Deadly Goobers, Hollow Points: Another Dip into the Lexicon

We've previously examined tactical infinity and the invisible rulebooks. Be sure you're up to speed on those, because these new terms depend on them. As before, I'm not really describing concepts here (if you've been gaming more than a week, you already know these concepts); lexicon posts are about the terms, which are the tools, I use in designing.

Today's terms: I find it useful to recognize the difference between reliable and ephemeral resources, and their proximity to mechanistic vs. creative problem-solving.

Gameplay in RPGs is frequently about solving problems: There's a child in need of rescue. There's a war that needs preventing. There's a planet that needs exploring or a beastie eating villagers or a mystery we haven't solved or a mark we haven't robbed yet. An adventure contains problems, and the PCs set about solving them ... whatever "solving" means to these PCs, in this context. While we're at it, some PCs spend a lot of time magnifying, multiplying, and creating fresh problems of their own!

Boiling it further down: this frequently comes down to the application of resources to attempt solutions.

Reliable resources are those recognized and defined by the visible rulebooks. If a game has a "Strength" score, for example, being strong becomes, to some extent, a reliable resource. If a game has rules for 9mm hollow-point bullets, having a pocketful of those becomes, to some extent, a reliable resource (usually moreso if you've got a gun). The extent to which a resource is reliable is the extent to which the visible rules recognize and define it.

Reliable doesn't mean "guaranteed to succeed." Your 9mm pistol might be able to jam or misfire; you might be able to miss, and shooting the problem might not solve it. Reliable just means "guaranteed to be something you can look up in the visible rules." Skills, stats, spells, superpowers, potions of invisibility, starships, weapons, armor, tricorders, cars, fanny-packs, provisions ... if the visible rulebooks, to any extent, define and describe a thing, it's something that has, to that same extent, the "reliable" tag. The same bullets can be more or less reliable in different games, based on how reliably you can look them up to understand what they can do.

Ephemeral resources tend to emerge from elements the GM has prepped or improvised for the adventure or campaign, including things like the weather, current events, the nature of a local culture, or the quirks and interests of specific NPCs. These sometimes matter only in the here-and-now. An offhand mention of an NPC priest's peanut allergy is a resource the PCs can leverage toward a solution, if the priest's potential for misery and maybe-fatal anaphylactic shock might be part of that solution. Maybe that priest will never appear in another adventure, but right here, right now, his allergy goes on our list of assets, next to the wheelbarrow we left over the albino.

For the PCs to apply an ephemeral resource often requires the invisible rulebooks, because not every game explicitly defines the mechanistic effects of peanut allergies, and even if they do, they seldom provide a mechanism for determining if any given priest is subject to those effects, or if the PCs know about those priests. These resources spring from the mouth of the GM, and the GM must ultimately adjudicate their uses. To the extent that the visible rulebooks do not recognize or define a resource, that resource is ephemeral. As with the bullets, this peanut allergy can be more or less ephemeral, depending on the game.

I've been using the word "extent" a lot because this is all super-duper spectral. A given resource can occupy any position from wholly reliable to wholly ephemeral. Similarly, any attempted solution can occupy any position from mechanistic to creative. While we're at it, a thoroughly-defined resource can still be used in creative ways, and an ephemeral resource can still be leveraged using visible rules.

Yet, despite all this spectral mushery, there are clear consequences for any design's reliance on the visible or invisible rules, whether we're talking about adventure design, world design, resource design or ... anything we design.

In games which rely heavily on the visible rules, player characters tend to be defined in terms of several reliable resources, and they're often outfitted with belongings which are also reliable resources. As a consequence of that, adventure-design tends to follow suit by defining most central problems in mechanistic terms: the difficulty of the lock, the thickness of the star destroyer's armor, the power level of the telekinetic villain. In games of this kind, there's distinct pleasure to be found in managing and applying reliable resources in reliable ways (which might still have highly unpredictable results, depending on how everything works). There are frequently optimal solutions to central problems, and it's satisfying when the PCs can deliver that solution.

At the other end of the spectrum, characters in invisible-leaning games tend to have fewer reliable resources on their character sheets, and adventures for such games tend to define central problems in less-mechanistic terms, and those problems seldom have optimal solutions ... so the pleasure and satisfaction comes more from recognizing the potential of ephemeral resources, and applying that potential creatively.

Because it's always spectral, all these pleasures (and pleasures combining them) can arise in any game ... but the tendencies are real, cascading through every form and level of design.

And that's why I wanted to get these terms out of the way early. They're pretty basic, but we'll need them a lot going forward. See you next time in the Lexicon.

No Amount of Mechanistic Definition Could Stay SAINT THRAZAR From Using His Axe - or His Lapels - Creatively.