Abstractions are good

I like abstract roleplaying mechanics.

Call of Cthulhu has sanity points. Real life doesn’t have sanity points. But the mechanics of roleplaying games don’t have to model real life — they just need to give the narrative some mechanical structure. Abstract and simplified sanity points give the players the liberty to interpret their characters’ loss of sanity in any which they want. Because the sanity rules are so abstract and simple, they’re also easy to modify to better suit your tastes.

D&D has hit points. Mostly I don’t like playing D&D, but hit points are a nice mechanic. They don’t represent your actual wounds — they’re just an abstraction of how many attacks your character can withstand. You’re free to describe the loss of those points in any way you want.

GUMSHOE measures skills by points. You only throw a one six-sider against a difficulty of anything between 2 and 8 and try to exceed that, but you can allot points from your skill pool to that roll. Those points are then gone, until they refresh. (This gives players control over how quickly they lose control of the situation.) But the game doesn’t interpret that loss of resource points or the source of those resource points at all. A high score in a skill doesn’t represent anything — unlike in many traditional games where your Strength attribute says how much you can bench press. It’s up to the players to decide what those skill points and their loss represents, moment by moment. Maybe your sudden inability to hit anything with a pistol means you’re fatigued — or maybe you’re as good as you always were, it’s just that the enemy was more formidable than you thought.

Blades in the Dark has countdown clocks, pilfered fr… inspired by Apocalypse World. When you need to track the progress of something, you set up a countdown clock, which pretty much means hit points until X happens. The countdown clocks can fill up when you succeed (if those clocks measure something you want) or they fill up when you fail (when those clocks announce tick tock impending doom). And the clocks aren’t dependent on any specific approaches or “uses of skill”; let’s say you have a master sword fighter and their supreme skill is represented by a clock. That means you have no way of harming them before you fill up that clock. But you can try different approaches to lower their defense: getting them to drink, for example, or simply attacking them until they can’t take it anymore (but in the meantime they can slice your stupid ass in two — which probably means four, since your ass is kind of already halved).

Abstract mechanics leave room for interpretation. It’s up to the GM and the players to interpret the relationship between the mechanics and the narrative.

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