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Big list of game mechanics

In helping myself design my games and supplements I started to collect a big list of game mechanics. This was a way of me externalizing my memory, making a place I could come back to and look at when I wanted to ponder over how to solve gameplay problems. I'm happy to share the list with you so you too can prepare how your game will respond to the inevitable chaos of player actions.

Caveats and important notes

Notice that this is titled the the Big list of game mechanics and not the Big list of games, because mechanics are not games. I think that's important to remember.

Just like game mechanics are not games, they're also not design principles. They won't guide you in if you should or shouldn't make something a certain way, consider a certain audience, problem, context, or scenario. You should consider what your design principles are separately. I've worked in product design for over 20 years and I can tell you that separating the what, how, and why you're building things from each other is a good thing to do in your process and planning.

Tips

Mix and match

Think about how you can combine these mechanics in different ways. For example: Turn + Point spend + Counter mechanics might be combined so that in that in order for a player to take a turn they have to spend points, and players only accrue points as a counter goes up.

Progression

It may also be important to think about if and when rules are complete. Do new mechanics come into play at a certain point? In favour of the players, this might be the way we think of skill progression. In favour of the other entities, this might be how different difficulty modes or progressive difficulty works.

Make it feel alive and make it matter

Don't just think about what players can do. Think about what NPCs, creatures, other sentient things, and the world can do. Do those things have mechanics?

Lastly, if we're letting players build characters, or we want them to care about our stories, then shouldn't the choices they make matter? I don't mean story choices and their consequences (although that's important, too). I'm referring to mechanics like backgrounds games like Dungeons & Dragons, but maybe more so the 13th Age. In the 13th Age your background is reified into your character's stats. The background itself is a mechanic, but you account for your choice in background to customize your stats up to a max cap, making your character choices matter more in a way that means something to you. Think about other ways of bleeding meaning into game mechnics!

Categories

In their excellent book, Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design by Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans, Adams and Dormans propose five main categories of mechanics players might find in a game: physics, internal economy, progression mechanisms, tactical maneuvering, and social interaction. They don't say there aren't more, just that those are the main ones and that most mechanics can be categorized into one of those main categories. My question for us as game designers would be: is that enough? Do those handle all of our needs for growing areas in gaming around accessibility, mindfulness, introspection, empathy, hybrid play, identity, and how those and other things are becoming a bigger part of our games and how we play?

Mechanics

Many of these can be boiled down to just a few common ones, for sure, but something has made them stand out. Whenever I come across something incredibly unique to me I'll be noting it down.

D Mechanic Explanation
1 Turn A turn might imply a sequence, a count, limit, number of rounds
2 Point spend Action points, mana, spell slots, are all related to point spends but the concept can vary drastically in how you gain, spend, or lose points
3 Attrition Something happens when a threshold of one group having more of something than the other is met
4 Eliminate Something happens when a player, NPC, creature, thing is destroyed/removed from play
5 Control Something happens after maintaining control over an area, item, or something else for a time
6 Auction/bid As you'd expect auctions or bidding to work, but you can bid against other players for items, in-game land, content, and even actions to prevent them from taking them
7 Action blocking/modifying Taking an action changes it or blocks others from taking it
8 Area enclosure Surround an area to stop/start/control something
9 Capture Capture a player, NPC, creature, object, thing to stop/start/control something
10 Randomize Cards, dice, and other items are used to generate random outcomes to events
11 Ability trade Give up one mechanic for more of the same or a different mechanic
12 Block Block in whole or in part damage or consequence
13 Skip/Bypass Avoid, skip, or bypass areas, story, lore, mechanics, and content of little or no value or exhausted value
14 Retcon Pretend a thing didn't happen, or happened differently, for the sake of keeping the game going
15 Fail forward Failure is rewarded or softened to encourage the player. Eg In PbtA games when a player receives a small amount of XP when they fail.
16 Networking Connections and interactions matter, provide points, lore, benefits
17 Relationships Relationships, friendships, and their interactions matter, provide points, lore, benefits
18 Player reward Grant rewards for playing the game well, roleplaying, etc. Eg DM granted inspiration in D&D.
19 Temporary boost Give a temporary leg up against a particular challenge. Eg receive a temporary +1 to a stat, or giving advantage in D&D allows rolling an extra dice and taking the higher.
20 Temporary setback Give a temporary setback against a particular challenge. Eg receive a temporary -1 to a stat, or giving disadvantage in D&D forces rolling an extra dice and taking the lower.
21 Retry/Reroll/Redraw Whether granted, purchased in some way, or allowed for some other reason, allowing a retry
22 Critical hit/roll Something good happens when the highest number on the dice is rolled
23 Critical miss/fail Something bad happens when the lowest number on the dice is rolled
24 Progress clock A counter fills at set intervals and something happens, good or bad, when it is filled up
25 Body consequence Characters/NPCs can be scarred, lose limbs, receive trauma, die
26 World consequence The world can be damaged, reacts, responds
27 Open world/Railroad The game goes anywhere that's open to the player (or that can be imagined), or is closed to a more specific path
28 Puzzle The way forward is by providing the answer/solution to a puzzle, riddle, mystery
29 Split path Players must choose between a set of choices/paths to continue
30 Fate/Luck A being's fate or luck comes into play, effecting the outcome of a situation in some way, whether via their dice, cards, stats, or something else. Eg Wild or "exploding" dice systems where a specific or random dice can be added to the pool of dice to be rolled
31 Equip Wearing/using certain equipment over others grants certain advantages or disadvantages
32 Buying power Purchase power requires more than just money, akin to how messed up realworld capitalism, credit, bank, and trust can all be sometimes. Eg D20 Modern's wealth checks.
33 Use of tactile game materials Stacking of dice, houses of cards, and so on. Something can happen in game when they fall, or their symbolism as you build means something.
34 Risk levels Risk and things that might go along with it, like threats, consequence, disadvantage, and so on, goes up in certain areas, after failures, or attracting attention in some way
35 Hybrid rules Borrowing rules from other game types to accomplish things. Eg a wizard's spell is based on the type of poker hand they can create from a deck of playing cards in a limited number of draws.
36 Mental health A character's sanity or mental health is affected by the trauma they experience. Eg in Call of Cthulu and Darkest Dungeon characters can have mental breakdowns and suffer consequences from trauma.
37 Sacrifice Remove or risk something of value to gain a (usually temporary) benefit. Eg reduce HP for a temporary skill buff, or in mech games overheat your core for a buff but risk exploding.
38 Fortune teller When players are stuck or want to know if they have particular facts correct or not it's built into the game that they can question things (often for a cost)
39 Dual mechanics When one mechanic's progress translates directly to another's. Eg in Persona games when characters learn skills in the real world in school their skills like magic go up in the dream world but both can be useful.
40 Competing mechanics When one mechanic's progress competes directly against another's. Eg raising one stat lowers another or gives disadvantage in something else.
41 Mixed success When a straight success or failure isn't always the case and sometimes a good or bad consequence may be added like "yes, and" or "no, but."
42 Craft Use earned resources to create helpful equipment, items
43 Survival Emulate human/animal/plant needs like hunger, thirst, sleep, temperature, and even happiness
44 React Only do a thing if/when specific conditions are met
45 Gather Gather resources by numerous means, whether growing, foraging, harvesting, magically drawing, and so on. Often requires skills and/or tools.
46 Pet dog If there is a dog, you should be able to pet it (also applies to cats and other animals)
47 Change/relieve control When the player passes control of their character to someone else for some reason, whether due to mind control or some other reason. Has been used in incredibly interesting ways in video games. Eg in Metal Gear Solid for Playstation the player had to literally put their controller into the other port to defeat a certain boss.
48 Real world influence When some element from the real world effects the current play. This can be literal, like the weather where you are is the weather in game. Or it can be used to influence game mechanics, like if the weather is sunny then you can roll with a d20, but if it is rainy you roll with a d12.
49 Game influences real world When outcomes from the game effect the real world. Eg, change the channel on the TV, radio station, blow out a candle, turn off a light.
50 Time management Planning out your activities becomes important because they take certain amounts of time and you only have so much time in each day. You might commit or be inflicted by certain events on certain days, and random events might cause chaos to your plans, for example.

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