Rules: What’s Your Point of First Contact?

Whether you give a damn about Marvel or DC, there’s heaps to learn about game design from Cam Banks and Josh Roby’s incredible work in Smallville and the new Marvel RPG, and Cam loves to go on podcasts and talk about his design approaches and why and how he makes the choices he makes.

This podcast with the Vigilance Press guys has Cam talking about the design of the new Marvel RPG and the just-released Captain America character sheet. The first 18 minutes or so is about the Marvel setting and how the game is dealing with that (event books) but after that there’s ten minutes on the aforementioned sheet and what the stats mean.

What I note is that Cam talks about choosing the “first point of contact”, ie the first die you pick up (and indeed, the first line on the character sheet, which is as it should be, really – char sheet design is SO important). For better or worse, most rpgs have freeform moments and structured moments, and it’s a really good idea to think about how the latter start. In a lot of games, it’s always the same, but it doesn’t have to be. Most D&D structured moments begin with “roll for initiative”, for example, yet the damn thing is impossible to find on most sheets. My Strength, something I never use or care about, is usually top of the list.

(Of course, character sheets can do more than just work in the structured part of the game, and what is front and centre can play a big part in helping you stay grounded in the unstructured parts – your name, your concept, your affiliations, your character sketch…it’d be great if, as I said a few weeks back, it also had your fellow PCs listed on it too, for just that purpose.)

Character sheet design aside, the first die does get a lot of focus in play because it’s the break moment. It’s the moment you start concentrating and reach for your first contact with the rules. So it pops up in your mind and yells “THIS IS IMPORTANT”. To an extent, therefore, it doesn’t matter what your CORE mechanic is, because your first gets more attention. Technically, D&D is about rolling to hit and damage, but roll for init is really what stands out. That’s probably why Fvlminata got so much stick for having an initiative system based on social rank – it wasn’t just that it rubbed sim people the wrong way, it was that they couldn’t get away from it. Every combat, it leapt up and demanded attention.

It’s worthwhile, therefore, to make sure your first contact it IS important to the kind of game you want to run. In Smallville, your first die is your value – what you believe in, why you care about this struggle at all. In Marvel, it’s what kind of team you’re in – are you the kind of person who performs better in a team, with a buddy, or solo. Right away, we have something central to Marvel’s enduring dynamic.

What’s your first point of contact? In every sense? Your cover art, your first line of text, your first line of the character sheet, your first rule after the break point? That’s what matters. Make it count.


3 thoughts on “Rules: What’s Your Point of First Contact?

  1. Interesting. When I run D&D, I always roll initiative last. I do it specifically because I don’t find “Roll initiative!” to be an effective way of starting an encounter. It’s just bookkeeping. So I have my players roll initiative at the end of combat and then use those scores for the next encounter. It means that we leap straight from “an orc jumps out!” to “I hit it with my sword!”.

  2. Pingback: The Alexandrian » Blog Archive » Game Structures – Part 16: Player-Known and Unknown Scenario Structures

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