Exploiting Details: An Unfinished System

Last year, I ran a game of It’s Not My Fault! with a new set of “house rules” for a group of players who’d never played any Fate game before. I replaced Fate-specific jargon with terms that made sense in conversation, stripped out some rules exceptions I felt were harder to explain and remember than they were worth, and said any narrative detail we discussed could be used for mechanical benefit, within reason. It went surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that I figured I’d write up those house rules more formally for others to use—at which point I realized that I had changed the game so much that I was effectively writing another game entirely.

Lately, I’ve found myself incorporating bits of what I want to do with this game into every game I’m working on. I can’t quite tell yet whether that’s because (a) these rules are such a flexible and clear implementation of something I really like in RPGs that I want to apply them all over the place, (b) these rules make more sense as a subsystem layered onto existing games than as the spine of a new game, or (c) I’m working on too much at once, and it’s all starting to blur together. The truth may be some combination of those. For now, I’m hoping that writing this down will exorcise me of it for a bit, allowing me to return later with the benefit of some distance.

These rules can be boiled down to two connected concepts:

Details. Any information about people, objects, or the environment established in conversation is a detail that you can exploit. When you exploit a detail in your description of an action, get a bonus on your roll. You can do this before or after rolling, but if you do it after a bad roll, you have to explain how the detail allows you to quickly react—the result of the bad roll still happened, but the detail you exploited somehow helped you change course. Each narrative detail can only be exploited once per roll, but you can exploit more than one detail at a time (e.g., being a professional driver in a fast car). Agree as a group how many details make sense to allow per roll based on the kind of game you’re playing; 3 is a good default number, but you might want more for over-the-top action.

Luck. The first time someone exploits any given detail in a session, it’s free. After that, as long as it still makes sense, anyone can exploit that detail again by using luck. You get 3 luck each session; gain 1 (up to your max) anytime you push your luck by doing something that makes sense for you to do, given details about your character or the situation, despite a major penalty or certain disaster. The GM will be sure to suggest opportunities. Depending on the genre, “luck” might be better phrased as “resolve” or “conviction” (so pushing your luck might then be understood deepening your resolve or strengthening your convictions). If everybody’s comfortable with luck being partly in the players’ hands, though, you might spend a point of luck to suggest a lucky break—a narrative detail that’s not already established and is out of your character’s control, but fits other established details (e.g., you heard the security team was understaffed, so you might get a lucky break and find an unguarded entrance). If everybody at the table agrees it makes sense, the GM explains how the lucky break manifests (potentially with some alterations).

That’s it—two concepts. The nature of the “bonus” you get for exploiting details is purposefully vague so it can be adapted to whatever system it’s used with. If you replace Fate’s aspect and action rules with this system, a “bonus” is +2 or a reroll. If you replace D&D 5th edition’s “inspiration” system with this, letting you work your background and bonds into the game more easily, a “bonus” is the best of two rolls. If you replace Cypher System’s rules for assets and skills with this, allowing you to use your descriptor more flexibly, a “bonus” reduces difficulty by 1 level. If you use this in Cortex Plus, Lady Blackbird, or some other system that involves assembling a dice pool, a “bonus” means including an extra die in your roll. And if you’re me, you’ll probably want to use this to run some weirdly hacked Frankenstein’s monster of a game, letting you combine materials from multiple systems.

The main thing that has kept me from doing anything with these rules so far (aside from the usual restrictions on scheduling) is that I’ve been playing and reading so many old school D&D-ish games lately. In old school games, you’re not supposed to need these kinds of rules: It’s already implicitly understood, or sometimes stated outright, that you might get a bonus or penalty at any point based on context. And I’m fine with that for many games, especially those in which your character is really more of an avatar of the player.

What I like about these rules, though, is that they more directly and actively incentivize players to do interesting and risky things. In contrast, my experience with many old school and traditional games suggests that it’s usually up to the GM to suggest contextual bonuses, that players sometimes fall into repetitive patterns or terse description, and that some players feel conflicted between the “optimal” action that keeps them safer and the “suboptimal” action they feel like would be more fun, interesting, or even just in keeping with their character’s nature. Because these rules put the power to get bonuses in players’ hands, you see less time haggling with the GM over bonuses, more actions that go beyond a simple “I attack.” And because the penalty for pushing your luck is pretty balanced with the reward, you see more wild risk-taking. It’s a different kind of play from the measured problem-solving games I’ve been running more recently, but it’s a kind of play I miss and look forward to getting back to.

As you can probably tell, I’m more concerned with a kind of play experience in broad strokes than with other specifics, including dice sizes, statistics, or even setting. Still, I want to try to run this with my personal favorite kinds of dice rolling and character creation rules, in a few different settings I’ve been kicking around, and see how it feels. We’ll see what I come up with after I’ve had some time to finish further-along projects and let some ideas percolate. Maybe I’ll even come up with an actual name for this thing in the meantime.

2 responses to “Exploiting Details: An Unfinished System”

  1. Somebody reminded me on G+ that “exploiting details” for a bonus comes straight from The Indie Hack by Slade Stolar. I completely forgot this when writing this up, but wanted to make note here to give credit where credit is due—I’ve definitely read that game and it has surely influenced my thinking. The implementations differ a bit, though, with a detail here being looser—literally any established thing in the narration, vs. a more defined system with “hard” and “soft” details, and details acting like wound tracks, etc.

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