Functionalism in Design

That is to say, function as the guide to design choices. I remember having a lightbulb turn on in my head when Paranoia’s GM section listed “things players do in the game” – Shoot Things, Complain, Lie, Blow Things Up, etc, and what to do about them. It’s also nice when we take those things and make them the actual mechanics or the basis of the mechanics.  It actually helps you run the game when you can see things like that.

For example, I liked the way Dread (which is now Scorn) first edition had three classes – one based on fighting, one on using magic and one on investigating, thus summing up the three main activities of the game. It was also nice when back in 1980 Call of Cthulhu wrote skills in the sense of how to use them: it wasn’t “Search” but “Spot Hidden”. That tells the GM to hide things, and – more importantly – that there are things hidden from the Players. Paranoia and Ghostbusters also had great skills like Lug Heavy Thing and Fall Through Testtube Racks (for scientists in horror films). I also have a soft spot for what they call effect-based superpower design systems because they also focus on what powers do, which is not only a great way to think about things from a different angle (narra-topologically, Wolverine’s claws do the same thing as Colossus’ fists) it also helps identify core game activities.  Wild Talents breaks powers down into Attack, Defend and Useful (and “Duds” not worth points); Smallville breaks superpowers into: Attack, Defend, Move, Sense, Control and Enhance, which I find quite lovely. Dr Who wires core activities into its initiative order: talkers go first, then runners, then fighters. Because that’s how it goes in the show – not only are those things the most common reactions/actions in the show, but the show always privileges them IN THAT SPECIFIC ORDER. Gorgeous mechanics.

Robin Laws has always been big on identifying core activities in various games and that’s what caught my attention in his new Hillfolk: It might be just because of the simplification of the bronze-age setting but his list of abilities are: Enduring, Fighting, Knowing, Making, Moving, Talking, Sneaking.  You can add names to them to customise them but at their core they cover pretty much everything that happens in an RPG. Although I find it interesting he’s split Moving and Sneaking; they COULD be separate but in another sense they are both about the same thing. Then again, Sneaking is usually also a kind of Knowing as well…but that’s part of the fun. It’s never going to be a perfect classification but thinking about it is a good place to start.

Coincidentally, the stat list I was just making was very similar, without seeing Mr Laws’ work. I had Knowing, Doing, Talking and Enduring. But I also want to use it to do more than that, maybe use it to reflect character from a descriptive point of view, so I might end up shifting it. Not sure yet, but something that points out what the player cares about, or perhaps a combination of the two, such as how they get what they care about. So something like

I present myself as….

But I strive for…

I seek it by….

I survive by…


Anyhoo. Enough of my game. The point is, even if you like Strength and Intelligence, what are they for? And have you told your readers? Could you change the language without removing the sim nature? Could be “Force My Might Upon the World”? Verbs, we were told in school, are DOING words. If you want a mechanic to be used, maybe you should talk about it in that sense. Put the verbs into your mechanics, and take out the nouns.



2 thoughts on “Functionalism in Design

  1. Hi. I’m part of the French group PTG PTB that translates RPG essays into French. Is it still OK to translate this text ? We’ve probably asked long ago, but we have lots of texts in our base, and not many translators. Thanks. Bye. Vera.

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