Push and pull mechanics

A popular mechanic which crops up in a lot of excellent games is Conditions. A Condition is a problem that’s affecting your character, like “broken leg”, “on fire” or “suspected traitor”. The idea is that the GM will hit you with trouble when your Condition would be relevant, or penalise you when it would get in the way. But this doesn’t work as well as you might think.

The trouble is, Conditions hardly ever get used. Why? Because they require the GM to Push them into the game[*]. In other words, the GM has to remember that the Condition is in play and bring it to bear on the game’s fiction and/or mechanics. This requires the GM to divert their limited attention and make a decision. I found this out to my cost in recent playtests of Last Fleet, where a whole bunch of Condition-type mechanics just never seemed to bite.

There are various ways you can increase the salience of these GM-Push mechanics, to help avoid them disappearing into the general cacophony of demands on the GM’s attention. Taking a mechanic off the player’s character sheet and putting it onto the GM’s reference sheet where the GM can more easily see it, for instance. Or better yet, put it in big letters on a nice, visible index card that sits in plain sight right in front of the relevant player. But even so, that’s just greasing the GM’s cognitive wheels a little. You’re still putting the onus on the GM to turn those wheels.

But there’s two ways you can restructure your mechanics to make them work without needing a GM push:

  • Turn them into a Pull mechanic
  • Turn them into a Player-Push mechanic

Let’s start with Pull mechanics. A Pull mechanic is automatically activated in fixed circumstances, drastically reducing the cognitive demands of the mechanic. For example, where a Condition relating to an injury generates work for someone to apply it in the fiction, a simple Harm or Hit Points mechanic are much easier to track.

You might think that sounds kind of boring: am I really recommending Hit Points as a mechanic? Well, it needn’t be dull. The system of Marks in Night Witches is essentially a Hit Point system, but it’s one where every time you take damage, something interesting happens. It’s just that the interesting thing happens automatically. Whenever certain Moves are triggered, someone has to choose consequences which include taking a Mark, and when someone takes a Mark, the fictional or mechanical consequence is applied right away.

The other approach is to use Player-Push mechanics. The difference here is, you put the onus on the owning player to activate the relevant mechanic. A good example is the Conditions found in Masks: A New Generation. Although having the same name as the GM-Push mechanic mentioned above, these work differently. Each Condition is tied to a particular Move or Moves in the game, and creates an automatic penalty each and every time that Move is used. The penalty itself is a Pull mechanic: whenever you use those Moves, the penalty applies, so no thought or judgement required. But removing the Condition is a Player-Push mechanic: if a player wants to remove the “Angry” Condition, they have to break something important, which requires them to choose that action. Now a player character’s Anger can be applied to create interesting complications in scenes, but it’s up to the player to choose when instead of the GM. And there’s a clear incentive for them to do it, because as long as they’ve got that Condition they’re continuing to take the penalty.

Another nice thing about Player-Push mechanics, by the way, is that they hand more power and narrative control to the players. That’s usually a good thing in my view: it means they’re more engaged with the game, and it means that the trouble that is created is something they’re eager to get to grips with – after all they chose it.

You can even combine the two. An example is Pressure in my own WIP game Last Fleet. Pressure is used as a kind of Hit Point system, whenever a character takes harm but also when they take an emotional shock – a Pull mechanic that happens automatically when the rules say so. But players can also voluntarily Mark Pressure to get bonuses to rolls – a Player-Push mechanic that provides a clear incentive for the players to make trouble for themselves. Finally, when you get to 5 Pressure, you hit Breaking Point, forcing you to choose from a list of irrational or risky actions to take that will complicate your character’s life. Breaking Point is another Pull mechanic: it kicks in without any decision needing to be taken.

There’s definitely room for GM-Pull mechanics. In most games, part of the fun of being the GM is to exercise your attention and judgement to spot opportunities to make interesting stuff happen. You wouldn’t get to do that as much if only a mechanical trigger or player decision enabled you to do it. But, in the interests of lightening the burden on the GM and ensuring your mechanics actually come into play instead of sitting unused on someone’s character sheet, consider using Pull and Player-Push mechanics instead.

As a coda to this, I took three distinct GM-Push mechanics in Last Fleet and converted them over to a mix of Pull and Player-Push mechanics. I’m really happy with how they bring into sharp focus elements that were previously relegated to a minor role or just plain didn’t work.

[*] Ok, to be fair, in a lot of games other players can activate Conditions too, using another player’s Condition against them. But the principle is the same – it requires someone else to think of the Condition and bring it into play.