Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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How a Game “Feels”

I love to examine how a game “feels” to play. This isn’t just how smooth the mechanics are, or simply the world and story flavor, nor is it just book presentation.

How a game “feels” to play (by my own definition) is this:

“How an RPG “feels” is how successfully it manages to evoke the setting or situation presented, in concert with the mechanics and book organization, while ensuring smooth game flow.

Let’s unpack that.

Evoke: To simulate. This doesn’t mean that all games need to simulate situations in line with our own world, but with the dramatic presentation of the game. Does a game about superheroes allow players to create a storyline filled with comic book-style drama and action? Does a gritty medieval RPG create challenges which feel as though they came out of a movie or book in the setting?

A game which is “about” god-touched beings in the modern day, but where death and realistic healing time are part of the game, is unlikely to Evoke the setting as well as other games.

“Ok everyone, hold on while I use these tables to generate all the rooms of this dungeon…”

Mechanics: Do the rules as written emulate the interactions one would expect of the setting? Do the risks and punishments for failure feel suitable to the world and the assumed power level of the characters? Does success feel properly attainable in a way which suits the subject matter?

Some positive examples include:
Shadow of the Demon Lord, whose Boon/Bane system highlights the weighing of advantages and disadvantages in dangerous situations, and whose health and death mechanics are a mix of decently meaty characters who can still die quickly if the situation turns bad. Perfect for a gritty and deadly system of heroism in a dying world.
Honey Heist, where the balancing of Bear vs Criminal nature serves to promote roleplaying as the characters. One is organically pushed to take actions which will strike a balance, usually with comedic results, unless your scale tips too far one way or the other. Success is usually easy, but failure is not total, reflecting the lighter comedic tone.

A game whose mechanics feel detached from the world and game tone is one where players will often find themselves saying “wait, how did that roll fail?” or “the rules say what? That doesn’t really make sense.” Games like classic GURPs (with characters and NPCs needing to take around five times their HP in damage just to go unconscious), or the well-known Dungeons and Dragons (with characters who gain so much mechanical power by level 11 that a well-coordinated group can defeat any challenge in the game) are what happens when the world says one thing and the mechanics say another.
This doesn’t make them bad games per se, but it does make immersion harder, which takes away from the fun.

Smooth Game Flow: This is the big one for me, and usually it makes or breaks my enjoyment of a game. Simply put, how easy is it for a player to say “I want my character to do this,” for the GM to respond with reasonable options, and for the character to complete the action (whether successfully or not).

Usually this just comes down to how complex the action resolution system of a game is. Can everyone look at a rolled die (or dice), and quickly tell whether they passed or failed? How long does it take to resolve the effects of a roll? How many skill or abilities need to be consulted which may affect the outcome? How many special rules in the book need to be consulted?

Games with very smooth flow would be games like I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter, or Vaults of Vaarn, which have minimal modifiers and actions which resolve in one die roll, two at the most, and where you immediately know whether you passed or failed. After one, maybe two action rolls, a player almost never needs to be reminded how to do it.

Contrarily, games with slow skill resolution, complex mechanics which require constant referencing, complex skills with lots of contextual rules, these are the ones where the speed it takes to go from “Idea -> Discussion -> Action -> Resolution” erodes the ability to get immersed and get to more of the fun parts of roleplaying. Again, this does not make them “bad” games, but it makes it harder to maintain immersion if it takes too long to resolve a roll or look up a rule.
RPGs like the quite excellent Coyote and Crow, Vampire the Masquerade 2e, and Fantasy/Dragon Age, all have skill resolution layered with too many steps and additional features, making a single skill roll take much longer than it needs to. See also Eclipse Phase‘s character creation for an example of bad game flow (Hours!).

So what is this all in aid of?

Fun, that’s what. Anything that can be done to streamline a system’s Evocation (usually by selecting a system you and your players will find fun and compelling), it’s Mechanics (by using a system without excessive rules or action resolution, or trimming down the base rules), and the Game Flow (resulting in more fun and less stumbling), then your sessions will be tremendously fun.

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

One thought on “How a Game “Feels”

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