[NGDM] Keywords

We’re over the halfway point for the month, but the central structure of the game seems to be in place; everything from this point forward is probably going to be an appendix to the way the core operates.

One thing that occurred to me during some late-night musing was the idea of using keywords to enhance actions.

Plenty of games on the market already use a system by which keywords are the hooks on which you hang your actions and define their effectiveness (such as FATE), but for those who aren’t familiar, it works something like this: if you have a wizard that you predefine as a “fire mage,” then you get to tag that keyword when you use a fire spell, read a glyph by another fire mage, or do anything else in which that descriptor would be helpful. Tagging a keyword gets you some kind of bonus for having expertise. (In some iterations of the system, anyone can tag a keyword for you, for good or for ill, making your life complicated: if you’re a Brawny Lout, you can probably knock heads with the best of them, but when someone points it out in the middle of your delicately inching along a narrow ledge, it becomes a liability.)

I don’t know that I just want to rip off that approach. It does make a conceptual sense that tagging a predefined keyword should give a bonus of some kind, though. What I’m thinking is that instead of using keywords with regard to personal traits, I can use it as a substitute equipment and gear system. I hate the micro-management of shopping for gear in game, keeping track of money, etc. The games I prefer will assume that you have basic stuff as appropriate to make the story move forward, so you don’t have to buy your clothes, your backpack, etc. It’s the big signature stuff, like the customized machine gun you’ve named “Dorothy” or your amulet signifying you as a member of the elite Sisters of the Silver Order, that has major plot impact and therefore needs to be regulated.

Let’s say that a character gets one keyword for each die they have; the keyword doesn’t define the die, but represents a special signature associated with that type of action. (In other words, if your arcane thief puts “Silence Spell” down for a magic die, that isn’t all that he can cast with that die, but you get a bump if you’re using it, since it’s one of his signatures.) What benefit? Again, just like bennies, we need to think about this in terms of the dice themselves and what they can accomplish. It would be too much to bump the denomination of the die in question — our system is acquiring a bit of bookkeeping already, and that would be problematic. Likewise, getting a bennie is overly powerful in the sense that your bennies are experience points, so tagging your keywords all the time means you advance faster than a character whose player doesn’t. While philosophically that makes sense on some level – you want players to be engaged, active, and using the things around which they built their characters – it could be abusive for the mage-thief to just walk around town with his silence spell on all the time, earning experience for something that isn’t really dramatic.

That’s the core of it: what’s dramatic? And what does being dramatic warrant? Just before the APV skids to a halt and the hatch drops, the sergeant checks the sights on “Dorothy,” slaps the cocking lever, and crouches by the port, ready to lead the charge. We expect a high-stakes scene, tension, and ultimately something that will move the plot forward. The mage-thief doesn’t just use his silence spell to go out for groceries: he cloaks himself in it when he’s about to surmount the wall into the Baron’s keep in search of the key to his treasure coffers. Elric of Melnibone doesn’t draw Stormbringer or call upon his ancestral magic unless he must to face the threat in the scene. You tag a keyword when the scene offers something to gain, in other words, tangible or not. With this in mind, we can see the way to a stake-setting mechanism in which characters can hit their keywords to add outcomes to a scene. If you’re setting up a scene, you don’t have to initially have an outcome or stakes, but if you tag a keyword to overcome a challenge, you make the scene more important, and add something to be earned (and, by extension, a potential consequence for failure).

Now we’re getting somewhere!