January 19, 2011

Setting The Tone

As a designer, you should have some core idea of what your game should be. I touched on that briefly in ‘What is Your Game About?’. The question today is if your core idea is based on a mood or tone, how, exactly, do you set it up to encourage that tone?

The first place to help set the tone is the voice in which you write the rules. How you present your game to the players is going to get their mind set on that tone you expect in the game. A great example is certain selections from the World of Darkness line. They set the tone for a very dark game where truth is definitely a subjective thing.

The fiction isn’t the only place your writing voice can help. How you name your mechanics, the headlines, and even how you describe your mechanics will effect your players mindset while playing.

The next major place to set the tone is in your mechanics. This is probably far and away the more important element of setting the tone in a fairly universal manner. For example, Dungeons and Dragons definitely makes your characters feel like big damn heroes, where as Dread lets its mechanics work over time to bring that overbearing emotion upon a group.

But how do you do it?

Start with the piece of paper every player has in front of them. Character sheets let you know in real terms the kinds of things you’ll be doing. World of Darkness makes it clear that social situations will and should happen by devoting an entire third of its character sheet to social abilities.

The next place is the resolution mechanic. This is harder to use, but can be done spectacularly. Using multiple dice to get totals creates a bell curve that makes everyone feel a bit more average, and those who consistently do things at the high end of the bell seem very much cut above the rest. A single die allows more luck into it, and combined with a strong voice, this randomness could become a core feature of your game.

Less mainstream options include changing up the mechanics completely. Cards, Jenga, whatever. If it helps encourage mood, go for it.

The other area you can play with your resolution mechanic is the math behind it. How easy is it to succeed or fail? Does it get harder as time goes on? Easier? Each of these choices will reinforce a certain tone of play.

The subpoint to mechanics is more than just resolution, what about resources? How important are they? How common are they? How powerful are they? One common resource is hit points. When they’re gone, you’re dead. Each system has their own math behind this mechanic, and that math gives you an idea of how lethal the system is.

Some systems offer the players the ability to do something completely impossible once in a while, but dole it out as a resource. Things like Action and Drama points are a solid resource that encourage a certain style of play.

Desperate games, like low levels in the newest version of Dark Sun, have a resource that you need just to stay at full effectiveness. Survival Days and Sun Sickness help reinforce the idea that you’re in a world where survival is hard on everyone.

I know this post is vague in its approach, and that’s because the choices you make are going to depend on the mood you want to create. If any of my readers would like me to examine creating a specific tone in more detail, let me know in the comments!


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