Pointless mechanics that aren’t so pointless

I recently bought a copy of Kagematsu through the ever-wonderful Bundle of Holding (highly recommended if you haven’t come across it). Kagematsu is a game about the attempts by the women of a Japanese village to woo a wandering ronin in the hopes he will save their village from a looming threat.

I haven’t played the game (yet) but reading it has highlighted an interesting issue that I’d like to talk about here. The issue is: mechanics that ostensibly do nothing, but actually exert an important psychological effect.

Here’s a flow-chart I made showing how Kagematsu is played, from a mechanical perspective.

Kagematsu flowchart

The solid lines and boxes represent game events and the flow of time. The dotted lines and boxes represent game stats and the flow of mechanical causation.

There’s a couple of things  I want to highlight here.

The first concerns Pity. In Kagematsu, in every scene a villager tries to elicit an affection from Kagematsu (the ronin); this is carried out through the mechanics shown schematically above. At the end of the scene, regardless of the mechanical outcome up to this point, Kagematsu’s player must decide whether to allocate the villager a point of Love or a point of Pity. That is represented on the diagram by the dotted arrows from “End scene” to “Love” and “Pity”.

Notice that while there are a couple of dotted arrows from Love to other bits of the diagram (Love is important in the game; it improves your chances of winning affections in future scenes, the Kagematsu uses it to confront the threat at the end of the game, and also, though this isn’t shown on the diagram, it shows who gets to go off into the sunset with Kagematsu if he defeats the threat), there are no dotted arrows from Pity to other bits of the diagram. What this means is that mechanically, Pity does not do anything.

But Pity is an important part of the game, because of the influence it has on player psychology. If we didn’t have Pity, the choice would be: award the villager a point of Love, or don’t. It seems pretty clear that this would lead to a lot more Love being given out, simply because the alternative is to do nothing. By introducing Pity, even though it has no mechanical effect at all, we give the Kagematsu a real choice – do you love this woman more than you pity her? It also makes the choice somewhat less controversial, since while one might be peeved at not receiving Love, one is probably more likely to accept that one deserves Pity.

The second point I want to highlight concerns the Shadow Track. Every time anyone rolls a 6 during a scene, that 6 is placed on the villager’s Shadow Track. If three 6s are placed on the Shadow Track, the scene is interrupted by the looming threat. The villager describes how the threat breaks the scene up. The villager does not receive her affection; indeed, it is as if she had never attempted to gain it.

The Shadow Track does have a mechanical impact, in that it nixes the last affection attempt and ends the scene prematurely. But the overall effect is to slow the game down a bit, rather than to actively push it in any particular direction. So while it’s less empty-seeming than Pity, it is fairly weak mechanically speaking.

But the constant risk that the threat will muscle in on a scene, and the occasional reminder that the threat is present, have an important psychological impact. They reinforce one of the central themes of the game and boost atmosphere. They remind everyone what’s at stake.

My point is, both of these are examples of good game design. On paper they look like mechanical dead-ends, failing to influence the key game outcomes much if at all. My initial reaction on reading them was to think the designer had made a mistake. But their psychological impact is important. I shall try to bear this in mind for my own design work.

Creativism

GNS theory cuts roleplaying creative agendas up into Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism. The first two of these get more play, and greater respect, than the last, in my opinion. Yet I will argue this is because Simulationism has been misnamed; and in fact many important roleplaying innovations have been in a so-called simulationist space.

Quick disclaimer here: I’m going to talk about simulationism as described by Ron Edwards, but this is not really a theoretical article, and even though it tries to point the reader into a different view of what simulationism is, it isn’t any kind of attempted takedown of Edwards’s theory or other such shenanigans. Indeed it is rather selective in quoting Edwards, which would be a cardinal sin in a theory essay, but I hope I can get away with this in the above context.

The man who codified the concepts of GNS, Ron Edwards, talks about simulationism in his essay GNS and other matters:
Simulationism “is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play.”

He talks about simulationism as focusing on exploration, a concept that is important to all roleplaying, but assumes pre-eminence and becomes an end-in-itself in simulationist play. Yet the term “exploration” is misleading. It implies a pre-existing reality which we together explore; or perhaps it is intended to imply a single fiction, probably created by one person, the GM. A more neutral term is creation, because that is in reality that which is being explored is simultaneously being created, whether by the GM or by the players, individually or collectively.

Similarly “simulationism” suggests an attempt to replicate some ideal – a realistic game world, a particular genre’s conventions, a well-realised character. But play that focuses on the act of creation (as opposed to exploration) need not be about simulating anything; it is often about the creation of imaginative, evocative content which might or might not relate to an ideal. Creativism would be a more accurate and comprehensive term for this type of play.

If we were going to do definitions, creativism might be defined as:
Creativism “is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Creativism heightens  and focuses the creation and development of the shared fiction as the priority of play.”

Now I’m not seeking to pick an argument with Ron or anyone else here. Instead, I’ll pause to note that “creativism” already probably sounds much more appealing to many roleplayers than “simulationism”, which is resonant with computer games and wargames – popular with some, but not with all. “Simulationism” hints at rules and dry technicality, while “creativism” points to imagination and shared endeavour. I’d also like to talk a bit about where that reframed concept leads us.

For one, it leads us to focus on questions about who creates the content of the game. Much of indie roleplaying design has been concerned with handing over creative authority, or at any rate extending it, from the GM to the rest of the players. Indeed, many indie games have no such distinction. This has some implications for the pursuit of drama (narrativism) and challenge (gamism) but its biggest impact is on the act of creation itself. It enables more people to take part in the act of creation, and thus plays into a creativist agenda.

We can go further. Creativist concerns lead us to look at how the act of creation is regulated. Drama points, games structured into acts, Dogs in the Vineyard’s traits, and many more, serve to regulate the flow of content creation. They serve other purposes too, of course; but one major impact is to shift creative power and constrain the creative act. This leads to the well-known paradox that one can sometimes be most creative when one does not have a free hand to create anything one wishes to.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about these issues at present. And indeed, I’ve been teasingly referred to as a simulationist. Maybe I am – but these days I feel like I’m more of a creativist.

How to GM a GMless Game?

Ok, so this is a deliberately misleading title and could probably be more accurately described as how to facilitate a GMless Prepless game.

Originally I was skeptical of GMless, Prepless games but there are so many great examples of how to share creative control (e.g. Fiasco, The Trouble with Rose, Witch, 1001 Nights and A Taste for Murder) that I am far from worried that a GMless game world will feel flat and paper thin.  However I have noticed there is another aspect of GMless games which needs to be discussed more openly. This is the problem of “mental responsibility”.  Mental responsibility is the phrase I’ve coined to refer to many things in life such as who notices when the toilet roll is about to run out and ensures it is replaced before disaster strikes.

 
Mental responsibility for ensuring a game runs smoothly in GMed games is obvious, it rests with the GM.  The GM ensures a session is organised, that people know what to expect from the game, what dice (or not) they may need and it is the GM, ultimately, who takes responsibility for pacing the game.

 
There is no such obvious role in most GMless, Prepless games and there needs to be.  Just because the creativity is more equally divided up between the players doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for someone to take mental responsibility for the following things:

 
1. ensuring everyone understands the rules;
2. taking everyone though character and/or game world creation and answering questions;
3. noticing when pacing slips or rules are not being used properly and steps in to correct it;
4. actively setting an example of keeping people to a particular tone or ambiance in the game; and
5. noticing when one player is not getting sufficient screen time and bringing them back into the game.

(I am sure this is not an exhaustive list)

This doesn’t mean that you need to do all these things, just take responsibility for making sure they happen i.e. getting someone else to explain the rules.

If I introduce a GMless game to my gaming group then I always ensure I have read the rules, got the right amount of dice, dominos, character sheets and props and then manage the game to ensure it happens according to an agreed vision and in a way which maximises everyone’s fun.

Ultimately this comes down to the old and boring idea that things work more smoothly when one person is actively co-ordinating them. Unfortunately this means that someone has to do all the boring administrative work without getting the cherry of the creative control a GM enjoys. But I don’t think it is really that much of a hardship as you still get to play in a fun game – just one you have put slightly more work into than everyone else.

So my advice for GMless Prepless games is that GMless doesn’t mean rudderless or a total free for all.  GMless means no one person has overall creative control – but you still need to a pick a facilitator to carry out the background tasks which make a game happen smoothly.

My rule of thumb  – if you propose the game then you run it, where running means either GMing or facilitating.

 
This stuff might sound obvious but I have seen even the best written GMless Prepless games flounder without someone taking responsibility for getting it right. It is easy to assume someone else has taken on that role when they haven’t.

 

Further combat thoughts

So, further to my last article. I have been thinking about this a bit. I think that many of the criteria I set out are, fundamentally, compatible with each other. But I darkly suspect that my first and second criteria (Drama; and Colour and Impact) may not be entirely compatible with my third (Tactical Depth). This is because tactics implies detail and precision on positioning (whether spatial, temporal or otherwise within the fictional space) and, importantly, time to carefully consider combat decisions. Shall I attack this opponent, or that one? Shall I use this combat move, or this other one? All of this makes the fight more interesting from a strategy/gaming perspective, but crushes any sense of atmosphere and pace.

On a related note, I have been doing a bit of thinking about how fight scenes are portrayed in books and movies, and how this differs from the way it typically works in RPGs. One big thing that I notice is how <i>bitty</i> RPG combat is. It’s all “your turn, now my turn, now Bob’s turn” and nobody gets to build up a flow. A really dramatic fight scene in a book or movie is more likely to focus on a single character or small knot of fighting for a comparatively extended period, like a paragraph or two, and so we’re on the edge of our seats as that fight develops and we wonder who will live and who will die. We never build up that sense of anticipation in an RPG because when Bob is down to his last hit point we have to wait for everyone else to take their turn before we find out what happens to him. This is another area where incorporating this insight into an RPG system would tend to push us away from a tactics-focused system, because if we’re focused on one small part of the fight scene for a longer period, there’s less chance for other combatants to make tactical choices to break off what they’re doing elsewhere in the scene to intervene.

So, question for any system designer: which of these do you most care about? Drama or tactics? It isn’t like they are totally incompatible; you can have a sort of “summing up” phase after all the gubbins of tactical decision-making have been sorted to bring back the rich description of the action, or you can blend a kind of light-weight tactical system in with an otherwise more freeform affair. But there is a limit to this, and trade-offs to be made. I think there has been a lot of work in the first space (heavy focus on tactics, with description sort of crowbarred in), but less in the second – combat systems (as opposed to generic systems, remember) focused on drama, with less focus on tactics.

Whenever I think about operating in that second space, I start to get worried about descending into the generic. What I mean by that is: combat starts to feel like it doesn’t matter what decisions you are taking, as they are all mechanically the same. Does it matter whether I’m trying to kill this person or KO them, capture them, drive them off? It feels like it should. But in order to keep things simple and pacy, I find myself starting to design out those distinctions. I end up with “roll the dice, if you succeed impose a condition – give it a name, move on”.

I really want my fight scenes to feel dramatic. Grinding through a tactical battle scene can be fun – I enjoy war games, after all – but I’d like to be able to breathe life into fight scenes so they really feel edge-of-the-seat.

What games have you played that gave you a real sense of the excitement of a fight scene?

Intriguing…

Lately I have been mostly reading A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. It’s a pretty trad game as these things go, but what makes it stand out is the machinery provided to enable you to play politics. And one particular aspect of the game that’s interesting is the Intrigue system.

In essence, it’s a social combat system. I want you to do something and there’s mechanics to enable me to get you to do it, that go beyond “just roll persuade”. Indeed, there’s a plethora of techniques and actions you can take in aid of intrigue, defence scores and hit point-equivalents, and a ten-step system of exchanges (the social equivalent of combat rounds) to make it all work.

This is something I’m pretty interested in: I’ve often wondered what a really well-designed set of detailed social mechanics (as opposed to “just roll” or “just roleplay it”) would look like, and never really found anything that fits the bill. Too often these systems tend to generate piles and piles of dice rolling, but no feeling of “I am taking part in social combat right now”. Worse, they tend to place the emphasis on “combat” rather than “social”, so I have loads of options for moves but little sense of how it relates to the roleplaying I’m doing. Any system where you feel like you could pretty much dispense with the roleplaying altogether isn’t doing the job in my view.

Sadly, SIFRP doesn’t make the cut either. While it provides some nice mechanics for reflecting how character are disposed to each other, and requires that the actions you choose match what you have roleplayed, it otherwise feels very much like a jumped-up combat system. Most of the action revolves around wearing away your opponent’s Composure (the social equivalent of hit points); and during this process, what type of technique you select from the admittedly fairly extensive menu is irrelevant – it just determines what dice you’ll be rolling. Only at the end, when your opponent is out of Composure, does it matter which technique you’re using or what it is you’re trying to achieve. In the mean-time you’re roleplaying away but like stunting in Exalted it all feels a bit superfluous.

Moreover, like most combat systems, the rules don’t draw any connections between what the characters are doing. They’re just slugging away at each other – it’s more like a race than an interaction, and whoever crosses the Composure finish line first wins. So for instance, there is no scope for me to take your attempted seduction and work it into my intrigue – a sort of social judo, if you like – the fact you’re trying to seduce me is more-or-less irrelevant to what I’m doing.

I’ll probably give the game a go to check that the experience of play bears out my initial impressions, but I fear this is another fail. I suspect some of the above will be ameliorated by the use of bonuses and penalties for “appropriate roleplaying” and “circumstance”, but when a system is relying on the players to fix the system with more-or-less arbitrary modifiers, you wonder why they don’t just skip the system and “just roleplay it”.

What I’d really like from a social “combat” system is something that focuses on the roleplaying and on the characters. My social approach to your character depends on who they are, what they believe (or what I think they believe), and must react to their approach in turn. Just like a physical combat system requires me to think about tactical placement – flanking and charges and so on – with reference to what all the other combatants are doing, social “combat” should require me to think in the same way. But not literally in the same way: the mistake so many systems seem to make is to think they should try to find an analogue between physical and social combat, when the real aim should be to make the social interaction rules as richly detailed as the combat rules, not the same as them.

Obviously if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.

The clash of character and context

I was prompted by a post over on Department V to go furtling through some old Forge articles, and I stumbled upon this bit of text tucked away behind some musings about coherence.

“In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following models.

A pre-play developed setting, in which case the characters develop into protagonists in the setting’s conflicts over time. Examples include Castle Falkenstein and Hero Wars. Pre-play developed characters (protagonists), in which case the setting develops into a suitable framework for them over time. Examples include Sorcerer, Everway, Zero (in an interesting way), Cyberpunk 1st edition, Orkworld, and The Whispering Vault.

I have observed that when people bring a Narrativist approach to Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings, or other game systems which include both detailed pre-play character creation and a detailed, conflict-rich settting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably.”

This is interesting to me. It makes a kind of sense: if you set up an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) setting and an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) set of characters at the start of a game, chances are good that these are not going to work well together. The players don’t know all of what was in the GM’s mind when writing the setting, the GM doesn’t know all of what was in the player’s minds when writing their characters, and if everyone insists on staying faithful to what they pre-decided, chances are you’re going to get some friction.

In fact, I have observed this in many games. The GM writes an awesome, detailed setting that they just can’t wait to set the characters lose in. The players read a light summary of the setting, this triggers a cool idea for a character and they go wild writing up a history for them. All too often, one or t’other ends up feeling their vision is being compromised, or that what they have created doesn’t quite “fit” with the rest.

Certainly from a narrativist point of view it seems relatively high risk – is this going to create interesting issues to resolve in play?

It seems to me that the design of Apocalypse World very much plays on this observation. The players create their characters and then, collaboratively, seed the world. The GM adaptively brings the world to life and introduces elements of conflict, reacting to the characters the players have created. The exhortation to the GM not to plan anything out seems like it must have at least partly had this thought in mind.

Anyway, interesting. I’m pretty sure a lot of my campaign design has totally broken the above advice. I’m not saying this has ruined my campaigns, far from it. But I and my players have certainly had to be ready to adapt things over time to avoid disappointment.

Structure vs Mechanics

So, Dan Maruschak recently posted to Story Games (the G+ community, not the forum; which you would think they were the same thing, and they are – except they aren’t) about the frequently expressed view that too many/too complicated rules are bad in a roleplaying game. Now, his post had a point all of its own, which I shall ignore because I want to talk about something else. Take that, rules!

Anyway. In discussion on the said post, I arrived at the view that there were two types of “rule”, which I shall here call structure and mechanics. Why is this relevant? I shall tell you if you would accompany me to the next paragraph…

Glad you could join me! The point I was responding to in making the above distinction was that sometimes, rules make roleplaying easier. Take a simple example. Fiasco has almost no in-scene rules. It essentially leaves the job of running scenes completely unconstrained – sure, one person sets the scene while another bunch of people decide the broad outcome (or vice versa) but everything else is down to whatever you collectively want to do. And the thing is, that works for some people, but for others it leaves them lacking direction and unsure when they should jump in. You have to develop the kind of culture that improv groups make use of all the time, and developing that culture can be challenging.

In contrast, Fiasco makes generating the overall scenario for the game much easier by providing a basic setting and a bunch of simple rules for generating story elements. You take turns, and nobody is in doubt about what they can and can’t do during this stage of the game.

So, weirdly, the most rules-heavy bit of Fiasco is in some ways the easiest and smoothest part of the game. All those rules didn’t get in the way after all!

…which brings me back to my point about structure and mechanics. See, I think Fiasco’s set up phase is not really a “rule” as traditionally conceived in roleplaying games. This is a bit of a vague concept which I’m having trouble articulating, but what I call a mechanic – the traditional RPG rule – is a very well-defined procedure for taking a well-defined input and generating a well-defined output. “When you are hit by a short sword, roll d6 and subtract it from your hit points.” “You can take two half actions or one full round action every combat round.” …that kind of thing.

In contrast, the Fiasco set up isn’t really like that. It’s all “before you start the game you should create some elements to use in play”. Now, I’m contradicting myself here slightly (did I mention I’m having trouble articulating this?), because the element generation tables have all the hallmarks of what I’m calling a mechanic, and the rules about how you arrange relationships and other elements around the table look like that  too. But the overall effect is merely to guide play towards a relatively ill-defined form: a structure, if you will. Similarly, Fiasco’s two-act structure and its token-based scene resolution are designed not truly to constrain play but to provide a framework on which to hang your story. Likewise, defining roles (is there a GM? What do they do? If there isn’t, how does that work?) is more about setting a framework rather than fixed procedures. This is all what I call structure, and although it kinda fits in the category of rules, it serves a radically different function.

Now apropos of Dan’s discussion, I’m not saying that structure is good while mechanics are bad. But it seems to me that roleplaying games have historically had a tendency to major on mechanics and leave structure to the GM to work out. And, furthermore, they have tended historically to err on the side of too much mechanic (for some people’s tastes) but very rarely got even close to too much structure. Even Fiasco, which is quite a structured game by RPG standards, is in my view not structured enough.

So in principle: more rules is neither good nor bad. But in practice, more mechanics is often going to turn out to be too much, while more structure is very unlikely to be too much. That may not stay true, if RPGs continue to develop and diversify, but even post-indie revolution it’s still the case for most games , in my opinion.

Points of drama, part 2 – FATE

So, I felt the need to follow up my post on drama points after playing FATE last weekend. FATE is an open source rules system, so there’s a lot of variants out there. I haven’t read more then a couple and last weekend was my first go at playing, so take this as a comment on the particular version I was playing – Age of Arthur – rather than necessarily on FATE generally.

FATE is a fairly bog-standard skill-based system, albeit with the funky FUDGE dice to make it all feel a bit different. The bit of the system that I’d like to talk about here is the game’s use of fate points (I suspect that should be FATE points, but I’m damned if I can be bothered to press caps lock that many times). Each player has a pool of them, and the GM has a pool as well.

Fate points can be used to activate aspects, which are short phrases (or even single words) describing something about your character. Examples from our game were “boastful”, “thinks like a roman general”, “secretly prefers the company of pagans to other christians”. The important thing here is that they can be used in a positive way (to get a bonus on a skill roll) or a negative way (much like Leverage‘s distinctions). But in this case, a negative use of fate points means someone else compelling you to act in accordance with your aspect.

Here’s how it works. The GM can offer a player a fate point to act like their aspect says they should – so e.g. could force a boastful character to, uh, start boasting. If the player accepts, they get to keep the fate point. If they turn it down, that’s fine, but the GM gets the fate point instead. But in addition (and this is the important bit IMO) a player can offer another player a fate point from their pool in exactly the same way. In this case, turning it down just means the fate point stays with the player who was offering it.

The result of this is that players are encouraged to start spotting opportunities for other players’ characteristics to get them into interesting situations. And there’s an incentive for them to do so – there was a noticeable tendency in our game for people to try to funnel fate points to the person who needed them most for generating bonuses. It also means that the GM can encourage players to enter into situations that objectively look like a bad plan for their character, and reward them for doing so (which has the added bonus that it’s slightly easier for them to extract themselves from said situation).

It still felt like a slightly uncomfortable halfway house between completely sharing out GM responsibility a la (say) Fiasco, and centralised GM power in the more traditional mold. But the incentives meant that there was actually a good reason for players to use fate in a GM-like way, which could not easily be duplicated by any other means. Fate points didn’t feel counterintuitive or like a third wheel in this game; they fulfilled a definite niche. I begin to see the potential in mechanics like this.

Setting the scene

A lot of indie games break the action of the game into scenes. A scene is a slightly ephemeral concept, and generally not well explained in gaming texts (I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print). Quite a few uninspiring roleplaying experiences have resulted from not having much of an idea on what a scene should look like. So here’s a short discussion of how scenes work, how to establish and resolve them.

One person, often the GM but sometimes a player, is the director for the scene. That person should have an idea for some kind of interesting situation that one or more of the protagonists could find themselves in.

Examples could include:
– She is having a row with her boyfriend because he slept with someone else.
– He is trying to repair a ventilation unit, which is about to catch fire.
– She hears screams from inside a crashed bus and goes to investigate.

Once that person has decided on a central focus for the scene, they should say where the scene is happening and who is present.

The scene can now begin. The players then play out the action, roleplaying their characters as appropriate. Conflicts may arise and be resolved, either through randomness (dice etc), through the dictation of the director at the start of the scene (“she is having a row with her boyfriend and during the scene they will break up with each other”), or through players making in-character decisions (“screw this, I’m dumping him”).

The scene ends when we have resolved the central issue – the row with the boyfriend, the response to the burning ventilation unit or the rescue or death of the children. The director is generally responsible for calling the end of the scene, but other players are free to indicate if they think the scene should end, or to object, for instance if there’s some loose end they’d like to see tied up. The director has the final call, however.

The director should have some idea of what the central issue is before you start, and therefore what might trigger the end of the scene. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that the scene will wander aimlessly. You might not specify what that issue is at the start, though it’s a pretty good idea to do so if you want the other players to act appropriately. Even though you’ve got a good idea what the scene is focused on, remain flexible as the action may change your view of what the scene is “about”. If so, you may change your mind about when to end the scene.

The location of the characters may change during a single scene – it’s still the same scene as long as the central issue remains the same. (Though it might be that a scene ends when it becomes obvious that the characters are not in fact going to address the issue – don’t just keep following them around until they do!)

In general, when a scene has ended it’s time to think about what the next scene might be. Again, don’t just follow the characters around 24/7 – you want to be there when interesting stuff is happening, just like in a book or movie.

So there we go, that’s my attempt at explaining what scenes are all about. Does that make sense to you? Do you have different ideas? Let me know what you think!

Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.