Overdesign

Here’s two things I see a lot of as an editor/critic/snarky person.

There’s a concern when you put together games that every element of what the story can be needs to have mechanical backup. The game’s about hope? Then it needs A Hope Trait. The game’s about justice? Let’s write rules on law and punishment. I’ll write about this some other time.

There’s also a tendency to add (as a friend put it) a pleasing symmetry to all mechanics. Body has an offensive (Strength) and defensive (Stamina) angle? Then Mind needs that too. As does Wealth, whatever the fuck defensive money means. And suddenly your game has an Insurance trait the equal of Strength. Is that going to come up a lot? Was it worth the time making the choice on the character sheet in the first place?

We had some playtesting of The Hammer Falls recently. THF is a game of dystopias  and this is the third major rules iteration – it’s a doozy. There’s a couple of rough edges and a couple of solutions that didn’t make sense to me. But it’s good. Really good. So I chuckled to see just how many places the system waded into play,  partially because that symmetry existed and had to be used somewhere, right? But it made for some pretty constrained play where the system trumped improvisation.

It’s no big deal, obviously. I talked it over with the designer, and I think it’s a general concern he has balancing direction and structure provided by the system with a worry that the players won’t know what to do if the system isn’t actively prodding them. In a previous iteration, each session had a specific story arc with seven phases. This kept your session on track for a dystopic tale. But if your story wavered from the path, the system started bashing you round the head until you got back into the assigned slot.

Which is pretty dystopic, come to think of it, but perhaps not what the designer had in mind.

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