Josh Roby & I have been tinkering with ideas for some time now, between exchanging notes about our work on the Smallville RPG he designed and the Leverage RPG I was editing, working on small-form games like our Vicious Crucible project (which sorely needs an update), and some other ambitious ideas we keep talking about (like the Atlantis Risen project I mentioned while at Gamex). As with any partnership, we’ve started talking in partner-speak and form partner-thoughts. One that drives our designs, individually and together, can be summed up as:
Role-playing games are driven by a die shtick and a coin trick.
This shouldn’t be taken as a universal, but it’s how we think about the games we design and the games we engage with. We look at where the die shticks are, where the coin tricks are, and how they intersect.
And when we see a game that doesn’t have one of those to, that also makes us think. (Like how A Penny For My Thoughts has no die shtick.)
The die shtick
The “die shtick” is about some sort of trick or gimmick used to make rolling dice interesting, compelling, desired, or something else beyond a passive throw.
- In Cortex Plus (Smallville, Leverage), there’s the gathering of polyhedrals based on what you’re doing, reinforcing your actions & the fiction. And 1s on rolls trigger interesting situations.
- In Fate, the number of shifts you get beyond the target needed can be spent to achieve other effects. Notably in combat, they do Stress, but you can also use them to make your task happen faster — I love the Time chart — or improve quality or in some cases create additional aspects.
- In Dragon Age Tabletop RPG, the Dragon Die can give you Stunt Points to do additional effects, if between the three dice you roll you get doubles. (I really dig on this mechanic. It’s like critical successes taken to a new level.)
- In In Nomine, getting triple 1s means a “Divine Intervention” and triple 6s means “Infernal Intervention.” A crit success/failure that depends on what you’re doing.
A “card shtick” can stand in for a “die shitck,” as with Primetime Adventures.
The coin trick
Sometimes this is a long-standing economy, and other times it’s a way of tracking state and flow. Whatever it is, the handing back and forth of a token for whatever reason (even if it’s not physically done, just on paper), is what Josh & I call a “coin trick.”
- Fate’s Fate Points & Cortex Plus’ Plot Points are about a currency gained from complicating your current situation, spent to be more badass or power special effects later on. (This is probably the most common form of coin trick I’ve seen, though there are many variations on the theme. I particularly like Smallville’s Earns in Distinctions.)
- A Penny For My Thoughts is built upon a coin trick. The coins you have determine the length of your story at the moment, and the handing of it says which direction it will go.
- Primetime Adventures’ fan mail, coins spent by the Producer to fuel a high challenge, rewarded to the players by each other for moments they enjoy in the show, is a pretty potent one. A small-form game I was tinkering with a bit ago, Five Furious Fists of Tiamat, used fan mail. I was happy with the result.
- I waffle on whether I’d count interesting XP gain systems as a coin trick. But games like The Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System or Apocalypse World do have some neat ways of gaining XP that might count. There’s much less of a flow there, and more simple pure-motivation, but it’s a far cry from nothing. Right now, I would count them.
Games without coin tricks feel pretty dated to me. New ones that lack it have that sense of “going back to old school.” It’s also helped me understand why certain games bore me–there’s no coin trick to help drive my interest.
[Edit] Which is, as I realize after reading Daniel’s comment below, is the point. The coin tricks I see are those that push character & player motivations. The die shticks that I see are those that give depth the a moment of randomness, so that it’s not just a binary pass/fail at once.
Now, this is not a universal, “have this or your game sucks” philosophy. But it’s what Josh & I look for in our own designs and when unpacking games we’ve played. What do you look for?
 Which until today we’ve called a “die trick,” but I feel “die shtick” fits better.