Physical Mechanisms in Gaming

I’ve been thinking about how GMs and systems can enhance the gaming experience by introducing physical elements. While some of the most unique and celebrated games of the last several years have added physical elements, the idea hasn’t really caught on with game designers. Games like Dread and 10 Candles introduce physical mechanisms into game play (beyond the standard dice and maps) that have a mechanical impact on the game itself. Even systems like Savage Worlds and Fate bring a psychical dimension to play by using a physical representation of bennies and fate points.
The idea itself isn’t all that new. GMs have often incorporated real-world props as part of the gaming experience, most often in the form of puzzles that represent in-game puzzles. The problem with these mechanisms is that they have a binary impact on the game – either the players solve the puzzle or they don’t – success or failure. While this works well for a board game, it has a limiting feeling in the roleplay medium. Afterall, roleplay is essentially non-binary – so much so that for most games, we emphasize the lack of a “win condition.”
What makes the physical mechanism work in games like Dread and 10 Candles is the way that they do double duty. They’re not just mechanical effects. In the case of Dread, the candles create extra tension and stress. While there is a fair argument that this stress isn’t fear per se, for many people, the point is moot. In the case of 10 Candles, the individual candles create mood, by lowering the amount of light in the room as the story itself becomes darker and darker.
So how do we apply these ideas to our own games? For me, this is trickier than it seems. It’s far too easy for physical mechanisms to become gimmicks that hurt immersion rather than improve it. There seem to be a few basic principles that you can follow to avoid the gimmick trap:
  • Make the mechanism part of the game system – Don’t pull the mechanic out once and never have it reappear. The mechanic needs to be a real part of the system, working consistently from encounter to encounter. This allows the players to have a true understanding of the mechanism and makes it feel like a real part of the game, not a distraction from the “real” game.
  • Do “double duty” – Don’t add a physical mechanism just because it’s “cool.” Think about how the mechanism changes the gaming experience. Is the mechanism funny? Does it create a sense of distrust among the players? Does it make the players feel like there’s a sense of plenty or scarcity?
  • Match the mechanic to the tone of the game – Dread is most often paired with horror gaming because we associate stress and tension with horror. It works because the tone of the game matches the mechanic. By the same token, you wouldn’t match a horror game with a mechanic involving balloon animals or Pie Face. While they may create tension, it’s not a tension that lends itself to terror. Unless your clown phobia is particularly severe…
I’m playing with some of these ideas for a few of my own games and I’m enjoying the process. Game Chef is coming up next week and I’m strongly considering making a physical element a major component of my design. Stay tuned!

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