I want to take a minute and talk about the way mechanics influence the feel of a game.
The way a game plays mechanically affects the way a game feels emotionally. Hopefully that made sense, but if it didn’t, what I’m talking about should become clear pretty fast. Let’s discuss specifics and how you can change the mechanics of your game to make it feel different. To use the grittiest, most granular examples of this possible, I’m going to start talking about the various RPGs from fantasy flight we’ve seen in recent years, specifically Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, and Only War. If you’re familiar with these games or the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you shouldn’t have trouble following along, but stay tuned if you aren’t because this should be pretty easy to swallow
All four of the games I just mentioned run off the same core mechanics. You roll the same dice to shoot people with lasers, you have the same stats and skills, and you exist in the same universe. That said, they are all very different games. Dark Heresy is a game about being the most expendable possible pawn in a shadowy world of intrigue and corruption, as well as the core game of the series. Characters in this game start at the lowest point power wise of any of the games, and have the life expectancy of a cat in a blender. In fact, a lot of people play this game just for the messy and interesting way your characters will go the the great reroll in the sky. Next up we have Rogue Trader, a game about being interplanetary nicknack merchants and privateers in possession of a massive ship and thousands of loyal(?) crew. In Deathwatch, you’re super soldiers wearing armor better suited for starships than people and firing warcrimes at uncountable waves of gibbering alien monstrosities. And Only War treats you as a single cog in a massive warmachine weighted down with bureaucracy while you reach into an increasingly large number of piles of goo that used to be your best buddies faces.
Fluff aside though, how are these different games? Couldn’t you just buy one of them and use it to run all the others? Well, yes, clearly, but that’s not the point. The big difference, oddly enough, is the way NPC’s treat the character and the manner in which equipment is requisitioned. In Dark Heresy, the players are given a monthly wage, and are expected to live off of that and whatever they can beg buy or steal. The characters are often on their own for extended periods, and are expected to be able to survive autonomously, for the most part. This is represented both by the very specific monetary system, where every dollar counts, and in the predilection towards non combat skills and roles presented for character creation.
The opposite of this is Deathwatch. You are given a suite of bionics and implants, a suit of basically invulnerable armor, and the massive weapon of your choice when you create your character. There’s very little in the way of interpersonal skills as the most you’ll ever have to talk to an NPC is a well delivered one liner or a demand that they get the hell out of your way. If you want extra equipment, you ask nicely, and an army of municipal drones fall over themselves to bring it to you. This is a game that is all about murdering enemies. It even has a special suite of rules devoted both to how well your party’s supersoldier are working together and another explaining exactly how to kill hundreds of aliens in one round.
Then we have Rogue Trader. This game is very focused on the acquisition of filthy lucre, but in a nontraditional way, in that you’ll rarely have to fight a dragon for it. During character creation, the party collaborates to create the space ship on which they will be traveling. Note: Never, ever underestimate the positive effects on party cohesion of collaborating in the creation of something. Anyways, this gives the players a joint sense of ownership, a mutual interest in eachother, and access to a vast, VAST fortune and a massive cadre of loyal minions. It’s a big spaceship. You might imagine that having a massive fortune would make most equipment trivially easy to acquire, and you’d be right. The challenge in Rogue trader comes from keeping your ship alive and running in the vastness of space and acquiring even more filthy lucre to add to your vast fortune without getting shoved out an airlock.
And finally, Only War. I’d almost say Only War is a toned down version of Deathwatch, but that isn’t quite true. You start with a predetermined pack of items, to be sure, but instead of giving you everything you can ever need, the municipal drones hate your thieving, equipment losing, paperwork generating, needy, selfish guts and want you to die in whatever manner leaves your equipment intact so it can be put back in the storehouse with a minimal of fuss. Suddenly, interpersonal skills are important for things like convincing the commander you’ve always had this powerfist, or that your squad deserves to be one of the ones with armor instead of one of the ones providing ablative biological cover to the tanks. The focus is on the people, instead of the combat, and your party is even given a passel of NPCs to herd around, in the form of the remainder of their squad, who provide both mechanical benefits tot he party members they are assigned to as well as many intangibles, such as spotting sniper bullets with their faces.
So that was a long and unruly talk, but the point I was trying to make is that it’s important to think about more than just combat mechanics in your game. Where the PC’s gear comes from and how people treat them is just, if not more, important to making a game fun and deep than a well thought out system for shooting faces. A character with a support system, however inept or insular, feels very different to one floundering on their own.
So remember, the way characters interact without murder is just as important as the way they do with it.