and it showed its flaws when used for more complex situations, such as combat.

Shinobi Village didn't impress me overall, but it did include a brilliant dueling mechanic which puts a new spin on SPR. Basically you throw two fists at once, one over your heart (your defence) and the other outstretched toward your opponent (your attack). Since your opponent is doing the same, this means you may end up both hitting, both missing, or one hitting while the other misses.

But what makes it more wonderful is that it becomes hard to "read" your opponent. It's hard enough trying to keep your own head straight working out how to coordinate your own hands and the patterns you've used, let alone pay attention to your opponent's strategies.

This system can easily be adapted for multiple participants, and is also a fun little dueling game to play on its own as a first-to-three-strikes icebreaker.

The Action Flowchart
Automaton might not have made the final five of the competition but it was undoubtedly one of the best games Threeforged had to offer. The designers offered a world where you played robotic detectives trying to solve a robot related crime, attempting to complete your mission before a human team beats you to the punch.

But what made Automaton great was the "action flowchart" which simulated the structure and limits of your robot's programing. Essentially, your character will be in one of half a dozen different states, each state allowing certain types of behaviour. You can cycle in the one state for a while, but you'll eventually have to move on to the next state permitted to you (you might have a choice between two states to move to). From there you can proceed onwards, but you can never go backwards.

It sounds a bit complex, but the flowchart supplied made easy work of it and was intuitive. You could go from a Hot state to a Cool one, but not back immediately to Hot. You must go to a Sharp state after that, which leads you to a choice between becoming Stressed or Hard. Stressed will lead us back to Hot again if we want to do that, but we could maybe get away with the Hard option. However, if we fail we'll have to travel to a Soft state, then go back through Sharp and Stressed before we can get to Hot again.

Phew! Writing it out like this sounds ultra-confusing, but with the ingenious flowchart it was perfectly simple. And it adds a "programming" feature to roleplaying that makes tabletop games like Roborally and Colt Express so delightful.

The Three-Fanged Traitor
Traitor mechanics are hugely popular in parlour/party games, with The Resistance (and its variants) and Werewolves/Mafia being two of the most well-known examples. Board games often use traitors (Shadows Over Camelot is a personal favourite) and roleplaying games will often allow players to have their own secret agendas.

Space Problems Argh is an unfinished game that has a lot of promise, especially so in the use of its own traitor mechanic. In this game, not only will you not know who the traitor is, you will not even know if you actually have one in the game. That in itself isn't new; Shadows Over Camelot did that. What is new is that there are THREE DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRAITOR that could be trying to ruin your plans.

The three different traitor types are Turncoat (who is trying to rob you), Alien (who is trying to kidnap one of you), and Cyborg (who is trying to destroy everyone). Since you don't know what kind of traitor you (possibly) have means you don't know what their agenda is. You never know what type of behaviour to be watching for.

This is an excellent evolution of the traitor mechanic. Imagine a game of Werewolves where you don't know if you are hunting vampires, cultists or zombies instead, each with their own unique methods of play.

A and B Agendas
A and B storylines are a standard in storytelling, particularly for the screen, and many GMs naturally try to emulate the style. There are a lot of games which allow a player to have a "spotlight" scene where they get to shine, but it can often be difficult for some players to step up. It can also be difficult for some players to step back into the shadows.

Enter Ad Libitum Absurdity, which is a hilarious little game about typecast actors trying to break out of their roles. What ALA proposes is to give characters two different agendas. Your A agenda is your main one which you will be focusing on in your spotlight scenes. Your B agenda only comes in during scenes where you are a background or supporting character.

This idea can so easily be used in any game, and is generally a good technique to use in any storytelling medium. Our D&D dwarven warrior who has the A agenda of gaining revenge on a tribe of orcs may have the B agenda of finding a good pair of boots that actually fit. In any given scene, the player should be asking themselves what their PC's purpose is in the scene and choosing their agenda to suit.

You could take it even further, having Spotlight, Supporting, and Background agendas, each appropriate for their respective scenes. You may even have abilities or powers linked to them. The purpose of the mechanic is to have the characters acting appropriately for their position in the tale at that particular time.

Evolutionary Gameplay
Millennia is less a game but the setup for a game. You begin by creating the world, playing the titanic forces that mold it. From there you play the gods, whose powers are more focused than the titans, then move on to the demigod heroes, to the rulers of empires, and finally on to the simple individuals whose stories are the focus of the rest of the game.

So effectively you are creating the history of your game. Nothing outrageous there.

The reason why Millennia shines is the principles behind this approach. The Titan style of play is very simplistic and broad, helping to create epic tales of how a dead titan's body formed a continent, or how a breath created life. Those mechanics, themes and stories are then elaborated on in the God section, and so forth. As the history becomes more complex, so do the characters and the game systems. The pace of the game is as fast or as slow as the players need or want.

Many games dump a load of rules, tools, and setting materials upon a player, which can make entry-level players feel greatly intimidated. Millennia encourages a natural and intriguing approach that settles players into the world at their leisure and helps them create it as they go. The rules of the game are introduced in-play, one step at a time, reflecting and accentuating the history itself

Millennia might need a bit of work, but it is a gem of a game and was unfairly forgotten in the Threeforged contest. 

Reflective Refreshment Scenes
There are a load of great ideas in last year's Threeforged contest, but the last one I'd like to mention comes from 10 Million AD. Many games include combat and healing, but this game included a healing idea that could be included in almost any narrative-based combat game.

At any time that two or more characters are in a place of relative safety, they may call for a "refreshment scene." During this scene, a character must reveal something about themself that has never been revealed in play before. A secret. A desire. A bit of background. As long is it reveals something about the character and offers conncetion between the participants of the scene.

At the end of the scene characters heal, restore spell points, gain xp, etc. It encourages roleplaying by giving rewards for acting in-character and also helps break up combat scenes by adding more introspective events between them.

I especially like the idea of including refreshment scenes like this in live action contact larps.

Final Note
All of the games mentioned here can be found on the Threeforged RPG page for last year. I highly recommend checking out all of the games mentioned here for yourself (they are free for download).

And if you do manage to cobble together a monster, make sure you remember who gave you the parts.

(One final final note: the games I've listed are not necessarily my favourite games of the contest, nor even the "best." But they are indeed ones I significantly remember because they contain something special and were otherwise overlooked. Thank you to all the designers for your great work. You can read my reviews of all 103 games here, my personal Top 20 here, and my reviews of the five finalists here.)


  1. I really like the reflection idea!

    1. Same. I think it's generally a great tool to encourage roleplaying and open up those character backgrounds normally so secretly locked away. Especially good for live-action games.