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Speculative Physics

The Opposition Rests

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Nov 27,2002


The Opposition Rests

Oppositional Mechanics

In the most general sense an oppositional mechanic is any mechanic which makes the opposition to an action concrete, especially when these are normally abstract forces at work. The simplest example is when a system has contested rolls for every action, rather than just requiring a certain difficulty of the actor's die. This makes the wall actively oppose the climber, the water intentionally drown the swimmer, and the tree resist being cut down.

The only requirement for the oppositional mechanic is a symmetry where the actor and the defender, character or otherwise, treat the action in exactly the same way. For this article it suffices to limit ourselves to dice mechanics, and even more specifically to mechanics where each side has a single die associated with it.

With this culling of the possibilities, consider the possibilities of multiple abstract opponants. For example, a game where any given action is associated with an element, let's say fire, and the other three elements oppose the action. The major effect of this is the actor knows what caused his failure. This immediately suggests two options for where the opposition comes from. First, the opposition are forces in the world, the external opponents. Second, the opposition are forces within the character himself, the internal opponents.

The Internal Opponents

Now we can start to construct the core game mechanic. A character has various aptitudes, rated with a die type. To perform any action the character needs to roll this aptitude die and beat the opposing dice. The opposing dice are part of the character herself, they stay consistent and apply to nearly any action she takes. The degree of failure is based on the number of opposing dice which beat the actor's die. The degree of success is based on the result of the die itself. To make things interesting, we pick three opposing dice for each character.

This mechanic describes how characters succeed and fail. Assuming that the opposing dice are nearly equal or larger than the acting die the character will tend to succeed rarely, but with a top heavy range of success. If the opposing dice are smaller, however, the character will begin to succeed with an increasing level of consistency, until at the lowest she will rarely fail. The chance for failing to beat all three dice however never vanishes, so there is always the risk of terrible failure, albeit small.

If we look at the evolution from smaller to larger opposing dice, we find a diminishing hero, an interesting possibility. One where a character over time loses her abilities and becomes nearly incapable of anything. This is an interesting avenue, the hero succumbing to her flaws. I intend to investigate this option in a future article.

The alternative is for the character to master the opposing forces, becoming more competent, not by building her ability, but rather by overcoming her flaws. This kind of setting fits the classic coming of age story closely. And indeed this is the setting we shall seek to emulate.

Coming of Age

Classically the coming of age story is about destiny. It takes a character before he has come into their own, before he has realized his potential, and tells the story of overcoming the obstacles that lie in his path. The greatest obstacles in such stories are the internal ones. Self doubt, fear, dependence (in any of it's numerous forms), or simply inexperience can be the hurdle the character must surpass.

At the same time as a character becomes more capable by casting off their limitations, they also become more vulnerable. After all, the walls that impair also protect. This is often a significant piece aspect of overcoming these things. Whether it's responsibility, blame, or psychological trauma, those walls give support. And that support may be in short supply when the character has reached the point of mastery.

Building a character as he is to become is a very different method then based on what he is at the start. This requires a two step process, similar to that found in Aberrant, except in this case the player defines what the character is destined to be. Then the obstacles are chosen.

To solidify this idea, we set a few numbers. Characters can choose five traits, each of these is at a fixed die value, let's say one at at a thirty sided, two at twenty sided, and two at twelve sided. To further define the destiny of the character, each trait should be a title, such as 'Slayer of Dragons', 'Archmage of the Grey Tower', or 'Mafia Capo'. The thirty sided should be the defining title, while the remaining titles should produce a legendary character, with many stories behind him. Once the game begins, the player can start building those stories.

Next characters choose three traits, which describe the challenges they must overcome in order to realize their potential. In this case all three traits start as twenty sided. Presumably any action taken had these dice rolled against them. However, it might be interesting to allow special circumstances to allow a challenge die not to be rolled or even to be rolled instead of a title die for a character.

Ignorance is Bliss

This gives us a new mechanic, challenge dice being ignored or even acting as advantages for the character. This complicates our simple Coming of Age setting. First, it means that players, and hence characters can avoid a challenge from coming to head, by choosing circumstances correctly, and if she is careful, can even gain advantage from a high challenge die. Avoiding challenges has a strong sense in most Coming of Age stories, followed very closely by the idea that avoiding problems never actually alleviates them, and may even aggravate them instead.

Since that seems to be a strong setting element, we should find a way to incorporate the reduction of challenge dice in the sense of overcoming obstacles, rather than simply avoiding them. The easiest way to encourage that is to link some or all of the reductions in challenge dice to their use as opposing dice. Further it would be ideal to reverse link with the use of challenge dice in place of title dice, so that some penalty is gained from drawing upon weaknesses.

What this implies, is the need to link the reduction in challenge dice with their use in rolls. One of the simplest ways to do this, is using ties. When the title die ties the highest challenge die, the result is a step in the reduction of that challenge die. Specific details for this interaction can be developed to help customize the game. The number of steps required to actually reduce the challenge die value can determine the speed of character growth. Whether ties are successes, failures, or perhaps left as a choice to the player, each gives a distinctive flavor, given the importance of the tie to the development of the character.

On the flip side, a roll without a given challenge die cannot result in a reduction for that challenge die. More importantly a roll using that die in place of a title die can also tie. In this case, rather than a step in reducing the challenge die, a step is made to increase it. If you learn to rely on your weaknesses, they will ultimately dominate.

A Look at the Odds

One interesting feature of a mechanic based on ties, is that ties are not equally probable. There are situations where ties occur more frequently than others. The most important element is the highest die, the probability of any two dice matching is based only on the value of the higher die. So the chance for a twenty-sided die to match another twenty-sided, a ten-side, or even a six-sided, is always one twentieth. This trend is also present in rolls more directly resembling those above. A thirty-sided die ties with the maximum of three twenty-sided dice approximately one thirtieth of the time.

This fact indicates an unexpected facet of our game world. While success is easiest using the higher titles, the lower titles are actually the best route for overcoming your challenges. This supports several aspects of the Coming of Age genre quite well. It matches, to some extent, risks with the chance of lasting growth. It also makes the smaller titles of the character of greater utility than they first appeared, giving them a reason to be used and developed.

Meanings and Conclusions

Each development in the game mechanics indicated a change in the development of the game setting. Likewise, each development in the setting inspired new mechanics to be added. This interplay is the nature of holistic game design, the interlinking of the setting and the system, until they support each other on the most subtle levels.

Coming of Age is an example of a game inspired by a mechanic. However, it does not merely take a mechanic and try to fit it into a setting, rather it expands the mechanic into a setting. At each level we tested it to make certain of it's fitness to the setting, adjusting both the mechanic and the setting to improve the fit.

This is ultimately the goal. Not to create a system for a setting, or a setting for a mechanic, but to create a game, which is both.

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