Back to Basics: RPG Mechanics in 20 Words

There are a lot of cool gaming mechanics out there. I mean, a lot! But many games (like Jadepunk, admittedly) were built on the complicated rubrics of other games. This overcomplication, I believe, has resulted in the kind of mechanical bloat that we see in some big name games that require 500 pages, or multiple books, to cover it all. I think it’s time to get back to basics.

In my anecdotal experience, I’ve seen games spring from two places: tabletop wargaming and group storytelling. I’m not going to go into the “story vs. simulation” argument because I think nothing could be more pointless than to argue over how we define fun.

My Perfect Game

Subjective as hell, I know.

As I grow older, and find that I enjoy differentiating between spinning a good yarn and playing some HeroClix, my RPG tendencies lean toward any game that doesn’t require a grid or other tabletop implement – give me character sheets and dice, and I’m good to go. Going “back to basics” means (to me) to head back to a bunch of people getting together to tell a story; but when I (Captain America) decides that a fellow player (Iron Man) needs to have his armor knocked off his face, the other player may not like that, and we need to figure out who gets what. Enter mechanics.

The absolute basic mechanic (and I would argue that this is true even in wargaming) is this 20 word game design:

Player tells the table what they want. GM tells the table what they want. Highest roller gets what they want.

Imagine we’re telling a story and I, as Cap’s player, say that I punch Iron Man’s, your character, lights out. You’d be like No! My armor…is crap compared to my vibranium shield, I retort. Who’s right? Roll your armor against my shield and let’s settle this once and for all.

But that means the armor and the shield need stats; I hear you saying. I answer with am emphatic YES. Give them stats.

And my fighting ability? Sure. Throw that in there. Oh, but now we have two stats, how do they stack? See how this complication thing works? From dice to item stats to skills…next we’ll be talking Cap’s enhanced attributes vs. Iron Man’s toughness and strength. It can be never-ending with this crap. And that’s so damn cool and so damn annoying.

Where Should the Complication End?

That’s as subjective as the kind of games you like to play. And I know that sounds sort of anti-climactic for someone who usually approaches this sort of thing with a voice of authority (which is totally fake, by the way), but that’s how it is.

Think of this as a manifesto of how I intend to approach my future designs: getting back to basics, which I define as the above 20 word game mechanic.


  1. Inspiring post (see what I did there? 😉 )
    I’m a huge fan of Fate Core, but my usual gaming group is a bit “meh” about it. Which prompted me to think along the same lines as your post. And what I discovered is the power of rewards.
    Getting a reward releases dopamine in the brain, which makes us feel good. Which is why we love the whole XP/Loot circus. And which is why my friends dislike Fate. Narrative and story is all well and fine, but there is just not enough rewards.
    So to add to your thoughts, I think the complication/abstraction needs to take into consideration how to differentiate between what is the important aspects of the setting and theme of the game, and in such a way that growth through both narrative/plot methods and the incremental dopamine flowing rewards is possible.
    And if you can convey that in a 4 page leaflet, you’re golden. 🙂



    1. 4 page leaflet? I’ll do it in one sentence: Whoever didn’t get what they wanted the most during a game increases a stat of their choice by 1.

      That could go a lot of directions. But if it’s based on winning, why? You got what you wanted. You won! Time to up the challenge on the other side.

      I get what you’re talking about regarding reward, and this could use more nuance, but “leveling” has always been an “at the need of the plot” thing for me. You trained with the sword master for the season between sessions? Well increase that swordsmanship skill by 1.



      1. Well put.
        When determining mechanics, I’ve found that you also need to think about “endgame”. Where does it end?I think Pathfinder is a horrible example of number bloat in order to keep an endless cycle of rewards going. And in the same way, roll under systems tend to have a natural ceiling, where characters can no longer grow in a meaningful way.
        This is an intersting discussion, which I think should be happening more among game designers.


      2. What about a definite ending? What about a system that uses plot points as milestones to progress characters, and when you get to the very end, everyone can roll to see who gets to be the “big damn hero” who saves the day by dealing the final blow to the bad guy in the climax? Each milestone gave you a bonus to that roll if you did well in that stage of the plot.

        The same characters (if they didn’t die) can be continued in another game, but just reset that ‘Climax Stat’, they can keep the other stats they leveled up.

        Could be cool.


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