My Top Five Tabletop Game Mechanics

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m really, REALLY into the mechanical part of gaming.  What qualifies something as a mechanic, though?  When I say “mechanics” I’m referring to the little rules bits, the pieces of the system that separate playing Dungeons and Dragons from just a game of make-believe.  I’m going to try to avoid the same game system in this list if I can help it, but I really make no promises.

  1.  Convoke:  Magic the Gathering

Considering the frequency with which Magic: the Gathering sets are released and how many new mechanics are in each set I’m surprised that they haven’t just clean run out of ideas yet.  That said, the “Convoke” mechanic from the Ravnica block was wonderful in so many ways.  The mechanic belonged to a faction called the Selesnya Conclave, a group of nature loving hippies with a weird hive-mind thing going on.  Many of the most powerful creatures in the faction, like the gigantic Autochthon Wurm, could be summoned with the aid of Convoke.

So what did Convoke do?  It let you tap down creatures you controlled to reduce the casting cost of a larger creature.  Much like the spirit bomb, Convoke allowed the members of this weird fantasy hippie commune to come together and donate their power for a bigger, better cause.

Convoke wasn’t the strongest mechanic in Ravnica block, but it was my favorite.  Green/white was my go-to color combo when I played, but more than that I think it was the mechanic that best represented its flavor.  The Madness mechanic deserves a mention too, but Convoke largely won out by personal preference.  I love being the one that makes the list.

4.   Exploding Dice:  Multiple Systems

This shows up in a lot of systems.  Most of my experience with it comes from Legend of the Five Rings but it also shows up in the Cortex system, some d6 systems, and Savage Worlds.  The concept is simple, you roll a set number of a certain type of dice, let’s say 3d10 (three ten-sided dice, for people new to gaming), and one of those dice is a ten.  Well, you keep that ten, and you also get to roll again.  Most of the time, if the reroll is a ten, you just keep going.

This is a cool game mechanic because it creates the potential for you to keep rolling, watching your total increase every time.  Eventually everyone at the table is gathering around just to see how high it will go and when this happens with damage you start to get really wonderful gaming descriptions that include anything from ludicrous gibs to that thing in swashbuckling movies where the guy is cut in half but doesn’t realize it for a few seconds.

Regardless of the context, though, exploding dice give you unlimited potential and that is just the coolest thing.

  1.  Knockback:  HeroClix

Alright, so I used to be a HUGE HeroClix fan.  I literally spent money I didn’t have in highschool building my collection.  I could fill an entire article on how this game used to be my obsession and now I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but that’s not what we’re here for.  We’re here to talk about an often overlooked, but I think very cool, mechanic from the game: knockback.

So,  a little background.  HeroClix is a tabletop miniatures game that is designed to simulate superhero battles.  Batman vs. Wolvering?  You got it.  X-Men vs. Avengers?  Sure thing.  The concept is cool and the clix mechanic, where every point of damage turns a dial and gives your character a whole new stat line was awesome.  Really, the game did a decent job of emulating super hero combat, and knockback was a part of that.

In superhero battles the power of a punch was often enough to send a person flying.  Sometimes into a wall or treeline, sometimes off of a building, who knows?  HeroClix represented this with a simple but effective mechanic.  When the dice rolled doubles, the target got knocked straight back a number of spaces equal to the damage they took.  If they hit a wall, they took extra damage.  If they fell off a building, they took even more extra damage.  Falling was mitigated by things like flight and acrobatics, and there was a power called “combat reflexes” that let heroes avoid damage from crashing into walls.

The reason I put knockback on here is because it’s just cool.  It adds an extra touch of chaos and flavor to the game and allows the players to experience moments like the Hulk knocking Wolverine off of the building that they were fighting on, or Daredevil knocking Bullseye off of a rooftop.  It was flavorful, it made the game more fun, and unlike the last six years of HeroClix development, it was pretty well put together.

  1.  Iaijutsu Duels:  Legend of the Five Rings

Ok, so for some of you this title might actually just be word salad, so I’ll give some context.  Legend of the Five Rings is an RPG set in a fantasy representation of feudal Japan.  This means samurai, katanas, shugenja, lots of talk about honor, and a bunch of other cool stuff.  It also means dueling.  But samurai duels are not normal fights, and much more closely resemble a western showdown by being equal parts staring contest and quick-draw competition.

So dueling in L5R has its own mechanics, where characters pass the turns and tension builds.  Every time you pass, the difficulty to hit gets higher for both you and your opponent, but if you don’t pass and the swords come out your opponent gets the first chance to hit.  There’s also the chance that your will might break, and you draw anyway.  This lets the event gain tension for the player just as it would for the characters in the duel.  Even if the tension doesn’t break you, what if the difficulty gets too high for you to make a hit?  Maybe if you hold out this time your opponent will crack on his next turn.

Normally a dueling situation would be difficult to make happen in a tabletop RPG because everyone else is just sitting around watching someone else fight an NPC.  Legend of the Five Rings works around that by making it a high stakes scenario where those who aren’t involved can become very invested as spectators.  If things go on long enough, the stakes get extremely high because the more times the initiative gets passed the more damage the strike inevitably does.  After a certain point, a bad roll inevitably means certain death for your teammate AND a loss of whatever was riding on the duel.  A win, though, can result in collective sighs of relief and cheers from the whole table.

1.  Momentum:  Chronicles of Ramlar

Alright, this one is a little obscure even for regular gamers.  The Chronicles of Ramlar was a fantasy RPG put out by a company called White Silver back in the mid 2000’s (2000’s here meaning like, the ‘00s.  Not the millenia.)  I played the game for a demo at DragonCON and thought it was really cool, so a friend and I both bought a copy.  Looking back on it as an adult, rather than a child who had just happened to be old enough that most courts wouldn’t cut him a break, I don’t really know what to think of it.  It was like the tabletop version of the SEGA CD’s game library, overall it was pretty broken and inefficient but it had a few wonderful gems.

The core resolution mechanic was cool.  It was a roll under percentile system, with your relevant stat being your target number and your dice always being a d100 or percentile, but rather than rolling as low as possible you wanted to roll as close to your target number as you could get.  The tens value of your die roll gave you a measure of success, and some tasks would require you to make multiple rolls to get your success value up enough.  If your roll was a multiple of ten (Your ones die was a zero) then you got double the measure of success.  This basic mechanic carried over to attack rolls, which is where we get momentum.

In combat, whenever you made an attack roll, your measure of success scored you “momentum” which could be spent on your next round to do cool stuff.  It could get you an extra attack, attack bonuses, or any other item off of a menu of cool stuff.  So as you do well, you get bonuses to help you press your advantage, and just like before a multiple of ten on your roll gave you twice the momentum (and a critical hit!).  This meant that as combat went on, you could keep expanding your options.  Buying extra attacks meant you could get more momentum in a round and it was a great way to let players capitalize on good fortune and opportunities.

I have a fondness for this mechanic and I wish I could see it in more games.  Unfortunately, as far as I’ve been able to tell it’s unique to this system which is now out of print.  Like I said, the game wasn’t perfect, but the setting was cool and the mechanics had a few gems in it and I really feel like the momentum mechanic was a treasure.

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