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Five tabletop RPG mechanics that video games should definitely steal
Obsidian senior area designer Evan Hill took to the stage at GDC 2023 to plot a heist.
March 21, 2023
8 Min Read
Image via Burning Wheel
Somebody call the cops, because GDC 2023 just became the scene of a crime. Taking to the stage at the annual conference with more confidence than you'd expect from a barefaced bandit, Obsidian senior area designer Evan Hill made every attendee an accomplice by pilfering a bunch of brilliant tabletop RPG mechanics in front of their very eyes.
The aim of Hill's wonderfully chaotic narrative summit session was to help game developers understand how a bunch of strange and brilliant tabletop RPG mechanics can be transferred to the world of video games, providing a springboard for designers to experiment with their own projects.
As you'd expect, there are plenty worth stealing, and fortunately for you we managed to document a few of the choice artefacts Hill pocketed before making his getaway.
An iconic mechanic from John Harper's industrial-fantasy tabletop RPG, Blades in the Dark, flashbacks allow players to meet an obstacle, and then, instead of actively trying to solve it in the moment, jump backward in time to find a solution. In a video game, this mechanic could be used to let players change their present by, for example, hopping backward in time to bribe a guard they've just alerted, resolving the conflict before it has even begun.
"Already we can see the opportunities this provides, and a lot of games have started to do this rather successfully–where we take an obstacle and instead of just letting the player figure it out with the tools in-hand, we give them this rich cornucopia of options," said Hill.
The designer notes it would be a powerful ability if left unchecked, but explains Blades in the Dark balances it using a system called "Stress." In-game, every time a player flashes back they accumulate stress, which is a measure of their character's mental health. If they continue using flashbacks to escape tricky situations and fill up their stress bar, they'll eventually take a permanent debuff called "trauma."
"What I think makes it so excellent is that it's not just a second health bar. This is something that has real tangible resource value. It's not just, 'oh, can I take mental damage?' I'm actively pushing myself and actively, tangibly taxing my body and character beyond their normal limits," adds Hill.
Another mechanic from Blades in the Dark, "Clocks" replace a normal quest log by tracking all of the game's weird events and happenings with "really simple circles" called progress clocks. According to Hill, the mechanic does exactly what it says on the tin, and can be used to measure anything from a guard's alertness to the time remaining until a world-ending event obliterated everything.
"It is a flexible, tangible tool, and anytime the player does a flashback, spends some stress, or perhaps fails something, the game master is given the opportunity to advance one of these various clocks as a response," says Hill. "It creates this winding experience where every little action is pushing and pulling on a wide variety of intricate stories and states."
Beliefs and instincts
Pulled from Mouseguard and Burning Wheel, beliefs and instincts are traits that influence how characters interact with, and frame, the world around them. For instance, if players take on the role of a peasant farmer in Mouseguard, they might have to cope with the belief that they're the "true king of this land." In Burning Wheel, meanwhile, an Orc might have beliefs such as "I must interrogate an elf, a dwarf, and a human to discover if they have minds like my own."
Instincts, meanwhile, are automatic behaviors that characters are expected to perform. So, for instance, if players slip into the shoes of a warrior who always draws their sword at the first sign of trouble, that'd give them an advantage when exploring a goblin-infested mine, but might not be so useful when their party is engaged in a tense legal dispute at the local courthouse.
"[Beliefs and instincts] can be simple little character brands. But where this thing comes back into the mechanical is anytime that you operate in accordance with these beliefs, you get rewarded. You're given persona points. You're given resources to further drive the story and push towards a future goal," explains Hill.
"None of these are meant to be static. The player and the character change over time. They're able to level up and alter these things. If, say, your belief is 'I will always guard the prince' and then the prince dies, what happens now? This tangible reward is always there. Going back to the instincts: anytime that an instinct negatively affects you, the game design is still explicit in that the player still gets awarded the same resources [as if it was a positive check]. So, you try and not draw your sword in the courthouse, but that extra XP is going to be really useful. It drives the story forward."
Vice and nature
In Burning Wheel and Mouseguard, there are also unique categories of skills called vice and nature that are emotional aspects of a player's character, which, according to Hill, have "massive tradeoffs." The examples in Burning Wheel are greed, grief, and anger. They work just like other stats, and are usually very good, granting players the ability to substitute on any roll that requires a relatively high number. The catch, though, is that players need to demonstratively show it aligns with a vice.
"For example, if there's an object that you want to bargain for, instead of using your charisma check, you could decide to use your greed stat and potentially get four times as an effective chance of getting it," says Hill. "The negative though, is that like other stats in Burning Wheel, the more you use it, the more it levels up. And the more a vice stat levels up, the further your character is restricted from certain actions."
If players continued to lean on their greed stat in pursuit of an easier ride, they'd have to deal with negative consequences, such as their character becoming unable to fairly share the spoils of their adventures with the rest of their party, which might in turn cause relationships to fracture. In short, it's a mechanic that forces players to balance short-term gains and long-term character-driven consequences.
Mouseguard features a similar mechanic called nature stats, which Hill says are a "step up" on vice. Nature stats are natural abilities that make sense for individual characters. So, in Mouseguard, where players take on the role of cute medieval mice, they might be good at things like climbing, escaping, hiding, and foraging. Where it gets interesting, though, is that players can actively go against their nature to gain an immediate boost.
"You can substitute this stat that ranges, usually from one to seven, in a game where seven is equivalent to level 15 to do anything. But anytime you act against your nature, it taxes it. Then the next time you use it for any reason, it's one less rank. If you deplete it, you're going to lose an entire fifth of it until you recover, possibly taking multiple sessions.
"So you're presenting the player with this easy road of good bonuses–moving towards an alignment or style or a class that they see as valuable or helpful–but they're not limited to that. They are constantly given this choice to nitro-boost their roles to try and succeed, but that will have a character impact. If you deplete your nature all the way, your character might become obsessive, but if it gets to high, they might settle and not want to go on adventures anymore."
What Hill really loves about nature is that it's both a resource and a stack all at once, and how players engage with it naturally creates a dynamic character. "You're showing a character's ups and downs, confronting not only how they perceive the world, but how their own internal landscape is shifted one way or another depending on how that action goes out," continues Hill. "I can't think of a game where this wouldn't be interesting."
Roll versus bloody
One of Hill's favorite rules in Burning Wheel, which he says is normally very complex, is roll versus bloody. "It's dead simple," he explains. "Two people fight. They just roll dice and see who gets the biggest number and they inflict the damage. There's no checking against armor class and no maneuvering." It's a simple but electrifying mechanic that can be used to determine the outcome of brawls that might otherwise be too close to call, resolving conflicts quickly and effectively while also ramping up the tension.
Bonus tip: Stealing can be a force for good
We all know that stealing is generally considered a very bad thing, but there are exceptions to that rule. Before wrapping up his talk, Hill implored those in attendance to get comfortable pinching from the best. He said that if they take one thing away from his talk, it's that game design is a collaborative and evolving discipline and that it's absolutely okay to stand on the shoulders of giants.
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About the Author(s)
News Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.
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