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.

PBTA – Moves overload

Part of the job of a game designer is to consider the level of cognitive burden and handling time required to run a game, and pitch that at a level which works for the intended audience. I have been noticing recently how that counts in spades for PBTA.

The player-facing side of most PBTA games consists of a series of Moves, each of which has some sort of fictional trigger, and then mechanical steps you execute whenever that trigger occurs, which in turn feed back into the fiction. It’s the first of these – the fictional trigger – that makes cognitive burden a particular challenge for the PBTA designer.

The reason is that, because each Move has a fictional trigger, and because that fictional trigger is (typically) a fairly specific circumstance occurring, you have to constantly scan the fiction as it develops to check if that trigger has happened. Most PBTA games take as fundamental “to do it, you have to do it” and “if you do it, you do it” which is PBTA-speak for “if the fictional thing happens, the Move is triggered” (and vice versa, though I’m less interested in that here). This means you can’t just wait for someone to decide they want to use a particular Move and call it out – their actions in the fiction may mandate that Move.

Take a typical example from Night Witches “when you act up (by acting like a hooligan, by acting like a lady, by acting like a natural born soviet airwoman). This Move requires you to notice when someone is acting outside their normal social boundaries, and then decide whether that acting out fits with either of the three categories (if not, it doesn’t trigger the Move). So it’s a fairly complex, nuanced decision you have to take. You could miss a moment where the Move should have triggered, if you don’t pay attention.

All of this is therefore inherently cognitively burdensome, and the designer must therefore consider in each case whether that level of burden is worth the benefits delivered. Sometimes a complex, nuanced Move is worth it, sometimes it’s better to go for something simpler than might not be as precise.

Of course, it’s not just the complexity of individual triggers (though that is a factor), it’s the sheer combined weight of all the triggers that have to be considered. You could write a PBTA game with 100 basic Moves, but nobody could play it; they’d constantly fail to notice when they were triggering Moves, even if they were fairly simple.

This leads me to some critique of PBTA games I’ve played recently. They’re games I like and have enjoyed, and which are pretty popular, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not going for a take-down of anyone’s game here. I’m using them as examples of an issue which needn’t be fatal to a game, but which I find difficult in play.

The first example is Sagas of the Icelanders, a game which attempts to emulate the eponymous stories of the early Icelandic settlers. In doing so, it imposes some quite restrictive roles on the characters, specifically relating to their gender. If you play a man, your Moves are focused on physical feats and (rather more complex) defending your honour and attacking the honour and dignity of other men. If you play a woman, your Moves are focused on influencing other characters (particularly, but not exclusively, men) through reason, emotion and sexual attraction. (The way this is set up creates a focus on male characters that is interesting but not the focus of my critique.)

Whenever a character takes action in Sagas, like every PBTA game, you have to mentally compare what they did to the Moves to see if one was triggered. Of course, you first have to focus on the correct set of gendered Moves, since actions that would trigger a Move for a man won’t necessarily do so for a woman, and vice versa. So gender introduces an element of complexity up-front. But – particularly for women – the specific triggers are quite nuanced. You can raise your voice and talk sense, but only to player characters. You can goad to action, but only aimed at a man. And because of the very specific and culturally relevant triggers, many things that intuitively feel like Moves aren’t. All of which is fine, but kind of hard work to parse in play.

Next example is Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows has Moves which are somewhat more intuitive (for me) than the likes of Sagas, which is a plus. Many of the Moves only trigger in fairly well-defined contexts (more on this in a moment). However, it has a lot of Moves. The Urban Shadows Basic Moves sheet has 15 Moves on it, not counting the rules on advancement. That is a lot of mental checks to go through every time someone does something! It’s a lot of possible mechanical triggers to remember, full stop. [Edit: discussion elsewhere has reminded me that the theoretical limit of human short-term memory is seven items, plus or minus two.] On top of that, there are four different triggers for advancement, and a trigger for corruption, that you have to keep an eye on. Again, this is fine, but kind of hard work.

So what can you do about this, if you’re designing a game? Well, the obvious stuff is:

– Keep your Moves simple, with straightforward, intuitive triggers that don’t require a lot of thought to judge.

– Try to keep your Moves list as short as you can. This in turn means…

– …focus on the Moves that really matter for the game you’re trying to write. Don’t waste your players’ mental space with Moves that aren’t all that important – PBTA lets the players and MC negotiate the fiction pretty well even if a Move isn’t triggered.

Another trick is to try and group your Moves by the context in which they occur. Apocalypse World, for instance, has Battle Moves. Including them roughly doubles the number of Moves in the game, taking it from a pretty simple half-a-dozen Moves up to more like a dozen. But you only have to think about the Battle Moves if you’re in battle. If nobody has any weapons out, you needn’t waste any brain space thinking about them. Similarly, Night Witches divides its Moves into day and night Moves, and in almost all cases you therefore only have to think about half the potential Moves at any given moment.

You might think that the Sagas approach is kind of like grouping Moves by context. Well… I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not how I experience it. Two characters are having a conversation, one of them starts to talk sense, and then I realise that person is a man, so the “talk sense” Move doesn’t apply. That small mental effort, repeated several times a session, is burdensome in a way that “am I in a battle right now” isn’t.

None of this is to say that you can’t write a game with complex, nuanced Moves. With lots of Moves. With Moves that only apply in specific circumstances that require a bit of thought to judge. All of this is permissible, and can be good design. But it is a cost that you are making your players pay to play your game. Make sure you’ve chosen punchy Moves that deliver something worthwhile, so that it’s a cost they’ll be glad they paid.