Role-Playing Teaching (Part 6: Game Mechanics)

Role-Playing Teaching (1)

I’ve avoided this moment for as long as I could, but I don’t think I can move forward in writing about RPGs without discussing the mechanics. If you haven’t played any proper RPGs before, you probably won’t know that this aspect of games has been discussed for years, and involved: fandom wars, friendships ruined (seriously, been there) and physical injuries (OK, I might exaggerate a bit here) by almost all RPG players (minus D&D players who simply watch from the sidelines and eat popcorn 😉 ). Which one is more important – rolling dice or storytelling, element of chance or the belief that everyone should be satisfied with the general outcome of the story where a roll may often be unfair?

In case you’re worried – I’m not going to discuss those issues here – let me just admit I personally believe both aspects are important: storytelling may be the most important goal of RPGs (at least from a teacher’s approach to use RPG in the classroom as a communicative tool; as a pure game I’m convinced its main goal is to have fun), but it is the rules and rolling the dice that makes it a game.

In my previous note I gave three examples of characters’ communication and you could see that even if a simple chat or negotiation was fairly easy to act out, there were problems with finding a fast and easy conflict solution. In order to make it short and simple (my favourite KISS rule) we may simply roll a die and determine the success by the higher number rolled.

While this idea may sound good enough, it still seems rather unfair, especially when one character is an Experienced Lawyer (who spent years manipulating people), and the other is an Edgy Teenager (who simply goes with I know better attitude). Now, this exactly is the reason why RPGs use a tool called Character Sheet with basic traits and skills listed and “graded”. Usually all players start with the same number of EXP (experience points) to divide among traits, skills and abilities according to their characters’ background, profession etc. Then the roll may be modified by a point assigned to the particular attribute, so Experienced Lawyer, having higher social skills, will have an advantage over Edgy Teenager.

Naturally, you may design your own character’s sheets, but since I’ve already picked Monster of the Week as a system in which I’ll set my adventures, I’ll share a simplified MotW sheet.

Simple Character Sheet

Moves

Moves cover situations when the game rules step in to help you determine what happens, e.g. something dangerous, conflicts, unusual events. The Moves in MotW we’re going to use are as follow:

  • Act Under Pressure, used for difficult/dangerous situation
  • Help Out, used to help another player by giving them a bonus on their task
  • Investigate a Mystery, used to work out the situation the character is in
  • Kick Some Ass, used for, well, kicking ass, because in RPGs sometimes we declare a fight
  • Manipulate Someone, used in those times when Kicking Some Ass would be too risky
  • Protect Someone, used to save someone from danger
  • Read a Bad Situation, used to work out what dangers are threatening you

In MotW there are more Moves, but since we’re not really hunting Monsters (not yet), we’re good with the basics.

Ratings

In order to make abilities good enough to reflect our character, we are using the Ratings. They are added to (or subtracted from) your dice total when you roll for a Move:

  • Cool is how calm you are and adds to your roll Under Pressure and when you Help Out
  • Tough is how strong you are and adds to your roll when you Kick Some Ass or Protect Someone
  • Charm is how pleasant you are and adds to your roll when you Manipulate Someone
  • Sharp is your intelligence and how observant you are, and adds to your roll when you Investigate a Mystery or Read a Bad Situation

The ratings range from -1 to +3, where -1 is bad, 0 is average, +1 is good, +2 is really good and +3 is phenomenal. You start with 3 points, so some ratings will get better than average, some worse – just like in real life.

Now, all you need to do is roll two everyday six-sided dice, add them together and then add whatever number is written down for your character’s rating:

  • 10+ is a success – well done, you passed the test and everything’s great
  • 7-9 is partial success – well, you’ve made it BUT…
  • 1-6 is a miss – sorry, not this time…

So let’s take the conflict situation from the previous note:

Situation: You meet up on Wednesday afternoon in your favourite café and enjoy coffee and cakes.

Player A: you realise you’ve forgotten your money… again. Ah well, Player B will probably help you.

Player B: Player A seems to have forgotten money… again. It riles you up because somehow it’s you who usually pays for both of you and A doesn’t usually remember to give it back to you.

Let’s assume player A is Edgy Teenager, and Player B is Experienced Lawyer. If the discussion takes too much time you simply ask Player A to test their Manipulate Someone move. Now, Edgy Teenager adds 0 from his Charm and rolls 3 on one die and 4 on the other die. He gets 7 – partial success, Player B will treat Teenager this time, but this is seriously the last time, and their friendship is somewhat shaken…

I hope I helped you to grasp the idea of game mechanics – naturally, there’s much more to this as there are many worlds, many systems, many mechanics and their variations. The simplified version of MotW is just an example of a family of popular systems (called Powered by the Apocalypse), but there are ever so many of them, more or less complex, based on dice, cards, tricks etc.

Do you feel like learning more of them? Well, why don’t you get your own copy of a system that suits you and go on an adventure with your friends, students or both?

Enjoy!

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