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.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

3 thoughts on “Pointless mechanics that aren’t so pointless”

  1. I’ve played Kagematsu once and some things came out that I didn’t think of. First of all, the Shadow track, where it’s more common that it occurs later than earlier during the session because you roll more dice at the end. It can also works as a potential barrier. Lets say that one person succeeds with every roll and jumps towards the end very quickly. The Shadow track will slow this progress down. It hinders two forms of grinding as well, but that’s another subject.

    Pity is also important to mark, because otherwise the players would notice if they weren’t rewarded Love. But that’s secondary.

    What I really like about Kagematsu is that the mechanics forms the intention of every scene. The players start with declaring what affection that will be used. Now both Kagematsu and the player knows what the scene is about. Brilliant! But Kagematsu also got Pity and Love to steer towards in the scene.

    So the rolls perhaps control the pace of the game, but it’s what the mechanics creates in a non-mechanical way that I really like. A theme transmitted through using mechanics but not focusing on it.

    1. Thanks for the comment Rickard. That’s interesting about the shadow track. Makes sense.

      Re Pity, though, it’s meant to be marked secretly. I guess you mean they’d notice that Kagematsu hadn’t moved his pen? Kinda like if the GM doesn’t roll the dice then the players tend to assume nothing important has happened, therefore roll the dice occasionally even when you aren’t doing anything?

      Your last sentence exactly encapsulates what my article was highlighting. The mechanics creating theme in a non-mechanicsy way.

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