Think about the feeling, not the text

Often a designer will create content that seems to literally represent their theme when you read it, but creates a feeling that is the opposite of the intent.

My favorite example of this is the board game Relic. In this game, you can play a variety of characters. There is also a mechanic called “corruption cards”. Certain game events will offer you a chance to draw corruption cards in exchange for wealth or power. Corruption cards are only sometimes bad, but acquiring 6 fully corrupts your character (destroying them as they become a slave to darkness and chaos).

Some of the characters you play in Relic are dedicated, principled individuals. These would naturally be characters that are harder to corrupt. What mechanic do you design to represent this?

Relic took the obvious path. They gave these characters a resistance to corruption cards. Some took 8 cards to fully corrupt instead of 6. Others always drew their corruption cards facedown and never flipped them face up, meaning they couldn’t get stung by the negative effects of corruption. This all seems to make sense, but think about the effect it has on the play experience. How does this change what you want to do in the game?

Infallibly, the players controlling these noble paladin-like characters draw tons of corruption cards. The game effects that offer you wealth or power in exchange for drawing corruption cards become much more attractive when your downsides from drawing corruption cards is reduced.

I’m currently working on a homebrew RPG designed for a specific campaign I plan to run. I’ve chosen to create mechanics that support each class’ core feel. In this setting, there are also many opportunities for players take corruption in order to gain a burst of power. I wanted my cleric players to feel their characters’ natural aversion to the darkness, so I made them suffer more penalties when they took corruption. This makes cleric players feel especially afraid of making deals with the devil. They feel like their characters.

Another example from this project: Like many settings, people are suspicious of sorcery and distrust it. I wanted the players to feel this way too, a little at least. My current design makes sorcery rather unpredictable. Sorcerers have chances for their spells to fail or even backfire. They also have chances for the spell to unleash far more powerful effects than normal. These mechanics bring the suspicion to life, making players respect the power of sorcery but also treat it with suspicion. That’s perfect for the lore.

Clerics, on the other hand, are based heavily on the ideals of classic religious champions. One feature of these characters is their faith in divine power and the surety of their purpose. An impulse many designers have with divine magic is to make it less predictable than sorcery, but that results in the player not really trusting their power source. Trust and faith are intertwined.

Instead I’m making divine magic extremely predictable. It even uses a resource called Light which is stored in your holy symbol during dawn, then used throughout the day to power your miracles. It responds predictably. You can trust it. However, there is still that sense of desperate prayer in a bad situation I wanted to capture. It just couldn’t be the core mechanic of clerics.

I decided to give clerics the option to strain (dealing 1d6 damage to themselves that can only be healed over an 8 hour rest, so this is a serious cost) in order to gather 1d6 ambient Light that they could only use this turn. Straining is only done in emergencies, because you don’t want to inflict unnecessary damage to yourself that you can’t heal for the rest of the day unless you absolutely have to. This mechanic gave clerics a chance to really pray in their hour of need, hoping for a low result on their strain roll and a high result on their Light roll.

Always think about how your mechanics feel to play with and the type of behavior they encourage, not just how they read. When designing a card, imagine holding it in your hand and how it makes you want to play in order to take advantage of it. When designing a character’s ability, imagine how it feels to use.  It’s amazing how much you catch when you do this even before playtesting forces you to.

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