Learning a new game is much easier when the mechanics are intuitive. Running the game as a GM, and creating characters and making decisions during play, is equally easier, and often a lot more fun, when the mechanics are intuitive.
Intuitive Does Not Mean Simple
The trend for newer games is for simplicity. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, especially for pickup games, but a lack of complexity also means a lack of long-term viability for most groups.
Intuitive means the mechanics make sense for the situation they are simulating. Giving the bad guy a chance to parry your sword strike makes sense. Rolling an intellect stat against a difficulty to see if you can figure out a spell makes sense.
The closer the dice and stats relate to the actual situation the more intuitive the simulation, regardless of complexity level, so long as that complexity doesn’t remove you from the situation in the story so long that you forget what exactly you were doing.
There’s a fine line between simulation and story that needs to be struck.
An Example of an Intuitive Mechanic
This is not the most intuitive mechanic, as intuitiveness is somewhat subjectively based on the details that individuals may focus on, but it’s pretty damned intuitive.
Here I consider two things: (1) the speed at which the mechanics can be handled so that the situation is not forgotten, and (2) how the trait-dice interaction represents the situation.
The fastest mechanics are comparative mechanics — roll a die and compare the result to a stat. The second fastest mechanics are additive — roll a die and add something to it. The fewer numbers to add, the better. We’re going to use a combination of the two.
The die we’re going to use is a single d20, as it’s the most time-tested and simplest to read. Some people don’t like the linearity of it, but that can be “fixed” by tacking on module mechanics, like advantage/disadvantage.
Our action roll looks like this:
1d20 + Relevant Stat
The relevant stat should be named after an attribute (agility) or skill (archery). Naming them after an action (shoot) is only intuitive if the attribute/skill combination is worked out beforehand. Otherwise, it feels arbitrary to be good at shooting and not at least decent at other coordinated tasks.
So you roll and add. That’s easy, and not super original. So now we need to figure out what you’re rolling against. Here’s where things get tricky.
Intuitive Bad Guys Don’t Just Stand There
If your villains are standing there, waiting for their turn to act, the game will feel more like Final Fantasy than a simulation of characters in a situation, which is what roleplaying is, at its core.
Intuitive villains counter attack, move around, and otherwise react to each and every hero action. And often, they act more than the heroes, making them feel more dangerous and exciting in a gaming genre where action economies are so important.
Given that, let’s flesh out the other element of our intuitive gameplay.
Representing the situation
We’ve sort of already gone over how the attribute/skill/action traits need to represent what the character can do in ways that makes a roll feel like it’s a real simulation of a character taking action. Now, let’s think about the villains.
As stated, villains act and counter act, defend and move. Moving, and what the villain does during an action, are based on their abilities, which should represent the villain’s capabilities in the same way as the hero’s attribute/skill/action traits should. This leaves defense, or the difficulty of an action.
The difficulty of a roll is based on the defense trait of a villain, or the supposed complexity or degree of struggle necessary to complete a task. We’ll leave task resolution for later and simply focus on combat here.
When a player makes an action roll, they roll a d20, add their relevant trait, and compare that to the villain’s defense. If the roll succeeds, the player’s character deals some sort of consequence, damage…whatever. If they fail, they might still hit, or they may have been parried; either way, their roll failed to have a consequential effect on the situation.
Again, villains are not boards waiting to be broken. Let’s give them a threat rating. This is like a difficulty, in that the player must roll above it, but it has nothing to do with whether or not the player succeeds. Instead, if the player fails to overcome the threat rating, the villain gets to counter-act, taking a free immediate action that doesn’t alter what they are allowed to do on their normal action for the round, unless a specific effect would do so. That makes the villain pretty damned scary to attack, which is totally real in a fight, believe me.
Looking at it in Action
A player character has a Swordfighting skill and some sort of strength/agility attribute combination that gives the player character a +7 ATK with swords. Their opponent, a huge orc carrying a shield and a battle axe, has 12 DEF and 14 Threat.
The player declares an attack in the story and rolls the d20, scoring a 5 (5+7=13). The action is of some consequence to the orc, as a 13 ATK beats the orc’s 12 DEF. But the hero leaves himself or herself open to counter-attack from the ferocious orc’s high threat (13 ATK doesn’t beat 14 Threat).
If you wanted a lumbering opponent who’s hard to hurt, but slow (only getting to act on their own action unless given a golden opportunity) give them a high DEF but low Threat. A zombie might have 17 DEF (anything but a headshot has no consequence) but 12 Threat (maybe +1 Threat per zombie in the horde).
I like this mechanic. It’s simple, but there can be a lot of complexity on the back end. It’s also intuitive, as everything you read is a representation of something relevant to the situation. This example only covered combat, but I think you get my point.